Rye in 1941

BY Clifford Bloomfield

From Jo’ Kirkham’s Rye Memories Series

Very soon after Christmas – in January 1941, when I was 14 years old, I took a job at the Rye Post Office, then in the High Street, as a Telegram Boy. I was given an official arm band and a typically heavy red bicycle with 28 inch wheels. The saddle was let down to its lowest position as I was a short young lad.

Behind the Post Office Counter was a small room with a desk, a chair, the important “daffodil” type telephone, a block of blank telegram forms and yellow envelopes.

Although I was required to be available at all times, I did spend some time in the sorting office. When the phone rang, I would go to the office, but I was not permitted to answer it – only counter staff! The message received was placed in a yellow envelope, sealed and given to me to put in the leather pouch on my belt. A large map on the wall showed various circled rings of distance from the Post Office and I was given a time allocated for the delivery and return, before I left.

It was quite commonplace to cycle to Udimore, Iden Lock, East Guldeford etc, going to military outposts – the gun sites around the RAF Radar Station at Brookland as an example. I earned 10/- (50p) a week. Telephones in the 1940s were not the common means of communication that they are today – hence the use of telegrams.

Local Fishing in Rye Bay 1941 onwards

Fishing for the local boats became very good as the larger trawlers of the North Sea ports were now very restricted in their movements. Their customary long fishing trips were abandoned, being prevented by enemy action and also many of the larger vessels were requisitioned by the Royal Navy as Mine Sweepers and Fleet Auxiliaries. The initial war period allowed the fish stocks to multiply.

The small inshore boats of the South East that operated off the beaches were now unable to do so, due to the steel anti invasion barriers that had been erected continuously along the coast, except for the cliff shores. The fisherman were also hampered by the activities of the Royal Navy in the remaining small ports such as Newhaven, Folkestone etc.

Rye represented an opportunity for these men to continue fishing, so that the harbour was inundated by small inshore fishing boats of many registrations – NN= Newhaven, SM= Shoreham

and Brighton, FE= Folkestone, R= Ramsgate, RX= Rye and Hastings. These boats were permitted to go to sea in daylight hours.

The fish became so plentiful that it was common knowledge that if the trawl net was left in the sea for too long a period, it would be extremely difficult to raise, due to its weight. The Mizpah on one occasion, brought into the Fishmarket 280 stun (stones) of gutted fish, plus the last trawl of the day was left in the water until the ship docked. This is 1.75 tons – today a boat comparable size would be lucky to bring in 100 stun.

Large groups of the local townspeople would gather at the Fishmarket to await the returning boats. They were able to buy generous quantities of a variety of small fish from the catch – a sand bag full for 5p (1/-) – flats such as plaice, dabs, skate (referred to as Maid Wing), Angler fish known as keddlemar, dog fish known as Robin Huss, cod, whiting, John Dories, mackerel, herring etc. In this respect, Rye people were able to supplement their food rations very considerably.

During early 1943, all the larger boats were now armed with 303 anti-aircraft Lewis machine guns. These probably gave the fisherman some feeling of confidence in being able to hit back, if it should be necessary.

Not only was it difficult to raise a trawl net from the sea due to plentiful fish supplies, there was another problem of war debris snarling the nets – the wreckage of countless aircraft etc. It was interesting to see the variety of war debris brought into the Harbour and Fishmarket – many types of jettisoned aircraft fuel tanks – some long egg shaped and others sledge like. This latter kind was carried by Spitfire mk. IX’s. There was no end of such wreckage laid out on the river banks. German Magnetic mine trolley’s were another curiosity – made of wood, all screws were of aluminium and wheels of plastic. These were from German Naval units sewing the mines at sea. There were also a great variety of buoys. All this must have required many hours of net mending and costly replacements.

Incendiaries at Rye Harbour

Early in 1941 I recall a Sunday when I and some friends cycled to the Chemical Works on the Rye Harbour Road. During the previous night probably a few hundred incendiary bombs had fallen over a wide area. Here and there were little piles of grey and white magnesium ash with the little metal fins lying to one side, still intact.

My Second Job April 1941

I left the Post Office and took what I considered to be a better job with the then local land drainage authority. It had rather a long title – The Rother and Jury’s Gap Catchment Board and its offices were at 2 High Street. The Board employed a workforce of about 130 in the maintenance of watercourses, structures, sea defences (not military) – groynes, seawalls etc. An increasing number of these men were driving excavators, dredging out watercourses. Each driver had a mate whose job was to clear the undergrowth and prepare for the machine, and then tidy up afterwards. He also worked as a relief driver. The fleet of machines at the outbreak of war was 12, by the end it was 34 and over this period, roughly 95% of all waterways had been dredged – throughout the Walland Marsh as far as the Rhee Wall and in all the upland valleys – some for the first time ever! The exception was Pett Marsh proper as this was flooded in June 1940. Key men were generally considered to be employed on essential war work therefore not liable to be called up for military service.

