A Tale of Two Mayors

The first Mayor of Hythe was elected in 1575, when Elizabeth 1 granted the town a royal charter. The Bailiff would be replaced by a mayor and would be supported by a town corporation with the right to own land and hold a fair. The scarcity of early records means that we know little of the early post-holders. It is not until the 17th century that they start to surface. One pair were Thomas Browning and David Gorham, who were both mayor several times in the 1620s.

The mayor was elected from among the jurats (town councillors). Browning and Gorham were of very different backgrounds.  The Brownings were gentlemen; Thomas’s uncles had been mayors and his sister had married into the influential Tournay family of Saltwood. In 1620 Thomas started his own campaign to become mayor by wining and dining his colleagues, an unsubtle tactic which did not go unnoticed by his opponents. Nevertheless, it proved successful, and he became mayor in 1621, and again in 1625.

In the meantime, David Gorham, not a gentleman but a fisherman, had been made mayor in 1623. He was also the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth in the year of Browning’s second term of office. This was the execution of an ancient Cinque Ports right, which gave the portsmen authority over the Yarmouth fishermen during their herring ‘fare’ or fishing season, once a year.  The Bailiff, elected by the Cinque Ports’ Brotherhood and Guestling,  had the right to try criminal and commercial cases in the town during the time of the fare. During this time, court sessions were held daily rather than weekly. 

Not unnaturally, the Yarmouth men generally resented the Cinque Ports Bailiffs, and their reluctant toleration sometimes erupted into quarrelsome, if not violent, outbursts. The position was not eagerly sought after.  Quite from the chilly reception, the length of the trip must have been a deterrent. The Bailiff was expected to stay in Yarmouth from towards the end of September until early November. That was a long journey and a long time away from earning one’s livelihood, and probably time that most of the jurats could ill-afford.

In 1610, the nominee removed himself from Rye so that he no longer lived in a Cinque Port and was therefore ineligible; in 1613 another man pleaded that he was ‘too weak’; and another resigned the freedom of a Cinque port. But David Gorham, a fisherman who understood the fishing business, did his duty. 

An early view of Yarmouth….

… and a little later

He was elected mayor again himself in 1626. However, that year Browning trumped him by being selected to be one of the Cinque Ports ‘barons’ to carry the canopy at the coronation of Charles 1 in March. This was another ancient Cinque Ports right and those attending expected to sit at the Chief Table for dinner afterwards in the Great Hall at the right hand of the King. The canopy and its silver staves and bells which were provided by the Lord High Steward or Treasurer were ‘retained by the Barons as their fee’.

So there was a financial reward, but it was a right that only a well-off man could exercise. For the previous coronation in 1603, the Brotherhood and Guestling had decreed that every canopy-bearer should wear

’one scarlett gowne downe to the ancle, citizens fashion, faced with crimson satin, gascaine hose [a sort of loose breeches], crimson silk stockings and crimson silk shoes and black velvet caps.

These they had to buy for themselves and provide their own food and horse hire for the trip. The gentleman Browning could afford this; the fisherman Gorham probably could not. 

The coronation of Charles I took place on 2 February 1626.  His Roman Catholic Queen refused to participate in a Protestant ceremony. The coronation was marred by an unseemly tussle recorded by Samuel Pepys:

but only the King’s Footmen had got hold of the Canopy and would keep it from the barons of the Cinque ports; which they endeavoured to force from them again but could not do it till my Lord Duke of Albermarle caused it to be put into Sir R Pye’s hand till tomorrow to be decided’.

The portsmen got their silver the next day, but in the melee, they had lost their places at the banqueting table. The king had the footmen imprisoned and dismissed.

 The beginning of 1627 saw Browning’s downfall. He was dismissed as jurat ‘for divers misdemeanours and for telling the secrets especially about the election and choosing our burgesses to Parliament and telling lies about them many times in a gross and ill manner’. This was uncompromising language, and Browning had no intention of letting it pass.  He petitioned anyone and everyone he knew, starting with the Lieutenant of Dover Castle, Sir John Hippisley, who passed the matter up to the Duke of Buckingham, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The corporation were required to explain themselves. While awaiting a decision, Browning sought the opinion of the Cinque Ports’ Brotherhood and Guestling – who found in his favour. They judged that the case against him was ‘weak and feeble’ and ordered that the corporation and Browning ‘reconcile themselves’ and reinstate him.  However, in 1628, Buckingham  concluded that the real reason for Browning’s dismissal was ‘his contemptuous behaviour towards Mr Gorham’.(1) That has the ring of truth.

The Duke of Buckingham in about 1625

The names of Browning and Gorham do not appear again on the list of Hythe mayors.  Browning was fined in 1629 for, with others, ‘a riot in the town’, but then disappears from the public record. David Gorham was buried in St Leonard’s churchyard in 1629. 

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and favourite of James I , was assassinated in August 1628. 

1 Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1628-29 (1859), pp. 431-438.

Other references from Hythe corporation records held at Kent History and Library Centre and from the White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports


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.


