Friday 1st July 2016

Harwich, Essex

The port and town where the vast majority of Kindertransportees arrived in the UK

Harwich is a town in Essex located on the North Sea coast on the estuaries of the Stour and Orwell Rivers, directly opposite Suffolk’s Felixstowe container port. Harwich is the northernmost coastal town within Essex and its usefulness to mariners as the only safe anchorage between the Thames and the Humber led to a long period of maritime significance, both civil and military. The town became a naval base in 1657 and was heavily fortified. Harwich today is contiguous with Dovercourt and the two, along with Parkeston, are often collectively referred to as Harwich.

The town’s name means ‘military settlement’ and it received its charter in 1238, though was undoubtedly inhabited earlier. A chapel is recorded here in 1177 and there are some indications of a possible Roman presence. A Royal Naval Dockyard was established here in 1652, ideally located to ready the fleet of the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th Century, thereafter its importance waned and is thought to have closed in 1713. The Royal Navy is no longer present in Harwich but Harwich International Port in nearby Parkeston continues to offer regular ferry services to the continent and also hosts calls by cruise ships. Many operations of the larger Felixstowe container port, opposite in Suffolk, and of Trinity House, the lighthouse authority, continue to be managed from Harwich.

The whole of the older part of town is a conservation area on account of its architectural heritage, principal thoroughfares connected by numerous small alleys betraying the town’s medieval origins. The Guildhall of 1769 is the town’s only grade I listed building. The Pier Hotel of 1860 and the Great Eastern Hotel of 1864 can both be seen prominent on the quayside, constructed following the arrival of the railway in 1854. The lifeboat station is a more recent addition. Notable residents include Christopher Jones, master and quarter-owner of the Mayflower, and the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who was MP for Harwich.

On 31 January 1953 at 21:45 the Harwich Harbour Master warned of an exceptionally high tide for 00:50 that night. Within hours most of Harwich town centre was deluged in floods that devastated large parts of East Anglia and the Netherlands causing enormous loss of life and extensive damage to property. After 1953 both the sea defences and the flood warning systems were significantly improved. A monument near the Maritime Museum commemorates the Harwich residents who lost their lives.

The Harwich Society

The Harwich Society was founded in 1969 to help preserve the ancient seaport town of Harwich. It has a membership of 2,000 in a town with a population of 15,000 and is active in restoring the largest ancient monument in the area, the Harwich Redoubt Fort, part of the Martello Chain built in the Napoleonic Wars. It established and maintains a Maritime Museum in a disused lighthouse, erects commemorative plaques on buildings and sites of historical significance and publishes a quarterly magazine.

For other events planned for 2016-2017 see here.