When I was a girl, I knew that when I grew up I would be a historian and write books, but life isn’t that straightforward, so I became a civil servant. I got my history degree in my thirties and my master’s degree when I was fifty. Then I retired, and after over thirty years living in Dover, moved to Hythe.
Now, Dover has History with a capital ‘H’. From the Bronze Age boat, through the Pharos, the Roman painted house, the iconic castle, the landing of Charles II at his restoration, the military fortifications on the Western Heights, Captain Webb’s epic swim and Bleriot’s equally epic flight, right up to the horrors of ‘Hellfire Corner’ and secret wartime tunnels, it is difficult to avoid history in Dover. But Hythe?
Although it was one of the original five Cinque Ports, there is no castle here, and no port either, the haven having long since silted up so that even its exact whereabouts are a mystery. The Romans did build here, but all that remains of Portus Lemanis is a few ruins tumbling down the hill below Lympne Castle. There are some visible reminders of former glory. The church, dedicated to St Leonard, towers above the town. It is magnificent – and improbably massive for such a small place. It was built when there was a prosperous port here and its scale is evidence of the wealth of the inhabitants in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There is a grand Edwardian hotel, and terraces of splendid balconied houses on the sea front parades, where once bathing machines could be hired and sea water baths taken by the polite visitor to the town. And there is the Royal Military Canal, providing pretty walks, but designed for more sinister purposes.
A little reading around the subject seemed to confirm what I suspected: Hythe has always been a conservative sort of place. After its ,medieval heyday, when as a Cinque Port it received unique privileges in return for defending the kingdom, the town, bereft of its port, gradually became a quiet backwater. Even the turmoil of the Civil Wars failed to stir the blood and Hythe remained quietly and undemonstratively Royalist throughout, no doubt heaving a small sigh of relief at the Restoration. The Napoleonic Wars and threat of invasion brought a little excitement – and canal building – to the town, and there was a sort of regeneration with the coming of the railways and the growth of ‘The Seaside’ as a fashionable destination. Not for Hythe the raucous joys of the piers and pleasure palaces: she was content to be Folkestone’s quieter, but equally refined, little sister. Two World Wars brought upheaval, but in 1945 Hythe bucked the socialist trend and returned to Parliament a Tory scion of the local brewing family, the Mackesons. Nothing, apparently, could ruffle its conservative feathers.
None of this immediately inspired further investigation until, by chance, I came across a grave in St Leonard’s churchyard, where I was helping in a small way to tidy the place up. The churchyard is on a steep slope, and the people doing the real work there had unearthed this rather battered table tomb, covered by landslip for generations.
Part of the inscription could still be read:
‘lliam Ga…who was Bay…and Mayor for the year 1650…Ancien…he…Yeare…Yeare is…
departed this mortall life on the LORDS day the 23 of February 165… being of age….’
I had been researching the names on all the tombstones which were still legible in the churchyard, but these were generally quite straightforward, as they were mainly from the late eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. An inscription from the seventeenth century presented new challenges, as the conveniences of online censuses, newspapers and birth, death and marriage records are not available. I had to go back to the Record Offices.
Research in county Record Offices and the National Archives had been my favourite part of studying for my degrees. There is nothing quite like finding historical evidence in documents which have not been opened for perhaps a hundred years. But my earlier research had been largely confined to the nineteenth century, when handwriting was at least comparable to the script we use today. I soon discovered that the same could not be said of the seventeenth century. I struggled to make out complete sentences.
My salvation came in the form of a day course on reading old handwriting at Canterbury Christchurch University, taught by Dr Gillian Draper, and a book, Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting by Lionel Munby, Steve Hobbs and Alan Cosby (British Association for Local History, 2nd edition, 2002). And practice, of course. It really is about ‘getting your eye in’ (it’s the same with bird watching, I’m told).
The occupant of the tomb was William Gately. He was born in Hythe and lived there until 1652, when he died at the age of 51. He was married and had children, and was, like his father before him, a blacksmith. He was extremely litigious and not a little avaricious.
He served as Bailiff to Yarmouth (a Cinque Ports appointment) and Mayor of Hythe during the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth. I had always had an interest in this period, described by the late Christopher Hill as ‘the world turned upside down’ , a time of bitterness and slaughter, religious upheaval, freedom of speech, radical politics and sweeping changes, not to mention regicide, rebellion and plots galore. Had William Gately, or his contemporaries, played any part in this? The histories of Kent had little to say on the matter, beyond confirming that Kent was, with very few exceptions, Royalist. Were the people of Hythe not stirred at all by this maelstrom? Other similarly depressed Cinque Ports such as Dover, Sandwich and Rye harboured radicals of every political and religious hue. The people of Canterbury rioted when the Puritans abolished the Christmas festivities and Sir William Brockman led a brave, but doomed, Royalist rebellion in Maidstone. Did Hythe just sit on its metaphorical hands?