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History & Heritage

Port of Dover is Europe’s busiest ferry port, handling £144 billion of trade or 33% of the UKs trade in goods.

Our history is vast and the Port is continually developing to ensure our future. Find out about our fascinating history, our importance during times of war, our pioneering of the cross-Channel rail link and how we are developing for the future.

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The history of Port of Dover

Port of Dover, once described as ‘the Haven between the Hills’ by the commentaries of Julius Caesar, has always given protection to the small ships working across the Channel. Its proximity to the Continent has brought history to the shores of this South-eastern tip of England, from Caesars and Kings to World Wars.

While it was through Port of Dover that Richard Cœur de Lion departed for the Third Crusade, and Henry V was brought back through Dover after his death in France, it was Henry VIII that was dedicated to improving the harbour after his historic ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ summit with Francis I of France in 1520.

This decision would lead to the continuous improvement of the Port, and developing engineering feats capable of overcoming the obstacles unique to the Port. One such obstacle was the extending of the promontory into a pier, as the still water in the lee of the pier caused a deposit of shingle across the front of the bay. It took over 300 years, and many schemes were put forward to prevent or cure this problem.

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Royal charter

By royal charter of 1606, King James I entrusted the Dover harbour to a board chaired by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

This was reconstituted by Act of Parliament in 1861 and renamed “Dover Harbour Board”.  In 1906, the Lord Warden (then George, Prince of Wales) was relieved from the responsibility of chairing it, and replaced by an elected Chairman. 

Throughout its existence, Dover Harbour Board’s role has been (and remains) to administer, maintain and improve the harbour of Dover, so that the port is open to everyone who wishes to load or unload cargo or to embark or disembark passengers.

The Board currently comprises a non-Executive Chairman, six non-Executive Directors and two executive directors.  The Chairman and two of the non-Executives are appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport, and the remainder by the Board.  It meets at least six times every year and operates in accordance with good governance guidance published by the Department for Transport.

As a statutory corporation rather than a registered company, it has no shareholders and is accountable instead to a broad range of stakeholders.

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At the beginning of the 19th Century, it was proposed that a haven of refuge for the fleet should be constructed in Dover Bay and, in 1847, the Government commenced the construction of the Admiralty Pier, which was envisaged as the Western Arm of this proposed haven. This effectively stopped the silting of the harbour mouth, as it cut off the easterly drift of shingle from the direction of Folkestone.

Construction of the harbour

The construction of the harbour of refuge was taken a step further in 1897, when construction commenced on the Eastern Arm, the Southern Breakwater and the extension to the Admiralty Pier.

This work, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest feats in port construction of its time, was completed in 1909. The walls and piers were built of large blocks weighing from 30 to 40 tons. These blocks were made of concrete, with a granite facing to those that were to be placed on the outside faces of the walls above water level.

The gradual development of the Port throughout the centuries has produced the vast artificial harbour you see today, with depths of water up to 10.5 metres and accommodation for shipping up to 300 metres in length. The total area, owned by the Dover Harbour Board, is approximately 1050 acres, of which 700 is water.

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Defending the Harbour

With the increasing importance of Dover Harbour there had been some form of fortification proposed and included in many of the early pier designs from the 1850s onwards.

The present Gun Turret section of the Admiralty Pier has been changed and amended in size and function throughout its life culminating in the Ancient Monument structure now seen complete with its pair of 80 ton 16” rifled muzzle loading guns housed within a nine hundred ton steam powered revolving iron turret.

More modern 6” breech loading guns were provided in concrete emplacements to the top of the fort between 1907 and 1909. While the emplacements are still visible, these guns were removed after the Second World War.

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The weather

Throughout their construction and life, the pier structures have been severely tested by the Great British weather.

Sometimes withstanding the assault undamaged (the storm of 7th October 1850) and sometimes suffering defeat and damage (the storm of New Year’s Day 1877) after which changes and strengthening works took place to secure the structure for the future.

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The marine station buildings

Swamped by increasing passenger numbers, the Board decided that the need for improvements to station facilities on the Admiralty Pier were necessary and, in 1914, the Dover Marine opened.

Initial layouts of the station and associated berths for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway were published in May 1906 and, as the momentum for building the structure increased, these were subject to continuing amendment and development to arrive close to the solution seen today.

These showed four tracks arranged around two island platforms within the building along with a pedestrian bridge connecting the station to the road network close to Lord Warden House by means of the Stair Tower for access. The covered walkway and stair tower were divided internally to separate station use from that of access to the Admiralty Pier Walkway.

The Marine Station Building was constructed between 1912 and 1914 on land reclaimed between 1907 and 1913 from the harbour by the Dover Harbour Board inside the line of the Admiralty Pier.

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In 1953, Dover’s first two drive-on drive-off ferry berths were opened at the Eastern Docks. Until then cars and even coaches had been craned on and off ferries. In the first year it was anticipated that we would handle about 10,000 vehicles per year. In fact 10 times that amount materialised.



As well as being responsible for the day to day operation and running of Europe’s busiest ferry port, we are home to a large number of historic buildings, many of which are listed and therefore also benefit from additional protection by English Heritage.

Of those within operational areas (the Eastern and Western Docks) the most significant are located in the Western Docks and consist of the Marine Station building itself (home to Cruise Terminal 1) and the surrounding access structures along with the Admiralty Pier which forms the western arm enclosing Dover Harbour.

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Grade 2 listed structures

These structures are listed Grade II by English Heritage with the following reasons given in the listing.

  • A handsome Beaux Arts style virtually unaltered example of a major station of circa 1914 by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company.
  • It is a good example of the most developed form of ferry port railway station.
  • It contains the war memorial for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company, including a fine bronze sculpture.
  • It has additional significance for its military role as a point of departure for the Western Front during the First World War and for the Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War.
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Historic assets

The Port of Dover takes its responsibility for maintaining all of its historic assets seriously and has undergone a major multi-million pound project to repair and improve the station building and its ancillary structures for future generations.

It has a Port & Community Forum in order to understand and appreciate the Port’s many heritage assets and how the most can be made out of them for the benefit of the community in order to deliver something tangible and transformational. Such work has resulted in the Port being a winner of the National Railway Heritage Awards 2016.

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