A Time Tested Alliance

By Jim Hollands

The age old links that bind three of the head Cinque Ports, Hythe, Romney and Hastings, the two Ancient Towns of Rye & Winchelsea and the corporate members Folkestone, Lydd and Tenterden are rooted in the Cinque Ports Confederation, Romney Marsh, Smuggling, Defence of the Realm and the Royal Military Canal.

From the top of Fairlight all these places can be seen on a clear day, plus one other ‘head’ Cinque Port of Dover, Sandwich, the fifth of the five ‘head’ Cinque Ports, hides just out of site beyond the White Cliffs of Dover. The other ‘corporate members’ of the Cinque Ports are Deal, Ramsgate, Faversham and Margate.

The Military Canal stretches from the foot of Fairlight at Cliff End to Winchelsea, then on by way of the River Brede, via the Rother past Rye, joining the second, and much longer section of the Canal at Iden Lock, two miles east of The Ancient Town. It follows the old cliff line bordering Romney Marsh on to Hythe and Seabrook, a total of 28 miles.

The canal was originally mooted by Lieutenant-Colonel John Brown of the Royal Staff Corps of field engineers in 1804, during anti-invasion preparations, as a defensible barrier to ensure that a French force could not use the Romney Marsh as a bridgehead. It had previously been assumed that the marsh could be inundated in the event of an invasion, but Brown argued that this would take ten days to implement and would cause massive disruption in the event of a false alarm. At a meeting on 26 September 1804, the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the Commanderin- Chief of the Forces, the Duke of York, both enthusiastically endorsed the scheme. John Rennie was appointed consultant engineer, and Pitt personally persuaded the local landowners to agree to the new canal.

It was constructed, starting at Seabrook, in October 1804 and completed by April 1809. Almost 1,500 men were employed on the project.

Despite the fact that the canal never saw military action, it was used to try to control smuggling from Romney Marsh. Guard houses were constructed at each bridge along its length. This met with limited success because of corrupt guards. Although a barge service was established from Hythe to Rye, the canal was abandoned in 1877 and leased to the Lords of the Level of Romney Marsh.

During the Second World War the canal was manned by 31st Independent Brigade Group, who fortified each salient with a concrete pillbox and barbed wire entanglements. The pill boxes were constructed at the end of each ‘straight’ section of the canal to allow maximum fire cover. Operation Sea Lion, the German plan to invade England, the paratroopers of the 7th Flieger-Division were to make a parachute landing to secure crossing points across the Royal Military Canal on day one of the invasion.

The Royal Military canal is now an important environmental site. The Environment Agency is the navigation authority and uses the waterway to manage water levels on Romney Marsh and Walland Marsh. It is a favoured spot for fishing and boating. “Jimper” has navigated the whole length, both ways, non-stop by canoe. An important waterway for fish and other wildlife, including kingfishers, dragonflies and marsh frogs, and it passes through several Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

There is a public footpath for the entire length of the canal via Hythe, West Hythe, Bonnington, Bilsington, Ruckinge, Hamstreet, Warehorne, Kenardington, Appledore, Rye and Winchelsea. An adjacent cycle route is also very popular. The canal is a reminder of the past but relevant to the present. It has become a great centre for four popular pastimes – boating, rambling, cycling and fishing. It is a place for sweethearts, twitchers, botanists and naturalists.

An almost entirely man made environment, designed for war but much more suited to peace.

The Romney Marshes, famed for their sheep, are another link. Bordered by the towns of Hastings, Tenterden and Hythe, with Rye & Winchelsea situated on hills overlooking the whole of the area ‘Old Rhodes’ described the Marsh as the ‘Sixth Continent’. Several hundred years ago the Romney Marshes were the sea bed. These were the times when the alliance was made and the Cinque Ports Fleet was developed and became, to all intense and purpose, the English Navy. A bond was formed between the men of the marshes and the citizens of the larger towns. It was all hands to the pump to build and man enough ships to defend the coast from invaders from across the English Channel and North Sea.

