Rye’s Seat of Power

By Jim Hollands

Rye Town Hall built in 1742, the third to stand on the site, has seen copious town history pass through its doors.

The Borough Council had much power in the time of its construction returning two Members to Parliament and having complete control over local affairs and planning. Today, 250 years later, that power has been almost completely stripped away.

But there was a parallel to today. The people of Rye were governed by a very small and undemocratic clique, in fact there were just 18 freemen of the town with the right to vote. In 1825 the men of Rye rose against the unfair system and besieged the Town Hall. Their protest came to nought but a ground swell of public opinion had started and continued to grow. A group of 107 “Men of Rye” was formed and laid their complaints before the Lord Warden and then Parliament. The whole thing nearly erupted at one point when John Meryon and Twelve Jurats elected by the Men of Rye, dressed in Mayoral gowns, took over the Town Hall and refused to stand down when the official Mayor William Dodson and his Councillors arrived.

Against all odds, and after a ruling in Parliament the Men of Rye eventually gained control of their own destiny and set a pattern that was later to alter the balance of power in many other towns in the land.

The situation that Meryon and his followers faced in 1825 is not unlike the one faced by the people of Rye today.

In 1973 our franchise was taken from us. Rye lost its corporate status and handed power to Rother. In fact power was handed to Bexhill for now, as the position stands, it is the majority that Bexhill commands on the District Council that has governed events here in Rye. Our Town Council has advisory power only. Worse still, there is a political alliance between County and District and their combined power can dictate every major development in this town.

Rye Town Council are doing their best to achieve ‘Quality Council Status’ and wrest control of some basic elements back from Aldermen. This exercise is proving difficult to attain and even if acquired it will be a fight to get any meaningful items, such as the Car Parks, back from Bexhill.

Let us remind ourselves how the old pre – 1973 Rye Borough Council worked.

There were 12 Councillors elected by the people of Rye for a period of three years. Elections were carried out every year for the four places vacated by those ending their term. Then there were four Rother nominated by the Councillors and who kept this position until they resigned or died. These were generally men who had done long service as councillors. Councillors and Aldermen were UNPAID, just as the Rye Town Councillors of today.

There was a Town Clerk, Borough Surveyor, Assistant Borough Surveyor, Rent Collector, Mayor’s Secretary and two further office staff these were all salaried.

Wages were paid to the refuse collectors, a team of three using the Council’s own vehicle. Two street cleaners, who kept all of Rye’s Streets spotless, two gardeners who maintained the Cemetery, Gungarden (which in those days was a picture of colour), Salts and other green areas. There were two men responsible for maintaining the Cobbled streets and repairing paving stones and holes on all the streets of Rye except the main through road which was the responsibility of County. Two more men looked after maintenance of the council houses, including plumbing. Two, possibly three other men were employed dealing with rubbish as it was delivered to the disposal area and maintaining the sewage works.

The men were all local and took great pride in their jobs and their town. At times of need they worked on projects outside their own description, for example they all mucked in to clear snow when the town streets were blocked.

The Borough employed Contractors and builders for any large road or building project and it was usual for local firms to be selected.

Prior to the local government reorganisation the Borough owned or controlled The Salts, The Cemetery, The Gungarden,Gibbets Marsh, the old Gas Works site, Ypres Castle, The Town Hall and adjacent cottage, The Lion Street School, the old Soup Kitchen at the top of Rope Walk and the ground where all the car parks are situated, save for the Market and Station Car Parks and every Council House on Tilling Green and Kings Avenue. There were also council houses on the left hand side of Udimore road plus other properties dotted around the town.

After 1973 Rye was subjected to rule by Rother. There were three Rye representatives on the 44 strong Council. Last year this number was reduced to 39 with just two members from Rye. Rother Councillors, unlike those from the Rye Council are paid substantial amounts, taking the voluntary aspect out of the equation and putting an extra burden on the council ratepayer. This is the first extra expense but that is just peanuts when one looks down the list of paid council officers on the Rother list. They have departments for just about everything you could imagine and some you would not dream of.

