Written by Terry Prue

The Ramsgate Festival at the end of August will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and it is instructive to consider how Ramsgate changed before and after this great event. Consider the pre-Napoleonic Wars map below and you will see that our town is predominantly ‘internal’ with very little development laterally along the cliffs. It is similar to most towns and villages at this time in which the existence of a population where many risked their lives working on the sea meant that they did not want also to have houses that looked over it! 

 

When the British declared war with France on May 18th 1803, the only tentative move towards sea-view development had come with the buildings at Albion Place (shown on the map above) and at Nelson Crescent (not yet included). At this time the town was still small and even including St Lawrence it had a population of only 4,178 in 1801. Post- Napoleonic Wars the dramatic growth began and forty years later it had tripled to 13,603 and by 1901, doubled again to 27,733.

The nature of employment in Ramsgate also changed. For centuries, Ramsgate had existed upon a mixture of agriculture and fishing with a smattering of overseas trade – with the last of these not always legal in nature. The topographical study ‘Britannia’ by William Camden and originally written in Latin in 1586 said this of the inhabitants of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate:

‘...they are exceedingly industrious, and are as it were amphibious creatures, and get their living both by sea and land; for they deal in both elements, and are both fishers and ploughmen; for the same hand that holds the plough, steers the ship likewise’.

Whether it was literally true that the same men both ploughed and commanded boats is hard to say, but certainly there is evidence that farm labourers in slack times would also be fishing-crew members and (as covered in the last About Ramsgate) carry smuggled goods from shore to inland hiding places. Dependence on these core employment opportunities persisted for another two hundred years, with an even greater growth in maritime pursuits after the harbour was built.

The time of the Napoleonic Wars was a watershed in the development of Ramsgate. The embryonic growth of the town as a fashionable watering place was actually given a boost by the presence of the military and their activities on both cliffs. Although Napoleon started to plan an invasion of Britain in 1803 there seems little evidence that it struck great fear in the hearts of the civilian population. It did not stop Princess Victoria visiting East Cliff Lodge in the summer of 1803, or Sir William Curtis enlarging and improving Cliff House.

The balls in the original Albion Hotel (where Pizza Express is now) were, if anything, enhanced by the war on the Continent, as this report from 1811 suggests: 

‘On Monday night his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence gave a ball and supper at Bear’s Albion Hotel, Ramsgate, which in fashion, splendour and elegance exceed anything of the kind ever witnessed in that part of the Kingdom’.

The War also marked the start of Ramsgate property development led by, but not limited to, the Townleys. Originally involved in the provision of officers’ housing,

it was after the troops left in 1819, that they were at the forefront of the reclamation of land on both cliffs to meet the new need for accommodation with sought-after sea views.

By 1851, the census showed that seaside resorts had expanded more rapidly than any other group of English towns, with Ramsgate as the fourth biggest, ahead of Margate, and only exceeded by Brighton, Hastings and Scarborough.

The new holiday trade totally dominated the Ramsgate economy from the 19th Century. It required a huge labour force to house, feed and entertain the visitors and people of all types would be letting rooms for the ‘season’. Physically, the town added more and more shops, pubs, concert halls and even churches to a level which went way beyond what the local resident population could support.

The old Ramsgate of a small population of farmers and fishermen was overwhelmed and with it went much of the old rural traditions. 

One of these traditions was the arrival of the Hooden Horse on Christmas Eve in our lost rural communities. Now I know the Hooden Horse can still be found as the name of a new pub at Westwood, as the emblem of Broadstairs Folk Week, as folk band ‘The Deal Hoodeners’ and as a prop for some Morris Dancers but these harkbacks are hardly the real thing.

They have lost their Christmas (or perhaps pagan Saturnalia) significance and the only benefit of their transfer to the summer season is that it makes it less of an anomaly for me to write about them in the Summer About Ramsgate. 

The only truly authoritative study of the tradition of the Hooden Horse was published by Percy Maylem in 1909, and republished with additional material by The History Press in 2009.

 

In his opening chapter Maylem describes his personal experience of hoodening as a continuing Christmas Eve custom in the farmhouses of Thanet, but it had already virtually died out in the bigger Thanet towns, killed by the massive influx of new residents and the swamping of agricultural heritage by the new tourism-based economy.

The earliest written record of hoodening in Ramsgate actually comes from a letter to a newspaper in 1807 during the Napoleonic Wars. I’ll quote it in full, but pre-warn you that I will return to share doubts about the veracity of this report: 

‘Also at Ramsgate, in Kent, I found they begin the festivities of Christmas by a curious procession: a party of young people procure the head of a dead horse, which is affixed to a pole about four feet in length; a string is affixed to the lower jaw; a horsecloth is also attached to the whole, under which one of the party gets, and by frequently pulling the string, keeps up a loud snapping noise, and is accompanied by the rest of the party, grotesquely habited, with hand bells; they thus proceed from house to house, ringing their bells, and singing carols and songs; they are commonly gratified with beer and cake, or perhaps with money.

This is called, provincially, a Hodening, and the figure above described as a Hoden or Woden horse.’

Although this passage is reprinted over and over again in subsequent newspaper articles and books on folklore, Maylam uses oral tradition to cast doubt on the account of usage of a real horse skull, and also on the realism of the rather grand description of a ‘procession’.

His view is that this was not written by a native of Kent nor actually based on current personal experience. It is perhaps rather in the way that those of us of mature years might reflect on the splendour of the ‘guys’ made by children on ‘bonfire night’ and forget that the practice is actually, by now, largely dead in most towns.

The likelihood is that the rural tradition of the hooden horse had already all but disappeared from the rapidly growing towns of Ramsgate and Margate.

It persisted for a while longer in the villages and in the smaller, less developed seaside towns of Broadstairs and Deal but, even here, was under threat. This article about Christmas at Minster sixty years later both confirms both the continued presence of hoodening and also its increasing rarity:

‘The hooden horse we thought, was as extinct as the megatharium, but there was one that came again to see how the world was jogging on.’

Nowadays the hooden horse still reappears as a self-conscious reenactment of the past in the company of Mummers and Morris dancers. It is a reminder of an agricultural life that was common in Thanet before the Napoleonic Wars but which could not survive the tourism-led explosive growth that followed.

Perhaps it is apt that the horse itself is now an adjunct to modern leisure pursuits, but as you enjoy the Broadstairs festivities or dance to the band from Deal do at least remember that we shared the tradition here in Ramsgate but it just could not survive the changes after the defeat of Napoleon.

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