Like Ramsgate, Dover considered itself to be among the more genteel of the 19th century seaside resorts. But it could not avoid racketty associations altogether. In 1834 Letitia Landon is supposed to have been caught smuggling a velvet waistcoat through Customs, for the editor William Jerdan. In Jerdan's possibly embellished account, Landon ‘was detected flagrante delicto at Dover stript to the skin, and divested not only of the male garment, but of other less fiscally obnoxious articles concealed in its vicinity’ 1
Despite sending David Copperfield down the Dover Road from Canterbury, Dickens himself found the town ‘too bandy (I mean musically, no reference to its legs), and infinitely too genteel.’ But he was forced to admit that ‘the sea is very fine, and the walks are quite remarkable’. He may well have been thinking of its famous castle and still more famous white cliffs, which remain among its most obvious attractions. As one admiring visitor put it in 1859, ‘No town in England presents a more brilliant perspective, for imposing and grand landscape.’ Other writers with a connection to the town include Dickens's rival G. W. Reynolds and Matthew Arnold.
The town had survived many threats over the course of centuries, but it is worth remembering that for all the historic ecstasies offered in guidebooks of the time:
'The church of St Mary in 1860 experienced a narrow escape from complete destruction by the War Office, and was only with difficulty rescued by dint of urgent protests from antiquaries. One author speculated that 'The Department ... doubtless wishes all antiquaries at the devil.'2
But as the London and Dover railway managers were keen to stress, historic churches were not the only reason to visit the town. As well as the bands so memorably deplored by Dickens there were amenities for the less vigorous walker in the form of ‘baths, with every accommodation for warm and sea bathing.’
Nor did the possibilities for travel end with the offer of a few weeks at the Kent seaside. For much of the 19th century British literary culture defined itself against the purportedly ‘unhealthy’ naturalism of French novels. But that is not to say there was no traffic between the two countries – Dickens was one of the many travellers who embarked at Dover for prolonged trips to the continent. While ambitious plans to construct an underwater tunnel between Dover and Calais were finally abandoned in 1882, it was of course possible to make the journey by sea, as Captain Matthew Webb proved in August 1875, when he became the first person to swim the channel.
Byron, Glennis. Letitia Landon : the Woman Behind L.E.L. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Harper, Charles G. The Kent Coast. London: Chapman and Hall, 1914.
Mackenzie, Walcott. A Guide to the Coast of Kent, Descriptive of Scenery Historical, Legendary and Archaeological. London: Edward Stanford, 1859.
Author unknown. The Illustrated Ramble Book of the London and Dover Railway. London: J. Mead, date not given.
Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton. Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022. Storey, Graham, Kathleen Tillotson and Nina Burgis, eds. The Pilgrim Edition: The Letters of Charles Dickens. Volume 6: 1850-1852. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.