Many acres of farmland that were not considered to be producing the amount of food expected of them, were taken over by committees organised nationally by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and food. In our area it was known as the East Sussex War Agriculture Committee. On this land, the Women’s Land Army was much in evidence.

I was employed as a chain boy at 12/6 a week – the job required me to work with a land surveyor. I held a levelling staff and called the measured distances read from a tape – generally across rivers and ditches, before and after land dredging, so as to measure the excavators’ output. I travelled the countryside as a passenger in authorised private cars. A Special privilage.

The surveyors included Mr. Les. G. Locke and a little later two women joined us – A Miss Nora Hales, now Mrs. Lane-Howse of Beckley and a Miss DV Harding. They had been trained in the use of a dumpy level.

Troop Movements South Staffordshires

Early in 1941 the South Staffordshire Regiment came to Rye. Their formation insignia depicted a Staffordshire coal tip and pit headgear, not known to me at that time. As with many such formations, the insignia tells its own story – of the area in which it was raised. The regiment was part of the 59th Infantry Division, they remained with us for some months.

Troop Movements The Canadians

Later in 1941, they were replaced by the Canadians the first were the Essex Scottish Regiment of Canada. They stayed a while, but I remember very well on one Sunday evening, hearing a pipe band in the distance. It seemed to come from the town, so off I set on my cycle and crossing Monkbretton Bridge, I could see this band making its way up Hilders Cliff. I eventually caught up with them and followed them down the Mint, along Wish Street, Cyprus Place, Ferry Road and Cinque Ports Street. They were the band of the next Canadian Regiment to come into the town – the Toronto Scottish- and this was their way of introducing themselves.

All of my generation will recall how everyone who smoked, (and in those days the majority of men did at least,) were smoking cheap, freely available Canadian cigarettes. “Sweet Caporal” was the most common but a menthol variety was not liked. Many American brands were smoked too. The Canadians were generally hard drinking men and the local pubs probably did well, that is when they had a good supply of beer in their cellars.

One night my Father, who was rather short in stature, and who always cycled to work and back via the Fishmarket, was returning home in the blackout. He was stopped by two drunken Canadians and an argument ensured between the soldiers as to who should have the cycle and, realising that they were fighting, he made his escape and rode off quickly in the darkness. The insignia of these Canadian Regiments was of the 2nd Canadian Division

The Ghost of Brede Place

I spent my time working with all three surveyors, but at one time with Miss Harding. My impression was that she had private means and did not really need a job, but chose to do something she wanted rather than something to which she was directed, as could happen in war time. We spent many an hour during her early weeks with us looking for a house to buy. She was looking for an olde worlde country house – and there was a big choice.

One particular day we had been to an excavator working in the Brede Valley. The driver suggested she took a look at Brede Place as he knew it was empty – I think now he spoke with his tongue in his cheek! Driving in its direction, we stopped to ask the way, and we were told we should first find Miss Claire Sheridan. We did not know it at the time, but she was a cousin of Winston Churchill. On entering her drive, we found the grounds full of all manner of carvings, idols and tall totem poles. Miss Harding was not a person to be put off and up to the front door she went. She said to Miss Sheridan “I understand Brede Place is empty and do you think the owner would be interested in selling it?” Miss Sheridan laughed “I should not think so – it’s been the family home of the Frewen family for 200 years! But you’re welcome to look it over. The Canadian Army had only just vacated it and if you look round the grounds you will find the gardener”.

This we did – he was an old man, working on a ladder, clipping a yew tree. We told him of Miss Sheridans permission and he went to the summer house to get the key. It was so large it had to be carried by the shank. The two of us walked up the steps to the front door which had a Gothic arch. We turned the key easily, pushed open the door, entered the hall and then wandered the corridors and rooms up and down stairs until we came to a lower room. On opening the door we saw it was a small chapel within the house. Taking a cursory look around we left, closing the door, and passed into a small hall with another corridor, we both stopped for some unaccountable reason, looked back, and in the closed doorway a misty figure emerged. I looked in disbelief – we were both transfixed as it moved across the hall before us and ascended the stairs and went out of sight. We hurriedly left the house locked the door, returned the key to the summer house and got into the car. It was only then and as we were leaving, that we were able to relax and exchange our experiences.

