With its clean and safe beaches, the South Downs to the north and easy access to Chichester and Worthing, Littlehampton is a popular British holiday destination. Although there are few outstanding architectural features in the town itself, Littlehampton is surrounded by plenty of history, things to do and see, and is the ideal place to stay whether you want to relax or explore the surrounding area.
Located at the mouth of the River Arun, the town was once just called Hampton, as was the nearby port of Southampton. It was probably the sailors who added the 'Little' to avoid confusion and the name had stuck by the late 1400s.
Although the area was settled by the Romans a short time after the invasion of AD43, Littlehampton itself remained mainly rural. It is likely that much of the land in and around the town belonged to the owners of a villa in nearby Angmering in the 1st and 2nd centuries, even though a small villa once stood in the town itself. Evidence of Roman fields, tracks and farms have been found in a number of areas of Littlehampton and the people working the land were probably Romanised Celts.
Having once been given to Syon Abbey in Middlesex by King Henry V, the manor of Littlehampton had many owners before becoming part of the Arundel Castle estate in 1610 - the Dukes of Norfolk owned much of Littlehampton until the 1930s.
Officially becoming a town in 1853 when its first local government was established, the growth of Littlehampton was fuelled by the increasingly popular sea bathing, the sea trade and the influx of visitors that were brought via the railway station, which opened in 1863.
The Harbour and the River
Although Littlehampton had its own quay by the 1670s, the river had already been used by many ships travelling to the port of Arundel since 871AD. Records show that the channel was cut anew in 1628 and 1657 although the town did not develop as a trading point until much later. In 1730 the river was only five feet deep and the harbour channel was again cut in preparation for the new harbour, which was opened in 1736.
In 1785 the river above Arundel was dredged by the Arun Navigation Company and Littlehampton slowly overtook Arundel as the main local harbour. From about 1830 coal, china clay and slate were carried up river by barge from Littlehampton and on to London via the canal network. During the 19th century, the main trades were coal from the northeast of England and timber from Norway and the Baltic.
A passenger service to Honfleur, Le Havre
and St Malo in France also added to the number of ships using the port between 1863 and 1882. Known as 'steam packets' and operating from the railway wharf just north of the footbridge across the river, passengers were charged by the mile and generally travelled in the cargo hold. Demand for the service was never very strong and Littlehampton lost out to other ports such as Newhaven, forcing operators out of business. Although coastal steamers such as the 'Brighton Belle' operated services for a few more years, today the Steam Packet public house is the only sign left that Littlehampton was once a cross channel ferry port.
Being a seaport, it would seem obvious that fishing has played a part of the local economy since early times. Indeed, although little is known about the fishing industry before the 19th century, evidence has been found of Roman fishermen in the area. In 1869, 364 men and boys crewed 189 fishing boats. The boats were very small with only two crew per boat and were probably manned on a part time basis. Oyster Pond was created on the east bank next to the river mouth in the early 19th century to hold shellfish which had been caught, but today the main catch of the 20 or so registered boats is cod, Dover sole, lobsters, crabs and sea bass.
Shipbuilding at Littlehampton has been a source of activity since at least the 18th century and even King Henry VIII's royal dockyard was located here. The heyday for ship building came in the mid-19th century when deep sea merchant wooden sailing ships were being constructed by builders such as the Harvey family who were located on the west bank of the river between 1846 and 1880. In the 20th century, boat yards such as David Hillyard and William Osborne Ltd built yachts, motor cruisers, speedboats and even small naval craft during the war. Osborne also built 100 lifeboats in Littlehampton between the 1950s and 1990s.
Today the sea trade is only a shadow of its former times. Some boat builders still exist, as do a number of fishing boats, but the main commercial shipping trade is now sand and shingle dredged from the seabed, a trade that started in the 1960's.
Many ships have been lost off the coast of Littlehampton over the centuries. Of the boats registered in Littlehampton, forty had been wrecked between 1863 and 1904. It was not until 1884 that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) opened a lifeboat station here. Manned by local sailors and fishermen using oars and sails, the boats were launched a total of 26 times before the station was closed in 1921. With the growth in water sports, an appeal on the children's television programme Blue Peter paid for a fast inflatable boat and the lifeboat station was reopened in 1967. Used for inshore work, the lifeboat has saved hundreds of lives since that time.