The fish village of Newhaven was of little maritime importance until the opening of the railway line to Lewes in 1847.
From 1864, under instruction from the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) which had acquired lands around the then fishing village, their Chief Engineer Frederick Banister was instructed to design a new commercial-scale port facility and transport access system.
In 1864, Banister eabled the construction of the Seaford Branch Line from the East Coastway Line at Lewes via Newhaven town to Newhaven harbour, on the east side of the river. This would later allow the bulk transport and supply of building materials to enable construction of the docks at Newhaven.
Until this point, cross-channel passenger services from London to Paris, had mainly operated from Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) using the 1820 completed Chain Pier, and secondly from Shoreham. However, both of these ports severely restricted the size of accessible vessels, and hence volume and profit from a commercial passenger operation.
With the opening of the Seaford branchline and the completion of the new docks facility, the LB&SCR funded the dredging of the harbour's channel, and other associated improvements between 1850 and 1878. The railway company also built three new mahogany-hulled paddle steamers, called Newhaven, Brighton and Dieppe. Powered by oscillating engines, they were to make fast runs from the new harbour to Dieppe.
Civil unrest in France and its revolution dogged the early years of the service. In fact, the last King of France, Louis Philippe I and his Queen, used the port in 1848 to make their flight into exile, staying overnight at the Bridge Hotel in Bridge Street before travelling onwards to London the next day.
Although the Newhaven–Dieppe service was discontinued soon after its establishment, in 1850 it established a Newhaven–Jersey ferry service. In 1853 it re-instated the Dieppe service, which flourished because it provided the claimed shortest land and sea route between London and Paris. By this time the LB&SCR had built both a new passenger terminal, and the imposing London and Paris Hotel to enable the increased activity.
An 1862 Act of Parliament gave the LB&SCR power to own and operate its own steam vessels. Resultantly, in 1863 the company's French partner Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest agreed to operate the Newhaven–Dieppe passenger service jointly. Although advertised as the "shortest and cheapest" route to Paris, it was never the quickest because of the much longer time taken at sea than the rival Dover to Calais route.
Due to expanding cross-channel services and shortage of quay capacity at Newhaven, in 1863 the LB&SCR transferred the Jersey service to Littlehampton, and soon afterwards established the Littlehampton-Honfleur service.
In light of increased passenger and commercial activity, and with increased competition from the Port of Dover, the LB&SCR instructed Banister to greatly expand the port. After guiding the required approvals through the UK parliament, Banister personally managed the civil engineering works for the new docks in 1878, without the use of contractors, including:The provision of new and additional quays
The construction of new sea-walls
New entrance piers and lighthouses
The building of a concrete breakwater, extending seawards for 800 yards (730 m)
The resultant works created through reclamation several new acres of land which were subsequently developed and then sub-leased to various industrial companies.
The village of Newhaven greatly expanded on the back of the works to a town, as they allowed a large increase in both trade and subsequently population. Imports included French farm products and manufactures, timber, granite and slates.
The harbour was officially recognised as The Port of Newhaven in 1882.
As a result of the Railways Act 1921, in January 1923 the LB&SCR was merged with its local rivals to form the Southern Railway (SR). In addition to inheriting railway operations, the SR also gained several important South Coast of England port and harbour facilities, all constrcuted at least in part for handling ocean-going and cross-channel passneger traffic. Including Newhaven, these included Folkestone and the larger Port of Southampton. The SR also ran railways services to the harbours at Portsmouth, Dover and Plymouth. This source of regular passenger traffic, together with the density of population served in the London suburbs, ensured that the SR was a predominantly passenger-orientated railway.
