Ship Building in Rye

Text slightly adapted from an article by John Collard (1998)

Rise to Importance

The shipbuilding industry in Rye and the estuary of the River Rother, together with the manifold trades required to meet maritime requirements, has for centuries undergone phases of boom and depression. Its varying fortunes have been brought about or accentuated by physical changes in the Harbour, by wars, by technological developments and by trends in the national economy.

In the Middle Ages two factors were immensely favourable to shipbuilding in the Rother estuary, neither of which can be said to obtain today. The first was the ready supply of timber from the forest of Andredsweald and the second was the navigability of the rivers Rother, Brede and Tillingham.

There is firm evidence of shipbuilding in Rye in the form of a royal order of 1223 which forbade the export of timber because the King (Henry III) was proposing to build ships and galleys. Eight years later Winchelsea (i.e. the old port before being evacuated) was ordered to send a carpenter for the King’s ship at Portsmouth. Between 1237 and 1243 the King’s galleys were lying at Rye and Winchelsea and in the last year seven were laid up in Rye. By this time Rye and Winchelsea had royal dockyards and storehouses which were essential both to meeting the considerable fishing requirements of the royal household and also for supporting overseas trading which extended to the Spanish coast.

Repairs to the King’s galleys were carried out at Rye in 1252 and again in 1253. In 1294, following a typical engagement in the Channel with the French, general preparations for the defence of the English coast were made known and the King (Edward I) ordered two galleys of 120 oars to be built at the new town of Winchelsea. This was only six years after old Winchelsea had been completely evacuated so little time had been lost in re-establishing the reputation of Winchelsea shipwrights. Out of 10 ports including London only Winchelsea and Bristol were given orders for more than one galley.

When the Hundred Years War with France started in 1337, Rye was building at least four ships which were to form an important part of the Cinque Ports Fleet. They were La Michael (244 tons), La Nicholas (120 tons) La Palmere (60 tons) and La Edmond (60 tons). These square rigged ships with stern-mounted rudders and forecastles and after castles at bow and stern are well depicted on the seals of the Cinque Ports.

The La Michael was the largest English vessel to take part in the battle of Sluys near Blanckenberg in 1340, during which bowmen firing from the high decks were able to kill hundreds of the enemy before fighting between the boarding parties even began.

Further up the Rother shipbuilding was taking place at Smallhythe which served as the port for Tenterden. In 1420 under the auspices of the King (Henry V), a 120 ton ballinger (a clinker-built two-masted ship) was built at Smallhythe by William Catton who had the title of ‘Keeper of the King’s Ships’. Catton is also accredited with the building at Winchelsea of the 1000 ton Jesus which was the second largest ship in Henry V’s fleet.

Decline in Fortunes

By the middle of the 15th. century there were unmistakable signs that the natural advantages which Rye and Winchelsea shipbuilders derived from the forested hinterland and the navigable rivers flowing down from Sedlescombe (on the Brede) and Bodiam (on the Rother) were diminishing. The iron furnaces of the Weald using water power for smelting had been devouring trees so rapidly that timber for shipbuilding was becoming relatively scarce. Rather late in the day there was legislation (in 1558) prohibiting the use of timber in the furnaces. At the same time geo-physical changes were taking place in the Rother estuary which spelt difficulty and even disaster for some shipbuilders.

The sea, having overwhelmed old Winchelsea at the end of the 13th. century, now proceeded to build up a bar in the new port, causing the River Brede to become increasingly narrow and shallow, and enabling acres of land formerly part of the. tidal lagoon to be ’inned’, i.e. reclaimed for agriculture. In consequence, well before the end of the 15th century, Winchelsea’s shipbuilding industry had ceased to exist. If there were expectations that Rye shipbuilding would benefit from the demise of Winchelsea such hopes were not fulfilled. Even for the purposes of the Agincourt campaign in 1415, the King (Henry V) had to supplement his fleet by hiring transports from Holland and Zealand.

The practice of ’inning’ which had brought about the closure of the Port of Winchelsea was also affecting navigation in the upper and middle reaches of the Rivers Rother and Tillingham. The consequential adverse effects on shipping interests were further aggravated by the fitting of merchant ships with guns above the bulwark rail. Such ships had to be deep draught to maintain stability and were therefore quite unsuited to the shoals and shallows of Rye Harbour. Nor could it have been easy for Rye shipbuilders to change from clinker planking construction to carvel as became necessary when water-tight gunports had to be cut close to the water line. Men of war now began to be differentiated from merchantmen and with the reign of Henry VIII the era of impressment of ships came.

