Decline of Rye’s Harbour

Decline of Rye’s Harbour

Why did it decline?

In the 13th century there occurred a series of violent storms spread over 100 years. These storms destroyed the town and port of Old Winchelsea that stood south of Rye (a site probably about half a mile out to sea); this was to the advantage of Rye. The shore line disintegrated allowing the sea to flood in, creating a large tidal estuary that surrounded the town of Rye and flooded all of the river valleys.

In mid Tudor times Rye’s harbour became the largest and busiest port on the south coast, more important than Southampton and Portsmouth.

The reason for this was its proximity to the continent of Europe which made the crossing of the English Channel relatively safe for the small ships of the time.

Trade included the export of wood, cloth and iron products. Coal was imported in large quantities from Newcastle. During the Tudor period ships of 150 tons were able to use the port, but as the harbour silted and shallowed larger ships could not enter.

Rye’s prominence as a port declined and trade waned so that by the 17th century, fishing was the main activity.

There were other contributing factors in Rye’s gradual decline in maritime importance. Besides the diminishing size of ships which could use the port, the end of wars with France reduced the need for major ports in the South East. This was reinforced by a change in trade emphasis from the South East to the West of England. The slave trade and the opening up of the Americas increased the importance of Bristol and Liverpool at the expense of Rye.

The continuous siltation of the River Rother continued to cause problems to shipping. This natural process has continued over the last 700 years since the sea first inundated the land. Natural siltation of the Rother occurred this way:

  • The tide cycle is two tides every 24 hours. With an incoming tide flowing into the river system silt is carried in suspension in the water. As a tide reaches its peak the velocity of the tide slows to a stop. The suspended silt then settles to the bottom with the receding tide leaving a film of silt covering all the areas covered by the preceding tide.
  • Natural debris from vegetation growing on the salt marshes also accelerates the build up of silt. Such vegetation increased with the reclaiming of the marshland (innings) by farmers and the construction of sluices reduced the speed of flow and the scouring action of the river. The consequent feuding over reclamation between farmers, politicians and navigational interests continued well into the 19th Century.
  • There is also a natural drift of shingle (known as long-shore drift) along the South Coast from west to east. The dominant wind and wave direction from the southwest results in the continual depositing of beach material on the west side of the groyne protecting the harbour mouth at Rye and at Dungeness. As a result, over hundreds of years Dungeness has grown seawards.

Today this shingle is recycled along the Rye Bay shoreline, collected by lorries from where it accumulates in the east and transported back to the west. This keeps the shore in a reasonably stable condition.

Over hundreds of years the coastline has also been protected by the erection of timber groynes and sea walls. The land behind the shore is mainly below sea level and the marshes and river valleys would still flood if another major breach in the sea defences were to occur.


The decline in the importance of Rye as a port due to the continued silting of the old harbour led to plans to construct a new harbour, eventually completed in 1787. This was known as Smeaton’s Harbour but the project failed within three months of opening due to siltation and shingle deposits at the new harbour mouth.

First posted in Rye's Harbour on 12th February 2009
Last updated: 28th November 2012
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