‘The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits ; — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone ; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Dover Beach (1867) by Matthew Arnold

Dover, with its white cliffs, beach and harbour, its magnificent castle, ferry boats and constant throng of visitors, has been the source of inspiration for many writers and poets over the centuries. Particularly at night, Dover becomes a place of mystery and adventure, with chance meetings, sad farewells, accidents, abductions and smuggling taking place on its moonlit shores.

The coaching inns and the local ale houses provide a backdrop for misadventures. The play Ways and Means; or a Trip to Dover: A Comedy in Three Acts printed in 1788, is set at The Ship, ‘the oldest and best’ inn in Dover, where Mrs Peery is begging her lazy husband to wake up and serve the rush of customers who are ringing the bar-bell. When he asks her what is the matter, she replies: ‘Packets are the matter! Diligences are the matter! Sea and land cargoes and carriages, Four sea-sick gentlemen, from Calais; and four ladies, just step out of the Mail Coach’. The ladies complain that the mail coach is ‘the worst conveyance in the world’ as it ‘squeezes four people together like two double letters’ and the men complain that they have been ‘rumbled, and tumbled, and jumbled’. Two of the guests, Random and Scruple, have arrived in Dover ‘not with the old stale intention of taking a voyage to the continent; but a voyage to the island of Love’ and they pursue Harriet and Kitty, the daughters of Sir Dunder, hoping to marry rich wives. After a lot of wooing and protesting, they finally make their matches.1 Charles Dickens later stayed at the Ship Hotel for three days in the spring of 1856, while working on Little Dorrit.

In Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) set in 1792, during the reign of Terror in France, two members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a society dedicated to saving French aristocrats from the guillotine, are abducted by Citizen Chauvelin and a gang of men from The Fisherman’s Rest in Dover. The Fishermen’s Rest was an elegant and ordered coffee room, owned by Mr Jellyband - a typical ‘John Bull’ - and frequented by thirsty fishermen and passengers of the London and Dover coach, who stopped to enjoy the fine French wines and home-brew en route to the continent. The two Englishmen, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Anthony Dewhurst, who are carrying papers detailing the plans for the rescue of the Comte de Tournay, are plotting in the bar after hours by the light of the fire, when they are dragged from the room by their masked assailants, as their host sleeps, and taken along the Dover Road ‘into the gloom beyond’2.

Philip Thicknesse who published his Useful Hints to those who Travel into France or Flanders, by way of Dover, Margate and Ostend in 1782, experienced less drama during his stay at Dover:

‘It was my fate to be obliged to stay at Dover a compleat month, which gave me an opportunity of removing some prejudices, generally conceived against that ancient city ; for I found at Mrs. Belcher’s, the City of London, every thing that was good, and nothing like imposition ; and there are besides other good inns ; I found likewise a few people who were not only agreeable, but worthy of esteem and friendship.’

The City of London was run by Sophia Belcher as a tavern, inn, and coffee-house on the Quay and offered a large assortment of all kinds of liquors and ‘a prospect of the Harbour, Castle and Sea’.3

Similarly, in Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities Jervis Lorry enjoys a comfortable stay at the Royal George Hotel, drinking claret by the fire, before he leaves England. Dickens briskly summed up the town: ‘A little fishing was done in the port, and a quantity of strolling about by night’.4 Authors such as Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstencraft, who visited Dover en route to France, wrote about the town as a “dirty place”.

Accidents and abductions occur in the nightime, with nineteenth century Dover portrayed as a dangerous place. In G.W.M Reynolds’s book Mary Price: or the memoirs of a servant maid published in 1851, the eponymous heroine works at a grocer’s in Snargate Street, subsequently the subject of an essay entitled The Streets of the World by author and journalist, George Augustus Sala who arrived in Dover ‘bag and baggage’ in 1840 after escaping political turmoil in France. Whilst at Mr Messiter’s grocers, Mary is woken up by the sound of thieves in the middle of the night, and is abducted by the villains who drag her onto Shakespeare Cliff where they throw her over:

‘Meanwhile the moon had remained concealed behind the black clouds that floated upon heaven’s face; and I blessed - Oh, I blessed that darkness which by thus deeply shrouding me, prevented those miscreants from observing how signally their murderous plan had failed and how wonderfully Providence had interposed to rescue me from death’.

Lying on a ledge below the cliff edge, Mary lies for twenty minutes listening to the ‘sullen moans and heavy plashes of the sea’ before clambering back up.5

Mary is not the only character to tumble onto a ledge beneath Dover’s white cliffs, and in F.F. Montresor’s novel Into the Highways and Hedges published in 1895, Meg who is taking an evening walk falls off Langdon Cliffs:

‘The sky still glowed behind Dover Castle, though the sun had disappeared; there was hardly a breath of wind to stir the short crisp grass, the broad downs lay still and peaceful in the gathering dusk: Meg was the only human being to be seen, but the little brown rabbits scurried by, and peeped at her from a safe distance, making her smile in spite of her sadness … It had been a hot summer, and there were ominous cracks across the footway, which had been deserted of late. Meg, who was Kentish born, ought to have known what those fissures and gaps meant. Perhaps the rabbits would have warned her if they could; for one of them loosened a morsel of chalk as he leaped, which bounded and rebounded down the side of the cliff.’

