History of Rye’s Harbour

History of Rye’s Harbour

NB: Rye is approximately two miles from the sea, at the confluence of three rivers–the Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede.  In these articles ‘Rye’s harbour’ refers to the waterways immediately surrounding the town and should not be confused with the community of  Rye Harbour established closer to the sea in the early 19th century.

The Port of Rye

Rye has always been a port, starting from the time when it was an island. The Roman iron production in the area was under the control of the Roman Fleet, Classis Britannica, who exported it from here to the rest of Europe. A senior Cinque Port from the 12th Century, it was the home of the Royal Galleys from 1240, and has been a fishing, shipbuilding and trading port throughout 1000 years. It has also been very involved with pirating, smuggling and coastguard patrols.

Pirating ships, cargoes and their sailors for ransom was a lucrative source of income for the town and a legitimate one in time of war, when Ryers were licensed by the Crown as Privateers.

Smuggling began when Edward I imposed customs duties on wool to boost the royal revenue. Despite the penalty being death, almost everyone in the area was involved in ‘owling’ ,  as smuggling was called here, because the secret owl calls between the men imitated owl calls.

Other means of avoiding detection were black ships and special lanterns.

The lamps had  a long spout which focussed the beam so it would  be seen only by those it was directed towards. There is an example on display in the Ypres Tower.


Wool was sent out in return for luxury goods, including spirits, tobacco and tea. There were few convictions as the juries were local, many buildings in Rye were modified with secret cupboards, panels and ‘hidey-holes’ for the contraband, and there were secret passages and ways through attics to enable the smugglers to escape capture.

Roman Times
No evidence has been found of a Roman settlement where Rye now stands but remains have been found at Playden. In Roman times the River Rother flowed into the sea at New Romney.

By this date Henry II had conferred Cinque Ports status on Rye and Winchelsea as ‘Limbs’ of Hastings and subsequently they became full members of the Confederation.

Old Winchelsea, sited possibly where Camber is to-day, was destroyed by storms. The course of the River Rother altered to nearly its present position.

Edward III and the Black Prince fought the Spanish in Rye Bay.

The Rother and the sea undercut cliffs and caused the eastern part of Rye to disappear. From this period until the twentieth century the main docking area was on the Strand and along the River Tillingham.

The French plundered Rye and took the Church bells.

Rye was important for transporting fighting men to France during the Hundred Years War.

At the beginning of this century Rye was considered one of the finest of the Cinque Port harbours. Henry VIII demanded more armaments and cannon, and built Camber Castle. Throughout Tudor times, as in Medieval times, Rye was important for the storage and shipment of iron.

An Act of Parliament was passed to try and stop harbour silting.

Elizabeth I visited the town and stayed at Grene Hall, now the Old Custom House in Church Square (known for its leaning chimney).

She called  the town ‘Rye Royal’.

Continued silting of the harbour led to a further decline in the importance of Rye as a port.

Three Acts of Parliament set up a Harbour Commission, with Commissioners. The Harbour continued to silt up and the attempt to construct a new one lasted over sixty years.  The famous engineer John Smeaton was brought in toward the end of the struggle and the finished harbour was called–somewhat unfairly–Smeaton’s Harbour. It failed within three months, in 1787. (See separate article on Smeaton’s Harbour).

The Harbour at Rye Act authorised tolls for maintaining the harbour at Rye.

Rye Harbour became a separate village,

The Royal Military Canal was completed as a protection against Napoleon’s invasion. Throughout the nineteenth century there were constant battles between the landowners and the harbour authorities.

Scot’s Float Sluice, on the Rother, was rebuilt despite protests from Rye.

(Photo © Copyright Dr Neil Cunliffe and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons licence.)

Ryers attacked and destroyed the new river Brede dam which obstructed navigation.

The Lord Chief Justice found in favour of Ryers re the Brede Dam.

Rioters damaged Scots Float, but they were acquitted.

Differences were resolved by another Harbour of Rye Act. A temporary lull ensued.

An Eastern Jetty was built at the mouth of the Rother

The Railway came to Rye

(Photo courtesy A. Ashley, Memory Prints)


Storms almost blocked the harbour; this led to a decline in usage.

A dredger was bought with help from the Rother Commissioners, which led to the two interests co-operating to keep a clear river channel.

Treasury gave a grant to keep the harbour open

More storms caused problems with the river mouth.

New schemes (Plat Taylor plans) were devised to improve the Harbour

The Land Drainage Act was passed and Land Drainage Boards created nation-wide. The many old land drainage commissions were abolished and in the Rye area the Rother and Jury’s Gut Catchment Board also took over the operations of Rye Harbour and the sea defences.

The Admiralty made improvements to the harbour and dredged its mouth 1950
The Kent River Board planned a drainage project including barrage 1951
The Sea Fish Industry Act imposed a duty to keep the harbour open for the fishing industry.

The barrage plan was abandoned

Responsibility for the Harbour was transferred to Kent River Authority

A plan to build 23 pumping stations in low lying areas to pump flood waters into the tidal river, independent of the tide level, was approved by the Ministry of Agriculture–which resulted in less silting.

Alsford Wharf was constructed, bringing more harbour traffic.

Responsibility for the Harbour was transferred to Southern Water Authority.

New by-laws were enacted and a Harbour Advisory Committee formed to advise on policy.

The Harbour Authority was made responsible for pilotage services.

The Water Act transferred Harbour responsibility to the National Rivers Authority.

A Five Year Plan was enacted to improve harbour conditions and health and safety and to provide more moorings.

Responsibility for the Harbour was transferred to the Environment Agency Rye Bay Plan.

A new five year management plan was developed in order to continue to improve the harbour. There are signs of an increase in commercial activity thanks to Rastrums, the new owners of Alsford’s Wharf. The fishing industry continues to thrive and pleasure craft numbers are being maintained in a competitive climate.

For more information go to the Rye Harbour website.

First posted in Rye's Harbour on 2nd February 2009
Last updated: 7th December 2012
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