The Gun Garden Story

The Gun Garden Story


The Ypres Tower’s Surrounds

(The feature photo is © Copyright Malc McDonald and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence)

• What we now know as Ypres Tower (13th century) was the sole defence of Rye until Edward III gave successive grants for the building of stone walls and gates. Even these additional defences were found wanting when the French attacked in 1339 and alarms were frequent in the ensuing years, culminating in the attack of 1377 when Rye was razed to the ground and inhabitants put to the sword. Whether there was a traitor in the Tower is unknown, but the Mayor and others  paid with their lives at the hands of Rye citizens, and this episode marked the end of the Tower’s life as defender of the town.

• For the next 50 years it was used by the Corporation for meetings and court sessions and as a prison while a new Town Hall was being built. Without military value and with the Town Hall completed, it was sold in 1430 to one Jean de Ypres on condition the Mayor, Jurats and Commonality could be accommodated there in case of another attack (which never came).

• In 1518 the Corporation bought it back again – for £26 — and for the next 300 years the Tower was used as a prison; it eventually housed the town mortuary too (that use ceased only in 1956). Shortly after the purchase of the Tower, the Corporation purchased the land just below it from a private individual and stored its cannon and ammunition there.

• In the days of Good Queen Bess (1533-1603) the Gun Garden was constructed on this land, its wall strengthened, a platform built for the placing of guns and in 1545, for security, a gate attached to the Ypres Tower (pulled down in 1735). A great deal of money was spent on heavy ordnance (some provided by the Crown ) as well as gunpowder and shot.Thus Rye was an important artillery position at the time of the Spanish Armada when the sea beyond swarmed with hundreds of ships, some of them built and crewed by Ryers.

For their services, Queen Elizabeth I presented six beautiful brass guns, long gone. It is said that other cannon in the Gun Garden at one time were Spanish — perhaps from one of the many wrecked Spanish ships.

• In 1649 however, there was a change of use. There was now no immediate threat so the Gun Garden became a peaceful bowling green open to residents. In 1695 it was hired by an individual ‘for coneys to feed on’. The rabbits were to be delivered to the Corporation, while Rye inhabitants were free to pass over the premises and to play bowls.

In 1697 stairs were built going down the cliff (those leading to the Ypres Castle pub today). At this time, of course, the river below was lined with shipbuilding yards.

• In 1728 the Corporation took the Gun Garden back and in 1740 it was being made ready for defence once more; war with France, Saxony and Bavaria was expected.

The gun platform was improved, there were upper and lower batteries, a house for the Gunner, and barracks.At the time of the American Revolution (1778) a corps of volunteers was raised in Rye who drilled here. A lookout shed was built in 1785.

• The term ‘Gun Garden’ seems to have once applied to the area all around the Tower—not just to the flat area below the Tower. Surrounding the Tower over the years there have been a number of buildings which no longer exist.

There were houses for the Gaoler and Gunner,  and barracks, and the Battery building which once housed the Rye Museum, but was destroyed in WW II. . . .In 1791 the Corporation bought one of the houses (between the present Methodist Church and the steps down to the Gun Garden) and turned it into a Workhouse, extended by the purchase of the Dolphin Inn and serving until 1844 when new legislation led to a larger workhouse for the entire area up Rye Hill.

Also in the 1790s in the face of population increase and inflation there was an attempt to make workhouse administration more efficient and less costly. A manufactory was built just below the Gun Garden on ‘Factory Marsh’ where the poor (who already did much oakum picking) made hop bags and sacking. This was not a success and the factory was closed three years later.

• In 1819 a crowd of 60,000 – 80,000 gathered in Manchester to demand reform of parliamentary representation. Cavalry charged and there were deaths and many injuries (dubbed the Peterborough Massacre) – and subsequently, a crackdown on reform from a panicked government. Rye was ordered to send its cannons and ammunition to London; the platforms were left with empty sockets. (This was not the last time Rye cannons left the Gun Gardens; even in World War II some were melted down.)

• Guns came back however. A series of ‘war scares’ began in 1859 and led to a revival of the volunteer movement in Rye; it became a popular pastime for those with a taste for military life and there were various groups and names (e.g. the Rye District Rifle Company).

Between 1862 and 1876 (when it was disbanded) the Rye Military Artillery Corps used the Gun Garden Battery for their gun drills twice each week and hosted a yearly event known as Prize Firing Day. This became one of Rye’s chief gala days. All the Cinque Ports companies sent teams and the old Battery under the Ypres Tower reverberated to the roar of seven 8-pounders which had a range of 1300 yards.Special trains brought onlookers, there was a grand march past and a presentation of prizes .

In later years men trained in the variously named volunteer corps served in the Boer War and World War I.

There have been other uses of the Gun Garden. In 1870 a Soup Kitchen was built against the Ypres Tower (where the old gate had been) and the town’s poor came here for food.. It was considered an eyesore by the local Association for the Preservation of Our Ancient Buildings who in 1890 insisted that it be demolished and moved to Cinque Ports Street

• In 1881 the guns were fired for the Duchess of Kent’s funeral.

• In 1918 after the armistice was signed, the Corporation accepted two captured German guns from the War Trophies Committee for Gungarden.

• In 1927 the Gun Garden was purchased from the War Department by the Rye Corporation and thrown open to the public as a pleasant haven and a place from which to admire views of the surrounding country

Recent times

Unfortunately, on 22 September 1942 it and other buildings to the north of the Tower, including the Methodist church and the gaoler’s house, were badly damaged in an air raid. The Tower lost its distinctive pyramidal roof!


In the years following however. Austin Blomfield designed three attractive new houses to replace the bombed buildings and in the 1950s and 1960s the Gun Garden even sported flower beds and deck chairs..
In 1980 Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and first lady Warden of Cinque Ports visited Rye. There were by now no guns, so to honour her visit Ryers raised money and the local foundry and woodworkers made replicas and presented them to the Queen Mother – for Rye’s Gun Garden.

•The Gun Garden is still a popular place for Ryers and visitors to meet and look out to the Marsh, the boats on the river, and further, to Rye Harbour and the Channel.

But where have all the flowers gone?


First posted in Featured, Invasion Coast, Rye Buildings and Defences on 10th September 2010
Last updated: 16th January 2014
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