by Jo Kirkham, based on a talk given to Rye Local History Group by Mr Don Bentley in 2004.

The Story of Seacon

Don Bentley moved to Rye in 1972 and established Freight-Express Seacon , based first at the Custom House at 7 High Street, Rye, in 1974. The firm later moved to Market Street, in what was once Hinds drapery store, on the corner with Lion Street and is now at Landgate, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7LH.

The firm has two principal functions: about 25% of their work involves acting as agents for the owners of ships coming into Rye, while the main business is ship broking, i.e. matching owners of ships with owners of cargoes.

The firm specialises in chartering ‘dry bulk ‘ cargoes as opposed to tanker brokers, or passenger brokers or broking on the future’s market.

Why Rye?

In the 1960’s there were a series of industrial problems in the large British ports such as London, Liverpool and Southampton, with the National Dock Labour Scheme. A strike culture developed. Smaller ports such as Rye then became more attractive to merchants and shipowners as they had non-unionised labour, no ‘them and us’ culture and were more flexible.

J. Alsford of Rye imported all their timber through the Surrey Docks on the River Thames, but when the Docks became a hot bed of dispute, they decided to do their own thing. They bought land and constructed a Wharf at Rye Harbour in 1967/8. Another company, ‘Ryecon’, frustrated by the delays at Isleworth, did the same in 1973 and brought the six small coasters which they owned down to Rye to be based at Alsford’s Wharf. They had a regular trade with St Valery sur Somme.

A problem then occurred when Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated the major docks, and the smaller wharves, like Rye, then became less attractive: they had to compete on the same basis as the big docks. A further problem was that commercial traffic to Strand Quay became limited. Ships could only get in on Spring tides and they were limited to 120 feet long, 9 feet draught and 400 tons. Ships also got larger and the smaller ones disappeared because they were uneconomic. In 1972, only one timber ship came in to the Strand for Hind’s timber yard.

Survival in Difficult Circumstances

However, Rye survived. thanks to the Wharf which had been built at Rye Harbour. Alsford’s Wharf could take ships of 220 feet long, 13 1/2 feet draught and up to 2,000 tons. Another reason for small ports like Rye to flourish was the Dock Strike of 1972. Rye was in the limelight because the pickets came down to the town, but Rye continued to work throughout.

The Miner’s Strike also helped. The major ports and unions supported the miners, but some small ports like Brightlingsea made a fortune handling coal imports. Rye only had one coal ship. Arthur Reynolds, another London broker, who had come down to Rye and begun Rye Shipping in 1969, arranged for this ship, the Dutch ship Gasselte to bring 200 tons of coal to Strand Quay. Don Bentley joined Rye Shipping in 1972 for one year, but then formed his own Company.

Alsford built the Wharf primarily for the timber trade and had about 12 ships a year. Others approached the firm to use the facilities and there was a steady increase in other trades, such as volcanic aggregate, talcum powder, fish meal, cat litter etc.

The first export of grain that Seacon was involved in from Rye was in January 1978, when 600 tons of English barley went out. This trade grew so that exports increased to 40,000 tons in one year, organised by a Farmer’s Cooperative, S.E.Grain -which sadly, was eventually wound up. Since the Wharf re-opened, the majority of the cargoes are dry stone aggregates from North Wales (Llandulas), Cornwall (Falmouth), Brittany and Boulogne.

There was a down turn in trade during the 1980’s and early 1990’s and Alsford’s went into liquidation. It closed down for a couple of years until Rastrum’s reopened it and trade is now growing. Another Wharf, for ARC Amey Roadstone Co., was built further up the river. This firm had two special sea dredgers built, which were ideal for Rye. Sadly a down turn in trade meant that the firm switched to dry stone imports, but this also declined and the equipment has now been removed.

A Unique Harbour Today

Rye Harbour is a unique commercial harbour as it is run by the Environment Agency, a Government body. In 1972 the harbour was run by the Kent River Authority, which had two reorganisations before the Southern Water Authority replaced it. This too was reorganised three times before it was privatised and then Rye was placed under the National Rivers Authority, which also had two internal reorganisations. The Government then set up the Environment Agency and that is who manages Rye Harbour now.

Pilotage used to be run by Trinity House. The Government then changed the responsibilty to the ‘Competent Harbour Authority’, i.e. the Environment Agency. The Harbour Master, his Deputy and one independent pilot act as pilots in Rye.

The Harbour used to be monitored by the Port of Rye Users’ Committee, which was later made an official body, consisting of councillors, representatives of the boat owners, and fishing and commercial interests etc, and by the late 1970s, called the Harbour of Rye Advisory Committee.


Broking Business

Seacon celebrated its 30th Anniversary in business on 1st January 2004. When it began on 1st January 1974, it was in the middle of the Miner’s Strike and everyone had days without power and candles were bought from Dennis, the ironmonger on the High Street !

Four staff now work on the dry cargo side and many thousand contracts of freight transport have been completed over the years. Often foreign customers like to use a British broker e.g., a Thai customer wanted to send steel from the Baltic to China and Rye brokered it. It is now even easier to run the Company from Rye using the Internet and e-mail, (it used to be telephone, cables and Telex), and the firm deals with moving all kinds of things from potatoes to fibre optics.

Seacon were involved when the Thekia, loaded with a cargo of fertiliser, hit the western arm of the Harbour wall and became impaled on the piling in January 1975. A salvage contract with a firm from Newhaven was made and it took three weeks to get her off. She was taken to Newhaven for repairs, after drifting ashore at Pett on the way! The ship is now a nightclub in Bristol Docks.

Another ship dealt with was the Hoo Fort, which went ashore on the Camber side and had bottom damage and was declared a total loss by underwriters. The firm was involved with the Fairlight Sea Defences in 1990 as agents for the tugs and barges, which put the stone brought from Norway at the bottom of the cliffs to try and stop erosion and thus save the houses etc.. They did a similar job at Folkestone.

Future of Rye Harbour

As Seacon is predominantly a ship broker. Rye’s future as a port is not vital to the Company’s existence, but Rye has good prospects. The biggest risk is the economics of ship size. The very small ships have gone for ever; a ship of 2.000 tons can be crewed by five or six men, whereas one of 600 tons needed the same number of crew. The river limits Rye too, by its size and tidal constraints, as well as the facilities offered.

Whereas the ideal port would bring in a cargo and take another out, Rye will mainly continue to be an importing port, as are Newhaven and Shoreham, while many other ports, such as Llandulas, only export.

Transport by sea is comparatively cheap —  and very eco-friendly. Twenty years ago stone cost £3 a ton to ship from North Wales and now it costs £3.85, a negligible increase compared with the costs of road transport —  and think of the number of lorries which would be involved in moving the same amounts!

First posted in Maritime Rye on 6th October 2012
Last updated: 2nd December 2012
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