West Sussex Unwrapped II: Month 7 – Shoreham Harbour, The Liverpool of the South

Sitting at the mouth of the river Adur in West Sussex, Shoreham is today a well known and established harbour but when the below article was written in 1872, the port had a long way to go to be the ‘Liverpool of the South’.                                       

Article on Shoreham's title of the Liverpool of the South
The Brighton Gazette in 1872

Shipping records indicate that the port, although small, was highly successful already. As early as 1821 the port was in use quite heavily, with ships being registered continuously throughout the 1800s; as well as Shoreham keeping up with its neighbours in ship building. As international trade expanded across the globe the shipping registers show that Shoreham was well connected in this trade with ships passing through from France, Germany, Russia, the Americas and the Seychelles just to name a few.  

Shoreham Harbour on Film

Click the gif to watch the film!

Snippet from the film A River Runs Through Our Town, by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

Shoreham Harbour in the Archives

War and ship building

A wooden boat with sails is in the water, leaving the harbour
PH 2698 – Shoreham Harbour

As a port Shoreham played roles in naval warfare and ship building. As early as 1695 there are records of six men of war ships built at Shoreham and another four built a year later.

Issues of tonnage stopped ships entering the low water and ship building slowed for some time but it was revived in the 18th century and increased again during both world war periods.

PH 31194 – The official launch of M2738, a Royal Naval Insure Mine Sweeper in Shoreham Harbour, 1950s

A well known name around Shoreham is that of Penney and the Record Office holds a collection of the family’s personal documents. The Penney’s were a Poole based family that had long been connected with shipbuilding even before Robert H Penney moved to Southwick in the 1850s to live with his ship owner and merchant cousin, Edward Lucas.  Edward had already founded a merchant/shipping business with Thomas Lidbetter but this partnership ended in 1827 and Edward continued solely until Robert joined.

In 1852 Edward decided to leave Sussex and sold the business to his cousin. The Penney business continued building and managing ships in Shoreham although the main office moved to Brighton in 1879. It continued to grow as a family business when Robert took his sons Robert and Sidney on and and it became the R. H. Penney & Sons.

A large rig sailing ship is making its way along the harbour
PH 2685 – Shoreham Harbour


Care of the port was overseen by commissioners and later trustees. The Act of 1811 defines how commissioners were appointed: “Qualification for a commissioner should be that an annual income from landed estate of £250 or personal estate of £7,000” (SH/13/1)

They were men from the local area of high standing and it was their job to oversee the harbour, with any decision having to be approved by them first. They were appointed to improve and maintain the harbour, levy tolls and raise money through subscribers and other means. Subscribers and shareholders were vital in pumping money into the harbour for repairs and expansion.

Despite all of this, local people were not happy with the commissioners and felt they had been neglecting the port. Infighting between the commissioners did not help matters, with harbour masters and commissioners resigning alike.  The article at the start was written during this time of upheaval and only a year later in 1873 the commissioners were disbanded and the trustees took over. Although many of the same names appeared on the board.



Construction and Improvement



The Harbour has been in almost constant improvement and construction since the 1800s with many early reports trying to find ways to improve and expand; Rand 1800, Jessop 1800,  Vazie 1809, Holmes 1810, Vazie 1810, Telford 1825, Chapman 1821-2, statement Vazie 1816.  

Some of the big construction programs in the 1930s and 1950s saw the development of the Prince George Lock and the power stations.

Prince George Lock

Completed in 1933, the new lock meant that ships with a greater draught were able to have access to the port and ships carrying more goods could now enter the port more easily. This new lock was key in the development of the harbour as it allowed a wider range of ships to now use it and could complete with the world trade on a bigger scale.

Prince George Duke of Kent, whom the lock was named after, visited the harbour to open the new lock and name two lifeboats which would later be part of the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ campaign; part of Operation Dynamo to save trapped Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

In 1958 the Prince Philip lock was opened and is considerably bigger than the Prince George Lock, allowing further expansion.