That bond has continued to this day, reflected in the ceremonial of the Cinque Ports Speaker, the gathering of Mayors from all the Cinque Ports and Limbs (associate members) Traditionally, the mayors of English boroughs have worn full-length, scarlet-coloured robes, trimmed with fur, whilst presiding over council meetings, attending civic church services and undertaking other civic duties. They are accompanied by their town clerks wearing lawyer’s gowns and wigs and by town-sergeants clad in a variety of traditional uniforms and bearing the mayor’s symbol of authority, the mace. Some town-sergeants wear tunics, with knee breeches, hose and buckled shoes; others frock coats or capes. Although these traditional garments are worn less often, today, they are still used at mayor-making ceremonies and other formal occasions.

When the fourteen mayors of the Cinque Ports assemble for meetings of the Court of Brotherhood and Guestling or Shepway and when they take part in the annual Speaker’s Day parade and service of thanksgiving, ceremonial dress is always worn. The only exceptions to this colourful spectacle are the mayors of Sandwich, and its limb of Deal, who always wear black robes. This is a continuing mark of respect for John Drury who, as mayor of Sandwich in 1457, died at the hands of French raiders.

Another occasion when all the Cinque Ports Mayors can be seen on parade in full regalia is at the Bi-Annual Hythe Venitian Fete, a colourful parade of floats on the Military Canal that is witnessed by thousands gathered on it’s banks.

From the 14th century, the position of Lord Warden was increasingly sought-after by members of the nobility. The royal princes who later became King Henry V and King Henry VIII both held the office. More recently the position has been bestowed in recognition of distinguished service to the nation and to the Commonwealth. Occupants have included William Pitt, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Robert Menzies. The only woman to have held the office, from 1979 until her death in 2002, was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Smuggling was another common factor of the Marsh Towns and Villages. It has even been said that Romney Marsh was the birthplace of smuggling in southern England. The fine grazing for large flocks of sheep, and the export of the wool was from 1300 and centuries after, both highly taxed and badly policed, you could say even an open invitation to smuggle.

Smuggling started around 1275, when the government introduced a tax of three guineas a bag on wool exported from England. This was doubled by the end of that century. Marsh folk turned a ‘blind eye’, to smuggling which brought cash and even prosperity to some towns and villages. The silting of the River Rother prevented large vessels reaching Rye, but small small boats could unload their contraband virtually on the doorstep of the inns that sold it.

It was in the 17th century that the problem reached epidemic proportions, and Romney Marsh was recognised as being the centre for the trade. By 1660 wool exports were forbidden, and the death penalty was introduced for smuggling wool in 1662. The ‘owlers’ as smugglers from the Marsh became known, became more extreme. If you were to be hanged for smuggling wool, what had you to lose by shooting your pursuer? Public opinion on the Marsh generally sided with the owlers but in government and other areas there was outrage at the illegal wool exports.

William Carter set himself up as a one-man preventive and in 1671 he published a document in which he alleged that the owlers exported wool not just from the marsh, but from all over the southern counties. Carter kept records on those associated with the smugglers others used to safeguard their cargoes. William Carter was a clothier, very concerned that foreign competition should not affect his own trade. It was still surprising that he went to such extraordinary lengths to stamp out owling, often putting his life on the line. In 1669, armed with a warrant from the King, he arrested the master of a smuggling ship moored at Dover. Carter attempted to take his prisoner to Folkestone for trial, but a stone-throwing mob greeted him when he arrived. Carter was forced to release his prisoner and run for his life.

William Carter persisted. Nearly twenty years later, with help from his friends, he arrested ten owlers on the marsh, and took them to Romney for trial. However, the trade enjoyed such popular support that the Mayor of Romney hesitated to proceed, and he had the ten men released on bail.

The outraged owlers chased Carter to Lydd where the smugglers attacked by night, and the Mayor of Lydd encouraged the freelance preventive officers to make haste for Rye to escape the wrath of the owlers. Carter and his men were chased by four dozen armed men as they fled to Guldeford ferry, planning to get a boat from there to Rye. They got as far as Camber where they abandoned their horses, and boarded a boat to make good their escape. A contemporary account says…

“had they not got into the boats, Mr Carter would have received some hurt, for many of the exporters were desperate fellows, not caring what mischief they did.”

                    THE GEORGE INN AT LYDD

Two smugglers, captured as they disembarked from a French sloop at Dungeness, were taken by customs authorities to the George Inn at Lydd and locked in a room guarded by six armed men. Nine local sympathisers burst in and firing their weapons as they charged up the stairs. Against such odds the guards stood little chance, and the two smugglers escaped. It was said that a further 100 men were outside to greet the smugglers and help them on their way.

