1901 – Newgate Gap, Margate, Kent

Add  1 – Sep 16

Just after the publication of ‘Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy’, I received an email from James Brazier, Newsletter Editor of the Margate Civic Society, who wondered if I knew whether James Pulham and Son ever did any work on a set of steps leading down into the cutting at Newgate Gap, in Cliftonville.    This was intriguing, because nothing like that was included in our Pulham Databases, but the photograph he sent me showed all the characteristics of a Pulham installation.   I had no hesitation in confirming their authenticity, and Mr Brazier wrote an article for the Civic Society Newsletter for Autumn 2012 to draw the readers’ attention to it.

I didn’t have time to follow it up at that time, so the matter rested until July 2016, when I received another enquiry from Newton Whitelaw – a local artist and sculptor of Cliftonville – who was researching the history of Newgate Gap for a public art programme, and wanted to know if I knew anything specifically about it.   The programme even included a special Clean-Up Day in and around Newgate Gap to get people interested in preserving their local heritage, so this inspired me to investigate further.

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Fig 1  –  The Edwardian postcard shows the original wrought-iron railings along the promenade, and the top of the flight of steps through Newgate Gap Rockery   (Image provided by James Brazier).

 I knew that the Pulhams had created major installations at both Ramsgate – along Madeira Walk, Winterstoke Chine and West Cliff Chine – and at Folkestone, where they built the Zigzag Path on The Leas.   These are both featured in the book.   I also knew that my grandfather’s younger brother, John Hitching – who was a Senior Rock Builder involved on both of those projects – ended his days in Margate, but I didn’t know if he had anything to do with the steps at Newgate Gap.   As I had now completed my series of ‘Sites of the Month’ for my website, it seemed a good time to start looking into it.

There are 32 ‘gaps’ along the ten bays of the North Thanet coast between Minnis Bay and Pegwell Bay, of which the largest is Newgate Gap – it was originally called ‘The Devil’s Gap’ due to its great depth and steepness.   The gaps were initially cut by local farmers who wanted to gain access to the beach from the top of the cliffs in order to gather seaweed from the shore for use as manure on their crops, but this practice ceased as more modern chemical fertilizers became available.   It is hardly surprising that the ‘Gaps’ were also favourite landing stages for smugglers bringing contraband ashore, and, to counteract this, a ‘Prevention Post’ was set up at The Devil’s Gap towards the end of the 18th Century.   It was manned by a Master’s Mate, Midshipman and several seamen, so woe betide anyone caught by them.   I did wonder if it might then be a case of ‘Newgate Gap to Newgate Prison’, but that is a figment of my imagination, rather than being based on any historical fact.

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Fig 2  –  This posed photograph, published as a postcard, was probably taken shortly after the opening of Newgate Gap Rockery   (Image provided by James Brazier)

As the eastern end of Cliftonville developed, bridges were built over some of the gaps, and an iron-girdered, wooden decking bridge was built over Newgate Gap by a local eccentric, Captain Frederick Hodges in 1861.   By 1895, however, it became obvious that the numbers of visitors brought in to the area by the new railways had increased to the point where that bridge was too narrow to cope.   As is generally the case in such situations, however, it was some time before the local Council decided to commit funds to the resolution of such a ‘minor inconvenience’, and it was not until 1907 that they decided to build a new bridge of concrete and steel to commemorate the Jubilee of Margate, which became a Borough in 1857 by being granted a Charter of Incorporation.

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Fig 3  –  This photograph was taken by James Brazier in September 2012 – after he had moved two bags of litter which would otherwise have detracted from this image!   (Photo by James Brazier)

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Fig 4  –  A typical Pulham alcove on one of the landings, which was presumably originally equipped with a seat   (Photo provided by Newton Whitelaw)

 Fig 1 shows the promenade at Cliftonville sweeping round to the left-hand side of the picture.   The Gap extends from the shore, and underneath the road to come up on the other side, and this picture was taken from the side of the Gap opposite the flight of steps that lead down through the Pulhamite rockery into the cutting.   It was taken ‘in Edwardian times’, which could be any time up to 1910, but there is a date inscribed near the start of the Pulhamite rocks as one emerges from the tunnel under the road bridge that tells us quite clearly that its date of installation was ‘1901’.   Fig 2 is taken from a postcard of a posed picture that must have been taken just after the steps were built, and Fig 3 shows them as they are today.

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Fig 5  –  Looking along the Gap, under the road towards the exit from the bottom of the Pulham steps.   Note the row of artificial stratification.   (Photo provided by Newton Whitelaw)

There are three flights – one of 15 steps, and the other two of 16 steps – up the stairway, and there are typical Pulham-type alcoves on each landing that were presumably all originally equipped with seats.   One of these alcoves is shown in Fig 4, whilst Fig 5 is taken near the bottom of the steps, looking upwards towards the left, through the tunnel under the road, and up to the exit.   The line of stratification between the artificial ‘rocks’ can be clearly seen, and this is quite interesting, as it is very similar to that done at Merrow Grange, near Gulldford, between 1902-07 – see Chapter 25 in ‘Rock Landscapes’.   It is quite likely that both installations could both have been done by the same rock builder, because it is sometimes possible to see certain ‘signatures’ in their work.

It is impossible to say whether John Hitching was responsible for the work at Newgate Gap, but I would think it unlikely because there is a scroll cut into one of the ‘rocks’ that contains the initials ‘L.C.P.’ and ‘E.T.F.P’’, shown in Fig 6.   These could be the initials of two (or three) of the workers involved, because they sometimes did ‘sign’ their work somewhere, but I have no names in my list of known workers that match these letters.

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Fig 6  –  Initials scratched into one of the ‘rocks’   Are these the workmen who created the rocks, or someone else entirely?.   (Photo provided by Newton Whitelaw)

Another intriguing piece of information that came my way from James Brazier was that one of the main builders in Westgate for many years was the firm of Alfred Lockwood.   He – or his ancestors – were apparently related to William Lockwood, who owned the firm of Master Builders in Woodbridge with whom James 1 and Obadiah Pulham were apprenticed in the early 19th century.   They eventually went their own way after William Lockwood retired, and it was James 1’s son, James 2, after whom ‘Pulhamite’ became known, so I was not very surprised when James Brazier told me that Queenie Johnson – who worked for Lockwoods of Westgate-on-Sea for many years – recalled no reference to Pulhamite being made during the whole time she worked there.

John Hitching was only a Rock Builder employed by James Pulham and Son nearly 80 years after James 1 ceased working with William Lockwood, so he may not have appreciated the Pulham / Lockwood connection.   Neither do I know when he went to live in Margate, so this may well be a puzzle that will never be solved . . .

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