The Rye Castle Museum Story

The Rye Castle Museum Story

Jo Kirkham
With thanks to Clive Sawyer for the feature photo.

The 90th Birthday Anniversary of Rye Castle Museum was happily celebrated last month with a party.  Here are some landmarks along the way to its status today as a top attraction of Rye and an outstanding place for visitors to this region.

1889 The Rye Literary Society proposed the Castle Lock-up as a Museum

1894 The Committee for the Preservation of the Ancient Buildings of Rye supported the idea – but it came to nothing.

1923 The empty Castle/Ypres Tower was made a Scheduled Monument though the basement remained the town Mortuary. The Tower was opened for the public to view; a Custodian in the adjacent cottage kept the keys

1927 On November 9th Leopold A. Vidler  became Mayor. At his Mayoral Dinner he announced that he wanted to found a Museum. A Rye Borough Council Committee of 8 councillors, with Vidler as Chairman, had been planning this since 1926

1928 In February a public meeting was held to consider the proposal and £100 was collected for initial expenses.The Battery House, a Georgian building to the north of the Castle, and bought by the town from the War Department in 1925, was to be the site of the Museum and was rented from the Corporation for £26 a year. On July 28th the Mayoress opened Rye Museum. Mayor Leopold A. Vidler became its first Curator and Mr Arnold, who had been gassed in WWI, became the first caretaker.

1937 By this year the Museum Association had Mayor E.F. Benson as Chairman with four Councillors ad seven other townspeople as members including four ex-Councillors, the Town Clerk and one lady.

1939 At the outbreak of World War II; this year some valuable artefacts were put in Wright and Pankhurst’s fireproof repository (now Webbe’s Fish Cafe) on Tower Street and the next year, because of the War, the Museum closed to visitors. The Castle was used by Regular Troops and the Home Guard.

1942 On 22nd September a 250 lb bomb directly hit Battery House, badly damaging the old Methodist Chapel (now rebuilt and used as the Rectory) as well as the adjoining collection of cottages to the rear of the Museum. It also blew off the pyramidal tile roof of the Ypres Tower and the top of the Women’s Tower.

As a result, Battery House was condemned and the undamaged artefacts rescued from the ruins were put into various places around the town. The Castle was used by Regular Troops and the Home Guard.

1953 To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, the Rotary Club of Rye and Winchelsea sponsored an historical exhibition in the Castle which led to an attempt to re-establish the Museum. The empty Castle was now habitable again after War Damage repairs, but only £6 was left in the prewar Museum Association account.  It was Geoffrey Spink Bagley who spearheaded the mammoth task of reorganisation.  He was to steer the growth and development of the Museum for the next 38 years!   

1954   Leopold A. Vidler died in 1954.  Under Geoffrey Bagley’s leadership  as Honorary Curator, and with the support of prewar committee survivors and ‘new blood’  the top floors of the Tower were leased from the Borough Council and volunteers and donors enlisted to accomplish the fitting out. The Museum officially opened at Easter and the next years, despite many challenges, were to see many advances.  

1959 The basement ceased to be the Town Mortuary so the Museum took that over as well and the interior trapdoor access was replaced by a new staircase from the basement to the main floor.

1960 The expanded Museum opened to the public.

Mid 1970s Rother District Council took over ownership of the building from Rye Borough Council after Local Government reorganisation.

1970s-1990s There were several attempts to solve the rapidly increasing problem of water penetration but the building still leaked.  

Early 1990’s A Medieval Herb Garden was created on the site of the 1837 Prison Exercise Yard

1996 Rye Museum Association acquired the freehold of the Castle from Rother District Council. And thanks to a Heritage Fund Lottery Fund grant it was able to acquire the East Street site in order to preserve items endangered by damp in the Castle. Originally built in 1913 as a slaughter house and then used as a bottling plant and wine store, the building was converted into a Museum housing the Local History Collections.

1998 The East Street Museum opened. It now houses display collections, an attractive retail section and serves as the venue for meetings and events such as children’s activity days.

2007-08 The water penetration problem at the Castle was finally cured.

2013-2014 The Museum Association turned its efforts to the Women’s Tower, at the end of the Medieval Garden. Originally built in 1837 to house women prisoners it had received no attention since the War Damage Repairs. The roof had ‘failed’ and the cracked walls leaked. Money was raised in various ways to completely restore it, with the bottom cell set out as it was in 1837, and an audio-visual display featuring the stories of two early prisoners. The upper cell is fitted out to store some of our collections.

Recent years
The Museum has continued to develop with a programme of conservation of exhibits and improved and changing displays at both sites as well as talks (at East Street) and events (at both sites).  There have been gifts and purchases to expand and improve the collections, and the addition of a small retail sales area of related items’ 



For other details of Rye Museum’s history click here for an article by Allan Downend, a former Curator and Director of the Museum. 

First posted in Featured, Rye Museum Story, Ypres Tower Posts on 22nd August 2018
Last updated: 22nd August 2018