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MARKET TOWNS OF SUSSEX (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Rye in 1841

RYE, a parliamentary borough, a seaport town, and a member of the Cinque-Ports, is situated upon an eminence at the south-eastern corner of the county of Sussex, and 63 miles south-east from London. It is bounded on the east by the river Rother, the channel of which was suddenly diverted from Romney by the tempest that overwhelmed Old Winchelsea in the year 1287, and on the south and west by the river Tillingham, which, having received the waters of the Brede immediately above the town, joins the Rother at Rye : the united stream enters the sea about a mile and a half below the town, and there forms Old Rye harbour. Rye is supposed to be the Novus Portus of Ptolemy. The derivation of its name is variously stated : Camden derives it from Rive, Norman (Ripa, Latin, a bank) ; Jeakes, from the British Rhy or Saxon Rhee, a ford ; and the position of the town in former years seems to favour the latter opinion.

The earliest authentic record of Rye is of the year 893, when the Danes, under the pirate Hastinges, effected a landing near this town, and afterwards took Appuldore. Edward the Confessor gave the town to the abbot and monks of Fescamp in Normandy ; but Henry III, in the fifty-first year of his reign (1267), resumed possession of it for the better defence of the kingdom by maritime operations, and granted to the monastery in exchange the manors of Chilcenham (Cheltenham) and Selover in Gloucestershire, with lands in Lincolnshire. The town is not mentioned in ‘Domesday,’ but it was doubtless included in the hundred of Gheslinges, in which it is locally situated, and probably formed part of the manor of Rameslie. In the reign of Stephen, William d’Ipres, earl of Kent, erected a tower or small castle on an eminence which commands the rivers at their junction, which is still standing. It was purchased by the corporation, in the 10th year of the reign of Henry VII, and is now used as a gaol ; immediately below it is a modern battery for eighteen guns. This single castle being thought insufficient for the defence of the town, Edward III caused it to be walled on the north and west sides, the natural abruptness of the native rock, at that time washed by the sea, being considered a sufficient protection on the east and west. There were originally three gates, besides a small postern-gate. The eastern or land-gate, the only one still preserved, has a handsome Gothic arch, flanked on each side by a round tower.

The town was burnt by the French in the 1st year of the reign of Richard II (1377), when the greater portion of the town and the beautiful church were reduced to ashes ; and again in 25 Henry VI (1447), when the old records perished. After these attacks of the enemy, the town in the next century suffered severely from pestilence. In 1544 there were 462 persons buried ; in 1563 no less than 765 died, of whom there were buried in August 105, in September 290, and in October 168, or 563 persons in three months ; and again, in 1580, 592 persons died, the majority of whom were carried off in the summer months by the plague. In 1572 Rye a became an asylum for the Huguenots, who were driven from their homes by Catherine de’ Medici. On the 22nd November, 1572, there were 641 strangers in the town, and the arrivals continued to increase till 1582, when the French Protestant inhabitants in Rye were 1,534 : they remained at Rye till the latter part of the reign of James I, when they or their descendants re-embarked for France.

The condition of Rye has mainly depended upon its harbour. In the sixteenth century the harbour was nearly choked up : an act was passed (2 Edward VI) (1548) for amending the haven, yet it was not till the storm of 1570 re-opened it that the harbour was navigable for trading vessels. The sea however continued to recede, so that in 1607 the inefficiency of the port was the cause of great complaint. During the whole of that century the sea receded, and the bar of beach accumulated at the entrance, till, in 1750, all hopes of improving the old harbour being abandoned, it was determined to form a new mouth by a canal running directly south into the sea ; this work was prosecuted at a great expense till 1778, when the new harbour was found to be a complete failure, and was abandoned. The old harbour was once more resorted to, and it has been much improved. A wooden pier of piles has been constructed on the eastern side, and embankments have been thrown up on the western side, leaving an intermediate entrance 160 feet in width. The average rise of spring-tides is about 17 feet, and of neap-tides from 9 to 12 feet at the pier-head, whilst the lift in the bay is 22 feet. At low-water the harbour is dry. The depth of the channel up the river decreases gradually to the town, where there is 14 feet of water at spring-tides, but during neaps seldom more than 9 feet. The approach from the bay to the entrance of the harbour is very intricate and difficult, especially for sailing vessels, owing to the sand-banks and the tortuous course of the channel. The shingle or stone beach, which extends on both sides of the harbour’s mouth, has accumulated at the entrance, owing to the winds either from the westward or eastward of south, and forms banks on each side (according to the prevalence of the wind), which, in combination with sand, shut out the sea and render the channel crooked and uncertain. The chief trade consists in the export of hops, bark, and wool, and in the import of coals, corn, timber, and Dutch produce. Lime is also burnt near the town from chalk brought from Beachy Head, and ship-building is successfully carried on.

Rye has never received a charter. It is a corporation by prescription. The town is not divided into wards. The council consists of four aldermen, and twelve councillors ; the style is ‘the mayor, jurats, and commonalty of the ancient town of Rye.’ (5 and 6 William IV, c.76:) The jurisdiction extends over nearly one-half of the parish of Rye, comprehending 1,078 acres out of 2,475. The mayor and aldermen, assisted by a recorder, hold courts of sessions and general gaol delivery for all offences, and a court of record for all actions real, personal, and mixed ; they have also a summary jurisdiction for debts below 40 shillings.

Rye returned two members to parliament from 42 Edward III, till 2 William IV, c.45, when it was placed in schedule B, since which, in conjunction with Winchelsea and six rural parishes, it has returned one member. Rye is one of the two ancient towns added to the Cinque Ports before the reign of John, and described as ‘nobiliora membra quinque portuum.’

The town is pleasantly situated on the northern and eastern slopes of a hill, and consists of three principal streets running parallel to the sea, intersected by cross streets, but the houses are irregularly built. The town-hall is a neat brick building supported on arches, with a market-place beneath. The market-days are Wednesdays for corn, vegetables, fish, &c. ; and Saturdays for vegetables, fish, and meat. Every alternate Wednesday there is a market for fat stock well supplied. Rye is within the diocese of Chichester ; the church, dedicated to St. Mary, described by Jeakes as ‘the goodliest edifice of the kind in the counties of Sussex or Kent, the cathedrals excepted,’ has been patched and altered so as to spoil the general effect. The southern chancel, once a chapel dedicated to St. Clare, is used as a school-room, and the northern, formerly the chauntry of St. Nicholas, is blocked out from the body of the church. The living is a vicarage, with an average net commuted income of £410. The population of the entire parish, in 1831, was 3,715, and the number of inhabited houses 680. There are two schools, recently united : one a free grammar-school, erected in 1636, by Thomas Peacock, gent., one of the jurats, and endowed with the sum of £32 annually ; and the other, for poor children, founded and endowed by James Saunders, Esq., in 1708, with a rent-charge, now producing £116, 10 shillings per annum.