Street Names of Rye

By Kenneth Clark

Reprinted from a 1967 Issue of Rye’s Own

“In 1859”, wrote H. P. Clarke in his “Guide and History of Rye”, printed in 1861, “the houses were numbered and the names of the street were foolishly altered; as events in history often give names to streets.

For instance. . . the Mint was so named in consequence of money being coined there. Jarrett’s Yard after the owner’s name. Middle Street being in the middle of the town.  But now, the Mint is named High Street; Jarrett’s Yard, Market Road; Middle Street, Wish Street. Here is confusion without benefit or good result. . . Antiquity is all that Rye can boast of”, he continued, “then why rob it of that?” An investigation of the various names assigned to the streets of the town “within the walls” from time to time will demonstrate the validity or otherwise of Clark’s statement.

“The Needles” was “Coggles or Carpenter’s Lane” in the days of Sameul Jeake I (hereinafter referred to as “Jeake”). It was a cul-de-sac within the wall, the southern end of which-leading to Cinque Ports Street-was opened up by the Corporation around 1860 under the name of Vennalls Passage (the Vennalls were a prominent local family until well into this century). Unfortunately, the origin of its present name, “The Needles”, has already been lost. G. S. Bagley has ingeniously suggested (reading “Goggles” for “Coggles”) “eyes”, associating eyes of a needle to which the entrances to this passage have been compared, whereas the late L.A Luxmoore pointed out the “coggles” also meant “cobbles”. The passage is private property and is closed on Good Friday to preserve the owner’s rights.

Market Road in Jeake’s day was a cul-de-sac terminating at the town wall; the approach thereto was called Nether Lane. During the next century-the eighteenth steps were erected so that the town wall could be crossed and by the end of that century it was known as Jarrett’s Yard. In the early part of the nineteenth century it was the “Cattle Market”. When the wall was dismantled and a thoroughfare provided the name Market Hill appeared.

Many have been the variations in the name of the High Street. In the seventeenth century it was “Lower Street”, although, according to the late L. A. Luxmoore, its original name was “Long Strete” running as it did from the Land Gate to the Strand Gate (the Mint had no independent existence until the nineteenth century, when it was first called Mint Street). On account of its association with the Longe family, who played a prominent part in the town’s affairs in the sixteenth century, the street became recognised as Longer Street, a name which survived at least in popular usage until the last century.

In the seventeenth century Market Street consisted of two parts, the “Butchery” and the “Market”. At an earlier date the whole of the present Market Street was called “Boucherie” or “Le Butcherie”, a name which survived well into the eighteenth century. As its name implies, this was the butchery of the town and a none too pleasant part 300 years ago, made even more unpleasant by the butchers throwing their offal and stable clearings into the churchyard. This part of Rye was improved  by the construction of the new Town Hall in 1742. The Market beneath the town hall had fallen into disuse by the middle of the last century; in 1866 the new fire engine was placed “in the market under the Town Hall”.

Mermaid Street was originally designated as Middle Street, a name it retained until the early nineteenth century, when it became “Strand Hill”. Towards the end of the last century, it received its present name. Vicarage Lane linked Middle Street with the butchery, a branch of which led directly to the West door of the Church. It was enclosed in the early part of the last century.

Many streets, however, remained unnamed until a very late date. Among these may be included East Street, West Street and Lion Street, although the latter became “Red Lion Street” towards the end of the eighteenth century, thereby commemorating the fame of the inn placed so conveniently near to the Town Hall. Curiously West Street assumed the description of Middle Street, when that name was discarded for Mermaid Street.

Two street names alone have remained unaltered – Watchbell Street and Watchbell Lane. These acquired their names from the Watchbell, which was erected in Watchbell Lane after the French attack of 1377 when the bells of the church were stolen.

Have the alterations outlined above been detrimental to the antiquity of the town? Are not the names Market Street, Mermaid Street and High Street as steeped in history as “Boucherie”, Middle Street and Long Strete? The answer must assuredly be in the negative. Yet, for all this, are not buildings, the inhabitants thereof and the functions performed therein from time to time of greater importance than the names given to the streets themselves-which are often misleading?

It is suggested that the importance of street names can be grossly over-estimated. Consequently, although the truth of Clark’s contention cannot be denied, one can still say with Coventry Patmore that “in the singularly old-world character of the streets, and in the truly superb and always different views at the end of most of them, consist the alterations of the town”.