The tide in the affairs of the men of Hythe in the seventeenth century was the real tide of the sea, to which their lives were inextricably bound. Its importance for the commercial life of the town, for fishing and trade, cannot be overstated, and the town’s status as one of the original Cinque Ports was a matter of great civic pride. But the sea was, conversely, the town’s enemy, threatening livelihoods by destroying the port, devastating the land and stealing lives.
Hythe haven had been silting up for at least the last hundred years. The English Channel acts as a funnel. As tides come in from the Atlantic, so they are ever-increasingly restricted as they reach the straits of Dover. Shingle and sand are carried eastwards, and attempts to build piers out into the sea to protect the harbour only create eddies in which the sea deposits its load, choking up the newly-built harbour yet again. The problem is compounded if at the same time there is a river bringing down silt, as was the case at Hythe.
By the end of the sixteenth century the haven was being cut out. Another attempt was made in 1615, and yet another in 1619, but by 1634 it was ‘stopped and swarmed up whereby no boat or other vessel can come in’. Every man in the town was expected to contribute money or labour to another attempt to save it.
It was swarmed up again twenty years later. This time, a more businesslike approach was taken, and the corporation appointed a sub-committee set up to manage the process. The original haven may have been deemed beyond repair by this time and a new location chosen, as it is afterwards referred to as the ‘New Haven’. A sluice was created, to pent up and then release the water from the freshwater streams draining into the sea. This surge would wash away the silt, in theory. Sluice keepers were employed for ‘drawing up and letting down’ the gates.
This effort lasted twenty five years, until 1679, when a resolution was made by the corporation to cut it out again. Whether this actually happened is doubtful. Perhaps the time had come to accept the inevitable. A map of 1685 shows Hythe with a completely unbroken coastline and no sign of a haven at all.
By this time, the great dispute over Sir William’s wall was underway.
It started in 1683, when Sir William Honeywood, sometime jurat of Hythe had, against the corporation wishes, enclosed some land he owned near the stade. This had the effect of diverting the tide, so that instead of flowing up the beach it ran into the town. Some houses were reported to have three feet of water in them. It also crossed a right of way from the town to the beach given to the town in 1629. It was still there in 1691, and the Cinque Ports confederation agreed to fund the town’s legal action against Sir William. This presumably failed, as aggrieved mention is made of it again six years later in a land transfer document, and it still stood for at least the first twenty years of the next century.
Sir William was a wealthy baronet, whose link to Hythe was that his family owned Sene farm, just up the hill from the town. When a Hythe jurat, although then a very young man, he had insisted on always being given precedence over the mayor and other jurats, despite their seniority of age and service. Their opinion of him may be gauged from the fact that they then twice rebuffed his efforts to become their representative in parliament. In the early 1680s he went to try his luck in Canterbury, where the corporation were swayed by his generous and frequent hospitality. Was the wall his revenge on Hythe? The evidence points that way.
Flooding, however, was nothing new, and seems to have been on the increase since the 1650s. The land between the town and the sea had, over the last few hundred years, been ‘inned’, or reclaimed from the sea which once covered it. After a few years, generally reckoned to be ten, it was considered fit to use as grazing land. However, it was completely flat and a good, sound sea wall was needed to keep the salt tides out. This proved problematic, as repairing the wall cost money that the corporation very often lacked. In 1660 two jurats did the work gratis and a couple of years later all the jurats were obliged to lend the corporation ten pounds each to pay for repairs. At this time the corporation owned much of the innings, and if they failed to keep out the floods would be liable to pay compensation to tenants, as they did when Thomas Little’s sheep were drowned in 1666. Ownership of the innings was proving too expensive, and in the 1650s and 1660s, the corporation started selling off large chunks of it, notably to Julius Deedes, one of their own jurats.