As one 19th century wag observed, Folkestone is a near anagram of ‘Kent Fools’, a joke not lost on the unknown author (believed to be from Dover) of The Folkestone Fiery Serpent. While the townspeople in this comic poem are unable to tell the difference between a dragon and a peacock, their real life counterparts were more astute in their promotion of the town.
‘Fashionable Folkestone’, as it became by the end of the century, first ‘discovered her fairy godmother in the changed order of existence brought about through the invention of steam locomotion’,1 establishing itself as a successful seaside resort in the 1840s and ‘50s.2 At the turn of the century the area was beginning to attract a literary elite, as well as more populist authors such as Robert Barr and Jerome K. Jerome. But if it was increasingly accessible from London (one station opened in the east of the town in 1843 and a second to the west followed in 1863), Folkestone had no intention of lowering its standards. The Folkestone Free Library provided a carefully selected reading list, while among its attractions Marc Arnold lists ‘mechanical bathing machines, a pier and, in 1893, a switchback railway’.3 The Leas lift was constructed in 1885 and a bandstand was added to the Marine Gardens in 1893.
An 1888 story satirising Mona Caird and the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Is marriage a failure?’ debate, sends the newly married Rawsons for a holiday in Folkestone, where:
Everything that was to be seen, they had seen, and everything that was to be done, they had done. They had stood in the pale moonlight, descanting [sic] on the beauties of nature, the shimmering sea, and all the rest of it. They had been delightfully free and easy on the beach in the morning, and severely aristocratic on the Lees [sic] at night. At first, they had gone up and down the “Lift” like a couple of children, for the fun of the thing, and afterwards because they found it vastly convenient. They promenaded on the new Pier, and shrieked in delirious joy on the switchback railway. In sort, they had enjoyed themselves very much after the fashion of newly-married young people.’4
But ‘entertainments and distractions that might have attracted day trippers and holidaymakers were resisted’.5 Ultimately the 4th Earl of Radnor (1869-1889) elected to keep undesirable visitors off the Leas through the offices of a policeman. He might not have been too pleased to learn that this was a favourite spot for young women to read fashionable but not always edifying novels from the circulating libraries. ‘Some of the fair transgressors are very artful and seek to hide the tell-tale wrappers by brown paper covers; others artless do not. This is how we happen to know all about it.’6
With characteristic irreverence, Jerome K. Jerome portrays the Leas as a setting for casual encounters of the kind that would have horrified its aristocratic vistors. In his account however it is not the morals of young women but the fate of his own bicycle that is to be lamented.
Arnold, Marc. Disease, Class and Social Change: Tuberculosis in Folkestone and Sandgate, 1880-1930. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012.
Clunn, Harold. Famous South Coast Pleasure Resorts Past and Present. London: T. Whittingham & Co., 1929.
Grandfield, Yvette F. ‘The development of the seaside resort and the striving for social tone’, 1850-1899, with a particular examination of Margate and Folkestone : dissertation submitted in part fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts of the University of Kent at Canterbury’. (1994).
The Kaleidoscope. 15 August 1888. Holbein Visitors’ List and Folkestone Journal. 1.
Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton. Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022. Rever, J. C. ‘A domestic experiment’. 19 September 1888. Holbein Visitors’ List and Folkestone Journal. 17-18.