Money is being dished out on a scale of enormous proportions. Half a million a year on the De La Warr Pavilion plus millions on other Bexhill projects, a big percentage of which comes straight out of the Rother purse. Bexhill gets the main benefits from Rother because there is a majority of District Councillors from the Bexhill catchment area, so what Bexhill wants, Bexhill gets. If you are in any doubt of this statement please refer to George Shackleton who has a dossier on the spending of Rother and the imbalance that it shows towards Rye and the rural area ratepayers who are footing an unfair share of the bill.

All Rye has received, of any note, over the thirty years of Rother occupation is the Swimming Pool and this was funded mainly out of Lottery funds which came as a result of the major efforts the Rye Swimming Pool Association had put in over a period of years.

When Margaret Thatcher decreed that anyone renting a house should get the right to buy it Rother was at the forefront in selling off council housing stock. Because Rye had been a Borough that looked after its inhabitants in the period just before and after the war there was a greater proportion of council house building per capita than anywhere else in the Rother District. Mr Shackleton records that Rother sold off Rye’s stock to the tune of £4,000,000. This money is tied and only the interest can be used. Rother have used the interest to the last penny but the £4,000,000 is still there and if Rye were to regain her Borough status it may be possible to get this money back and use the interest in the town’s interest.

I have been asked the question many times. If Rye were to become a Borough again could she afford to run efficiently without having to raise a rate in excess of that taken by Rother? My answer is simple. Yes, with better services and for less money.

The next question is HOW? Those ‘Men of Rye’ of 200 years ago faced the same seemingly impossible task. They wanted a say in how their town was run, they wanted to elect their own Town Council and not see it be run by, and taken advantage of, by a few with their own interests at heart.

Now Rye wants to vote for a Rye Council that has power to run this town and not be ruled and taken advantage of by a town (Bexhill) that is not even a member of the Cinque Ports.

The newly formed Democracy for Rye group is looking into every aspect and possibility of regaining the right for the people of Rye, through their freely elected Council, to run their own affairs.

A document is being prepared covering the costing of running the town in the same way as pre 1973 taking into account the vastly changed laws that govern employment, insurance and local government. It will point out the unique and important history of the town, which was listed in the top five towns worthy of preservation by British Heritage in 1967. This document will go to Rye Town Council for comment and support.

It is also enlisting the support of eminent people around the country to back up a move towards restoring the Ancient Town’s Borough status. The ‘Men of Rye’ first approached the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1824 and put their case to him. Rye may in 2005 go by this same route. The new Warden is a very capable man and is taking an active interest in his post and of its history. Then, following in the footsteps of the ‘Men of Rye’ in 1825, an approach may be made to Parliament, via our elected M.P. It could be that a Private Members Bill would have to be sought. No stones must be left unturned to restore a fair system of self government to a town which had managed its own affairs for 900 years before the 1973 Act left it without power of any substance.

To achieve Borough status again Rye will need the support of everyone in the town. Political affinities should be cast aside. Rye had by tradition an INDEPENDENT COUNCIL who put Rye and the people of Rye’s concerns before any party or self interest. Rye Councillors of old would squirm to hear some of the silly cross party bickering that goes on in Rye Town Hall.

There are good Rye Councillors putting many hours of their own time into making the best of the tiny amount of power and influence they do have, all unpaid. Don’t rely on reports in the paper go along to the Council Meetings at 6pm. on Mondays and see for yourselves who are the men and women fighting for Rye and those who are pushing the party line. See for yourselves who are the regular attenders and who are the absentees.

Democracy is the thing that makes this country free, take interest and help Rye regain proper self government again. Make sure when you vote in two years time that the elected councillors are the best to take on the responsibilities of such an important task.

Think not of what Rye can do for you but of what you can do for Rye.

From July 2005 Issue of “Rye’s Own”