Taking into account the cumulative effects of siltation through inning, the diminution of local timber resources, the evolution of deep draught men of war and recent appalling outbreaks of the plague, it is not surprising that the response of Rye to Queen Elizabeth’s urgent request for ships to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588 was meagre. In the event the only contribution made by Rye was a 50 tonner supply ship which was hired and fitted out with the assistance of Tenterden.

Under the Stuart kings and well into the 18th century orders for new ships from Rye were rare but the shipyards would have been occupied servicing the numerous merchantmen colliers and fishing boats which continued to use the port.

A cross-channel passenger service to Dieppe was running in the 17th century and there were river barges on which the famous gun foundries near Battle, Robertsbridge and Seddlescombe depended for the carriage of their heavy cargoes down to Rye for export.

Even in 1700, except for the roadway leading northwards from the Landgate, Rye was still an island relying largely on water transport. as shown in this painting attributed to Hendrick Danckerts (1630-1679), retouched by his followers c1740.

In the absence of bridges, three ferries owned by the Rye Corporation had to be maintained to save travellers undergoing circuitous journeys on bad roads.

While the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum in the latter part of the 18th century in the Midlands and North, the Port of Rye was being held back first by the disastrous attempt to create the New Harbour mouth at Winchelsea Beach and later by the serious threat of an invasion by Napoleon.

An exceptional event was the launching in 1787 of the Salisbury, a 200 ton cutter which was the only sizeable ship to make the passage out of Rye through the shortlived new outlet to the sea. Unfortunately little seems to have come to light about the builders of the Salisbury or other shipyards at this difficult time.

Nor is it known whether any of the rafts for the floating batteries manned by the Sea Fencibles were built at Rye before being superseded by the Martello Towers.

Prosperity Returns

By the time the threat from Napoleon had finally lifted, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to have a dramatic impact on shipbuilding along the South and East coasts. After centuries of square-riggers and the battleworthy ‘wooden walls’ of the Royal Navy fundamental changes in ship design were taking place. The requirements of commerce boosted by the development of trade with North America were increasingly for fast sailing vessels which could be sailed close to the wind with the benefit of fore-and-aft rigging.

Prominent amongst the early Rye shipbuilders in the new era was the firm of Harvey and Staffell whose yard was situated below the Green Steps at the end of Watchbell Street and well known for its sloops, cutters and schooners. By mid 19th. century the demand for merchant ships had created a boom of which Rye was taking full advantage.

In the wake of Harvey and Staffell came the brothers Henry and James Hoad. They were the first of several generations of a family which achieved widespread fame both as shipbuilders and shipowners.

By mid-century other builders like Hessel and Holmes had won reputations for the design, craftsmanship and sailing qualities of their ships. Models of ships built in Rye may be seen at the East Street museum.

Several ships were  owned and traded on behalf of their Rye builders.One such ship was the clipper schooner Marian Zagury built for the fruit trade. The Illustrated London News credited Hessel and Holmes with having built the handsomest vessel ever built in the Port of Rye.

The firm of G & T Smith succeeded J C Hoad and became celebrated for ketch barges. The Rother Iron Works built steam ships in iron and wood near the mouth of Rock Channel. W E Clark  built smacks and river barges off the Winchelsea Road.

The clinker-built fishing boats of H J Phillips were made in Rock Channel are to be seen today all along the Sussex coast.

A sketch map prepared by researchers for the Rye Museum Association shows that these yards and their sail lofts were all situated near or between the Strand Quay and the confluence of Rock Channel with the River Rother.

The  Museum  has collected much  information about the ownership and output of the 19th. century shipyards.

