Hyrne, herne or heron?

The Herne HeronMany local Herne Bay clubs & societies feature the heron as part of their crest but there’s some debate around whether the town has, or has ever had, any particular connection with the crane-necked bird of the same name.  It’s complicated.  In the days before the written word many animals, in fact most things, tended to be called after something they resembled and sometimes that could be very localised.  The word ‘hyrne’ originates from old Norwegian but made its way via the Vikings into many European languages.  In old Herne Bay Viking AxeNorwegian the word described the tip or sharp bend at the top of a fighting axe and, after the Vikings first arrived on the shores of Kent in around 850 AD, many of their words and terms merged with local language and so it’s very likely the term ‘hyrne’ came to mean anything with a sharp bend or a ‘crook’ in it, like a track or a field boundary, or even the term to describe the odd looking bird we know as the heron today.

The town we now call Herne Bay was so named because it was a bay close to the much more ancient village of Herne, about a mile to the South.  Herne grew-up on a bend in what was a minor Roman road between Canterbury and Reculver (or Regulbium as the Romans named it) with the Church at Herne being an important stop-over for pilgrims in early Christian times, so when describing the route to someone it was most likely said ‘go on the track from Canterbury until the hearne’ (as it was spelled in Saxon and Norman times) meaning the ‘crook’ or bend in the track, hence the hamlet became known as Herne.

We can now assume that both the Heron, the village of Herne and town of Herne Bay can trace its roots back to the same source in the old Norwegian language.

In the late 18th Century the site of today’s town of Herne Bay was a tiny fishermen’s hamlet and beaching point for coastal trading ships centred around the still-surviving Ship Inn. Colliers brought coal here from Newcastle and Sunderland for onward transport to Canterbury by road. There was also regular sea traffic for people and goods from the town to and from London.

Herne Bay Grid Layout

By the early 1800s the hamlet around the Ship Inn had begun to attract holiday visitors from Canterbury. Sea water baths were established below the east cliff in 1792. Following improvements to the HerneBay/Canterbury road around 1814, Sir Henry Oxenden of Broome Park near Canterbury began to develop the farmland he owned near the Ship Inn for the holiday trade. In 1830, enlarging on Oxenden’s original concept, a Canterbury surveyor, Samuel Hacker, planned a new town at Herne Bay to be called St Augustine. Hacker’s street plan, laid out to a grid pattern, extended the Oxenden estate to the south and west and included a new High Street, three town squares, an open piazza looking out to sea north of the eastern  (Hanover) square and a pier. This period also saw the first purpose-built free-standing Clock Tower in the country built at Herne Bay in 1837.

Hacker’s plan was never fully realised and the town of Herne Bay grew in slow bursts. Primarily a holiday town, the first surge came in the 1830s when the first pier opened and paddle steamers began to call. In 1842 the Herne Bay Steam Packet Company steamers brought 40,957 passengers to the town, with 11,248 further arrivals by other boats and 26,000 visitors staying in the town. The popularity of the steamboat trade declined somewhat with the building of the London to Dover railway line which reached Margate in 1846 (Herne Bay got its own railway station, on the Ramsgate line, in 1863) and the rise of other seaside resorts with easy access by train.

Healthy Herne BayHerne Bay’s development was also closely linked with the belief in the health-giving properties of sea air and sea bathing. The first reference to an individual going to the English coast for health reasons dates from 1540 when a judge Finiox built a house at Herne because physicians considered the area to be beneficial to health. In 1883 a report from the Registrar General described Herne Bay as ‘the healthiest watering place in England’. Herne Bay, with its ‘health-giving breezes’ had only one real industry – tourism, or in the words of the time ‘healthmaking’, and postcards from the time promoted the town as ‘the healthiest spot in England’.  In more recent years Herne Bay has been at the forefront in the recognition of the environmental technologies with the completion in 2004 of the country’s then largest offshore wind farm off the coast at Herne Bay.


Ever since the first import duties were introduced in England in as early as 1203, introduced by King John to raise money for the crown coffers, people have smuggled goods to avoid paying excise duty.  In successive years the crown became better organised in collecting duties until in 1671 Charles II appointed a board of commissioners and all goods entering the country were required to do so via a bone fide port, with London growing rapidly into the largest port in the land and Bristol not far behind.

Herne Bay SmugglingWhen taxes were high – as during war time – smuggling levels increased in violence and scale. To meet the armed and violent gangs of smugglers, the revenue men were also armed and had the support of mounted and armed soldiers (or the Royal Navy if they were at sea). Initially, the Customs Service existed only to collect the duties at the ports, and not to prevent smuggling. However, during the 17th and 18th centuries, illegal trade increased. From the previously small scale evasion of duties, smuggling had now developed into an industry. It has been suggested that at times more illicit spirits were being smuggled into the country than entered legally into London docks.  It is also said that during these times ‘Kent was awash with gin’ (brought in from Holland) so much so that the spirit was used for cleaning windows!

Smuggling was rife all around the South East of England but none more so than in Kent Smuggling in Herne Baywith Herne Bay, Hampton-on-sea (now just Hampton) and Whitstable  at the forefront.  Hamton in particular was a haven for gangs of smugglers and it’s reputed that the farmhouse had underground tunnels for the secreting of contraband goods.

In April 1821 two armed groups of smugglers were waiting on the beach at Herne Bay for a shipment to arrive. When the boat came ashore, a patrol commanded by midshipman Snow surprised the party.  Snow challenged the smugglers and drew his pistol, but it misfired and he fell down, fatally wounded.  He was carried to the Ship Inn and a surgeon was called but it was too late and he died. Midshipman Snow was buried in Herne churchyard with full military honours.