SH 13/3 pp8 – Bar chart showing the import and export of timber between April 1931 – March 1932

In 1957, a development scheme costing over 3 million pounds and construction of a new harbour entrance meant that larger vessels could now use the harbour. The scheme was to enable colliers of 4,500 tons deadweight to use the harbour, previously it was only 1,500 tons. This also had the added advantage that smaller fishing ships can enter and leave over greater range of tide. Following this, five transit sheds were constructed.

Trade had continued to grow steadily through the 1930s but the scheme had a huge improvement on the harbour. In 1945/46 – total imports and exports were 476,521 tons but by 1961/62 that had increased to 2,161,260 tons

With all the improvement and construction, three shipping lanes began to be regularly used:

John Cockerhill Line: commenced 1956, weekly sailings from Rouen, France and Orsted, Denmark with imports including wine, spirits, water, cotton fabrics, glass ware

Holland Steamship: commenced 1958, twice weekly sailings from Asterdam, Holland and Flushing, Netherlands with imports of strawboard, food.

General steam: commenced Sep 1958, weekly shipping from Boulogne, France with champagne and another from Tonnay Charente or La Pallice, both in France with wines and brandies.

OS LXV 10 NE 1912

One issue that Shoreham Harbour has always faced has been the gravel and shingle. In the early days this stopped a lot of ships from entering the harbour and caused issues with the ships that did mange to make it. The Coastal Gravel Abstraction Monitoring Scheme in 1971 involved dredging off the south to enable monitoring of the coastlines. 2.2 million tons a year across 6 ¾ miles of coast of Worthing/Littlehampton was proposed.

This construction could bring up some interesting and unexpected finds. In March 1970 an unexploded mine was discovered, 50ft from the beacon at the middle pier. A bomb disposal squad was called for and a naval lieutenant was able to identity the mine as b type ‘c’ anti tank mine, It contained 15lbs of explosives and was denoted in situ.

(The Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal unit quickly reassured locals that no mines had been laid in that area and that one had drifted from its original place).

Power Station

A series of six photographs showing the collapsing of the power station and it's two towers.
AM 592/16/359-364 – Powerstation demolition at Shoreham Harbour, 1988

One of the last big projects at the harbour was that of the Power Station.

Brighton A Power Station opened 1906 and Brighton B was built in the late 1940s. The power station allowed an increase in trade and devleopment along the harbour with new businesses opening up and taking advantage.

The power stations became an icon site on the horizon but in the later 1980s the stations were no longer needed and thus were demolished. A new power station was built virtually on the same site in early 2000s.


Being a coastal port and its location meant that smuggling was a common occurrence with Coppares Gate near the mouth of the port being a known smuggling hideout. Cargo could be unloaded, stored and then quickly moved to the Downs or St Leonards Forest.

Aerial photograph of the harbour
PH 2700 – Shoreham Harbour looking east from Southwick to Hove

The Quarter Sessions in the archives detail many Shoreham people being tried for smuggling.

In 1830, Nicholas Bradford from New Shoreham was committed of smuggling 325 gallons of foreign brandy and 28lbs of foreign tobacco. He was fined £17.4s.7d, mitigated down to £4.6s.2d.

In the same year William Mitchell also from New Shoreham convicted of smuggling 5/16 of a gallon of foreign brandy and 28lbs foreign Tobacco. Fined £38.18s 6d, mitigated down to £9. 14s.7d

A particularly large case was detailed in 1850, where Thomas Spraggs,  William Goldring and James Crassweller were all prosecuted by William Andrew Matthews, an officer of Customs, for smuggling. The defendants were found aboard a boat in Shoreham Harbour “without legitimate excuse” with over a gallon of brandy that “were not authorised in contravention of 1845 Act for the Prevention of Smuggling.” They were fined £100

Newspaper article regarding smuggling
Reading Mercury, Monday the 26th of October 1795

A similar case involved a William Gray of New Shoreham for smuggling. He was prosecuted by James Trevenen, an officer of Customs. Again Grey was found aboard a ship in Shoreham Harbour “without legitimate excuse”

These are just a couple of examples of smuggling detailed within the archive and it was the harbour authorities’ role to try and stop the smugglers. This meant that custom officers were often targets of the smugglers and people that had a grievance with the harbour in general. One such report of an attack on a customs officer shows the difficulty in their jobs. In 1795 J B Norton, a customs officer at Shoreham was attacked. His pockets were searched and he was beaten to death. The men thought to have done this were soldiers from the Westminster militia who were stationed nearby at the time.


