John Smith Town Clerk of Rye

John Smith

It was with great sadness that we learned of the recent death of John Smith. John was Town Clerk of Rye at the time “Rye’s Own” was running in the sixties and early seventies. He was a fine Town Clerk and a true Ryer.

John Smith Town Clerk of Rye
John Smith Town Clerk of Rye
John Smith with Mayor Phil Ellis
John Smith with Mayor Phil Ellis

This is John’s own account of his life in Rye and was published in the Rye Memories series that were produced at The Thomas Peacocke by the pupils under the guidance of Jo Kirkham.

I was born on 1st March 1915 at 7 Castle Terrace, Rye (now 105 South Undercliffe). I have been told that there was snow on that day and that my Mother intended to call me David, but Nurse Benge, who was the midwife, insisted that I should be called John. My Auntie Alice was to have been midwife but she was expecting her son at the same time.

My earliest memory is of being in the East Sussex Hospital at Hastings, then on the site of the present White Rock Theatre, recovering from a tonsil operation on the foot of a bed occupied by a wounded soldier. I was three years old. When you went for an operation you were taken to Hastings by train early in the day, returning home by train after recovering. I suffered from a septic throat as a result of the journey and Nurse Benge came to paint my throat with iodine – ugh! Before I got to school age I had whooping cough; the cure, doses of ipecacuanha (IPECACUANHA – root of South America herbaceous or shrubbery plant (Cenhailis ipecacuanha) which possesses emetic, diaphoretic and purgative; a common ingredient of cough mixtures. It was almost as bad as the disease! How fortunate that children today don’t to suffer the disease or the cure!

Another early memory is of being taken to the Salts to see the firework display to celebrate the Armistice (“Peace Day” on July 19th 1919): my Father carried me and was unable to dodge a rocket stick which burnt a hole in his demob suit. Yet another early memory is of pitching over the head of my wooden horse in the back yard at Castle Terrace and knocking out my front teeth which were left hanging by strips of skin. This was dealt with by Mr. Plomley the Chemist of Plomley and Waters, who kept the Apothecary’s Shop.

The house at Castle Terrace was rented from Mr. and Mrs. Gallop was lived in Slade Terrace. Our neighbours at No 6 were Mr. and Mrs. Tom Reynolds who had two children Ron and Gwen, both of whom went to Rye Grammar School. At No 8 lived Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Southerden with whom my father, Frederick, had lodged before he got married. His parents were dead and had lived in Military Road. My Fathers first employer was J. N. Masters (Johnny Clocks) of 8 and 9 High Street, but he subsequently trained as painter with Frank Ashenden. My Mother (Emily Elizabeth Brown) was in service with the Hacking family at Cadborough Farm. They were married in the Congregational Church at Marden, Kent on Christmas Day 1913.

My Mother’s parents lived in a railway cottage at Marden as her Father a platelayer with S.E.R., later the S.E.C.R. and then the Southern Railway. They had a large family (Grandfather was married twice) and, as their house only had two bedrooms, I have wondered since how they managed – presumably that was why the girls went into service at an early age.

My Smith Grandparents, I’m told, lived at Cliff Cottages. Grandfather (William, as was Grandfather Brown) was a bargee for Vidler and Sons Ltd. and I believe his wife came from Rolvenden (close to the barge route) and that her name was Levett. Like Grandfather Brown, Grandfather Smith had a large family, but as my Father was the youngest of the children, I knew some of his brothers only as names, for one was in Australia and another in the U.S.A. I can remember one brother and a brother-in-law who were in the London Fire Brigade, visits to whom were a great delight to a small boy.

7 Castle Terrace had three bedrooms, an outside W.C and no bathroom and we took in lodgers, some of whom were summer visitors and others more or less permanent. One was in Rye Post Office in World War I (Miss Westley); others, including young men (not all at the same time!), who were employed by Burnhams – Frank Noakes, Bert Clarke and Fred Piper. My sister Kathleen was born in May 1921 and at the time that she was born, Abnett’s Fair was on the Salts. Perhaps to keep me out of the way for a time, I was given a small collection of farthings and halfpennies which I was pleased to be able to spend at the Fair. The Rye Town Band on the Saturday had me as one of the boys following it when it gave its usual selection of music outside the George Hotel – one of my Mother’s friends said that she had never before seen me look so scruffy!

