probably only worked part-time, the main catch being shellfish. Local photographs seem to indicate that a lot of this activity took place around Pier Road.
An Oyster pond was built near the river in the early 19th Century to store the fisherman’s catch of shellfish. It was converted to a boating pond in the late 19th Century and is still in use today.
The town’s fishing trade today has declined and only about 20 fishing boats are now registered in the port, catching mainly Cod, Dover Sole, Lobsters, Crabs and Sea Bass.
Littlehampton, situated on the coastal plain below the South Downs and mainly along the eastern bank of the River Arun has been inhabited for a long period and in prehistoric and Roman times the surrounding countryside was quite heavily settled by people who, on the whole, would have made their living from fishing and farming, a fact supported by the discovery of many Iron Age and Roman corn milling stones locally, suggesting that it was an important area for corn growing at the time.
This area of Sussex was settled by the Romans not long after their invasion in AD 43. Evidence of Roman occupation includes the Roman Villa at Angmering which comprised a dispersed complex consisting of the main villa in its own enclosure, a bath house, and a cluster of four additional buildings with perhaps a fifth building being added in the 3rd century. During the British Museums excavation of the site in 1937 the bath house was discovered to be a complex of eight heated rooms. There is also evidence of a small villa in the Gosden Road area and signs of Roman field systems, tracks and farms in the Beaumont Park, Wick, Watersmead and other places.
The River Arun and its valley have been of strategic importance for a long time with the first evidence that many ships were using the river as far back as AD 871. Littlehampton did not have any defences of its own at this time as the harbour was further upriver at Arundel with the cannon of Arun Castle and the continually shifting waters of the Arun guarding the trading routes. A survey of coastal defences in 1587 prompted by fear of a French invasion may have resulted in the first fort being built although evidence for it no longer exists.
With the opening of the new harbour in 1736 a fort was also built on the east bank of a bend in the old course of the river. The fort had five guns probably mounted on a wooden platform behind a earth rampart and about 500 yards away from the present river mouth. In 1759 during the Seven Year War with the French a larger fort was constructed on the east bank.In 1834 the fort was dismantled and sold off. The only evidence of its existence is the mound it stood on which is still visible in the amusement park.
In the years betweeen 1801 and 1901 Littlehamptons’ population increased in size from 584 to 5,954 and the population continued to expand and by 1911 had passed the 8,000 mark. Today the population is about 30,000. In 1853 it became officially a town when the Local Board of Health was created and the motto Progress was adopted. In 1863 the town centre railway terminus was built which transformed Littlehamptons’ tourist trade from one for the upper and middle classes with its own ‘social season’ to that of mass market tourism for working class holidaymakers and day trippers from London and other large cities. By the mid 1930’s over 250,000 holidaymakers and day trippers were visiting each year.
South (Beach) Terrace c1850
As mentioned previously Littlehampton had been attracting tourists since the 1760’s and by 1775 had its own purpose built hotel (The Beach Hotel). This trade grew slowly but steadily throughout the first half of the 19th Century.
Around 1803 construction of a line of Georgian houses began east of the Beach Hotel and near the sea. This eventually became known as South Terrace and the area around it was locally called ‘Beach Town’ as it was still separated from the rest of the town. Building started in the east and was extended west toward Pier Rd in the 1860’s ‘80’s and 90’s. These terraces were built to provide
The ’New’ Beach Hotel 1895
Part of the South Terrace 2009
A cross Channel ferry service known as a steam-packet was opened in 1863 at the railway wharf (just north of today’s footbridge) to take advantage of the newly arrived tourists. Several companies, including the railway ran services to the French Ports of Honfleur, Le Havre and St Malo as well as Jersey. Passengers were charged by the mile with the option of going 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. Most of the passengers travelled in the cargo hold and there was never a great demand and in the end the operator either went out of business or switched to cargo only as this was more profitable. The cross channel service closed in 1882 but for a number of years after that coastal steamers like the Brighton Belle still visited Littlehampton.
Despite this the town continued to expand, the building trade flourished providing the expanding population with places to live. There was a similar expansion in shops, services and industry. After 1914 the town continued to grow but at a slower rate. New developments came along such as the amusement park that was built by Billy Butlin and opened in 1933 on the site of the old east bank fort. This saw a revival of the towns fortunes as a seaside resort. The holiday trade remained strong into the 1960’s but then, as foreign holidays become more affordable, the town suffered a decline in popularity as did many other resorts at this time. That said, Littlehampton still continues to attract many day trippers and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
From the 1760’s the first holiday visitors began to arrive, attracted by the peace and tranquility. Littlehampton was also attracting better off holiday makers drawn here by the growing popularity of sea bathing. The village of Littlehampton (as it still was) acquired its own custom built holiday hotel, The Beach Hotel, which was built in the 1775. Around 1803 construction of a line of Georgian houses began to the east of the Beach Hotel. Littlehampton consisted largely of flint and brick houses clustered around the High Street and its connecting roads with a scattering of houses down by the beach as well as the growing harbour facilities. Littlehampton was on the verge of experiencing dramatic growth which would change its nature altogether. Famous painters and poets such as Byron, Coleridge, Shelley and Constable all visited and in 1835 John Constable painted a view of Littlehampton from a spot somewhere near the modern day lighthouse.
Fisherman with Lobster Pots c1925
Pier Road c1903. Cottages on the right known as Mussel Row, built c1830 and demolished in 1929 for rebuilding.
The Oyster Pond 2009 (winter)
The river has been used for centuries and there is evidence of ships sailing up the river to Arundel as early as AD 871. King Henry VIII had his Royal Dockyard located here as well. Littlehampton had its own quay by the 1670’s which is now known
as Old Quay Wharf and stood immediately to the north of where the ramp down to the river and the RNLI lifeboat station are situated today although no sign now remains of it.
