Over the Sluice

By Arthur Woodgate

Some while ago, Jimper Sutton threw out a challenge as to whether anyone remembers his grandmother. As a fellow ‘sluicer’, of a certain period, of course I remember her and his father and Uncle Spencer, I once caught a glimpse of his grandfather but I will come back to the Sutton Family in due course. Jimperr’s challenge got me thinking of “Over the Sluice”.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it is the whole of Winchelsea Road which is all contained between the Tillingham Sluice and the Brede Sluice. The sluice gates hold the water back keeping the two rivers at a level, they are opened to let water run out to sea when the level is too high after heavy rain.

Those of us who lived in the area around Winchelsea Road were regarded as something less acceptable than those from other parts of the town. We were referred to as something coming from ‘over the sluice, the reason will reveal itself as I continue with this little piece of local history.

Over The Sluice
Over The Sluice

From the room where I was born on the sluice side of the Tillingham Bridge, I could see and smell the Gasson’s shed. This was one of the buildings of the great industrial Gasson Empire that ruled a large part of the Rye economy from the middle of the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth. There is now some sort of habitation where the Gasson unit was then. It was a canvas tarring floor, where a large square of canvas would be spread out and an army of women, with tar buckets and large brushes with long handles, would tar the canvas, to make tarpaulin covers for railway trucks etc. (I suppose, in earlier times, when shipbuilding was taking place all around, the canvas would be shaped for ship sails).

Behind Gasson’s and facing the Sutton house was the home of the mother of the founders of Ellis Brothers, the builders. Why I said facing was because because between the front doors of these two well known Rye residences was the roadway leading to Gateborough Farm, which crossed through the gates of the Rye Harbour Branch railway line and separated the fields from the approach to the A259, although I don’t think it was know as the A259 at that time. The farm was a fair way down the drive between the fields. Every morning Mr. William Saunter, who farmed Gateborough, could be seen coming onto the main road standing on the back of his horse drawn milk float to deliver pintas round the town. The milk was drawn from two large churns with ladles and poured into customers’ jugs. The ladles hung from the side of the churns when not in use. He would often be followed by his ‘teamer’ Basil Dennis driving a shire horse and dung cart, on his way to School Farm, Udimore, which had a working connection with Gateborough.. A slow, peaceful scene, rather different than today’s South Coast traffic.

If we ran out of milk at home I was sent to Gateborough with an open top jug. My thumb sank into the milk as I carried it home. Today this would be said to be unhygienic and would spread illness, but I’m still here eighty years after to tell the tale.

Small Piece of Land with Plenty of Action

At the bottom of our row of houses and Cadborough View (another row of houses containing many interesting characters), and the main railway line which runs across Gibbets Marsh, there was a small piece of land which was just in the Sluice area and was all sorts of things. A cow shed with a couple of cows, a small orchard, one or two allotments, a fire wood business and various other activities. Amongst all this there lived the Kemp brothers. They were twins and one was blind. The sighted brother made babbins (bundles of fire lighting wood) which he chopped by hand. The blind brother had a Braille bible which he took round the town, sat on a stool, and read passages out loud. The passing public would drop coins in his collecting box. There were those cruel folks about even then, who would tap his box and when he said “Thank you” would run off laughing at who they called “Old Kempy”. They should have been locked up in a windowless cell.

We now return to the Sutton establishment. They would buy and sell almost anything, and we children would get some extra pocket money (not that we had much to start with, maybe a penny a week) Grandmother Sutton was still the boss but we did our business with Ernie or Spencer. If we got a rabbit skin we would hope to get two pence but had to settle for a penny, and when it came to jam jars we were lucky to get anything.

Tankers on Fire

It must have been the late 1920’s when the garage of the Anglo American Oil Company caught fire. It was at the end of Sutton’s garden and had two lorries loaded with paraffin. All we neighbours who were big and strong enough were called on to help remove the furniture from the Sutton’s house in case the lorries exploded and spread the fire.

In due course the Fire Brigade was seen coming round The Strand with their Hand Pump and Hose Cart. These they had to push from the Town Hall, so some time had gone by and the fire was getting a good hold. I can remember Arthur Devonshire shouting as they approached the fire “Too late, let it burn” (he didn’t mean it of course). Meanwhile one of the lorry drivers had arrived and taken the brave act of driving the tankers out from amongst the flames. He was a real Hero. I never knew his name and no one in authority recognised him. It makes me so angry when the word Hero is applied to someone who can kick a ball or run better than most. It is an insult to people like this driver and many others in peace and war.

Something else seemed wrong to me in this incident. The oil company were already using autos but the firemen still had to push their ‘engine’ (it was FIRE ENGINE written on the door at the Town Hall, so I suppose the hand operated pump was called an engine.) Anyway, the firemen put the fire out and that was left was for us to put the Sutton furniture back.

Across the road we had Alfred Gall, Marine Engineers, as ships were once built on that side of the river, there is no doubt it was there to take over from sail makers and steam engineers. One requires very little imagination to see that small piece of territory close to and west of the Tillingham Bridge was very important to Rye. Building, fitting out and sailing fishing smacks – the development through sail, steam and then internal combustion. There may even be records somewhere recording the vessels that were built in the Sluice area.