Mother used to bake cakes in a kitchener or gas cooker, except at Christmas, when large cakes went in Long’s oven for 2d (after his cooking was done!)

At the age of five I went to school; sometimes, as I remember it, not too willingly and Gwen Baker (later Fitzhugh) was deputed to escort me. There was no problem then in crossing the road in order to go up the Ypres Steps. My first teacher was Mrs. Jones who took the “Babies” class at the Infants School (now the Adult Education Centre in Lion Street) and we were accommodated in the room which is now the ladies cloakroom. The next class was in the western end of the (now) main hall and it is then that I remember “sleeping lessons” when we stretched out on the floor on rush mats. Our third year was in the eastern end of the main hall separated from the other classes by a moveable partition. The final year was under Miss Annie Longley (the Head Teacher, later to become Mrs Kerr) in what is now rooms 2 and 2A. Other teachers at the Infants School were Miss Jordan and Miss Ellis. The latter taught later at Rye Harbour. Mr Balcomb, the School Attendance Officer, of whom most of us were slightly afraid, was usually to be found in his Father Christmas part at the Infants School Party.

After a year in Miss Longley’s class, I went to the Boys School in Mermaid Street (now the Rye Boys Club) starting in the room at the southern end of the building and progressing through three more rooms to the northern (Mermaid Street) end and then back to the middle room (now demolished) for the final year. The lavatories were out in the playground opposite the southern end of the school building and beyond them was a playground which bordered Watchbell Lane (now the site of the lock-up garages entered from the lane). Teachers I remember at Mermaid Street were Mr. Roberts (Head), Mr. and Mrs. King and Mr. Allnutt.

When we lived in Castle Terrace most children played at times in the road with, at the appropriate times of the year, tops and hoops. Girls had wooden hoops and boys iron ones. Conkers and tip-cat were also favourites. “Dinky, Dicky show your light” (if you had a torch) was played on winter evenings. On wet days we tended to congregate in Castle Terrace in the passageways which give rear access to every four houses. The house on the right of each terrace had its rooms over it and was, therefore, that much larger than the other three. As we got older we went further – to the Salts where see-saws and swings had been erected after WWI by Mr. W. H. Delves in memory of his son lost in the War. The Rock Channel Shipyard of G. & T. Smith, busy with ship-building until the last one in, I think, 1926, was a good place for games with its stacks of logs and other timber, but our presence was not approved of by Mr Jempson from Gordon Villas who worked there.

In the holidays we often walked to Camber and occasionally to Rye Harbour, while Camber Castle was our favourite destination. Most of the footpaths around Rye were used by us and if the return was on the road, traffic was so light as not to be much of a bother. The walk along the main road to Winchelsea in the 1920s was along a dusty road full of potholes. The kerbs and concrete fence posts which were used when the road was re-surfaced in concrete, remain there today and were all made at Jennings Beach Works on the Camber Road. South Undercliffe, from Bryan’s Garage to Stoneham’s Corn Mill, as well as Landgate, Cinque Ports Street and Tower Street were also re-surfaced at about the same time – i.e. the late 1920s early 1930s.

Bus services became established after this – East Kent via Winchelsea to Hastings (2/- return); Maidstone and District via Udimore to Hastings; Dengates to Northaim; Weald of Kent services went to Hawhurst and Tenterden and to London. (Weald of Kent were later bought out by M&D); The earliest bus services to Camber, Rye Harbour and Winchelsea Beach were run by Wright and Pankhurst. (The rear centre panel had a picture of Rye, painted by Hackman, the artist.) They were taken over by East Kent. The fare to Winchelsea was 4d single and 6d return.

The trains ran at popular times, not at a regular frequency as now. The late 20s and 30s were a time of intense competition between bus and train and fares changed daily. (M&D and E. K. went from the Station Approach, Dengates from Rope Walk.) Parcels of all sorts were delivered to traders by horsed vehicles. Truck loads of coal and coke also went that way. Most coal prewar came to Rye by sea. the branch rail line to Rye Harbour was only for goods. Blue boulders were sent from the Harbour to the Potteries regularly. Some Spun Concrete products travelled by rail, but road competition soon won.

