‘Kent of all the counties of England, is thickest set with historical reminiscences, and he alone, who has tried, will fully realise how hard it is in writing of such a county to compress and select.’ Bell’s Pocket Guide to Kent (1930)

When Samuel Edward Winbolt, a classics and history teacher and writer of school textbooks, was holidaying in Folkestone in August 1923, he was to learn of a little-known site of archaeological interest on the East Cliff. It was here that Winbolt was to spend the next two holidays excavating the remains of a Roman villa.1

During a three-week excavation at Easter, followed by five more weeks during the summer, Winbolt and a team of diggers and enthusiasts - including his daughter Rosalind, and Miss Sybil Thomas - excavated the site.2 Miss Thomas was a teacher at the Duke of Yorks School in Dover and had studied a two-year course in archaeology.

The town’s businessmen, councillors and guest house owners watched the developments with interest, hoping that Roman remains would draw visitors to the town. The walls of a villa, a hypocaust system, a small furnace, a late Celtic bowl and a coin minted in Lyons were quickly discovered.3

On Monday 25th August 1924, nearly a thousand people visited the site, each paying three pence to view the excavations.4 Was Folkestone about to experience Romanomania?

Frank Fletcher, President of the Rotary Club, enthusiastically described Winbolt as having ‘done Folkestone a signal service in bringing the town before the reading public.’5 Reports about the excavations had been widely reported in the British press - The Graphic gave a whole page to the story, including illustrations - and the townsfolk must have been eager for an influx of visitors.6 The first world war had impacted the popularity of the town - the smart set who had filled the hotels had moved on and it now attracted a more middle-class holiday-maker. Kentish seaside towns had to work hard to attract visitors.

Winbolt claimed that the press was ‘most diligent - almost too diligent and they had given him no rest’ to such an extent that it was interfering with his work. In reality, he was more receptive to the press than he dissembled, and was keen to keep ‘Felix’ of the Folkestone Herald well supplied with stories and superlatives about the site.7 Similarly, the London newspapers were sent material by Winbolt himself. News articles stressed both the need to preserve but also advertise the site, recognising what a boon such a discovery could be to the town.8
Indeed, Winbolt recognised that keeping the project in the limelight was important to securing the continued investment of the corporation, and was keen to stress that the eight weeks of excavation had given the town ‘not less than £2,000 worth of advertisement’. He said that if money were spent on improving the site, they could charge 6d instead of 3d and the weekly takings of around £40 could be doubled. He was commercially astute and keen to make the site a ‘paying concern’ so that work could continue.9

Winbolt was also keen to curry favour from local archaeologists and spoke of his fondness for the county in a speech to the Kent Archaeological Society in September 1924. He is reported to have said that although he was a Sussex man, ‘if he had another choice he would be a Kentish man’10 (or, as Folkestone people would prefer him to say, a ‘Man of Kent’ - Winbolt clearly hadn’t done his homework!). He also took an interest in archaeological investigations in other parts of Kent, including St Radegund’s Abbey, Dover and described Richborough as “perhaps the most Roman piece of soil in Great Britain.”11

Winbolt was to combine his love of archaeology with his love for writing and in 1925 published a book on Roman Folkestone. He was keen that it should break ‘fresh ground’ and appeal to a wider audience than simply historians and archaeologists, he, therefore, included a chapter entitled ‘Some humours of excavating’ in which he recounted stories from his conversations with diggers, helpers and souvenir-hunters.12 A reviewer described it as full of “debatable matter.”13
The villa site continued to receive visitors over the next few years, enriching the “romance of Kent” but with an increased entrance price of 6d.14 However, when some of the remains slipped down the cliff in the landslide of 1928, W.H.E who was concerned that this significant site might be lost, complained in the Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald that Winbolt had put too much effort into describing what life was like in Roman Folkestone rather than recording the buildings, leaving it “to the reader’s imagination as to what the buildings were like.”15 Winbolt’s ‘fresh’ approach had clearly not appealed to the more serious reader and it is quite possible that more used to his schoolboy audience, Winbolt had missed the mark.

Winbolt’s association with the county continued throughout the next decade. He wrote Bell’s Pocket Guide to Kent (1930), which “the tourist will find … an invaluable ally in his enjoyment of this beautiful county”and the Penguin Guide to Kent, Surrey and Sussex in 1939.16 He also presented a volume containing photographs and press cuttings about the dig to Folkestone Library in May 1934.17 In his obituary in The Times, he was described as follows:

‘His eye for scenery made him also the author of small but acceptable guides to the Thames and the Cotswold country and to Kent, and he contributed numerous articles to this journal’.18 - 64 to be precise!
During his lifetime, S.E. Winbolt wrote and edited over 70 publications. His visit to Folkestone is only a small part of his archaeological and educational legacy, but an important one.

This article was published: 10 July 2021.


  1. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 05 April 1924. 

  2. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 02 August 1924. 

  3. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 02 August 1924. 

  4. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 30 August 1924. 

  5. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 06 September 1924. 

  6. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 20 September 1924. 

  7. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 06 September 1924. 

  8. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 06 September 1924. 

  9. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 06 September 1924. 

  10. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 06 September 1924. 

  11. The Times - Saturday 22 August 1925. 

  12. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 15 August 1925. 

  13. “Roman Folkestone”, 1925, Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art, vol. 140, no. 3649, pp. 376. 

  14. Ward Lock and Co (1928) Folkestone, Sandgate, Hythe, Canterbury, Dymchurch, p.34. 

  15. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 20 October 1928. 

  16. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 19 July 1930. 

  17. Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 05 May 1934. 

  18. The Times - Monday 21 February 1944.