Hythe The military canal and history


Whilst we were staying in Kent, every morning we would get up early for breakfast and then go for a walk for about an hour after our evening meal we would go for another walk. Many of these walks were taken either along the beach or along the military canal. The  canal was built in the early nineteenth century in order to defend the  coast against invasion.

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The Romney Marsh had been left virtually undefended in the belief that it could be quickly flooded and the subsequent boggy ground, criss-crossed by drainage ditches, would be impassable. The threat of Napoleonic invasion led to questioning of this  view. After much deliberation Lt-Col John Brown, Commandant of the Royal Staff Corps, decided that flooding the marshes was unworkable, it would take too long, if the threat proved a mistake many homes and much farmland would be destroyed. Therefore he suggested that a canal be built from Seabrook, near Folkestone around the back of the Romney Marsh to the River Rother near Rye, a distance of 19 miles. The canal system would have sources of water from the sea and the River Rother. It would be 19 metres wide at the surface, 13.5 metres wide at the bottom and 3 metres deep. The excavated soil would be piled on to the northern bank to make a parapet, behind which troops could be positioned and moved out of sight of the enemy. The canal would also have ‘kinks’ to allow enfilading fire along the length of the canal, if the enemy attempted to cross it. I know it seems a bit silly to think that an army that had marched across much of Europe would be stopped by a deep ditch.

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On October 30 1804 excavation of the Royal Military Canal was commenced. Harsh winter weather and severe flooding, as well as difficulty in attracting labourers called navvies delayed the completion and by May 1805 the canal project was close to disaster: only six miles had been completed and work had stopped.  The Prime Minister William Pitt intervened: the contractors and Rennie were dismissed.

The project was put in the hands of the Quartermaster-General’s department with Lt-Col. Brown in command. Navvies dug the canal, while the military built the ramparts and turfed the banks. Flooding continued to be a barrier to progress and hand pumps were used day and night to keep the trench from filling with water. Eventually powerful steam-driven pumps were used to clear the water.

Here is a picture of the monument to the navvies who built the canal

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At its peak there were 1,500 men working on the canal. The canal was dug entirely by hand, using picks and shovels and the soil was carried away in wheelbarrows. Once the canal was dug it was lined with clay. The change of command and the greater work force speeded progress so that by August 1806 the canal was open from Seabrook to the River Rother.
However, the original dimensions of the canal were greatly reduced due to increasing problems encountered by the builders and pressures of time, so that for most of its length the canal is half its projected width.

Iden Lock was completed in September 1808, which linked the canal to the River Rother and Rye Harbour, effectively turning the Romney Marsh into an island, but it wasn’t until April 1809 that the canal was actually completed.

Plaque to the canal

 

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By the time the Royal Military canal was fully ready for use, the threat of invasion had long since past. Napoleon’s plans for invasion suffered a major setback following his navy’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He withdrew his troops from the French coast and focused his intentions on central Europe.

Map showing the route of the canal obviously we did not walk the entire length, but used it as a base to explore the town and its surroundings.

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The fact that the canal was never used for its intended purpose, cost £234,310 (a huge amount in Georgian England)  meant that the canal became an embarrassment to the Government – it was considered to be a huge waste of public money. It was cheekily called Pitt’s ditch after the then Prime Minister William Pitt

The radical journalist William Cobbett, who toured the country on his Rural Rides during the 1820s, was typical of the critics of the canal: ‘Here is a canal made for the length of thirty miles to keep out the French; for those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube were to be kept back by a canal thirty feet wide at most!’

The Government desperately needed to find ways of recovering some of the money spent on the canal and in 1807 opened it to navigation and collected tolls for the transportation of produce and goods. In 1810 the canal was opened for public use and tolls were also collected for the use of the military road between Iden, Rye and Winchelsea. There was also a regular barge service running between Hythe and Rye, which took around four hours to complete.

Despite these efforts, traffic was never heavy, and the opening of the Ashford to Hastings railway line in 1851 further decreased its use. The Government was struggling not only to recoup the money invested in the canal but to meet the costs of maintenance.

Consequently, during the 1860s the stretch from Iden Lock to West Hythe was leased to the Lords of the Romney Marsh for 999 years at an annual rent of one shilling, while the the town of Hythe purchased the remaining stretch, that ran through the town, for conversion to ornamental waters. The canal west of Rye was sold to four individual owners. By the late nineteenth century the canal trade had all but gone. The last ever toll was collected at Iden Lock on December 15 1909.

