Mermaid Street 1891

By Sheila Maddock
with drawings by Brian Hargreaves

A poor quarter:

This look at Mermaid Street is based on data from the 1891 census. It is known that at this period Mermaid Street was a run-down area, and the fact that it led directly up from the Strand, which was the main port area of the town, suggests it may well have been a rather disreputable street at times. It was still a run-down area well into the twentieth century.

A couple living there in two rooms in the fifties talked about the rats. The photo shows a Russian bear used for entertainment.  It was tethered at night behind the Jolly Sailor on what is now the south side of Church Square.

Looking at the 1891 census, one of the most striking things was the number of children present, in contrast with Mermaid Street today where there are no children living permanently. There were a total of 70 children living in the street, 54 attending school and the others under school age.

The 1891 education act had finally made schooling free, so most of the school age children are listed as scholars, and although there were many small private schools in the town, the majority of these poorer children would have gone to one of the two ‘Board Schools’ in either Mermaid Street or Lion Street.

The school in Mermaid Street had been built as ‘The Mermaid Street National School’ in 1867, (the date can still be made out on the Mermaid Street wall of the building, picked out in coloured brick) and at that time took both boys and girls, but by 1891 the girls and infants went to the school in Lion Street (then known as Red Lion Street), and the Mermaid Street school took boys.


There were 42 households listed in Mermaid Street itself (with a total of 199 people) and another 8 households in Mermaid Yard (with 31 people). What sort of work were these people doing? There were seven men listed as sailors or fishermen, and six men working as ship builders/repairers. There may also have been some men absent at sea, as in some households the head of household was not present.

The largest category of employment was ‘general labourer’ which presumably means men who would work at whatever offered itself at different seasons. Other trades mentioned included John Reeves, a miller, Walter Hopper a baker who worked for John Reeves, and William Phillpott, a shoemaker.

Among the women common occupations were needle-woman and laundress. Selina Hall, Frances Talland and Edith Palmer were dressmakers and Catherine Paine, Lydia Hollands and Eliza Stone were laundresses. The laundresses may have worked on their own account, but by this stage there were commercial laundries where they may have been employed. There were several people of both sexes working as servants.

The Wealthy:

There were a few more affluent people listed, including a wine and spirit merchant, Henry Pepper, who had two servants. Henry Pepper lived in what is now called the First House (1 Mermaid Street) with his wife and baby son. Sadly, even among the more affluent, the mortality rate was high, and within five years both Henry and his wife had died.

The First House has an interesting history. It was originally built by the Lambs, and was part of the Lamb House complex, possibly used as offices. It was rented out by the 1840s, and was eventually sold at auction in 1883, together with various other lots of Lamb property, including Lamb House.

Number 4, one of the other large houses in Mermaid Street, was occupied by Edgar Stonham, a corn merchant, and his wife and servants.

Jeake’s House, further down the street, has a particularly interesting history. It was once the wool storehouse for Samuel Jeake the Younger. Below it are two houses once used by Rye’s Baptists and Quakers.  There is a separate article on Jeake’s House.

There are also six people listed as living on own means, but these means may have been quite limited, as they were mainly elderly women living in with their family.

The Mermaid:

The Mermaid Inn is not mentioned in the census, as it was not functioning as an inn at this period, and was let as lodgings. Interestingly, it had been an inn from 1600 and probably much earlier; the cellar is probably 13th century and there are many traces of Tudor work in the building. It was a favourite of smugglers, in particular the Hawkhurst Gang but  from the mid 1700s it declined and became tenements

In a book published in 1877 the author, Louis Jennings, describes visiting Rye and asking for the Mermaid Inn. Most people had never heard of it, and eventually he finds ‘an ancient man’ who shows him where it used to be. The inn had been closed at that stage for many years, and ‘a labouring man’ was living in it.

The Mermaid had resumed its function as an inn by the time of the 1901 census.

Hartshorn House:

This 16th century house is just below the Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street and its state at the end of the 19th century, as indicated in the photo, probably indicates the state of the Mermaid Inn at the same time. Hartshorne House had been the residence of Samuel Jeake II. It was part of the dowry brought by his wife Elizabeth on their marriage in 1670 and was then one of the town’s finest homes.

In the earlier part of the 19th century the house was used as a hospital for Napoleonic War victims–perhaps one reason for its sorry state.

Fortunately, this house, like the Mermaid Inn, was restored just in time .

Where People Came From:

Most of the people in Mermaid Street at this time were born either in Rye, or in nearby villages in Kent and Sussex, but there were also people from elsewhere. Fisherman William Batchelor who was born in Rye, had a wife from Cornwall. Perhaps he met her on a sea voyage to the West Country.

However the most travelled person in the Street was a Harriett Bradley, who was born in Hampshire, and had seven children, each one born in a different county. These included Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Pembrokeshire, with the youngest being born in Rye. As her husband was not present on the night of the census, there was no information about his occupation. The 1881 census shows the family living in St Ives (Huntingdonshire) and reveals that Harriett’s husband William was a Wesleyan minister, explaining why his family had moved every couple of years.

So the picture that emerges of the street at this date is of a bustling area full of children, with a few wealthier people living among the poorer majority, rather than being segregated from them.  One wonders how many of the Mermaid Street School boys in this slightly later  photo actually lived on Mermaid Street.


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