Lydd became prominent in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s as preventive efforts around Dymchurch forced the owlers to move their operations. At Lydd they lost no time in announcing their arrival to the local customs officer. A report in the local paper stated “they have drove Mr Darby and his wife and family fro their habitation, threatening to murder him if they can catch him”.

The smugglers openly paraded a convoy of contraband through the middle of Lydd in 1829, the streets were lined with cheering crowds.

                                  RYE & SMUGGLING

In Rye smgglers were commonly known as ‘Free Traders’. In Mermaid Street, famous for its cobbles, is the Mermaid Inn, where the ‘Hawkhurst Gang reputedly defied the ‘Revenue Men’ by openly placing their pistols on the table in front of them as they supped beer and made plans for future cargoes. There is a concealed door in the bar, which provided a handy bolt-hole from one of the bedrooms above.

At the bottom of Mermaid Street is a narrow pathway known as ‘Traders passage’. This narrow walkway leads on to the.

Hope Anchor Hotel and Watchbell Street, where the town’s warning bell is situated. Opposite the Hope Anchor are the ‘Green Steps’ leading down the cliff to The Strand where many a free trader found a vessel to export his Romney Marsh Wool and import Brandy, Tobacco and Silks.

Near the corner, where The Mint joins Mermaid Street, The London Trader, a popular watering-hole for local free-traders was another venue where clandestine meetings took place and much money changed hands.

The luckless John Darby, who had been threatened and bullied in Lydd, found himself enjoying a weekend break in France in 1742. He and one other officer had tried to impound some tubs of brandy but they were heavily outnumbered. The smugglers kidnapped the two men, and hustled them on board a French boat from which they had just unloaded tea. This story has a surprising ending: with unusual courtesy, the smugglers made sure that when the two men had secured a passage home from the continent, their horses were waiting for them at the Old George Inn in Rye.


Joseph Swaine, a Hastings fisherman, was shot in 1821 by an excise officer who intended to search his fishing boat. The incident caused great discontent among the fishermen, in a dispute that was focused on the searching of their boats. The increasing vigilance of the government’s anti-smuggling campaign had forced the free-traders to rope together tubs into rafts, which were anchored off-shore and (allegedly) recovered by the local fishermen. Fishing boats were so numerous that a thorough and methodical search of each one was impossible, so the customs men resorted to poking a metal spike through the piles of net to feel for barrels concealed beneath. According to the fishing folk, the prodding damaged the nets, and Swaine was shot while trying to prevent such damage to his tackle. Swaine became a local martyr, with the Hastings mob baying for blood. The exciseman, George England, was convicted of murder, despite desperate and heart-rending pleas from the dock as the sentence was read:

‘…you be taken from hence. Consider I was in execution of my duty… to the place whence you came.. .Gentlemen of the Jury, pray consider your verdict again. ..and from thence to the place of execution, on Friday next, where you are to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul… Oh Gentlemen of the Jury, pray consider your verdict again !’

England was reprieved, much to the fury of the residents of Hastings. After the shooting there was a civil disturbance and dragoons were sent in to restore order. The reprieve caused a renewal of rioting and if George England had returned to his former position, the mob would almost certainly have taken the law into their own hands and carried out what they saw as a just sentence. Instead, England was discharged from his job and spirited out of harm’s way.

Smuggling linked the towns and villages between Hythe and Hastings just as the Cinque Ports Fleet had united them in the middle ages, in fact the roots of smuggling in this part of the country can be traced back to another activity, once deemed legitimate, piracy.

Piracy was a recognised weapon in navel warfare and may almost be counted as an ‘honourable profession’. In 1242 the Cinque Ports Fleet was employed by The King, who took a fifth of the profits from an operation to ‘harry’ the French coast.

“They slew and plundered like pirates” and became known as The King’s Pirates”

There are many more stories to be told of the solidarity of the people living in this section of the Cinque Ports. Next month the wartime links at the time of the Great War which took place just one hundred years ago and changed the region beyond recognition.

With acknowledgement to Wikipedia

From the February 2014

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