Newhaven was designated as the principal port for the movement of men and materiel to the European continent during World War I, and was taken over by the military authorities and the ferries requisitioned for the duration of the war. Between 22 September 1916 and 2 December 1918, the port and town of Newhaven were designated a 'Special Military Area' under the 'Defence of the Realm Regulations', and the Harbour station was closed to the public. The port and harbour facilities, rail sidings and warehousing were greatly enlarged at this time and electric lighting installed to allow for 24-hour operation. Some 17,000 crossings of the Channel took place and over six million tons of supplies were carried to the French coastal ports. Eleven of the ships were lost to enemy attacks from mines, submarines, aeroplanes or destroyers and about a hundred of the seamen, who had become well known to the local townspeople, were killed. Many survivors of the ships were brought back to the port.
During World War II, large numbers of Canadian troops were stationed at Newhaven, and the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in 1942 was largely launched from the harbour. As one of the few ports within the proposed landing area, Newhaven was targeted by the German invasion plans for Operation Sea Lion and additional guns and fortifications were added in 1940. In 1944, Newhaven was an important embarkation port for the D-Day landings. At any one time the port could handle four medium coasters, 3 LCT, 1 LCI and 1,800 troops per embarkation and 19 vessels per 24 hours.
The freight traffic of the port has always been supplemental to the passenger traffic, but was key in keeping the port operational post-World War II. Initially reliant on coal in the Victorian era, the port was redeveloped in 1938 by filling in basins and leaving a straight frontage along the River Ouse.
With post-WW2 freight traffic dropping, the council wished to improve the nearby A259 road which crossed by the railway on a narrow bridge, restricting traffic flow for both the road and rail. In 1968 the goods sidings access was removed from Newhaven Harbour railway station, resulting in the closure of the local coal yard and that traffic source.
In 1981, the old railway wharf began to be used for aggregates import and export and the production of concrete, until that ceased in 1996. Much of the derelict port facilities have since been used for scrap storage and processing, while redevelopment is debated between the owners and local residents.
Although there are some signs of the derelict facilities that serviced the train ferry operations, the port still sees a great deal of freight and passengers movement.
International ferries run to the French port of Dieppe, operated by LD Lines. Currently there are two sailings per day, one in the morning and one in the evening, using the 18,654 GT ro-ro MS Seven Sisters. Rail passengers wishing to connect with the ferries are advised nationally to travel to Newhaven Town, and then use the free bus service; this has resulted in a dramatic fall in passenger services at Newhaven Harbour, leading to questions re its future.
P&O Stena Line operated the Dieppe route until 1998, after which Hoverspeed operated the route until 2004. Because the French government did not want the route to be lost, they started a new subsidised company named Transmanche Ferries in April 2001. After five years of successful service and the arrival of two newbuild ships, the government decided to tender the line in a paid-for concession. One of five companies invited to tender for the operation of the service, LD Lines was awarded the contract on 21 December 2006, receiving an annual subsidy of up to €14.6 million. LD Lines commenced sailings on the route on 1 May 2007. In addition to three round trips between Dieppe and Newhaven, LD Lines started a single round trip per day between Le Havre and Newhaven during high season using the MS Seven Sisters. However in August 2008 they announced that this service would not be continued.
In 2011, Sussex Yachts Ltd initiated a scheme to regenerate the East Quay with their yacht refit business, opening Newhaven Boatyard the largest marine refit facility in the South East. The project expanded into commercial vessel maintenance and refit in 2012.
The port is the proposed main landside site for E.ON's development of the offshore Rampion Wind Farm.
The Newhaven Lifeboat, the first of which was commissioned in 1803, is among the oldest in Britain, and was established some 20 years before the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The town established the rescue lifeboat in response to the wreck of HMS Brazen in January 1800 when only one man of her crew of some 105 men could be saved. The town used a combination of funds raised locally and contributed by Lloyd's of London to purchase a lifeboat built to Henry Greathead's "Original" design. Newhaven also has one of the Watch stations of the National Coastwatch Institution. The current boat, RNLB David and Elizabeth Acland, is a Severn class lifeboat named after David Acland DL, who was a member of the RNLI's Committee of Management for 34 years and its Chairman from 1996 to 2000.