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Changing times for Harwich

In this post, we return to the 18th century to find Daniel Defoe’s description of the port of Harwich and its extensive harbour accommodating colliers and packet boats for Holland. Our cover photo shows the harbour today, taken from aboard an OGA sailing yacht during a race in 2011. Defoe is less than complimentary about the people of the town. Today, its a busy international freight and passenger port with car and passenger ferries alongside leisure sailors, container and bulk operations.


The harbour is of a vast extent; for, as two rivers empty themselves here, viz, Stour from Mainingtree, and the Orwel from Ipswich, the channels of both are large and deep, and safe for all weathers; so where they joyn they make a large bay or road, able to receive the biggest ships, and the greatest number that ever the world saw together; I mean, ships of war. In the old Dutch War, great use has been made of this harbour; and I have known that there has been 100 sail of men of war and their attendants, and between three and four hundred sail of collier ships, all in this harbour at a time, and yet none of them crowding, or riding in danger of one another.

Harwich is known for being the port where the packet-boats between England and Holland, go out and come in: The inhabitants are far from being fam’d for good usage to strangers, but on the contrary, are blamed for being extravagant in their reckonings, in the publick houses, which has not a little encourag’d the setting up of sloops, which they now call passage-boats, to Holland, to go directly from the river of Thames; this, tho’ it may be something the longer passage, yet as they are said to be more obliging to passengers, and more reasonable in the expence, and as some say also the vessels are better sea-boats, has been the reason why so many passengers do not go or come by the way of Harwich, as formerly were wont to do; insomuch, that the stage-coaches, between this place and London, which ordinarily went twice or three times a week, are now entirely laid down, and the passengers are left to hire coaches on purpose, take post-horses, or hire horses to Colchester, as they find most convenient.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies Letter 1 part 2: Harwich & Suffolk, 1727 (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)

Vision of Britain: Daniel Defoe