Image: Pat Wilson

Deal Boatmen

The Deal boatmen were renowned for their bravery but there was fierce rivalry between the boatmen operating on the four beaches between Deal North End and Kingsdown.  They all ferried supplies to the many ships waiting in The Downs (victualling) and often negotiated their own business deals between these ships and the shore.

They also sold anchors and cables that they had scraped up off the seabed with grappling irons, an occupation, which was known as ‘hovelling’.

As well as victualing, hovelling and fishing, the boatmen often took part in smuggling to augment their meagre income; their shallow drafted luggers being ideal for slipping over the Goodwin Sands to evade the Customs men.

From the early 16th century, the Deal boatmen acted as unofficial pilots to ships navigating the hazardous Goodwin Sands, often taking considerable risks when searching for potential customers.


Prior to the establishment of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824, the Deal boatmen saved many lives, rescuing sailors from the hundreds of ships that foundered on the Sands.  They earned themselves a mixed reputation – venturing out in the most atrocious weather in their luggers they carried out many acts of incredible bravery.  On the other hand, however, it was said that sometimes they would not help a stricken ship until salvage terms were agreed.

Initially, there was much rivalry between the new RNLI and the Deal boatmen, as the boatmen feared they would lose business.  It took nearly fifty years for friendly relations to be established.    The toll of shipwrecks on the Goodwin Sands was so high that in the early part of the 19th century there were four lifeboat stations on the beaches between Deal North End and KIngsdown (usually located opposite a pub) and eight along the stretch of coast between Dover and Margate.

The location of each of these stations made it possible for at least one of the lifeboats to reach any part of the Goodwin Sands irrespective of the direction of the wind and tide. 

Many books have been written about the Deal boatmen, which can be found in our Research Library

Famous Visitors

Julius Caesar sailed passed the then island of Lomea in 55BC during his first attempt at invading England and again when he returned in 45BC.

In 1776 Captain Cook moored in The Downs on Endeavour on his return trip from discovering Australia.

During 1801-2 Admiral Lord Nelson often visited his fleet anchoring in The Downs whilst they were preparing for battle against the French.  His body was later returned embalmed in French brandy on his ship Victory after being killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in December 1805.