A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Two

Fishing was the mainstay occupation of the town and an Elizabethan survey of 1566 estimated that there were thirty three boats in the town worked by a hundred and sixty men. The survey was more guesswork than an accurate count, but it can be deduced that there were a lot of boats and a lot of fishermen.

Fish were a valuable and limited resource. Any industry exploiting such a resource is highly regulated, and fishing was no exception.  If, during your imaginary walk through Hythe you had turned up on the beach with your boat and nets, you would have been regarded with considerable suspicion, even hostility. The fishing season was tightly regulated in terms of who could fish, and when, with what and with whom.

These regulations were taken seriously. In 1616, Richard Hutson filed a complaint against Nicholas Salisbury, another fisherman. Salisbury had taken to sea a man whom Hutson had already signed on for the winter fishing. The magistrates, many of them fishermen themselves,  took a very dim view of the crime and Nicholas Salisbury was fined and forfeited the freedom of the town.

The seasons were divided into ‘fares’, some for local inshore fishing and some in deeper waters.  From April to June, Shotnett fare, the Hythe men fished for sole and mackerel in all sizes of boat. Then in summer came Harbour fare, the smaller boats catching conger with ‘harbour hooks’ in home waters, while larger vessels headed north to Scarborough fare for cod and ling.  From September to November, the bigger boats with crews of a dozen or so sailed to Yarmouth, the most profitable fare of all, for herring.  When it was over, the boats returned to Hythe and continued to fish for herring in home waters until the end of the year.

In home waters, there was also a short sprat season, which was not very lucrative, but trammelling for plaice from March to October was.  Trammels were nets consisting of a triple wall of mesh, of up to 18 furlongs in length which rested on the sea bed.  Trawls were more economical, but the Hythe men were conservative, and hung onto their trammels.  The trammel boats were small and only carried a crew of six or seven. These smaller boats were sometimes referred to as ‘stade boats’, the stade being the open beach where they were hauled up by means of horse-turned ‘vernes’ or capstans. There is still a Stade Street in Hythe today, leading from the sea to the town centre.

Stade Street in 2015......
Stade Street, Hythe  in 2015……


...and the view from Stade Street - no fishing boats, no capstans, no horses, no haven
…and the view from Stade Street – no fishing boats, no capstans, no horses, no haven

The dates of fares were strictly controlled by the Crown, but Shotnett fare, particularly, was sometimes brought forward. February often saw the Hythe men petitioning to set sail early, either because the French had already started fishing or because Lent , when meat could not be eaten and fish was in demand, was early. In 1622 they skilfully managed to combine two gripes in one petition as they asked

for licence to go to sea forthwith to catch soles, being unable, if we wait the limited day, to supply the increased demand for fish occasioned by the Proclamation for strict keeping of fish days, as the soles which are now in season will meanwhile be swept up by trawlers

Trawlers were a big bugbear for the Hythe fishermen who believed that they were over-fishing. Their 1622 complaint was against men from Rochester and Strood, which they rather spoiled by overstating their case: ‘the town is ruined by such proceedings’, which was not strictly true, but as they had been shot at by trawlers in 1617, they felt they had an axe to grind. Two of the fishermen, Richard Hutson and Thomas Wallop even went to London in 1621, taking with them a purloined trawl net to show to a parliamentary committee. In 1631, the culprits were ‘the Barking men’, using huge beam trawls, which were subsequently banned. On this occasion,   one of the Essex men was apprehended and sent to the Lord Warden, but it turned out he had a perfectly good licence from none other than the king’s fishmonger, William Angel.

Apparently the fishermen of the Cinque Ports decided that if they couldn’t beat the interlopers, they would join them, as thirty years later the Duke of York, then Lord Warden, wrote to the Ports that he was

very sensible of the great and many abuses that have of late years been committed in the fishing on the English coast’ 

and ordered Ports fishermen to stop using unlawful nets

whereby the brood or fry of fish may be any ways prejudiced or destroyed, or to take or catch any fish at unseasonable times contrary to the law or the ancient custom in fishing affairs’

It is hard to blame the fishermen, as they had been operating under difficult conditions for years. Every time there was a war, against Spain, France or the Netherlands, which was more often than not in the seventeenth century, the fishing industry suffered. Sometimes they were confined to port, as in 1627, when Buckingham believed they might be passing intelligence to the French. The next year some Sandwich fishermen were actually taken by a French man-of-war. In 1656 the Ports joined together to ask for the protection of a navy convoy against the enemy of the day, the Dutch, and in  1672 Hythe was virtually besieged by four Dutch privateers ‘so that no fishing or other boat dare peep out’.

By then, French ships from Dieppe dominated the herring and mackerel fisheries in the Channel. This, the lack of a proper harbour, the obstacles faced, the effects of impressments for the navy on a dwindling population, and the decline of the Yarmouth fisheries all helped ensure that Hythe’s future was not to be as a fishing town. By the end of the eighteenth century, not a single boat remained in the town.