Amongst the very large numbers of ships launched in this active period the following are only a few examples:

Shipyards and Their Ships

Building Firm Year of Launch Name Type Tonnage (usually gross)
Hoad Bros and J C Hoad 1847 Commodore Barque 182
  1850 Mystery Schooner 114
  1852 Vivid Brigantine 168
  1853 Chrysalis Barque 326
  1857 Glynn Brigantine 189
  1861 Emily Brigantine 145
  1872 Walrus Schooner 68
  1881 Lily Smack 33
Hessel & Holmes 1846 1846 Sussex Lass Schooner 138
  1847 Bodiam Castle Schooner 145
  1850 Madeira Pet Schooner 83
  1853 Syria Barque 282
  1853 Marian Zagury Clipper/Schooner 98
  1854 Stephen & Sarah Brig 191
  1857 Wellington Steamship 139
  1859 Fairy Rock Brig 179
  1869 Christabel Schooner 175
Rother Iron Works 1883 Gallant Steam tug 18
  1883 Pioneer (RX21) Steam Trawler  
W E Clark circa 1890 Water Lily River Barge  
  circa 1890 Primrose River Barge  
G & T Smith 1890 Mountsfield Ketch Barge 158
  1891 Diana Ketch Barge 144
  1896 Three Brothers (RX153) Smack 25
  1906 Dayspring (RX1) Ketch 15
  1912 Martinet Ketch Barge 120
  1913 Sarah Colebroke Aux Ketch 158

Keeping Afloat in Changing Times

It might have been difficult for shipping interests to realize that the Industrial Revolution was a two-faced friend. Before the end of the century the arrival of the railway and later the internal combustion engine started to darken the outlook but there were still some bright intervals.

In 1855 each of three Rye shipyards was given an order for a £7000 mortar boat destined for the Crimea and all three were launched between February and March 1856. Not long afterwards, the shipyards started to receive contracts for the building of lighters which for the next 50 years were needed to carry caissons made from Rye Harbour shingle to build the new outer arms of Dover Harbour.

Between 1882 and 1890 there was a decline in the number and tonnage of vessels entering the Port attributable to the partial blockage of the harbour mouth which in turn had created a crisis in the Harbour finances. It was therefore an act of faith in the future that induced John Symonds Vidler (Chairman of the Harbour Commission) and a number of friends to pay for a small fleet of ketch- rigged barges to keep the Rye-based coasting trade alive.

Each of five ships ordered was built at the yard of G. and T. Smith in Rock Channel and the enterprise proved commercially successful. Some ships had up to 40 shareholders but nobody who retained his shares until the outbreak of war in 1914 suffered any loss.

During the 1914-1918 war shipbuilding in Rye ceased with the exception of two steam drifters built by G. and T. Smith. The same yard was chosen in the 1939-1945 war first for making wooden pontoons to enable magnetic mines to be exploded at a distance and later for building eight 75 foot minesweepers, two of which sailed to Singapore.

It was not until the dogs of war had been brought under control in 1946 that any revival of traditional shipyard activity could be contemplated. Remarkably enough, one firm — that of H J Phillips, which started business in 1913 at Rock Channel House — managed to survive the 1930s world slump as well as two world wars and was ready to resume its peacetime role of building and repairing boats for fishing, commerce and recreation. Under the management of Derek Phillips, son of Henry Phillips and grandson of H.J. Phillips, this yard continued to thrive. [Ed. note: It is now gone too]

Boats for pleasure

The continuing problem of the Harbour mouth, the poor quality of berthing facilities and a Harbour management whose dominant priority was land drainage were not factors to encourage new shipbuilders and shipwrights. Defying these disadvantages several small boatyards and chandlers, in addition to Phillips, established themselves in the Rock Channel area to take advantage of the unprecedented post- war growth in amateur sailing.

The largest of the pleasure boats used by amateur sailors was The Three Brothers which was originally a fishing smack built in 1896 by G & T Smith but later converted to a cruising yacht. The Rye Museum has a model on display.

The popularity of boating and sailing for pleasure in the second half of the 20th century contributed to the bulk of the Harbour’s revenue and provided a variety of maintenance and service work for never less than four small yards. H.J. Phillips, the doyen of the builders, continued (albeit infrequently in recent years) to launch small fishing vessels built in wood using time-honoured methods.

Other yards have endeavoured to take advantage of the plastics revolution but competition from large-scale producers of fibre glass yachts and dinghies in the Solent area precluded a steady flow of orders. One firm, Lochin Marine at the mouth of Rock Channel, successfully built lifeboats for the R.N.L.I. before being taken over for other non-maritime purposes.

The owners of the small Rye shipyards still operating in 2000 had to adapt themselves to developments in electronics and technology which have transformed the ancient arts of ship design and navigation. They survived so long only because they were versatile, skilled and dedicated to their calling.

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