Isle of Thanet

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  • ... a garden indeed, a county of corn but the labourers' houses all along, beggarly in the extreme. The people dirty, poor-looking, but particlarly dirty.

The Isle of Thanet is an area of northeast Kent, England. The name Thanet is very old, as the following extract from the Historia Britonum testifys:

  • Then came three keels, driven into exile from Germany. In them were the brothers Horsa and Hengest . . . Vortigern welcomed them, and handed over to them the island that in their language is called Thanet, in British Ruoihm.

It was one of the islands of chalk left when the sea broke through to form the English Channel in 6500 BC: the others are now beneath the sea. It was left separated from the mainland by what became known as the Wantsum Channel until the deposition of silt from the River Stour and the build up of shingle which was occurring along the coast have now practically joined the Isle to the mainland.


The Wantsum Channel

Two thousand years ago Thanet was cut off from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel, which in some places was a mile or two in width. Two branches of the Stour flowed into the Wantsum (the site is still called Stourmouth). At the eastern end, the Romans built a port protected by Richborough Castle; Reculver fort was at the western end.

In the 8th century it was reported that the Channel was now three furlongs wide - 660 yards (600 m); and a map of 1414 showed a ferry crossing at Sarre. The first bridge over the channel was built there in 1485. Until the mid-18th century there was a ferry between Sandwich and the island; a wooden drawbridge was built, and the ferry was closed.

The combination of those factors meant that, from the 15th century there are only marshes and mudbanks through which the Stour meanders, finally reaching the sea at Sandwich. The Wantsum valley is still liable to flooding, since it is only a few feet above sea level. During the 1953 floods Thanet was cut off for a few days, but strengthening of the sea defences have been carried out since then.

  • Information in this section taken from Kent History Illustrated Frank W Jessup (KCC 1966)


Because of its proximity to France and therefore to mainland Europe, Thanet received the first of the Roman invaders in 55 BC.

Thanet is notable as the place, where the Romans, in the time of the Emperor Claudius, decided to invade, in order to deliver the new Emperor a military success. It was Richborough at the Southern end of the Wantsum Channel, Reculver marks the northern end, where the fleet landed and where one of the largest triumphal arches in the empire was subsequently built. It is of course where Watling Street starts and is presently hidden to the North of the present Pfizer complex.

The Romans crossed the Channel from Boulogne and legions with some support from elephants, were sent to conquer different parts of Southern Britain, meeting stiff resistance from tribes under Caractacus and having to fight two major battles to cross both the Medway near Rochester and the Thames, possibly near where the QEII bridge is today.

Following the departure of the Romans, it was in Thanet that Vortigern formed an uneasy alliance with Hengest and Horsa, by tradition chieftains of the Jutes, who led the Anglo-Saxon invasion in AD 449. By the end of the fifth century, Thanet had become part of the Jutish kingdom in Kent. In this way, Thanet is a mirror to Hampshire's Isle of Wight.

St. Augustine is said by the Honourable Bede to have landed with 40 men at Ebbsfleet, north of Sandwich before founding Britain's first Christian monastery in Canterbury.

The Vikings wintered on Thanet twice in the ninth century, first in 851, then again in 864. The importance of Sandwich as one of the Cinque Ports in medieval times meant that no fewer than seven places on the Isle were part of the Confederation: Sarre, Birchington, St John's, Margate, St Peter's, Woodchurch and Ramsgate.

As the popularity of the seaside resort grew, so did that of the Isle of Thanet. At first the holidaymakers came by boat from London; after the coming of the railways in the mid-1840s, that became the preferred mode of transport. The population grew, as the following figures show:

  • Ramsgate & St Lawrence 1801 4,200 1861 15,100
  • Margate 1801 4,800 1861 10,000
  • Broadstairs & St Peter's 1801 1,600 1861 2,900

According to information resources on the websites ThanetOnline ( and ThanetLife (, Margate has its roots in a name that "Has been variously spelt as Margat, Meregate and in the 13th Century, de Mergate. Indeed 'maris', 'mare' in latin means, 'sea' and "gate" a way in or out of the country. Perhaps the Brooks, now the site of Dreamland, low-lying and fed by springs, did become a lake (sometimes freezing, to give the locals some skating). For another possibility, a monk of Reculver, Ymar by name, had a dying wish to be buried in St Johns Parish Church. Ymar could have become Margate in time. Tradition insists that an old stone coffin lid at the church was his."

Local government

  • Under the 1888 Act, Ramsgate and Margate became municipal boroughs; Broadstairs an Urban District.
  • The Isle of Thanet now forms part of the Thanet local government district of Kent: although some of that district includes parishes on the other side of the Wantsum Channel such as Sarre and Minster.

See also

External links


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