Cinque Ports Nonsense

By Jim Hollands

“What is all this Cinque Ports nonsense” I was asked by an old ‘Cockney’ gentleman the other day.

“Not half as complicated as the origins of the old ‘cockney’ tradition of sewing hundreds of buttons on jackets, trousers and hats.” was all I could think of as a reply.

He stuck his chest out and explained to me that the practice of wearing clothes decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons started over 200 years ago. Henry Croft, an orphan street sweeper who collected money for charity started the custom. London coster-mongers were in the habit of wearing trousers decorated at the seams with pearl buttons. Croft adapted this to create a pearly suit to draw attention to himself and aid his fund-raising activities. In 1911 the Pearly Society was formed in Finchley.

Croft died in January 1930 and his funeral was attended by 400 followers and made headlines in the National Press. A memorial statue of Croft was unveiled in St Pancras Cemetery in 1934. The statue was later moved to the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster. An inscription reads:-

“In memory of Henry Croft who died March 16th 1930 aged 68 years. The original Pearly King.”

The pearlies are now divided into several active groups. Croft’s founding organisation is called the Original London Pearly Kings and Queens Association. It was reformed in 1975 Other groups have also been established over the years. The oldest being the Pearly Guild, which began in 1902. There are several modern additions. Every group is associated with a church in central London and committed to raising money for London-based charities.

A parade of real-life Pearly Kings and Queens was featured at the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony. Now he wanted to know about the Cinque Ports. In the middle ages, the South East Coast and the Channel were defended by a Confederation of the five principal ports in the area. Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings, plus two other towns, Rye and Winchelsea made up the Cinque Ports.

The Five Ports and Two Ancient Towns were known as the Cinque Ports Confederation. They supplied the Crown with ships and men, and in return were granted many privileges. The Confederation members were responsible for the building and manning of the vessels that made up the Fleet and at times used the powers that were entrusted to them to co-opt nearby towns and villages to help with the tasks. These places became Non-Corporate members (limbs) and were rewarded by enjoying some of the privileges granted to the full Confederation members.

The Great Storm of 1287 was the beginning of the end for many of the ports, it silted up harbours, blocked rivers, and submerged towns. Despite this, the Cinque Ports were still operational and active, right up to the time of the Armarda when they provided two vessels to the main English Fleet. The Confederation retained its privileges as result of their service to the Crown Fleet.

The Ports were notoriously independent and tended to go their own way. Today, these towns are still known as the Cinque Ports, and many of the traditions are still upheld.

There are 14 towns belonging to the modern day Cinque Ports confederation.

  • Hastings
  • New Romney
  • Hythe
  • Dover
  • Sandwich
  • Rye
  • Winchelsea
  • Lydd (Limb of New Romney)
  • Folkestone (Limb of Dover)
  • Faversham (Limb of Dover)
  • Margate (Limb of Dover)
  • Deal (Limb of Sandwich)
  • Ramsgate (Limb of Sandwich)
  • Tenterden (Limb of Rye)

The title ‘Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports’ continues to this day. Former modern day Wardens include, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The present Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is Admiral Lord Boyce.

The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is a ceremonial official in the United Kingdom. The post dates from at least the 12th century but may be older. Today the role is an honorary title, although the Lord Warden is often present at ceremonial events in the Cinque Ports and the two Ancient Towns. The title is one of the higher honours bestowed by the Sovereign. It has often been held by members of the Royal Family or Prime Ministers, especially those who have been influential in defending Britain at times of war.

In times gone by the Lord Warden was responsible for the collection of taxes, the prevention of crime and the punishment of criminals. He held court at St James’s Church, and kept a garrison at Dover Castle. The coat of arms of the Cinque Ports displays three ships’ hulls and the three lions of England. The coat of arms dates back to the 12th century.

The town of Sandwich, was one of the principal ports in England for the 200 year period between 1000 and 1200. It was still an important landing place right up to the late 1600’s and thousands of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and travellers to London came ashore and passed through the town. Sandwich declined rapidly after 1700 as the sea receded and now stands two miles from the tide-line.