I myself have witnessed a sailing ship broken up there and watched Gall’s progress through marine engineering to agricultural and general. The site is still being used to service modern transport with fuel and accessories.

Back again, across the road and we find Roseberry Villas, and here I remember some interesting people. There was a Tiltman family of thirteen girls and a Bourne family of nine boys, but the most interesting were the three Phipps brothers. George, a baker, had ovens at the back of the house. He was the only one of the three who married and when he did he moved into the house next to us, (he was a great friend of my father). Eventually he had a bakehouse built in his new back garden. He had a daughter and as she was growing up, used to push her in his Bakers |Delivery Cart, around the town on his rounds. In my opinion, George was the hardest working man in Rye. He did all his own dough punching and baking and in the afternoons could be seen working on the maintenance of his house. He was not a very old man when he was found collapsed in his dough bin. He never baked again, and after a long illness just passed from this world.

Ted Phipps was a wood turner, one of the last in the great ship building industry. He used to walk from the Sluice to Rock Channel each day to work on the ever dwindling number of vessels being built there.

Colin Phipps was brought up as a builder and during my period of memory was foreman to the Borough maintenance force. We did not trip over loose paving slabs or look at untidy boulder paving in those days. When Rye gets its full power back again let us hope another Colin Phipps will arise, with the same love of the Ancient Town into which he was born, be he ‘over the Sluice’ or elsewhere in town.

Two Laundries

Throughout Rye many ladies advertised “Washing Done”, but ‘over the Sluice’ we must have been an organised company laundry clean area. The ‘Hygenic Laundry’ was next to Roseberry Villas, and opposite was the larger “Model Laundry”. Between them they employed many people, mostly women, they must have improved the economic position of the town. It amused me that, for some years, the delivery men of the laundries were both called Fred; Fred Sewitt for the ‘Model Laundry’ and Fred Pawsey for the ‘Hygienic’ both very friendly and cheerful.

Next to the ‘Model Laundry’ was a big coal yard with its own wharf. Sea born coal was unloaded and retailed to us for our coal burning fires. It was owned by a Rye family called Edwards when I was young but over the years it changed hands several times and got into the ownership of various big companies. However, the most famous character to work there was our own Rye born Toby Parsons. Toby seemed to enjoy shovelling coal. He was very pleasant we customers who went there with our sack barrows, wheelbarrows and hand carts to buy our hundredweights of coal. He was not very talkative but had a personality that none him will ever forget.

Next to the Hygienic Laundry was Norfolk House, which seemed to be occupied by the James family. On one side was a smaller building with slates hung on one side that went right down to the ground, a most unusual feature. I associate this building with Ben Cloke who called himself a scavenger and came from ‘over the Sluice’ to collect domestic rubbish from a section of the town. (There were several like him with a horse and cart. I never knew where he dumped his rubbish or kept his horse and cart.

‘Western Place’ came next and occupied the site that became the Farnborough Engineering site. It was a cluster of little ‘two up and two down’ houses huddled around Smeaton Stores. It was this jungle of crowded and inconvenient properties that got the area a bad name as they were regarded as slums and one must cross a sluice to get there from two directions. This placed a slur on the inhabitants which they did not deserve. It is the property that makes a slum and draws the tenants down because of the lack of space, hot water, bathrooms, proper toilets, gardens and so on. Those who lived there were not happy with their lot and given the opportunity moved out. This was not easy. There were pockets of slum rentable hovels all over town owned by the same four or five ‘slum landlords’. I was fascinated by the street traders of Western Place and will now record some of the interesting and picturesque characters.

Tratian Collinson (we rude kids called him ‘old Traty’) could be seen in the streets with a broken chair on one shoulder and a mended one on the other. Where he found room in Western Place to repair chairs, especially as he only lodged as a bachelor in one of those cramped shelters, I can only guess.

By 1940 he had moved into Wish Street. I have not seen or heard of him since, but Wish Street suffered badly from bombing, although I am sure ‘Old Traty’ escaped with his life.

The Beney fanmily were very prominent in Western Place. There were two sections; one headed by Sam, who I didn’t know much about except that he did work of some sort. Bill Beney, Sam’s brother, headed the other section. Bill was a far more colourful character. He had two daughters. Bill would be out on the streets shouting “I’ll give you twopence for any old rabbit skin”. His two daughters; Maria, who was quite a character herself and Rosie would collect and pay out. On other days they would be out with bunches of “Pinks” and the old man shouting “Carnations, lovely carnations: Sixpence a bunch” It was unusual in my school days for small boys to wear long trousers, but the Beney boys always did, and were therefore always identified. Bill Beney Jnr. was in my class at school; and although a District Nurse came to our school quite frequently and examined our heads, he was the reason why my mother raked a small tooth comb through my hair every time I went home. She never found anything.

To be concluded next month.

“Rye’s Own” July 2006

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