Rye Foreign then and now


Ryer Alan Dickinson is not only a chartered building surveyor and a director of Rye Museum but also an historic buildings consultant who over the last 35 years has come to know our area intimately above and below ground. His illustrated talk at the museum on Thursday, April 11 provided an abundance of information on the area with the curious name of Rye Foreign.

Today the most familiar buildings within the area in question are the newly refurbished 18th century coaching inn The Kings Head, the Rye Medical Centre, the Rye Memorial Hospital, and St Bartholomew’s Court for retirement living. Two new facilities are being added, one to be called The Hub on the Hill and the other a care centre for 60 beds. But these – plus several former farms – all sit on land with a very long history.

Some in the audience already knew the outlines of Rye Foreign’s origin story: Rye and Winchelsea were once subject to the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy (which was also responsible for building Rye’s Church of St Mary’s). For good reason there was unease that these Senior Cinque Ports were under French control and in 1247, under Henry III, they were brought back under the jurisdiction of England’s monarch – but an area outside Rye remained under the control of the Abbey and this became known as ‘Rye Foreign’.

In the 12th century there was a need for leper hospitals and one of several named St Bartholomew in the South East was located here; it was soon used for the poor and infirm. It and an annual St Bartholomew’s Fair are an important part of the area’s early history.

Local historians and excavations have uncovered later stories of potteries and military camps. but the emphasis this evening was on more recent history many of us were unaware of. Particularly interesting were the insights into the era of workhouses. Rye’s third workhouse was built on Rye Hill near to the field known as Rye Meadow. Here the Overseers of the Poor felt it was their duty to ensure that those who landed there must earn their keep, by growing food for example – which was sold while the growers themselves managed with gruel. There seems to have been an attempt to provide some education for children however.

We were also treated to photos of Rye Foreign characters of the 19th century, like Jeremiah Smith, the country’s biggest hop grower, who was also a pottery owner and seven times mayor (but at one election time was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate only to make a triumphant return to what seems to have been one of the greatest celebrations ever in Rye).

We saw fascinating 19th century photos of the grand houses in Rye Foreign too: Springfield, Leasam House, Mountfield, Broomhill… but most astonishing perhaps was to learn how many of the best properties were owned by Rye’s bankers!

The evening was another reminder of how much there is to learn and appreciate about Rye and its surroundings. And how fortunate we are to have historians so able to help us do this.

Image Credits: Architects plans .

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