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St Mary's Bay History

Origins of St Mary's Bay

St Mary's Bay was previously known as Jesson, likely named after Jesson Farm, built around 1820, in what is now Jefferstone Lane. The name Jesson was changed to St. Mary's Bay on 12 October 1935.

The origins of the village we now know as St Mary's Bay date from the early days of the nineteenth century. Prior to that time there was very little evidence of human habitation along the stretch of coast where the village now stands. A few distant farmsteads might have been visible from the road from Dymchurch to New Romney together with sheepfolds and looker’s huts – the shelters used by shepherds during lambing time.

Apart from the coast road, the main thoroughfare through St. Mary's Bay is Jefferstone Lane, which is derived  from Jesson, the name of the original hamlet.

You can download extracts of Victor Haisell's 'History of St Mary's Bay here. Victor kindly gave approval for extracts of his book to be used on this web site.


Map showing the area in 1816, with the St Mary's church, New
and Old Romney and Romney Bay. Also shown is the Little Stone shingle headland that was to become Littlestone when Romney Bay silted up

Airfield at St Mary's Bay

The airfield at St Mary's Bay, now long gone, has been known under the names of Littlestone Airfield, Jesson Airfield and St Mary's Bay. 

The development of the airfield did not begin in earnest until the 1914-1918 War when the War Department built a camp. Initially they used the landing strip on Romney Warren and part of the Littlestone Golf Course but soon moved to a proper aerodrome in Jesson Lane.This occupied 75 acres of land bounded by Jesson Lane and the Jefferstone and Cobsden Sewers.

The airfield was to house the Royal Flying Corps No.1 (Auxiliary) School of Gunnery amalgamated with No.1 (Observers) School of Aerial Gunnery. The camp was intended to accommodate 1000 men, 300 NCOs, 400 officers and 400 women. It was estimated that from each intake 400 trained pilots would receive their wings.


Location of the airfiled just north east of the RH&DR. The chalk circle identified the airfield and provided an aid to direction. At the time this photo was taken (c 1930) what is now Jefferstone Lane was called Jesson Lane


The Airfield was erected as transport garages to house lorries during the 1st World War. The main building ran parallel with the A259 road at the top of Jesson Lane (now known as Jefferstone Lane). A local builder acquired the buildings after 1st World War and converted both ends into living accommodation.

When in 1925 the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) was laid it cut across the top of the aerodrome leaving a rectangular flying field.

Administration and living quarters were located on the western side of Jesson Lane close to where it meets the main coast road. The field on the Dymchurch side was used to build sheds for transport and engineering. The main transport garages were close to the main road and were used for servicing large lorries and planes.  

In later years the end of the building facing into Jesson Lane was converted to a shop and became Jesson Post Office.Further down the lane on the eastern side was the carpenters’ shop. With most of the aircraft being build with wooden frames and carpenters’ skills were much in demand. Tears and holes in the aircrafts’ linen-covered fuselages and wings were repaired in the adjacent sailmakers’ shop. In the adjoining dope shop shellac was applied to stiffen up and waterproof the linen, giving it great strength. The planes were then ready to return to service. 

Plan of the Airfield

While the Flying Corps were at here Jesson Farm was used as offices and the large barn as a cinema and theatre complete with stage. The highlight of passing out was a party and concert held in the barn.

Near the flying field and where the RH&DR line now runs stand four long brick-built sheds. Two of them were used for photographic laboratories and dark rooms.  All the film taken by the air crews of the mock dog fights, aerial gunnery and target practice were processed there. Edith Nesbit, the author owned two sheds that were later turned into bungalows. In fact she lived there for some two years and most of the time was in ill health.  Her husband Captain Tucker named the bungalows Longboat and Jollyboat. Both still stand today and can be seen at the bottom of Nesbit Road.

The last building belonging to the Flying Corps’ camp was the power station on the right of Jesson Lane just past the RH&DR station. This brick building housed two large single cylinder paraffin engines with enormous flywheels. The engines were started by using blowlamps and would generate enough electricity to meet the demands of the camp as well as some of the properties nearby.

After the 1st World War the engineer in charge was Mr. Charles Colmer who later started his own electrical business and used one room at the end of this bungalow as a shop. The shop today is Foord Electrical Centre. The Guardroom was at the top of Jefferstone Lane in the corner on the left opposite the transport garages. All the camp accommodation was on this side of the road. The first building block was the officers’ mess and dining hall.