I remember the launches of several fishing smacks from Rock Channel which delayed many of us getting home from school to dinner. Best of all, some launches took place in school holidays, which gave us more time to watch. The crane at the Strand was used for stepping the masts in the vessels after launching.

We went regularly to the Congregational Church, the congregations of which, when I was young, were reasonably large, but over the years, I saw them dwindle. The Sunday School met in the hall and our Superintendent was, first, Mr. Sherwood, who lived in Gordon Villas and worked at Rother Iron Works, but later it was Mr. H Lewis who was a draper in Ferry Road. Sunday School and Church were compulsory and we regarded the Sunday School “Treats” – in summer to the field at the top of Leasam Hill and in winter in the Sunday School room – as some recompense for our attendance! For a period I was a member of the Boys Brigade run in the Sunday School room by Mr. Charles Longley and Mr. Fred Etherton.

The British Legion used to organise a “Town” outing in the summer to various places, and otherwise “days out” were to Hastings or perhaps to relatives. For two or three years we walked from Castle Terrace to Salt Barn for hop-picking.

Returning to education, when I was in Mr. Allnutt’s class at the Boys School I took, first, the examination for the Meryon Scholarship. Dick Kimpton and I tied for first place but he was given the award as I would have a later chance of sitting the County Junior Scholarship examination. Dick, therefore, went to the Grammar School a term or two before me. I duly took the County examination which I passed. After a personal interview with the Headmaster Mr. H. H Wallis and Mrs. Wallis at the Town Hall in Bexhill, I was granted a place which I took up in September 1926 – aged 11 and a half years.

We were living at this time at 7 Castle Terrace. My Father who had been gassed and wounded in W.W.I could not return to his old job of painter and decorator so he was trained by the Government as a Watch and Clock repairer. After training he returned home and worked for George Farr at 114 High Street, but that business was not able to afford an employee, so my Father first had his own watch and clock repair business in the front room at 7 Castle Terrace, later moving to 8 Church Square, where he had the downstairs front room, which he rented from Mr. W. Sinclair who lived at No 10 with his sister. In 1929 my Father took over an existing Watchmakers and Jewellers business – that of the late Mr. Halliwell at 76 The Mint – even then officially called 76 High Street.

Several of my South Undercliffe contemporaries went to the Grammar School at the same time as me e.g. Gwen Baker and Kathleen (Mickey) Axell. Others who came from South Undercliffe were older or lodged there and of the latter I remember George Jolly whose home was Hellingly and Edith Hide whose home was at Staplecross. Strangely enough, Mr. Snee who taught Latin, Miss Tunstall who taught History and a little later, Miss Turner who taught English, all lodged in South Undercliffe. In my early days at Rye Grammar School quite a large number of pupils travelled by train from Hastings, Battle and Bexhill. At that time Bexhill had no comparable school and some children came from Hastings to Rye because their parents did not want them to attend the single sex schools in Hastings. One boy walked to Battle Station from Netherfield before his train journey to Rye.

One of the highlights of the Grammar School year was the House Parties held at the Monastery when the House Plays were presented; sometimes staff members also took part. One School House Party, in which I took part, was written by Mr. Hannay, father of a pupil from Pett (or Fairlight), specially for the occasion. The addition of the School Hall with Art Room and Biology/Botany Labratory over it was several years after I got to the school. Nevertheless, the School assembled daily for prayers in the corridors upstairs and down and the Headmaster, being a former Army officer, was able to make himself heard by us all!

The School’s only playing field was then at the south School where the Sports Centre now stands. Football, hockey and the school Sports took place there; tennis was on courts in front (south) and behind (north) of the School and a later addition was a concrete practice wicket south of the School. Cricket matches were held on the Cricket Salts and the School team, strengthened by the addition of Mr. J. J Broome (Geography), Mr. E. R. Pilgrome (Maths) and the Headmaster (Mr. H. H. Wallis), usually played against local men’s teams. There were boys teams against other boys teams also, but when the three masters were in the team I assume the ladies kept the school running.

