Shipbuilding at Smallhythe Place

A boat on a waterway in 1905

At the height of its success, Smallhythe was a community of around 200 people, most of whom were involved in shipbuilding. What is now farmland was once the great River Rother, a river that provided an important link between Tenterden and Rye, and had several royal commissions built there.

The origins of shipbuilding in Smallhythe

In 1410, The Marie, a 100 ton vessel, was built at Smallhythe for Henry IV. Four years later, Henry V came to the shipyard to see two vessels that he had commissioned being built - The Jesus, the first ship of 1,000 tons, and The George, a balinger of 120 tons. A balinger was a craft that could be rowed as well as sailed; in the 15th century they were used for scouting and raiding purposes.

Throughout the 15th century, Smallhythe continued as a successful shipyard but in the 16th century activity began to decline with the silting up of the river and the establishment of new shipyards elsewhere. Local craftsmen had to look further afield for work and in 1514, 37 men from Smallhythe walked 44 miles to Woolwich to take part in the building of the Henry Grace a Dieu.  At 1400 tons, it was the largest warship in the world and capable of carrying up to 1000 men. The ship was commissioned by Henry VIII as a replacement for the 600 ton Regent, which had been built downstream from Smallhythe at Reading Street in 1486 and lost in battle in 1512.

In 1546 Henry VIII ordered The Great Gallyon to be built at Smallhythe. At 300 tons, she was the last of the Great Ships, the last Royal Commission for Smallhythe and the last large vessel to be built there.

The decline of shipbuilding

In 1636, a great storm destroyed a dam upstream on the River Rother, which resulted in the main flow of the river reverting to the course that it had taken up to 300 years previously, to the south of the Isle of Oxney. Initially, the old stretch of the river continued to be an important highway for cargo such as iron and wood, but it gradually silted up and larger ships could no longer reach Smallhythe. Consequently, the port and ship-building activities declined. By the end of the 18th century, only small boats and barges could navigate the river.

With the draining of the Romney Marsh to the southeast, it eventually became impossible for vessels to navigate between the sea and Smallhythe. The last record of a sailing vessel to reach Smallhythe was at the beginning of the 20th century.