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Despite previous doubts surrounding the canal’s usefulness for defence in the nineteenth century, it was quickly requisitioned by the War Department in 1935 as war in Europe became increasingly likely. The banks were lined with pill-boxes as the nation awaited invasion, this time by Hitler, but once again there was no invasion.

This is one of the Martello towers along the beach the red flag shows that the shooting range is active which is why the photograph is somewhat distant.

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Despite never being used to defend the nation it is a very beautiful place to walk or cycle. There are boats that  can be hired. Trees flank the water and the usual assortment of ducks, geese and swans live on the waters. Herring gulls in all stages of maturity use it as a place to wash and clean their feathers not to mention scrounge any food from passing individuals.

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and it is much pleasanter to walk into Hythe along a beautiful tree-lined peaceful waterway that along a noisy dirty road with extremely narrow pavements. There are some parklands.

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Unlike the canals here in the midlands there are considerable more pleasure boats but considerably fewer supermarket trolleys, old motorbikes and other debris.

The town of Hythe has a long connection with the defence of the country. Hythe was originally one of the cinque ports (from the French for five, but pronounced sink), they comprised Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and New Romney. However when New Romney silted up Rye took over as a cinque port. The earliest known charter to the Cinque Ports collectively (a general charter) was granted by King Henry III in 1260, but there is evidence that the Ports acted together from an earlier date.  It was found from the terms of those charters and other evidence, including the Pipe Rolls of Henry II and the Domesday Book (published in 1086), that the Ports had enjoyed common privileges in return for their service to the Crown since the 11th century and were already known collectively as the Cinque Ports. Until the 16th Century, each of the Five Ports was required to provide the Crown with a specified number of ships, for 15 days every year; each crewed by 21 men and a boy. If their service was required for longer than 15 days in any year, they were entitled to payment for the additional period. Hythe supplied five ships. In return they were first granted important legal and fiscal privileges, as well as valuable commercial benefits and social status (see footnotes if you are interested).

As the fortunes of the head ports changed over the centuries, so the contributions of their limbs varied. Coastal erosion, silting-up of harbours, foreign raids and the Black Death took their toll on all of the ports at different times and to varying degrees.  At one point it was discovered that Hythe had only supplied two ships and the King threatened to revoke the town’s privileges.

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Hythe’s military history dates back to the Roman times. It was the original home to the School of Musketry. Today, Hythe Ranges is a major training area for the Ministry of Defence. Beside the canal are the remains of military barracks and an unusual war memorial.

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The Ports enjoyed  rights and privileges in return for their ship service. These varied over time and from one port to another, according to the particular charter, but the rights and liberties most commonly granted were:-

Early royal charters confirmed their customary right to land and dry their nets (den and strand) on the shore at Yarmouth, in Norfolk. The Portsmen also assumed responsibility for the administration of justice at the Fair. It was the need to defend and manage this vital economic interest which led directly to the development of the Court of Brodhull, which assumed responsibility for the appointment of bailiffs (magistrates) from the Ports to keep order at this often unruly gathering.

●Freedom from pleading ‘otherwise than as the barons of … the Cinque Ports plead’, that is to say, in their own courts of law.

●Freedom from a wide range of taxes which were payable in the course of travel and trade during medieval times; including custom, toll, lestage, passage, rivage and sponsage.

●Freedom from fifteenths and tenths (national taxes levied by the Crown).

●The right of withernam – if a Portsman was owed a debt by a resident of another town or if he was unjustly charged a toll or levy elsewhere; a warning letter would be sent to the offending town demanding (re-) payment within 15 days. If redress was not forthcoming, the next visitor from that town would be arrested and, after a hearing, sent home with notice of the judgement against his townspeople. If that failed, the next traveller from the defaulting town was liable to be detained and his goods confiscated and sold to cover the outstanding amount.

I used this website initially

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hythe,_Kent#The_Cinque_port_Court_of_Shepway

and these ones

http://www.hythetc.kentparishes.gov.uk/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cinque-Ports

http://kentpoi.co.uk/historic/cinqueports/index.html

Much of this information was supplemented from this website which I used to research the origins of the canal.

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