A third group of buildings were the airmen’s billets, cookhouse and a hospital. After the war Lt. Chapman was left in charge of the camp with a care and maintenance party. He lived in and later purchased the hospital. He built a plane out of parts that had been left by the Flying Corps and flew it regularly.

The last building near the railway line was the mortuary. With a lot of student pilots flying and practising combat manoeuvres and dog fights, casualties must have been quite high. When the airforce left the aerodrome became a holiday camp and the mortuary was used as a meat store.


Oxford University Squadron Jesson Aerodrome 1930s 

After the armistice in 1919, when the School for Aerial Gunnery was moved to Manston, the flying field was kept open to provide emergency landing facilities for the newly-established civil air services flying from Croydon to Paris and Brussels.

Although Lympne was the south coast customs airport it was particularly susceptible to fog. On occasions when fog enveloped Lympne planes were diverted to Littlestone (Jesson). The airfield was known as the Littlestone Emergency Landing Ground probably because the first airstrip was on part of the Littlestone golf links.


In the centre of the field was a large white circle made from blocks of whitewashed chalk. (see picture above) The name Littlestone was painted across the centre of the circle. Set at intervals around the circumference were tallish beacons, which at night constantly blinked and showed a red light. They were operated by gas and serviced by the round crews from Lympne. When planes landed taxis would arrive to collect the passengers and their luggage and take them on to their destinations or another airfield.

During the late twenties and the thirties the field was the venue of some spectacular air displays. One famous airman was Sir Alan Cobham with his flying circus. His team performed wing walking, parachuting and dare devil low flying. On some weekends in the summer it was possible for the public to take pleasure flights.

Royal Flying Corps Personnel at Jesson Aerodrome

As air travel became more reliable with larger aircraft being used demand for the emergency landing facilities and Littlestone diminished. Just before the Second World War the landing lights were switched off for the last time and removed. The land reverted back to farmland and has remained so to this day. The old Jesson Aerodrome, situated near the edge of the flying field used to operate pleasure flights between the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Rugby Portobello Trust

The Rugby Clubs, now the Rugby Portobello Trust, has owned 10.6 acres4.6 of land on the sea at St Mary’s Bay in Kent since 1902. It is located on the sea)side of the A259 main road, opposite the properties between Jefferstone Lane and Taylor's Lane.

In 1899 two old Rugbeians had bought some land near the seashore with the outbuildings which had been part of the old Coastguard Station. The new buildings they erected became a permanent camp where boys, and later girls from Notting Gate and Notting Hill areas of London could come down for a holiday by the sea. It housed up to 100 people at a time. In 1903 William Temple also an old Rugbeian and later Archbishop of Canterbury, stayed there. 

The caretaker’s house was built in 1922 in memory of the 117 gallant members of the Notting Hill Rugby Clubs who were killed in the 1914-18 war. The property belongs to Rugby School, founded in 1567 by Lawrence Sheriff and immortalized in Tom Brown’s School days. 

However the accommodation facilities, which had remained virtually unchanged for over 50 years, had deteriorated to the extent that they were scarcely usable. 

The land was sold to Clerkenwell House in February 2016. 


The Rugby Portobello Trust Site in 2016


In the1940s

In 2008 The Rugby Portobello trust merged with P3, a national organisation. In 2009 the Trustees decided to close the camp and to plan for its refurbishment. A leading architectural practice called Michaelis Boyd Associates had agreed to carry out the design of the buildings on a pro bono basis. These will incorporate raised accommodation facilities that will sleep 100. An application for planning permission was granted in September 2012 for the demolition and rebuilding of the camp, but this planning permission expired in September 2015 with no work being done.

In May 2016, a new planing application was submitted to "change of use of the land to a holiday park for general holiday use, together with the partial demolition of existing holiday accommodation and erection of new holiday accommodation buildings and replacement swimming pool, formation of camping area, together with associated access and infrastructure".

The proposal is for the existing chalets and accommodation to be removed and for 15 single storey holiday cabins of varying sizes, a barbeque facility, a car park to be built. They also plan to replace the existing pool and to make the hall a reception and a campsite will be created to the east of the area.

This work started in September 2017. The new holiday accomation is now called Cabu by the Sea.

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