Smoke and firefighters at the wharf tackling the fire
SH 13/6a – Fire at the wharf in the 1930s

Shipping records can tell us a lot about individual ships but they also highlight the dangers that vessels and the harbour itself faced either at home or abroad. The following ships were all either Shoreham built or Shoreham registered.  

Sometimes ships had unfortunate accidents such as the SS Sultan when the vessel had to be abandoned at sea off Halifax Nova Scotia in a Hurricane or the SS Hastings that was sunk by an iceberg in the Baltic Sea in 1877. Unfortunately SS Isabella was completely lost by spontaneous combustion of coal cargo off the coast of Greece.  

The shipwrecking incidents do show how far Shoreham ships travelled and how well connected they were. Incidents include the SS Rob Roy wrecked in the China Sea in 1876, SS Astrae wrecked off the coast of Canada 1867 and the SS Awthorn wrecked off Jungle Point near Selan Jucatan, Mexico 1865.  

Smoke and firefighters at the wharf tackling the fire
SH 13/6a – Fire at the wharf in the 1930s

Unfortunately loss of life was also a factor with the SS Salus losing all hands at Cardigan Coast in 1896 and the Claude taking damage in a storm in 1858. The ship lost balance with sailors falling overboard and the captain’s wife getting caught in the rigging and drowning.

Even the harbour itself wasn’t safe for vessels or human life, with the SS Breeze wrecked at Shoreham in 1880, SS Fairy ran aground at Shoreham pier, and the SS Dart wrecked at Shoreham 1874.

In April 1858, William Thomas King, the formeman of harbour works, Joshua Holden Dinnage, mariner and Tom Matthews, a harbour pilot, had taken a boat out that King himself had built to be part of a regatta. The boat overturned and King drowned.

In 1913 the ‘Blue Eyed Minnie’ was sailing into the harbour when a ‘heavy sea’ caused three crew members to be washed overboard and the ship to crash into the pier. Two of the crew drowned.

That is the nature of maritime business and there will always be a risk to life and ship but safety is much more prevalent today and the story of Shoreham Harbour and port continues. With the harbour being an going story, perhaps the best place to finish would be with Shoreham’s most famous visitor.

After the defeat of the Royalist army in 1651 at Worchester, Charles II fled and many know he famously disguised himself as a female attendant to escape the Roundhead guards. But it was Shoreham that was key to Charles’ escape. Captain Nicholas Tattersall, master and owner of the Shoreham ship ‘Surprise’ agreed to carry the party over to France. Charles himself dictated to Samuel Peyps the story of his escape, “We went to a place, four miles off Shoreham, called Brighthelmstone, where we were to meet with the master of the ship, as thinking it more convenient to meet there than just at Shoreham, where the ship was.” They then made their way to Shoreham and escaped on the Surprise from the harbour.

Small boats moored on the banks of the harbour
PH 15652 – Vessels on shore, 1966

It was this same Shoreham ship that King Charles II, on his return, renamed the Royal Escape and included in his navy, with the Shoreham master Tattersall who helped him all those years prior, appointed commander.

The story of Shoreham Harbour continues to play an important role and although (hopefully) it will never need to be used as a port of royal escape again, the importance of the harbour and port even today cannot be underestimated.

Next month, we’ll be looking at Sussex Cinemas, where our final blog will be released, SASE will share a film, and we have another live event to round of Season Two of Unwrapped.

Look out for Episode 8 on Tuesday 14th of September!

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