Smallhythe: Centre of Medieval Shipbuilding
The featured photo, by Fred Walker, shows a medieval ship of a type produced at Smallhythe. It appears on a stained glass window in the parish church of Smallhythe — and also on the cover of the newly published book From Ships to Sheep: the story of Smallhythe by Tony Buttler, Maurice Dalton, Susannah Mayor and Fred Walker with the support of Smallhythe500 and available at Rye Museum. Thanks to Sarah Cooper for the photos below.
There was not a single spare seat at Rye Museum on Thursday evening 14th April, when Fred Walker came to present his illustrated story of Smallhythe — not, this time, as the Smallhythe Place home of actress Ellen Terry (1899 until her death in 1928), located in a landlocked hamlet, but as a once thriving port for the wool trade on a much broader River Rother, and except for the Royal Dockyards, the largest English shipbuilding site of the 16th century. Until recently few people have known that it was one of the most important shipbuilding centres for English monarchs: Henry IV, Henry VII and Henry VIII, becoming during the latter’s reign a player in a European naval arms race.
Our speaker’s knowledge and experience were apparent and it was not surprising to discover that he was once manager of a huge shipyard in Aberdeen, became Consulting Naval Architect to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, oversaw the building of the replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavor which subsequently circumnavigated the world, has since restored old ships and designed replicas for many countries, has written books on shipbuilding and design and was involved in the Romney Marsh Research Trust.
We learned a great deal in an appealing way about a variety of topics: about the ‘inning’ which gave us fields of sheep instead of navigable water between Smallhythe and the Isle of Oxney, and about what master shipwrights and their skilled co-workers such as sawyers, iron founders and charcoal burners actually did. We admired illustrations of ship types built in Smallhythe in the 14th to 16th centuries– barges, pinnaces, ‘great ships’ or carracks and galleasses (with oars as well as sails). We learned of the royal rivalry between Henry VIII and his polymath Scottish brother-in law James IV (killed at Flodden in 1513 ‘when the English gave the Scots a real bashing’) and how the fledgling naval services of their two countries became united after the Restoration to become the Royal Navy. And some of us finally understood the differences among the words tun, ton, tonne and tonnage.
Copies of From Ships to Sheep (mentioned above) were all snapped up at the end of the talk but the Museum will be ordering more for our members and visitors. The 84 page book, beautfully produced and with many colour illustrations, was conceived and compiled by Maurice Dalton. It reports on projects and events surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Great Fire of Smallhythe (1514-15). Besides Fred’s contribution on The Medieval Shipyards of Smallhythe are chapters on Smallhythe and the Cinque Ports, Chapel and Church, The Great Fire and Then and Now. Recommended!