Other teaches I remember were Mr. Tighe, later Mr. Perugini (Art); Mr. Taylor, later Mr. Hefford (Science i.e. Physics and Chemistry); Mr. Woolven (Woodwork); Capt. Pond, later Mr. Jezzard (P.E then known as Gym); Miss Braithwaite (what was called Cookery or Domestic Science) and Miss Seed (French). Woodwork, Cookery and School Dinners. The latter area was used part-time as the tuck-shop occupied a former W.W.I Army Hut separate from the main building. the hut was refurbished when the new hall etc. was built in 1931 and its floors no longer bounced up and down as they had previously.

I took the School Certificate examination at the age of 15 but was failed as I did not pass the Arithmetic. However, thanks to the extra coaching from Mr. Allnutt (even then not at the Grammar School) I got School Cert. at the age of 16. Miss Seed that year said that if all the class passed School Cert. in French she would bring us some marons glace – we made sure that she had to do so! My problem then was to find a job and at that time they were scarce, so my parents said that I should have another year at School. Not very educational as I remember it now it certainly saved the County Council from having to pay a laboratory assistant!

In my teens at school, I remember particularly the death of Kathleen (Mickey) Axell from what would now possibly be called a virus and also a smallpox scare in the town, when all those pupils whose parents wished it, were vaccinated at the School. As I had already been vaccinated by Dr. Harratt at his surgery in the Mint, I acted as clerk and runner for the doctor at the School.

On one occasion those taking School Certificate (including me) were taken to the Gaiety Theatre, Hastings (now a cinema) to see Sheridan’s “School for Scandal”. An earlier memory of that theatre is of being taken by my parents to see a pantomime – the only memory of which is the song “K-K-K-Katy”.

In the summer of 1932 I started work in the office of Coal and Transport Ltd. in Winchelsea Road. This is now the business owned by Corrall’s and formerly by Hawksfields. The property in Winchelsea Road with a river frontage had previously been owned by H. J Gasson and Sons Ltd. a firm owning several properties in Rye. Most of the land was open, for the storage of coal, as it was unloaded from vessels in the river but, nearest to the Laundry, was a large corrugated iron shed, inside a corner of which was a boarded off office area of two rooms, one for the manager and one as a general office where I worked. The rest of the shed was used for coal storage so there was usually a film of coal dust over everything. A year or two after I got there, John Ashenden built the brick and tile office building which remains on the site today, although the “tin” shed has gone. When I started work my wages were 12s6d (62 1/2p) per week, for which I worked from 7am to noon and 1pm to 5pm – Monday to Friday and 7am to noon on Saturday which I reckon is 50 hours weekly. I used to walk to work until I could save £5 to buy a bike – then I cycled.

I had joined Toc H while I was still at school and I remained a member until I went into the Army in 1940. the meeting place was in Winchelsea Road on the site of Jempson’s present Warehousing Units, but later moved to the Club rooms over the Co-operative Shop in Cinque Ports Street (next door to the present Police Station, then the Cinque Ports Hotel). I took part in an historical pageant to celebrate the Jubilee in 1935. Some of us Toc H members dressed as monks. Toc H ran an enthusiastic, but not always successful, football team which I played for until the formation, in 1936, of Rye Old Grammarians F.C for which I played until the season 1938/9 after which it ceased to exist.

To return to the coal trade – Coal and Transport’s supplies came by sea from the Humber, being shipped from either Goole or Keadby. Two local vessels among those which brought coal were Captain Clothier of Rye Harbour’s “Olive May” and Captain Billy Easter of Hastings iron-clad vessel called “Katherina”. Samuel West Ltd’s Thames barges were regulars but, on occasions, foreign vessels, usually Dutch, (often with wife and children on board) brought cargoes. The coal was unloaded on the Winchelsea Road by a piece-work gang often with Hack Furrell as its boss and in summer worked long hours, during all of which, I was on duty. I have worked, checking loads direct into lorries, from 5am to 9pm with only a short dinner break. The gang had two in the hold shovelling coal into baskets which were lifted by a windlass worked by two more men to the deck level or a bit higher, where it was tipped into a wheelbarrow by one man assisted by another who then wheeled it up onto the wharf and tipped it. Two men each had a wheelbarrow.

