A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Five

The government had set up the national Customs Board in 1671 to try to combat smuggling more effectively. Two sloops patrolled the south coast in search of the smugglers, but then fell foul of some seventeenth century austerity measures and were replaced by eight locally-employed riding officers, thus saving a thousand pounds a year. The result was that smuggling increased.

The lot of Customs officers in Hythe seems not to have been a happy one. In 1676 John Johnson, the Collector at Hythe, asked rather plaintively ‘to be removed to some better place in another port’, or to have his salary increased.  He did not get his wish until four years later, when in April 1680, John Brewer was appointed in his place. In July that year Brewer was assaulted by a gang of smugglers and was paid compensation by the Board. Two years after that, he got permission to go and live in New Romney, and the Board psupplied him with a horse so that he could commute.

By the end of the century, the smuggling situation in Hythe was worse, not better, than it had been a hundred years earlier. Troops of dragoons were deployed to the town, and in desperation the government passed the Wool Act in 1698, forbidding anyone living within fifteen miles of the coast from selling wool without a certificate from the Customs House. This desperate piece of legislation was as ineffective as all the other efforts had been, and the smuggling problem was to persist into the next century and beyond.

There is some suggestion that the privileges of membership of the Cinque Ports federation were an encouragement for smuggling.

The organisation had its origins in a royal charter of 1155 which established the five ports which would maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need – Hythe, New Romney, Dover, Sandwich and Hastings. The chief obligation laid upon the ports was to provide fifty seven ships for fifteen days’ service to the crown annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty.

In return, they received significant privileges, including exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls; and the power punish offences and detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.

The arms of the Cinque Ports

The freedom for a port to apprehend and punish its own offenders probably meant that a blind eye was often turned to what was regarded as a legitimate means of supplementing a meagre income when times were hard (which they often were).  If the choice for the authorities was to be between ignoring the fact that a man was a smuggler, and having him and his family as a charge on the parish, then pragmatism would surely win the day.

Over the years the original five ports gained an accretion of Ancient Towns and Limbs, so that by the seventeenth century there were thirty eight towns involved in the Confederation, which was headed by the Lord Warden, and his deputy the Constable of Dover Castle. As one of the five original ports, Hythe could send two ’barons’ to parliament, but New Romney was considered to be the central port and it was here that the annual meetings of the ports, the Brotherhood and Guestling, took place. These had originally been separate meetings, but by the seventeenth century were amalgamated. The Court of Shepway, another ancient court, was apparently held near Hythe, and there is a modern cross there marking the supposed spot.

The Shepway Cross near Hythe

The towns became rich on the spoils of war, but by the time of Elizabeth I, the Cinque Ports were no longer of any real significance. New Romney had long since silted up; Hythe and Sandwich were going the same way, as was Dover, so it seemed then. Hastings had been washed away by the sea, invaded by the French and battered by storms. Other ports such as Bristol and Liverpool were in the ascendant.

Whatever the reality of the situation, the Cinque Ports clung to their privileges and rights, and took considerable pride in them. These included the right to carry the canopy over the monarch at the coronation and authority over Yarmouth fare, with the right to try criminal and commercial cases in the town during the time of the fare, when the court sat daily.

The Yarmouth men generally resented the Cinque Ports bailiffs, and their reluctant toleration sometimes erupted into quarrelsome, if not violent, outbursts. In the late thirteenth century, the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports contingents of a royal fleet set to fighting each other, with the loss of at least twenty five Yarmouth ships resulting.

As late as 1657, a farcical stand-off between the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports men resulted in a special Brotherhood and Guestling being held in Hythe. John Finch, a Hythe jurat and Alexander Bennett had been elected as bailiffs. They went to Yarmouth, and as usual presented the papers of their written commission to the Yarmouth magistrates. They had taken off their hats while doing so, and then replaced them. The Yarmouth men took immediate offence, and insisted they take their hats off again while the commission was read out loud. Finch and Bennett refused.  The Yarmouth men then left the hall en masse and refused to recognise them as Bailiffs.

After kicking their heels for three days but making no progress in the impasse, Finch and Bennett went home and complained that they had been insulted.  The meeting agreed, but said they should have stuck it out and fined them ten pounds each.

It is small wonder, given the potential pitfalls that the honour of being the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth was not eagerly sought after.  In 1619, the Brotherhood and Guestling, which appointed the Bailiff, searched in vain for their nominees. Mr Beadle, of New Romney had lived outside the town for a month before to make himself ineligible. The second choice, Mr Brett was simply ‘gone from home’.

Three years later, when Hythe should have provided a Bailiff, no-one wanted to go, so the corporation asked a former mayor, living in Canterbury. He said he was ill. John Benbricke of Rye was chosen instead, but said he had resigned as a jurat so was not eligible. His colleagues said they had refused his resignation and he must go. Reluctantly, he set off on the long journey.

Quite from the chilly reception, the length of the trip must have been a I’mdeterrent. The Bailiff was expected to stay in Yarmouth from towards the end of September until early November. That was a long time away from earning ones livelihood, and probably time that most of the jurats could ill-afford. By the end of the century the tradition had been allowed to fall into abeyance.

 

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