Although Littlehampton was never a large port by the mid 19th Century it was handling large quantities of timber (56,000 tons in 1867) mainly from the Baltic but also from Norway, Sweden and Russia. Another wharf for this trade was in use by 1824 and known
as the Baltic Wharf. Until recently a wooden warehouse with slated sides to allow air circulation still stood on the site of the old wharf in River Road. Wood was not the only thing being unloaded at Littlehampton’s wharfs, coal came from the North East, as well as china clay and slate, all of which were carried up river by barge from Littlehampton and on to London via the canal network. Other produce was also unloaded and at its height in the mid 1800,s as much as 14,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, eggs, oil and butter were passing through the port each year, not to mention, horses and poultry as well. However Littlehampton’s trade remained primarily timber and coal.
The work was hard and dangerous and between 1863 and 1904 forty Littlehampton ships were wrecked. It was not until 1884 that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) opened a lifeboat station here. Manned by local sailors and fishermen using oars and sails, the boats were launched a total of 26 times before the original station was closed in 1921.
The arrival of the the railway meant trucks could be directly loaded onto waiting ships and the Railway Wharf developed not just for the handling of goods but also for the embarkation of passengers using the steam-packet to France. The wharf still exists today and is where ships carrying sand and shingle dredged from the seabed berth, although the network of railway lines has long since disappeared. Sadly the closure of the ferry service and the decline of shipbuilding in the 1880’s had a serious effect on the port which slowly declined and now only the aggregate industry remains.
Seafaring and Shipbuilding
As mentioned shipyards have existed since at least Henry VIII’s royal dockyards and by the late 1700’s there were several. The heyday for shipbuilding came in the mid 19th century when many large wooden deep sea merchant vessels were being built. One of the major builders of this time was the Harvey family who built many large sailing ships in their yard on the
Approx Site of Harvey’s Shipyard Today 2009
Corney, Carver and Isemonger companies and a T Isemonger plaque dated 1830 can still be seen on the rear wall of one of these buildings.
Boat building developed into a major industry in the 20th century with, yachts, motor cruisers, speedboats being built and even small naval craft during the 2 World Wars when Littlehampton was an ammunition port.
Once again the industry has declined but the modern day yards that still exist on the west bank tend mainly to build and repair yachts.
Old Moorings with yards in the background
Old Moorings with Wrecks
Old Flint and Stone Buildings on the East Bank
As mentioned the ferry was opened in 1825 and was an important link between the east and west banks. It was also instrumental in the development and growth of Littlehampton’s shipyards. The original ferry was a wooden barge driven by a submerged chain. This was replaced in the 1870’s by an iron barge as the original wooden barge had become leaky and dangerous. By the end of the 19th Century some local people felt that a bridge over the Arun was needed instead and started to investigate the possibilities of getting one built. The days of the chain ferry were numbered!
Site of the Chain Ferry, West Bank 2009
Site of the Chain Ferry, East Bank 2009
In the early 1900’s three men joined forces to promote the idea of a bridge across the Arun to replace the existing chain ferry, they were the Rev Henry Green, Vicar of Clymping, George Groom, grocer and Neville Edwards, a writer and photographer.
In 1902 Mr Edwards was elected chairman of the newly created Urban District Council (1901) and started investigating costs and plans for a suitable bridge. In 1903 a ‘Bridge Committee’ was formed with Edwards as its Chairman. A public meeting was called on 13th January 1905 where the pros and cons were debated and a resolution passed promoting a Bill in Parliament giving the UDC the power to purchase ferry rights over the river Arun at Littlehampton and to “... consider a bridge over that river”
After a short but lively campaign a referendum was taken and out of the 888 people who voted 462 were in favour. By July 1906 a tender for the construction had been costed at £12,988 and accepted. Ground testing for bridge foundations was started in 1907 by Duke and Ockenden Ltd., water supply engineers. The bridge was opened on 27th May 1908 at a final cost of £26,000, so some things never change!
By the 1950’s the bridge was having difficulty coping with the increased volume of traffic and the daily pounding that this imposed on it. Vehicles were often forced to detour through Arundel. In 1973 a new road bridge was opened a little to the north of the swing bridge which was demolished in 1980 and a drawbridge style footbridge was built using the piers of the old bridge to replace it and is still there today.
Ground Testing for Bridge Foundations 1907
Opening Ceremony 27th May 1908
In researching information for this page I was greatly assisted by details provided by Littlehampton Town Council and Littlehampton Museum. Most of all my heartfelt gratitude goes out to West Sussex Past Pictures, the official database of heritage photographs, prints, drawings and paintings provided by local museums and the County Library Service and its parent site West Sussex Past. This database has over 8000 of their best images from the 1640s to the present These images can be viewed, downloaded and printed for educational or private use free of charge and proved an invaluable source of not just old pictures but snippets of local history as well. For anyone interested the photographic history of the County I cannot recommend this sight more highly.
Although little is known about the fishing industry before the 19th Century there is evidence that fishing was taking place during Roman times. In 1869 there were 189 fishing boats listed at Littlehampton manned by 364 men and boys. The vast majority of these boats were small with an average crew of 2.
Littlehampton’s fishing trade has always been coastal and most of the boats
west bank of the Arun between 1846 and 1880. As demand declined the company concentrated more on barge building and boat repair until its closure in 1921.
There were shipbuilding yards on the east bank as well in the 19th Century and the range of brick and pebble buildings that can still be seen in River Road were used by firms such as the
West Bank Fort before demolition of barrack block and canon platform
Looking toward Pier Rd, Edwardian Era.
Photo courtesy of Mr Ben Hall