Kilnsea is a small triangular settlement, at the tip of South Holderness. It is bounded on the east by the North Sea, on the west by the River Humber, and on the north by the village of Easington. As the land narrows to the south it merges into the Spurn peninsula. Kilnsea has lost, and is still losing, land to the sea. The soft boulder clay cliffs crumble away, and the annual loss varies between one and three yards (or metres) annually. Even on the western side of the parish some loss of land is experienced, though only when westerly gales coincide with tidal surges in the River Humber. When it was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086), Kilnsea village was several miles from the sea, and the dwellings of the village were established upon a hill. By the late eighteenth century the village was still intact, though it had lost its East Field. Around the houses and cottages were little gardens and small fields, with a village pond and a green, and a medieval church. Apart from the church itself, a large ornate stone cross was the most prominent landmark. It had apparently been erected on the peninsula further south to commemorate the landing of Henry IV at Ravenser in 1399, but was removed to Kilnsea in the early sixteenth century when the peninsula eroded.
The cross was placed upon the village green, but by the early nineteenth century it was on the edge of the cliff and the proximity of the sea enforced its removal to Burton Constable in 1818. James Iveson, the agent and attorney of the Constables, had plans to establish a high-class housing estate in Hedon, and asked the Constables if he could incorporate Kilnsea cross as a focal point. Although he never fulfilled his plans he did move the cross to Hedon, where it remains, much eroded, in the grounds of Holyrood House. By the early nineteenth century Kilnsea was right on the cliff edge, approximately half of the land of the parish had disappeared. The church of St. Helen’s, which was stone-built with a nave flanked by aisles as well as a chancel, a clerestory, and a three-storey tower, was teetering on the edge of the cliff. In 1824 the chancel fell over the cliff, and a wall was built at the east end of the remaining part of the church so that services could still be held inside. A year or so later another large storm took the partition, with the north wall, its pillars, pointed arches, pulpit, the reading desk and books, down the cliff ‘with a tremendous crash’. The tower remained for only a year or two, before finally falling over the cliff in 1831. The dressed stones from the church can still be found in the gardens of Kilnsea, or incorporated in houses or walls. Even Easington still has stones from the church. At that time the villagers were still farming strips of the open field in the way that their ancestors had been doing since time immemorial. Until the arable strips, the pasture and the meadows were re-allocated they could not build new houses away from the sea. So in 1840, they decided to apply for an enclosure act, almost the last one in the East Riding. That allowed the villagers to build themselves a new settlement, on the western side of the parish. But those who remembered the old village, never ceased to mourn its loss — ‘old Kilnsea was the prettiest village in all Holderness, standing on a hill with a wide prospect over sea and land, and a noble old church, pleasant gardens sloping down the hillside and a fine spring of bright water surrounded by willows’
Kilnsea – Rebirth of a Village
New farmhouses, cottages, a pub, and a small church began to appear on the western side of Kilnsea from the late 1840s. The practical villagers of Kilnsea dismantled their houses and cottages before they fell over the cliffs. Building materials were precious, and were saved from the sea where possible. Soon after the enclosure award had been signed in 1843 the new village of Kilnsea began to appear, mainly built on the Humber side of the parish, as far away from the sea as possible. The houses may have been new, but they utilised some of the material from the old houses, whilst the names of many of the families preserved the continuity of the old village. Farming and fishing were the main occupations of the people of Kilnsea, and like Easington to the north certain families have dominated the area: the Clubley, the Tennyson (alternatively Tennison), the Medforth, and the Hodgson families, were the most prominent in the nineteenth century. It was said that had it not been for sailors getting marooned in the village when their ships got into trouble the people of Kilnsea would be very inbred indeed, for they could not be bothered to get over Long Bank (the parish boundary) to go and look for partners!
Before the loss of the village, Kilnsea had several alehouses, shops, and even a school. After the new village was created it never got larger than about 30 houses, though it did manage to retain two public houses, the Blue Bell and the Crown and Anchor. The former closed in the 1950s, but the latter still flourishes. However there was no rush to build a new church. After the church went over the cliff, services continued to be held at Kilnsea, though for weddings, baptisms and burials the people of Kilnsea had to go to Easington. As a temporary measure, a room in a farmhouse was rented, and the rescued church bell was hung in the stackyard, being struck with a stone to call people to worship. Eventually the bell cracked from such harsh treatment, which rather quashes romantic fables about Kilnsea’s bells ringing under the sea!
John Ombler, of Westmere House, who became the Board of Trade superintendent of the Spurn beach and sea-defence works, was apparently the last person to be baptized in the old St. Helen’s and it was to a large extent due to his efforts that in 1864 the decision was made to build a new church at Kilnsea. The Diocesan Society contributed £102 to the building of the church, and subscriptions were also raised locally. The celebrated Victorian architect, William Burges, designed a building of red and yellow brick, which was erected about three-quarters of a mile west of the former site. Superficially the new church, which cost £500, bore no resemblance to the old, but Burges, with a proper respect for tradition, used stones from that church for the foundations, the buttresses, and the coping. Furnishings and fittings from the old St. Helen’s soon began to find their way back. The medieval font was rescued from Skeffling, the holy water stoup from the Crown and Anchor, the church registers were brought back from Easington, and services resumed on a regular basis.
Sadly in the 1990s falling congregations meant that the church had to be closed. It has now been deconsecrated and is being converted to a dwelling.
For a time Kilnsea also had a Primitive Methodist Chapel. Henry Hodge, a Hull industrialist, had been born in Kilnsea, and he became a prominent Primitive Methodist. Finding that the village of his birth was without a Methodist place of worship he bought land near the Humber and in 1885 built a chapel, constructed of corrugated iron there. This so-called ‘iron chapel’ remained in use as a place of worship until it was converted into a cottage about 1917.
In December 2013, as a result of the North Sea surge, the western side of Kilnsea was badly flooded. Thanks to the efforts of many local people the Environment Agency agreed that a flood bank should be constructed, and it was completed in April 2015. Nevertheless the area will always be vulnerable, being almost entirely surrounded by water.