They Took Over the Town Hall

Fed Up with ‘Jobs for the Boys’, Corruption and Discrimination the men of Rye Elected their own Mayor and Councillors and Took Over The Town Hall

By 1825 the Lamb family had dominated politics in Rye for 100 years,
providing the Mayor 23 times out of the 25 since the turn of the century,
most of the jurats and freeman were either family or supporters. This
had been achieved by the ‘Freeman’ system introduced in the days when
Rye played an important and very active part in building, maintaining
and manning the Cinque Ports Fleet. There were about 40 Freemen of
Rye and only a Freeman had a vote.

To become enfranchised there were only two ways. By birth as the eldest
surviving son of a Freeman or by election, one citizen a year was
voted in as a Freemen by Jurats and Freemen on Mayoring Day.

It became a natural thing for other educated men who resided and had
businesses in Rye to protest against a system that was not democratic
and open to corruption. In that year of 1825 a movement began in Rye
which eventually lead to a greater democracy taking place over the
whole country.

Leaders of the revolt were the Meryon Family, descendants of French
Huguenots and trade rival of the Lambs. They were assisted by William
Holloway, later to write “Holloway’s History of the Town and Port
of Rye” and Dr. Charles Lewis Meryon of London.

Holloway and Dr. Meryon’s researches supplied the historical ammunition
on which the forthcoming campaign would be based.

On the 4 May 1825 over 50 ‘Men of Rye’ as they named themselves, applied
to a King’s Judge and were granted the right to take the oath of allegiance
and be admitted to all rights and privileges belonging to the town.
Their names were enrolled. They requested to be admitted to future
meetings of the Corporation. They were refused. On the 15 May over
twenty more householders took the oath and had their names enrolled.

Nothing more happened until 28 October. Early that morning the men
of Rye made their way to the spot in the Churchyard where Mr. Holloway’s
researches discovered had stood the old cross and where, tradition
had it, the elections had previously taken place. Among the party
were two Freemen, John Meryon and William Prosser. They owed no allegiance
to the Lamb’s as they had been admitted as Freemen by birth right.
An election was held with Mr. Meryon voting for himself and Mr. Prosser
voting for Mr. Meryon. John Meryon was nominated as Mayor of Rye.

No one knows how much the Lamb administration knew of the ‘goings-on’
at the sight of the old cross but the following Monday when they met
to vote in the Rev. William Dodson, a non-resident Freeman related
to the Lambs by marriage, as the new Mayor the Meryon party were there
and demanded their man to be sworn in as Mayor. All hell broke loose.
The request was refused by the retiring Mayor, William Phillip Lamb
and amidst the hubbub, Mr. Whitton, the “Men of Rye’s” solicitor,
swore in John Meryon as Mayor.

John Meryon and his party then retired from the Chamber and Rev. Dobson
was elected by the supporters of the Lamb’s.

John Meryon returned to the Town Hall on 7 September and his party
requested that Mr. Dobson swore Meryon in as the true Mayor of Rye.
This request was refused but the fun was not to end there.

Men of Rye Gathered in Market Street

On Tuesday 18 October, the ‘Men of Rye’ gathered in Market Street
outside the Town Hall. They were admitted by we know not whom, suffice
to say that John Meryon, accompanied by his 12 jurats, all clad in
scarlet robes, entered the Hall and barricaded themselves in. Shortly
after Mr. Dobson and his jurats arrived and demanded the bench be
vacated to them but the boot was on the other foot and they were refused
entry. They retired to Mountsfield Lodge, the residence of W. P. Lamb
to consider their position.

For six weeks ‘Mayor’ John Meryon resided at the Town Hall, doing
the work of the council. They administered justice and even held an
inquest on a man who had hanged himself.

The short Mayoralty of John Meryon and his jurats came to an end when
a King’s Court order required them to hand the Town Hall back to the
legal Mayor and they vacated the Chamber leaving all intact. Important
information had be gleaned from the papers held at the Town Hall however,
including a pact that had been signed by five jurats as far back as

This was but the start of the battle. A newspaper “The Rye Gazette”,
claimed by some to be a ‘scandalous rag,’ fought on the side of the
reformers. Slowly the franchise was extended as the Lambs bowed to
pressure. Unfortunately the new Freemen came mainly from friends and
supporters of the Lambs and there was still a great discontentment
among sections of the Rye community.

Riot Act Read

This was amplified in 1830 when local farmers, who were unhappy about
the new lock being built to dam off the Military Canal were supported
by the people of Rye and, in a desperate show of their disenchantment
with the system as much as in support of the farmers, did £3,000 worth
of damage (a huge sum in that time) to Scots Float Sluice. The Riot
Act was read and bullets were fired over the heads of the rioters
before they dispersed. This was the last recorded time the Riot Act
was read and the guns actually fired in England. Whatever the justification
it proves that Ryer’s are a very determined lot when they are roused.

Change was demanded throughout the Cinque Ports by this time and soon
the whole country was following Rye’s lead and demanding reform.

In 1832 William Phillip Lamb became the last of the family to lead
the Corporation, the dynasty reached back over 100 years to 1723 when
James Lamb was elected Mayor of Rye. During those years a Lamb had
occupied the Mayoral seat no less than 73 times!

It all came to an end with the Reform Act of 1836. The men of Rye
saw their efforts bear fruit and a wider franchise resulted in a fairer

There was a Celebration Reform Dinner held at The George Hotel where
Colonel Evans told the assembled guests, which included many of the
original ‘Men of Rye’ that “The odious system is destroyed. The Nation’s
liberties are won. Words cannot adequately express the feelings this
happy event inspires.”

John Meryon never became Mayor but forty six years later another member
of the Meryon family, Charles Pix Meryon, did. Just one year after
the death of Reform leader William Holloway in 1870, Charles was elected
Mayor and was to become the longest incumbent of Rye’s Mayoral seat
in the history of the town. He was elected for nine consecutive years
and only vacated the seat on his death in December 1879.

Mary Brocket 1827-1906 married 1866 London Charles Pix Meryon married
Mary Brocket in London in 1886. Unfortunately a single child died
young so there was not another Meryon to carry the name. His widow
Mary resumed her maiden name in 1896 to become Lady of Spains Hall
1896-1906 in accordance with her father’s will. Charles Pix Meryon’s
executors were William and Edwin Dawes his estate was valued at £46,199
10s 2d.

With acknowledgements to William Holloway’s History of Rye and Leapold
Vidler’s New History of Rye.

First Published in the December 2007 issue of “Rye’s Own”