Rye’s Harbour in the 19th Century

Rye’s Harbour in the 19th Century

Impact of the railway

The arrival of the railway captured much sea trade but Rye’s river barge and Kent coast trade were able to continue for some time.

The first railway to Rye was a single track line, carrying the Lord Mayor of London on a visit to Rye in May 1850. The railway was finally opened to the public in 1852. In 1851 a swing bridge to take the railway was completed across the River Rother permitting access to the Upper Rother. In 1903 this was replaced by a fixed bridge.

Rye river barges

Rye river barges were manoeuvred within the confines of the river, through sluice gates and amongst shipping, by the use of a ‘quant’ pole. The pole was placed in the river bed by a bargee standing at the bow of the barge facing the stern. The bargee then pushed the pole, at the same time walking along the barge, until he arrived at the stern.

This operation was repeated as required, sometimes over long distances. If the wind was sufficient barges could sail on the river and along the Royal Military Canal.

Arriving at a bridge when water levels were high, the barge’s mast was easily lowered to allow the barge to glide under. The barges carried coal to the villages along the river valleys and returned carrying local bricks. In 1864, the river mouth was straightened and by 1870 shipping had increased, requiring more moorings. A steam tug, the Erin, was acquired to carry out towage of shipping.

Trade boosts

Trade improved when shingle needed for building concrete blocks at Dover Harbour was carried along the coast by ships from Rye. Large concrete blocks were also manufactured at Tram Road, Rye Harbour, for the Dover Harbour piers. The blocks were transported by rail to a jetty close to the present Lifeboat House.

A number of these blocks still remain at Rye Harbour, having been used as a groyne to arrest the accumulation of shingle at the river mouth, situated at that time by Lime Kiln Cottage.

By the late 1800’s Rye was a thriving seaport with shipyards, sail lofts, pilotage, customs, chandlery and warehouses.

In the 1880’s and 90’s J.S. Vidler (Mayor and Chairman of the Commissioners) and Friends ordered a fleet of ketch rigged barges of about 230 tons to keep Rye coasting trade alive. These were constructed in local Rye shipyards.

In 1893 the power of the Harbour Master was strengthened by 16 Byelaws, displayed on Strand Quay. Sailing ships of all kinds could be seen at the quay and by 1900 there were several steam trawlers.

20th century sequel:

As for the railway:  Recommended for closure by Dr. Beeching in 1963, the route has survived various such attempts to axe services completely, and stations remained unmodernised and gas-lit well into the 1970s.

However it has been updated, though part is now single-tracked, and it still runs regularly between Ashford and Hastings, providing an invaluable service to Rye school and business commuters and tourists.The line now has an active rail users group called ‘The Marsh Link Action Group’ intent on safeguarding this asset to Rye, now that boats on the Rother at Rye are either fishing boats or leisure craft.

Rye Harbour  plays a bigger maritime role and once a year Ryers are able to board the Balmoral or even a paddle steamer for a trip to London, a reminder of  former days.

First posted February 2009.  Last updated 25 November 2012.

First posted in Rye Trades and Industries, Rye's Harbour on 10th February 2009
Last updated: 28th November 2012
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