How Newhaven’s breakwater took shape

Peter Bailey 2012
Peter Bailey 2012

UNFORTUNATELY one can no longer express the pleasure of walking to the sea end of Newhaven’s breakwater as once was a local custom. Pointless one might say. Usually it was a ritual to coincide with the departure or arrival of the cross channel steamer.

In the right weather, a large number of people made this pilgrimage. The children in particular enjoyed the opportunity to hurt themselves performing some little act which was sure to produce a scratch or a bruise, which might have earned them an ice cream when they reached the promenade with its cafe and attractions.

I suppose one of the major enactments, which usually concluded with bruises to the ankles, was the inevitable desire to walk unaided along the rails of the rail track which reached almost to the sea end of the breakwater.

I suppose there was some pride in performing successfully in front of an unpaid audience.

The need for this track system was due, of course, to when this remarkable construction was completed, such a simple need for a lorry to facilitate maintenance of the new concrete wonder had yet to materialise. Steam locos and trucks were the answer.

Seeing the boat in or out from the sea end of that breakwater could be a most impressive sight. Yes, the vessels were slightly smaller than now, but speed and time of the crossing was forever the challenge for the short sea routes. Three hours and 15 minutes was about the usual to Dieppe. So, providing one hadn’t been too swamped by the sea coming over the arches, the steamers performance as it passed the end of that breakwater was well worth the gamble.

Some years ago, I had a request from a family at Sunderland for information about a small paddle tug which had belonged to the family’s business. It had been sent to tow to Sunderland Newhaven’s very special steam hopper Trident as some local work was in hand and the Trident, which had been constructed to lay the foundations of our breakwater, would enable the work to be done to a dock, very similar to the system here, to be completed.

Picture 1 shows the Trident in operation at Sunderland. She had a sophisticated opening bottom to drop her cargo of more than 100 tons of dry concrete mix in a large Hessian bag. This is being filled in the picture. Laced over, the cargo was taken to its required site, the boat’s bottom would open and the load dropped. It would take up a natural shape as the water seeped in and being contained, the mould would set.

This avoided all the usual underwater work of divers. The Trident was returned in due course and spent most of her life moored at a stage where the carpet shop is now at Denton Island. Rarely she would do a stint of mud barges to empty at sea when there was a tug shortage. Her engines were designed for short journeys.

Picture 2 shows considerable progress with our wonderful concrete arm. Bags on bags have taken our miracle quite a way out to sea.

Needless to say as the creation of the foundations continued, another system of mixing continued on the upper works. Their moving contraption consisted of steam driven chains of buckets providing the correct mix which was then trundled along in hand pushed little trucks by the numerous navvies. In the museum is a remarkable album of photos illustrating the whole event, even to a regatta.