Occasional cargoes of Belgian bricks were imported and these were unloaded on the town side of the Quay – the white bricks used in building The Rise, Udimore Road for Mr Bret are ones I specifically remember. During my period of employment with Coal and Transport, the steel sheet piling was driven on both sides of the river at the Strand. Extra long piles were paid for by Coal and Transport to give them a level area. In the 1930s most people had coal fires, although gas was available, and there were a number of coal merchants in the town and I remember Vidler and Sons, Wright and Pankhurst, T Bourne and Son, Edwards and Son and Jimmy Kennard. There was something of a price war going on at times and 2s0d (10p) a cwt.(112lbs) was usually the charge, although Coal and Transport would supply it as 1s 11d if it was collected.

In the summer Toc H had a bell tent pitched at Camber (near Maisie’s Cafe) where we spent weekends getting sand in our grub and a suntan on our bodies. Other summer weekends included Toc H members acting as stewards in local gardens opened in aid of the Borough Nursing Association – the nurses lived in Wall Cottage in Cinque Ports Street (now the Opticians). Occasional Sunday afternoons in winter were spent visiting in the Workhouse where the old people appreciated seeing a fresh face; Mr Blackhall of Cinque Ports Street was a regular visitor there, leading hymn singing and distributing sweets from a jar which never seemed to be empty although he was there every week. Just occasionally we visited the tramps in the Spike (Casual Ward) but they were greatly different from the elderly local people and we did not enjoy our visits to them.

In the early summer of 1936 I saw a newspaper advertisement by Rye Borough Council for an Assistant Collector and I was fortunate enough to be the successful applicant exchanging 7am to 5pm job with Coal and Transport – now at £1.7s 6d (£1.37) per week for a 9am to 5pm job with the Council for 2.10s 0d (£2.50p) per week. One person wrote to the local paper complaining that the job should have been given to a married man – not to a single one!

I started work in the Rates Office, then at 107 High Street (now the Easton Rooms) with Mr Cyril Powell, Rating and Valuation Officer as my boss and Mr Ambrose Huxstep as my Senior. Mr Huxstep and I were responsible for writing all rates demands and other Council Council bills, collecting Councils rents and other monies and accounting for it all. The Borough Surveyor’s office was on the upper floors of 107 High Street and capt. E.P. Dawes, the part-time Town Clerk had his office at Bank Chambers. My post as Assistant Collector was necessary, inter ilia, because of the building of the new Council houses at Kings Avenue and New Road with four more in Military Road. All the rent collection was done on foot starting on Monday morning with the twenty houses in Udimore Road/Cadborough Cliff, then Ferry Road, Cyprus Place, Carlyle Place, and Alma Place, South Undercliff, Lucknow Place, Bedford Place, Fishmarket Road, Bridge Place, Spring Place, Waterloo Place, Spring Crescent, Daniel Place, Wellington Terrace and the Almshouses and then to Kings Avenue/New Road. This was no, I hasten to add, all on Monday, but spread over the first 2 and a half days of the week. Some tenants paid their rents at the office. Memory is a trick thing, but I don’t seem to remember many wet days when I went collecting – one was enough!

As all rate demands and other accounts were hand written, the three of us were very much aware of the people with whom we were dealing and the Council benefited from our knowledge in that it seemed to be a matter of honour to ensure that arrears of money due to the Council were absolutely minimal at the end of the financial year. Any debtor received a personal call – sometimes more than one – from the senior or the boss, to ensure that debts were paid at the due time.

In addition to the jobs I have already mentioned, I typed letters and valuation forms and until Mr Bill Breeds was taken on as a temporary employee specifically for the work, I surveyed existing houses, drawing plans of the accommodation. This was to be in readiness for a Rating Revaluation to take place in what turned out to be the first year of the War. Audit of the Council’s Accounts was in part (Rating and Housing under the 1919 and later Housing Acts), by the District Auditor – who always seemed to be able to time his visit for Rye Cricket Week, when he went to watch with the Town

Reprinted from Rye Memories with thanks to Jo Kirkham Mr. Smith’s graphic account of his time with Rye Borough Council and his eventual position as Rye Town Clerk will appear next month.

From ‘Rye’s Own’ November 2002

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