In 2000, Rye Town Council decided to advertise for a new Town Crier. The genial man sat before me, his mellow voice suffused with a gentle Hertfordshire accent, was the person appointed to the post. To this day, he can be heard, VERY LOUDLY meeting and greeting the arrival of newly-weds, town mayors, and sundry dignitaries; this is called, appropriately, a “Shout”.
“I have got a naturally loud voice” says Rex Swain, “I saw the job advertised and thought I’d have a go. I wanted something to do, and thought – I can do that. There were three of us and we had the competition in the churchyard. I was on first, and the other two decided not to bother because I was so loud!”
Rex had arrived in Rye from Welham Green, Herts. in 1950 aged 18, after his mother, Fergie, remarried. The family moved into Ferry Cottage on Strand Quay after lodging briefly with Charlie Bourne in Kings Avenue. Fergie taught piano and also played at most of the dances in local village halls, eventually forming a small dance band. It was at a dance at Playden Village Hall that Rex met Rita Hobbs, now his wife of 61 years, and it is where their mutual love of ballroom dancing began.
For most of his working life, Rex was employed at Spun Concrete in Rye Harbour. “I started there doing office work and then I realised how much more money than me the men made working outside, so I swapped pen for shovel. I finished up there as yard foreman. I retired when the company closed down. I was 64”.
Despite being asthmatic all his life, Rex was captain of the Rye Aces Cycle Speedway Club in his younger days, whose track was on the Salts. “Every village had a cycle track” Rex tells me “I was also a good darts player, playing for the county and I played at the Pipemakers Arms for many years. Rita and I have always been keen on walking and wildlife. I think my daughter inherited that love from me as she is now in charge of wildlife for the MOD [Ministry of Defence} on Salisbury Plain” His other daughter lives in St Leonards and sings with the Rye Singers, whilst his granddaughter was on the production team of the recent film of the Jungle Book.
The role of town crier began in the 17th century. “Originally they were a walking newspaper as people couldn’t read so they employed someone to shout it for them” he explains “Rye had been without one for ten years so the town decided they wanted one for the new millennium. Originally, it was for civic duties like Mayoring Day and things like that, but then they licensed the town hall for weddings and it went crazy.” Some of those civic duties do not always go to plan. “The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was coming and Richard, the Town Clerk, said to me ‘when he pulls up in his car I want you to do your Oyez’ – I saw the car coming around the corner so I started but it turned out to be the wrong car – it was the Harbour Master from Rye Harbour!” Rex laughs at the memory, but as a true professional, I suspect he might have been a bit embarrassed by it. There have been certain changes to civil marriages since Rex began, including the introduction of gay weddings, as well as couples including their pets in the ceremony. “One couple bought their cat on a lead and two gay fellas asked if they minded if they brought their dog as a bridesmaid. You also have to be careful what you say. Once I was saying ‘God bless this marriage’ and the bride and groom turned out to be Jehovah’s Witnesses and weren’t very happy. Nowadays I always check!”.
Dressed in his regalia, as his 18th century replica uniform is called, he has, over the years, willingly dressed up and given his services free to help raise money for many charities in the town, including Rye Harbour Lifeboat, Rye Playgroup and many of the charity events held in Rae Festing’s garden in the High Street. “When I first started as Town Crier I used to go around talking to Women’s
Institutes and so forth and I was quite successful”. Unfortunately, the travelling became too much as he was asked to speak further and further afield so he decided to stop. He continues “I used to tell them about the old Rye characters like ‘Stuttering’ Charlie, ‘Crusty’ Crampton, ‘Dead Flesh’ Hilder and ‘Pinko’ Boreham” These were fishermen and drinking companions of Rex at the Ypres in his younger days. Rex never wanted to fish with his friends, despite being in such close proximity to all things fishing at Strand Quay “I went out once and was very seasick!”
After such a long time spent in Rye, he has seen many changes “but the character has remained” he says. One of the things he tells me about is the local meeting place “Back in those days they used to sit around the Pump (which eventually became the loo at the top of Rope Walk) where there was a large square of seats. The old men used to sit around and talk all day” It’s at this point that Rex demonstrates his formidable memory, reciting a poem called The Pump. “I love poetry,” he says “always have done. It was the only thing I was good at at school. I went to a church school from five and left when I was fourteen” He is able to recite reams of verse and has a particular love for Kipling’s poetry. He also writes charming and sensitive poetry himself about old Rye and its inhabitants. Rex really should be persuaded to have his many stories recorded; it would be a shame to lose so many memories of past Rye. There isn’t room to regale you with any of the many entertaining stories about these characters but do ask Rex to tell you the slightly risqué tale of ‘Stuttering ‘ Charlie and his bluebottle tattoo – it made me laugh a lot.
At 84 Rex still continues to play bowls. You may find him appearing to talk to himself whilst sitting on a bench near the bowls club. In fact, he is having a quiet conversation with his beloved mother, to whom the seat is dedicated. He also continues to “Shout” at the top of his voice on behalf of the town, though nowadays he has a deputy with whom he shares duties. “I don’t do it for the money, I do it because I love it”
Long may he continue.
Photos: Stephen Ashley King and Rye Museum