Landgate Square

Landgate Square

For a fascinating read about life on Hucksteps Row (off Church Square) and Landgate Square about 100 years ago, read Peter Ewart’s A Poor Man’s Rye. Ask for it at the desk of the Rye Library.

The thoroughfare leading from Landgate Tower to the foot of Rye Hill has long been a busy one.

For centuries it was the main route out of the town to the hinterland of Sussex and Kent and on to London.
However , the buildings on each side of King Street, as Landgate was known until comparatively recently, do not immediately suggest antiquity. The deceptive 18th and 19th century facades conceal a number of Tudor and Jacobean dwellings and this quarter appears to have been the first substantial community to establish itself outside the town walls, despite the fact that it was considered necessary to renew the portcullis in the tower as late as 1559.

What is usually referred to as Symonson’s map of 1594, clearly shows a small settlement on either side of the road to the north east corner of the town and just outside the tower and the walled ditch – the Landgate Without. The beginnings of this development are also seen in John Prowse’s map of 1572.

On this and subsequent plans the outline of a three sided courtyard can sometimes be discerned and identified as what we know as Landgate Square – a square in name only. It was once three sided but today it is completely open on the north and east. Centuries of building for residential and commercial purposes, gradually converted the area into a labyrinthine network of lanes and alleys leading off both sides of what soon became an urban street.

Well before the middle of the 19th century the narrow, winding “twittens” of Hook’s Lane, Head Passage and Little London were well established, each containing several crowded dwellings and an even larger number of poor families, although the names of even these dark alleyways changed with time. Ailsworth’s Lane and Russell Place were not always so called – and the Luftwaffe was to demonstrate, that in the case of the latter, it was possible to alter more than merely the name. King Street came to an abrupt end with Deacon’s Corner on the right, and the courtyard known as Landgate Square on the left — a collection of ancient cottages surrounding a busy pump and divided from the street by iron railings.

By Victorian times the square was occupied by poor — often labouring — families who shared the most basic sanitary amenities and whose rented cottages showed the wear and tear of centuries of occupation, as well as, no doubt, neglect by landlords. My great-grandfather, Edwin Thomas Rhodes, settled in the far right hand corner of the Square following his marriage in 1871 and his brother, William, was a neighbour to the south. The early deaths of the latter and his wife did not reduce the number of Rhodes households in the Square as several of their sons occupied premises there well into the 20th century.

Even before these brothers set up home in the Square, the nearby cottages in Head’s Passage, Hook’s Lane, Bridge Place and King Street itself, were crammed with his parents and siblings, a number of his uncles and aunts and many cousins. It seems that in mid-Victorian Rye,  Landgate was overflowing with mariners, hawkers and fishmongers of the Rhodes family — as were also Brooks Row, Huckstep’s Row, Cliff Cottages, Church Square and the Union Workhouse!

In their early married days, William and Kitty lodged with Bill Batchelor and family, but the latter was evicted as an “objectionable tenant” in 1886! The terrible floods which hit the town in February 1882, affected the Landgate almost as much as some other districts, and the smell of the worms apparently pervaded the area for some time afterwards. These events punctuated the lives of my Landgate forbears and the childhood memories of my grandfather’s generation were dominated by fish: mackerel, shrimps and eels, hung up to dry all over the house. The children sorted the seaweed from the shrimps and sold them boiled to passers by. On learning all this a modern resident of one of these homes has now decided she can not rid the house of the smell of the fish she never detected before.

Occupations of the inhabitants of the Square at this time included coal porters, boot makers,  longshoremen, fellmongers and charwomen. The disastrous fire which seriously damaged Edwin’s home and endangered the lives of his whole family at Christmas 1892 was related in A Poor Man’s Rye. It was followed by a move across the Square to No 1, but not before Edwin’s losses had been ameliorated by the proceeds of a smoking concert at his local,  the Queen’s Head, and since my talk, Frank Palmer has unearthed the published thanks of Edwin and his neighbour Henry Taylor for the prompt philanthropy of the leading townspeople.

Edwin may have been well known at the Queen’s Head, even though he appears not to have succumbed to the shame of public inebriation in the manner of some of his relatives. The Court Harold Lodge, of which he was a long standing member, met there for many years and he undoubtedly also attended the “Mock Mayor” celebrations on the same premises before their inevitable demise in the 1870s. On one occasion he and his brother William were involved in a violent brawl in King Street when they were both set upon outside the Tower Inn by a riotous gang from Hastings but the magistrates dismissed the protests of the “furriners” when they complained that it wasn’t all their fault. So nothing ever stuck to Edwin.

He and his wife Sally remained in No 1 for nearly forty years, by which time the occupants of the neighbouring cottages had changed but were still populated by Rye families, William Almond (alias Amon) and his family being one – including the legendary “Cod” Amon, a larger than life character in more ways than one. Edwin saw his old cottage renovated and re-occupied and witnessed another generation of children growing up in the Square and playing around the pump, which remained as permanent reminder of the disastrous December night in 1892.

Long after his own longshore days were over, Edwin enjoyed sitting outside his house in the Square and watching the world go by, up and down King Street — -then. as now, a very busy thoroughfare.

© Peter Ewart

First posted in Rye Streets on 7th November 2010
Last updated: 20th April 2017
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