Smeaton’s Harbour

Smeaton’s Harbour

This prize-winning photo of the remains of Smeaton’s Harbour is by Kevin Bailey (courtesy of The White horse Photography Club –

An Unfair Name

Smeaton’s Harbour is a modern but misleading (and unfair) name for the New Harbour of Rye, an expensive 18th century project which aimed to join the waters of the Rother, Tillingham and Brede into a new channel at what is now known as Winchelsea Beach where the few remains of the outer channel, the east pier and the two pier heads are still visible. The project was an expensive catastrophe. The New Harbour took 63 years to build, was fully operational for perhaps 4 months and was abandoned in November 1787.

John Smeaton FRS, known particularly for the construction of Eddystone lighthouse, was brought in as a consultant and reported in 1763, 39 years after work had commenced!

Attempts to save Rye as a port

The retreat of the sea, and the process of silting up, resulted in the abandonment of Winchelsea as a place of trade by the middle of the 16th century and the serious decline by the end of the century in the usefulness of that of Rye. So rapid was the retreat of the sea that Camber Castle, commanding the entrance to the harbours of both Winchelsea and Rye was abandoned in the 1640’s as it had ceased to serve any useful purpose.

Frederico Genebelli, an Italian engineer, put forward a plan in 1593 for a western channel as a solution to the decay of the port of Rye; this channel is shown in this map based on Symonson’s map of 1594. (A copy of Symonson’s map hangs in Rye Town Hall). The corporation saw it as benefiting Winchelsea rather than Rye and refused further dealings with Genebelli.

There was a steady polarisation of conflict between town and country interests in the 17th century. The former attributed the decay of the port to the inning of land by developers which hindered or stopped the scouring process of the tides and prevented navigation up the Appledore Channel.

The aim of landowners was to gain more land, consolidate, protect and drain it and confine the port to the south-west side of the town.

In 1698 Commissioners of the Navy and Elder Brethren of Trinity House concluded that Rye’s harbour was almost entirely lost and in no condition to be preserved.

The project pre-Smeaton

It seems that the country interest prevailed for in 1723 an Act of Parliament provided for the making of a new cut or channel from Winchelsea Channel (the Brede) to the sea.

This was the third in a succession of Acts in the 18th century dealing with the Harbour of Rye. For 63 years work on the New Harbour was spasmodically in progress but marked by incompetence, indecision, financial difficulties, rivalry and nepotism.

The prime source of information on the project for the New Harbour of Rye are the Minutes of the Harbour Commissioners. Correspondence, reports, accounts and papers have not yet been traced. The Minutes are often garbled and confused. It is by no means clear what the strategy or master plan was. John Smeaton writing in 1763 could only refer to ’what I apprehend to be  the original scheme’, namely ’to bring the three rivers that now discharge themselves into the old harbour of Rye, through the new harbour’.

The junction of the new cut with the Brede is close to the hair-pin bend on the road leading from the A259 to Winchelsea Beach. The new cut ran parallel to the road from the bend to Winchelsea Beach village centre and behind the present line of bungalows which face the road; the site of the great sluice is behind the Ship Inn a few yards down Willow Lane.

Photo by Barry Yates, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

In the village, just opposite the area where shops now stand, the cut swung 45 degrees to the left and the outer channel of the New Harbour is readily seen running up to the present sea wall .

The remains of the east stone pier, and at low tide the two pier heads or harbour arms, are still visible. (Right and feature photo)

In 1762, 38 years after the work commenced, an Act of Parliament permitted the Commissioners to let the sea into the new channel but only as far as the junction with the Brede or Winchelsea Channel.

Enter Smeaton

It was at this critical stage that the advice of John Smeaton FRS (1724-1792) who had designed and built Eddystone lighthouse, was sought. His professional backing was seen as underpinning the project. Briefly he advised uniting the Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede and forcing the three rivers through the new cut to the sea. His plan involved making a new channel for the Rother to the north of the Town, although he accepted that a southern cut would be acceptable.

Smeaton was never the resident engineer and his name has come to be associated with a technical and managerial failure, and worse. John Collard has written that orders were succeeded by counter-orders, construction was followed by demolition, dredging by siltation. The Commissioners had opted for the southern route for the Rother. In June 1787 the Commissioners ordered that no vessel was to pass up the old channel towards Rye after 14 July. All trade was then passed through the New Harbour, mostly to the Strand wharf.

There were continual problems with keeping the harbour mouth open and free of accumulations of beach; there was evidence that land drainage into the new system was not proving successful. The autumn of 1787 was unusually wet, and all the levels became flooded to an alarming extent.

The end of the affair

On 6 November 1787 the Harbour Commissioners, who were also Commissioners of the different Levels, recorded their despair and resolved to abandon the New Harbour and to re-open the old. All dams and walls were to be removed, all work suspended and the workmen dismissed.

In April 1789 the merchants tradesmen and owners of vessels recorded their sincere thanks to the Commissioners for having restored to them ’the Ancient Harbour of Rye’.

If Smeaton’s recommendations had been pursued with professional and managerial competence and energy, would the New Harbour have been successful and would the drainage of the Levels have been adequate? Or would the forces of Nature still have proved too strong?

We may surmise, but we can never know.

Sources and further reading:

Minutes of the Rye Harbour Commissioners: East Sussex Record Office KRA 1 1/1 h 1/2
John Meryon ,Account of the Origin and Formation of the Harbour of Rye: Rye Castle Museum
L.A.Vidler, A New History of Rye. 1934 and 1971, pp.104-107
John Collard, A Maritime History of Rye 1978 (Ch.VI)
Graham Mayhew, Tudor Rye, 1987 (Ch.7)

First posted in Rye's Harbour on 9th February 2009
Last updated: 4th March 2013
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