I have rarely mentioned this to anyone. I still don’t think I believe in ghosts, or do I? Recently I was in the company of Mr. Layton Frewen of Northiam. He was interested and said the precise location where he had seen the ghost who was known to his family. Brede Place was seriously damaged by fire about twenty years ago – I wonder if the “ghost” is still there?


As a teenager in late 1941, I joined the newly formed Air Training Corps. We met once a week in the Lion Street School rooms, using the Library room for indoor drills and P.T. the upper room for lessons in many subjects such as “the theory of flight”, basics of navigation, the Morse Code, aircraft recognition etc. Our commanding officer was Mr. G.D.Bear. He had been a long serving Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer. In Rye we were formed as B Flight of 304 Squadron – other flights were at Hastings, St. Leonards and Battle. There must have been upwards of 30 boys attending, although our individual members were constantly changing as they came of age for call-up at 18 years.

I remember two outings – a day each at Biggin Hill and West Malling.

We in Rye, formed a drum and bugle under the tuition of three keen ex army musicians – Charley “Omody” Buss, his brother Jack Buss and Teddy Howe. I think we turned in some very good playing in Military Church parades and I remember going to a Church Parade in Hastings for the whole squadron marching from Warrior Square to St. Leonards West Marina Church of St. Saviours.

The Manchesters

End of 1941 – With the departing of the Canadian forces, it was now the turn of the Manchester Regiment – they stayed in Rye for about three months. Their insignia was the Red Rose of Lancaster and they served as part of the 55th West Lancashire Infantry Division. The complete rose was on their shoulder patches, but a symbolic rose, based on the Tudor Rose, was on their vehicles.

Durham Light Infantry Mid 1942

Following the Manchesters were the Durham Light Infantry – how different they were in their bearing! They marched at a pace of 140 paces a minute and their drill fascinated the locals by its speed. Most servicemen wore their forage caps according to military regulations across the right side of the head, with the two front buttons directly over the line of the nose. The D.L.I however, wore theirs fore and aft over the centre of the head – probably in order to keep them in place during their rapid drills.

On a number of summer afternoons their military band was to be found on the Cricket Salts, seated in a large circle, entertaining the local population. One man I recall excelled on the post horn. I feel certain that this regiment was not attached to any military formation or division at that time.

The Amercians July 1942

Returning home from work one afternoon on my cycle, I arrived at the gate to find four large, khaki green, wooden trunks stacked on the pavement.

Not knowing what they were there for, I went inside to be confronted by two American Army Airforce officers. They had just arrived in England and came directly to our house to be billeted with us. My shyness at that time was dispelled as they chatted about their first impressions of England and the stories they had heard of how we were supposed to be starving on our mere food rations. Mother laid the tea as usual. Astonishment came over their faces as they saw it, for we had a greenhouse full of tomatoes, eggs from our chickens and home made strawberry jam. At other times there was an abundance of vegetables from our allotment garden and fish from the local boats. We were fascinated to see them eat, using only a fork in the right hand and another time we were aghast to see them eating bread and strawberry jam accompanied by tinned pilchards.

Whilst writing about food, a little job that I undertook each Sunday morning was to produce a little extra butter. Whenever the milk pan was boiled during the week, the top was taken off and put aside in a jar until Sunday. We had a little glass cream maker with a Bakelite top and pump action handle. Into this was put the weekly milk toppings. I would then spend probably an hour or so pumping this, pouring off the buttermilk, to leave a few extra ounces of butter. The four trunks were eventually carried upstairs and hadn’t they come prepared? Fruit that we had not seen for three years – oranges, limes, lemons and grapefruit and of course coffee. Mother was shown how to make this – American style, with a pinch of salt always added. Coffee in bean and ground form was not generally drunk, at least by the majority of working people – not only had it been expensive, but it was now unobtainable. The popular coffee that English people drank was a joke – a bottled liquid coffee extract with chicory known as “Camp” coffee – still obtainable today.

Why were Americans with us? A new radar station was being constructed and commissioned at Wittersham, operated by RAF personnel. I suppose the Americans were acquainting themselves with the then secret equipment. Some of the buildings remain – on leaving Wittersham on the Tenterden road, they can be found on the left hand side. These men stayed with us until just before Christmas. Mother subsequently received a food parcel from the U.S.A. sent by one of the men’s relatives, as a thank you for looking after their son.

These are the only American servicemen that I know to have been billeted in Rye, although in 1943-44, frequent convoys of their vehicles and armour passed through the town.

“Rye’s Own”July 2003

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