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The port community of Smallhythe

The 16th-century buildings at Smallhythe Place, Kent
The 16th-century buildings at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Before the decline of the port and shipyard at Smallhythe in the 16th century, the surrounding community was a key part of the shipbuilding workforce creating vessels for many significant figures including royalty. Learn about Smallhythe’s important shipbuilding families, the people that made the community and what existed before the port lost its workers.

Shipbuilding at Smallhythe

Smallhythe, found on the River Rother, was one of the most significant shipbuilding centres of medieval England from the 13th to the mid-16th century. Its decline as a prosperous port came when the river began to silt up, leading to larger ships not being able to reach the area.

In 1636, a great storm destroyed the dam upstream changing the course of the water and, despite being a vital highway for iron and wood cargo, the last noted vessel at Smallhythe was at the start of the 20th century.

The port and community

Prior to Smallhythe’s decline as a port and shipyard in the 16th century, the area was thriving with activity. At the height of its success, Smallhythe was a community of around 200 people, most of whom were involved in shipbuilding.

The population would have increased by transient workers when large vessels were being built, and by sailors joining and leaving the ships.

The main settlement was centred on the road leading down to the riverbank and on Strand Syde, the road along the north bank of the river. Strand Syde was the area where most of the shipbuilding activity took place.

From here a ferry crossing to the Isle of Oxney provided an important link between the Cinque Port towns of Tenterden to the north and Rye and Winchelsea to the south.

National Trust sign for Smallhythe Place, Kent
National Trust sign for Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/Layton Thompson

The important shipbuilding families

During the 15th century, local society was dominated by several wealthy families involved in shipbuilding. One of the most successful and significant residents was Sir Robert Brigandyne.

He was clerk of ships to Henry VIII and supervised the design and construction of the Mary Rose. He lived and worked in the house now known as Priest's House, next to Smallhythe Place.

The successful shops of Smallhythe

Toward the end of the 16th century, the community supported several inns and shops. There was a mercer's shop which provided a variety of goods including Holland cloth, saffron, prunes, sugar, aquavit (strong spirits), silk, white pepper, quicksilver, and gunpowder.

The shop was in a large timber-framed house and the proprietor, Henry Badcock, lived above the shop ‘in considerable comfort’. He had another equally well-stocked shop down river at Appledore.

The deterioration of a community

Smallhythe’s decline in the 16th century as a prosperous port and shipyard made it difficult for ship workers to find employment.

After 1549, records of marriages, baptisms and deaths diminished in number, suggesting a fall in population, leading to an enquiry held to establish the need to retain the chapel at Smallhythe.

One witness said: ‘There is no haven there, saving only a creeke of salt water where no ship can come buy onely lyters and such kind of small vessels - and that only at full water.’

Five ship bolts circa 1500 dug up at Smallhythe Place in Kent
Five ship bolts circa 1500 dug up at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust/Andrew Fetherston

Smallhythe today

Where the port was in this part of Kent is now landlocked 12 miles from the coast, but is remembered for its busy days where many royal ships were built for figures such as Henry VI and Henry VIII.

Today the waterway just to the south of Smallhythe Place, called the Reading Sewer, follows the old course of the River Rother for some miles and forms part of the complex drainage system of the Wittersham Levels.

Time Team visit

Unlike nearby Rye and Winchelsea, Smallhythe was not a place of docks, quaysides, and merchant activity. Although there were some slipways cut into the riverbank, most of the shipbuilding, breaking and repairing activity took place at the river's edge.

Much of the archaeological evidence at Smallhythe is subtle. Traces of slipways are just visible as slight depressions in the fields to the east and west of Smallhythe Place, but the lightweight wooden landing stages have left no archaeological remains.

The Deserted Medieval Shipyard

Channel 4's Time Team visited Smallhythe Place in 1998 to carry out a number of surveys, including a study of aerial photographs and the opening of several exploratory trenches. A broken frame from a clinker-built vessel was found, as well as numerous iron fastenings and clench nails.

The findings from these surveys along with written historical evidence led to a new class of field monument being declared of the Deserted Medieval Shipyard.

Traditional Kentish house and barns reflected in pond in foreground beneath blue skies

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