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Rye Harbour
Rye, East Sussex, UK
associated engineer
John Smeaton
date  1724 onwards, 1769 - 1773, completed by 1787
era  Georgian  |  category  Harbour  |  reference  TQ932189
These days Rye Harbour is 1.6km inland from the sea, and at low tide dries to a shallow pool a shadow of its former size. Rye was once a busy seaport, indeed one of the original Cinque Ports, but the silting up of the harbour and the arrival of the railway combined to decrease sea-borne trade.
The town of Rye, on the River Rother is now quite a long way from the sea. It sits high up on a ridge overlooking the harbour, which is now effectively marshland. The original natural harbour had ceased to be a viable seaport by 1698, when the Navy Commissioners and the Elder Brethren of Trinity House (who were responsible for coastal navigation matters) concluded that the harbour was beyond preservation.
However, local opinion didn't agree and several Acts of Parliament were passed in the 18th century about the harbour. The 1723 Act authorised a channel to be made from Winchelsea (which is the next town down the coast) on the River Brede to the sea.
In 1724 work began on a scheme to bring the three local rivers Brede, Rother and Tillingham together into a channel discharging to the sea through a new harbour. Contemporary minutes taken by the harbour commissioners suggest that work was episodic and held up by disputes, poor workmanship and financial difficulties.
John Smeaton was called in to advise in 1763, 39 years after work had started. He was involved with the construction of a new harbour channel between 1769 and 1773. The channel joined the rivers at what is now Winchelsea Beach. Remains of the 18th century outer channel, east pier and two pier heads are visible there to this day.
The harbour scheme was eventually fully completed in 1787 but was operational for just a few months before being abandoned in November 1787.
However, the quays along the river continued to operate. Trade improved when Dover Harbour was under construction (1847-71), because shingle for the concrete was carried eastwards along the coast by vessels from Rye. Some of the 7-8 tonne concrete blocks for the Dover piers were manufactured at Rye Harbour. Some of these blocks were left at Rye to act as a groyne to prevent shingle from clogging the river mouth.
In 1864, the river mouth was realigned to a straighter course, and by 1870 more moorings were needed. A steam tug was employed to tow ships in and out of the river harbour.
In the 1880s and 1890s Rye Harbour had shipyards, sail lofts, pilotage, customs, chandlery, warehouses and a locally built fleet of ketch rigged barges each around 230 tonnes. By 1900 there were several steam trawlers operating there. Today the river harbour is used by small commercial shipping, fishing vessels, coasters and pleasure craft.
The river harbour is maintained by the Environment Agency, whose duties include navigation, water quality, flood defence (from both rainwater runoff and tidal inundation), water resources, fishing, safety, conservation and recreation.
The 326 hectares of the whole of Rye Harbour and the surrounding area is a Local Nature Reserve, established in 1790 by East Sussex County Council. It lies within the 9,137 hectare Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Supervising engineer (1769-73): John Smeaton
Resident engineer (1769-73): William Green
Research: ECPK
bibliography
www.environment-agency.gov.uk
www.ryemuseum.co.uk
www.wildrye.info
reference sources   JS
Location

Rye Harbour