Dover is still an important Port, handling 16 million travellers annually. It is the only one of the five ‘Head’ ports to still operate commercially, but the Port of Rye (one of the two Ancient Towns) still handles up to two 3000 ton cargo vessels weekly and other vessels at Rastrum Wharf, including from 2008 to 2012 an annual visit by the ‘Balmoral’, which took up to 800 passengers from Rye Harbour to Tower Bridge.

The Balmoral is certificated for up to 800 passengers. She is equipped with heated lounges, dining saloon, licensed bars and has a large open deck. Sadly, Balmoral has been out of service for the past two summer seasons.

In the past, Hythe had an important position as a Head Cinque Port.
The Shepway Cross beside the Hythe to Lympne Road, was the traditional meeting place of the Shepway Court. This was made up of the Barons of the Cinque Ports and the Lord Warden. West Hythe was an important harbour, but like so many of the Cinque Port towns, the sea receded and the harbour silted up. Today, Hythe’s beach is about half a mile from the town. Hythe is still a holiday town, attracting large numbers of visitors to it’s very unique High Street. It also has another claim to fame, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Modern day, New Romney is a small inland town on the edge of Romney Marsh. New Romney is not ‘new’, it acquired its name in the thirteenth century, when the wharf at Old Romney deteriorated. New Romney used to stand in the Bay of Romney, but in 1287 there was a great storm which blocked the River Rother.

The river changed course and flowed to Rye. As a result Rye prospered and New Romney never really recovered. It retained its title as a Head Port because it is situated between the Kent and Sussex ports, so was regarded as a suitable place for meetings.

At the time of the Norman Conquest Hastings was a flourishing port. In the twelfth century Hastings was providing no less than twenty ships and crew to the Crown Fleet but Edward I drew up the Charter of 1278 the harbour was already beginning to silt up. The Great Storm of 1287 added to Hastings’ problem and the next few centuries were spent in continual struggle with the receding sea. Today it is no longer a port but still has a fishing fleet which works directly from the beach. It is still a coastal town with a vast stretch of shoreline and in Victorian times became a fashionable seaside resort. It remains a popular family holiday venue.

The Ancient Towns of Rye and Winchelsea

Before 1247, Rye and Winchelsea belonged to a French Religious order. The Great Storm of 1287 submerged Old Winchelsea but changed the course of the River Rother from Romney to Rye. Rye prospered and continued to provide ships for the Crown Fleet for the next few hundred years. In 1573, Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the port, she gave it the title, Rye Royal. Old Winchelsea, which was prospering before the storm, was eventually rebuilt on higher ground.

Today The Port of Rye, which built its last ships for the King’s Navy as late as 1943 six trawler / Minesweepers were commissioned from a Rye Yard and four were completed before the War came to an end. Timber boats called at Rye for another twenty years after this until the new Wharf at Rye Harbour, now known as Rastrum Wharf, first imported timber and now welcomes all manner of cargos. Today Rye, retains its Port status and will see more and more imports over the years to come. Winchelsea is no longer a port, but still retains its ancient character, attracting many visitors to its quiet ‘grid-iron pattern streets Deal and Ramsgate are the Associate towns of Sandwich. Both are still coastal and now much bigger towns than their Head Cinque Port. The Official Residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is based at Walmer Castle, very close to the town of Deal.

Lydd is the associate town of New Romney and the Bay of Romney is now Romney Marsh. Lydd is no longer on an island.

Tenterden, the associate town of Rye, has been left stranded over 10 miles from the sea – originally it had it’s own port of Smallhythe which boasted a shipyard and quay.

Folkestone, Faversham & Margate are the Associates of Dover. Margate, like Ramsgate was on an island in medieval times and the area is still called the Isle of Thanet.

My cockney friend, who is a regular visitor to the town, showed little interest until I showed him the list of privileges accorded to the Five Ports and Two Ancient Towns that headed up the Cinque Ports Confederation.

“As I understand it, by law, the modern Rye Town Council should have powers over footpaths, allotments and parks and gardens (including cemeteries and sport and recreational areas). In practice it seems that RDC and ESCC have somehow removed these powers from Rye”

“I agree with that, but what has that got to do with the Cinque Ports Privileges?” was my response. His reply was masterful “Claim your Cinque Ports rights. Self Government. Make RDC & ESCC divulge where they have hidden the stolen freeholds. Then detain the Bu**ers for execution if they don’t give back to Rye what they have stolen”

With acknowledgement to Wikipedia