Unheeding the rabbit’s warnings, Meg continues along the cliff ‘listening to the echo among the chalk caves below, —smuggling haunts, where many a keg of brandy had been hidden’. Suddenly the cliff gives way and she falls a quarter of the way down the cliff onto a narrow ledge and has to cling fast to ‘the friendly poppy root that was keeping her from death’. As she holds on in terror, ‘She could hear the sea washing hungrily, with a sullen break, and a strong backward suck, many feet below; she shuddered, and then screamed with all her might, again and again, waking the echoes and the seagulls, who answered her derisively.’ Unlike Mary Price who effects her own rescue, Meg, is saved by ‘Methody’ preacher, Barnabas Thorpe who hears her screams, and she becomes enthralled by her saviour.6

The night presents opportunity for ghostly goings on, smuggling and surprise events. Thomas Armstrong’s novel Dover Harbour which was published in 1942, and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, explores themes of smuggling, espionage and pressgangs. The book is full of local colour as this scene of a smuggling run illustrates:

‘The graveyard of St James’ Church, beneath the Castle Hill, was the scene of that night’s run. There, in the blackness of night, a single lantern cast its yellow light over crazy-leaning tombstones and on the soft carpet of grass and the pale gold of fallen leaves.’

However, the smugglers evade detection: ‘Only the spirits of the dead were in the quiet churchyard of St James’s when Mr Toke and his men arrived. But there was a trail of tea from a punctured dollop, and a two-way track of planks as evidence of a large and carefully-planned run.’7

In M.R. James’s story Casting the Runes published in 1911, Karswell, an alchemist and occultist, takes the train to Dover en route to the Continent. As he arrives in Dover, the ghostly apparition of John Harrington, a book reviewer who died in a freak accident after he was cursed by Karswell, is spotted by a railway official. When the official calls out: ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ Karswell snarls angrily: ‘What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?’ The railway official puzzles about what he has seen and ‘In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.’8 The story inspired the film Night of the Demon (1957).

Night time bombardment is the subject of The Raid of Dover: A Romance of the Reign of Woman A.D. 1940 by Douglas Morey Ford, which was published in 1910, before both World Wars. In the story, England is invaded by Germany and the town suffers a bombardment of shells. Listen to this excerpt to hear his description of the bombardment.9

Deception and dishonour also take place at night. In the ballad, Ned of Dover (1800), Nancy who is being wooed by a ‘jovial British tar’ on Dover beach tells him that although she loves jolly sailors they do have a habit of letting women down, leaving them “broken-hearted”. When the boatswain bawls the signal to hove to, Nancy sheds a soft tear and hopes that Ned will be protected from danger.10 Later, with the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act which imposed compulsory inspections for venereal disease, innocent women ran the risk of being arrested for taking a moon-lit stroll along the beach with sailors.

Over a hundred and fifty years later, in H.E. Bates short story An Aspidistra in Babylon published in 1960, Dover is depicted as a ‘robust male Babylon’ where soldiers ‘come into town to drink beer, eat fish and chips and get off with girls’. Christine, who becomes involved with Captain Blaine, experiences first love ‘on white afternoons along the cliffs, through diamond dancing mornings by the sea and through breathless evenings in the forest or the car’. When she discovers that Blaine is seeing other women, including her mother’s maid, Ruby, her romantic dreams come crashing down and in the cold light of day ‘from the parapets of the castle and the high white cliffs of chalk down to the smallest glistening crests of the sheltered waves in the harbour and the blue plump feathers of the screeching gulls sitting on those impossible yellow chimney pots every detail shows up with unmistakable reality.’11

This article was published: 22 March 2024. You can find articles about other Dover authors such as Jessie Challacombe and May Aldington on the Kent Maps Online site.


  1. Ways and Means; or a Trip to Dover: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1788. 

  2. Orczy, E. The Scarlet Pimpernel p.70.. 

  3. Kentish Gazette, 20 December, 1780; Kentish Gazette, 9 May, 1781. 

  4. Dickens, C. A Tale of Two Cities, 1875, p.20. 

  5. Reynolds, G.M.W. Mary Price, 1853, p.54. 

  6. Montresor, F.F. Into the Highways and Hedges 1895. 

  7. Armstrong, T. Dover Harbour, 1942. 

  8. James, M.R. Casting the Runes, 1911. 

  9. Ford, D.M. The Raid of Dover: A Romance of the Reign of Woman A.D. 1940, 1910. 

  10. Ned of Dover, 1800. 

  11. Bates, H.E. An Aspidistra in Babylon, 1960, p. 48.