The Port of Calais is an industrial seaport in northern France in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region just 34 kilometers from Dover, England, across the English Channel at the Channel’s narrowest point. From Calais, you can see the White Cliffs of Dover on a clear day. In 2005, over 74 thousand people lived in the Port of Calais.
Being so close to England, Calais has been an important port for centuries. The most channel crossings go between Calais and Dover, and it is the busiest ferry crossing between France and England. The town’s economic base is its port, but it also has some industries, including chemicals, manufacturing of paper, and lace-making. It is also a favorite dining location for visitors from England.
The area surrounding the Port of Calais has been occupied for centuries. The Romans called it Caletum. During the Middle Ages, it was a Dutch-speaking territory called Kales. It remained a fishing village until the 10th Century AD. At the western edge of an ancient Aa River estuary that filled with peat and silt, canals were dug to facilitate trade and open the port to the coast. The Count of Flanders made improvements to the town in 997, and fortifications were added by the Count of Boulogne in 1224. In 1190, Duke Henri de Leuwen granted a Charter for the Port of Calais, and the first warehouse was completed in 1196.
Coveting its strategic position, Edward III of England brought siege to the Port of Calais in 1347. Edward expelled most of the town’s French residents, replacing them with English citizens. The 1360 Treaty of Bretigny formally assigned Calais to English rule “in perpetuity.” In 1363, the Port of Calais was made a staple port where goods were controlled and taxed by the English government. In 1366, the English constructed a trading stage for wool trade there. The English dug a new basin and built the first piers at Fort Risban in 1397.
By 1372, the Port of Calais had representatives in the House of Commons in England’s Parliament, although it continued to be part of France’s ecclesiastical diocese of Therouanne. At one time, the Port of Calais was known as the “brightest jewel in the English Crown” largely due to its importance as a gateway for trade. At times, customs revenues collected there were as much as a third of England’s government revenues.
As precious as the Port of Calais was to the English, maintaining fortifications was expensive. The port’s defenses were frequently tested by the Duchy of Burgundy and French troops, and it’s likely that it stayed under English control due to the ongoing feud between France and Burgundy.
King Henry VIII commissioned plans to improve waterways and add a stone quay in 1553. English rule of the Port of Calais ended in 1558 when the French attacked the decaying Fort Nieulay and overran the town. They renamed the town Pays Reconquis (“Reconquered Country”) and forced its Dutch-speaking residents to speak French. Spain captured the Port of Calais in 1596 and held it for two years.
In the early 17th Century, the English-built seawalls were re-established. Through the 17th to the 19th Centuries, construction of new quays continued. In 1805, the Port of Calais held some of Napoleon’s army as he planned his aborted invasion of England. In 1848, the first train to Calais arrived, and the new lighthouse began operations. The new Port of Calais underwent construction from 1875 to 1889. During this time, new locks were added, canals and basins were dredged, and new quays were constructed.
It was an important station for British supplies and reinforcements during World War I. Efforts to improve and expand the port were ongoing until World War II interrupted the port’s operations. In 1916, new hydraulic machinery was installed in the port. New electrical equipment, including cranes, was added in 1924 and 1925. In 1939, maritime station facilities were inaugurated.
In 1940, the German army focused on the Port of Calais, and it was the site of a fierce battle as British and French troops attempted to hold the Germans back. The town was almost destroyed by artillery and dive bombers that took many French and British lives. Under German occupation, the Port of Calais was a command heavily-fortified post. It was used for launching V1 flying bombs. On D-Day, the Allies bombed Calais to disrupt Germany’s communications and make them believe Calais was a target for invasion (instead of Normandy). Canadian forces liberated a town in ruins in 1944.
Reconstruction of the port was started in 1946 and continued into the early 1960s. In 1967, a new Marina was opened in the Port of Calais. The new Cross-Channel Terminal was opened for both freight and passengers in 1980. By 1983, the Port of Calais was France’s 7th busiest port for cargo.
The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 created competition for the Port of Calais, but it has retained its important position. Its facilities handle freight and millions of passengers every year. The Port of Calais is the busiest passenger port in France and one of the country’s major cargo-handling ports. The port is home to busy metalworking and food processing industries as well as manufacturers of machinery, textiles, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. The oldest part of the town is located on an artificial island enclosed in a network of canals and harbors.
In 1992, the first new roll-on/roll-off berth entered into service. By 1996, the Port of Calais ranked 4th in France for cargo-handling. In 2001, the ultra-modern SeaFrance Rodin ferry arrived at port, a new freight car park was opened, and work started on the freight zone of the Cross-Channel Terminal. In 2004, a second roll-on/roll-off linkspan began operations, and a third ro-ro linkspan was inaugurated in 2006.