Voices from the Past 1698 -1900

Voices from the Past 1698 -1900

17th and 18th centuries: Years of Depression
(Original spelling and punctuation)

Camden, Britannica Antiqua

This level tract has by the bounty of the sea been by degrees added to the land, so that I may not without reason call it ‘the Gift of the Sea.’

Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary

{Tunbridge] Wells to Rye 31 miles . . . I passed much through little Lanes and villages and near Rye I went thro’ a Common full of Bushes and ffurze and heath; its a pretty steep hill I ascended which is called beggars hill and being Bartholomew tide there was a faire which was Rightly Called beggarhill faire being the saddest faire I ever saw–ragged tatter’d Booths and people–but the musick and dancing could not be omitted. This hill on the top gave the view of ye sea and a great tract of Land on Each side. That is Choak’d ip with sand which formerly was a good haven for shipps; the sea does still Come up to Rhye town as yet but it’s shallow, and ye Castle which stands a Little distance–a mile–is also left of the sea at least 4 miles. This is Winchelsea Castle . . . .

Rhye town is not very bigg–a little Market place–this is famous for fish; from hence all the good turbutt, pearle and Dorea and all sort of sea ffish Comes to supply ye [Tunbridge Wells] and London, but I could get little. Ye faire took up ye fishermen. Indeed here I dranke Right french white wine and Exceeding good . . . .

Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through England and Wales

. . . Rye would flourish again, if her harbour, which was once able to receive the royal navy, could be restored, but as it is, the bar is so loaded with sand cast up by the sea, that ships of 200 tun chuse to ride it out under Dengey or Beachy, tho’ with the greatest danger, rather than to run the hazard of going into Rye for shelter. It is true there is now an Act of Parliament pass’d for the restoring this port to its former state, when a man of war of 70 guns might have safely gone in; but ’tis very doubtful, whether it will be effectual to the main end or not, after so long a time.

Indeed our merchants ships are often put to great extremity hereabout, for there is not one safe place for them to run into, between Portsmouth and the Downs; whereas in former days, Rye Bay was an asylum, a safe harbour, where they could go boldly in, and ride safe in all weathers, and then go to sea again at pleasure.

Richard Harris Barham  who wrote The Ingoldsby Legends as Thomas Ingoldsby 1840-1847

The world according to the best geographers is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh.  Far from the boggy swamp the name implies the geographic changes of the past 10,000 years have produced a most fertile and beautiful landscape.

19th Century

G.A. Cooke, Topographical and Statistical Description of the County of Sussex, London.

How much of this description is still true today? What facts have changed?

The harbour, which is on the south-east side of the town, is at present in an indifferent state; notwithstanding it admits vessels of two hundred tons burthen, which come quite up to the town key on the north side of the town one mile and a half from the entrance. The town, at spring high tides, is encompassed about two thirds round with water.

The river Rother, which washes it on the east side, before its influx into the sea, and the branch of the tides called Tillingham water, on the north-west side.,form together a sort of peninsula which was formerly a ferry, but which now has a bridge.

The makeral and herrings taken in the bay in their seasons are reckoned to be the finest of their kind. All the rest of the year they troll for soles, plaice, and other flat fish, which are also excellent in their season, and which are frequently carrried up by the rippiers to the London markets, which they perform in three stages.

Rye is well supplied with water by pipes from two hills on the land side.

The principal business is in hops, wool, timber, kettles, cannon chimneybacks, etc which are cast at the iron works at Bakly [Beckley], four miles to the north-west, and at Breed [Brede] to the south-west of the town


H. P. Clark, Rye printer, in the first Guide to Rye

The road is paved with boulders . . . with the hard ends upwards. Visitors are respectfully cautioned to keep their eyes open, to prevent falling or stumbling. There are a great number of cellar doors opening in the pavement, many of which are left open and unguarded . . . Equestrians . . . will find it quite necessary to drive steady, keep in the middle, look both sides at once, and not squint!

The warning about boulders with hard end upwards elicited this reminder from William Holloway:

. . . But as Dr Johnson said, A pebble that paves the street is in itself more useful than the diamond upon a lady’s finger:

Then hobble on and never mind,
For what’s the use of talking
Hurt or not hurt, why, only think,
On Diamonds you are walking.

Wilson, Imperial Gazeteer of England and Wales

[Rye] is a head port. a seat of petty sessions and county courts, and a polling-place, publishes two weekly newspapers, has undergone some revival of prosperity after a long period of decline . . . . Presents an antiquated appearance, with narrow winding, grass-grown streets, and has a head post office, a railway station with telegraph, two banking offices, three chief inns, a town hall and market house, a jail and police station, a custom house, a remaining gate of its ancient walls, three bridges, a railway swing bridge, a church, four dissenting chapels, remains of ancient Carmellite and Augustinian friaries, an endowed grammar school with £100 a year, a national school, alms-houses., and a workhouse.

A corn and cattle market is held every alternate Wednesday and a fair on 10 Aug. A great trade exists in wool, corn, hops, timber and oak bark; shipbuilding is carried on; works for making concrete blocks are at the harbour; and kettle nets, for catching mackerel and other fish, are on the shore. The harbour has been much improved and it receives vessels [from British and foreign ports] of 100 tons . . . .

Black’s Guide to Kent  (At the time Rye belonged to Kent) 

A picturesque town is Rye, with a curious mouldiness of antiquity about it, with streets where horses’ hooves are not frequent enough to keep down the fast-climbing grass . . . with memories of a busy past in every stone.

Coventry Padmore, Hastings, Lewes, Rye and the Sussex Marshes

In the singularly old-world character of the streets, and in the truly superb and always different views at the end of most of them, consist the attractions of the town . . . . The precipitous streets are paved with round flints, scarcely any of the houses are less than a hundred years old, and many of them at least four hundred as the moulding of cornices, barge boards, door posts, and window frames testify.

There is an unpublished character about everything in Rye. The . . . beautiful remains of ancient architecture in Mermaid and West Streets look as if they silently apologise for surviving in the presence of Georgian taverns and doctors’ and lawyers’ mansions in the High Street.

Rye is a bit of old world living pleasantly on, in ignorance of the new. Even the butchers and innkeepers going on unaware of their right to cent per cent profits.

Rye resident Charles Foulkes, December 

Rye Conservation:  No gas or electricity please!

 This citizen seems to regret that gas was ever permitted to light Rye streets. As for any further ‘improvements’ for the town:

I would] deplore anything that would in any way modernise it. Incandescent gas…. sadly spoils the evening effects that are so picturesque here. Let us have our cobbled streets, however unpleasant they may be to our boots. Let us still allow grass to grow in a few of our streets, but above all, do not let us have electric light!

c 1900
Henry James, who made his home at Lamb House from 1897

At favoured seasons there appear within the precincts sundry slouch-hatted gentlemen who study Rye’s charms through a small telescope formed by their finger and thumb, leading a train of English and American lady pupils. There are ancient doorsteps, which are used for the convenience of their views, and where the fond proprietor, going and coming, has to pick his way among their paraphernalia or to take flying leaps over industry and genius.

First posted in Rye Town History, Said About Rye on 15th August 2009
Last updated: 23rd May 2013
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