National Trust Excavations in Smallhythe

By Nathalie Cohen, January 2023

The society opened the new year with the return of Nathalie Cohen who gave a thoroughly engaging talk on the background to Smallhythe over the past 2,000 years.

The National Trust was given ownership of Ellen Terry’s house in 1920, along with the priest’s house, a cottage and the Forestal and Elphick fields. Her daughter wished to create a museum in her memory and the rooms are much as she left them.

As part of the watery landscape of the Romney Marsh area Smallythe experienced significant changes as a result both of the processes of nature and of the reclamation of land for grazing by human activity. Originally it had enjoyed the wide channel of the river Rother, enabling it to be a centre for the building of several ships for Henry VIII’s navy and of others for previous kings. Early 13th Century documents show it existing as a small port, with craftsmen, carpenters and shipwrights; and an archive in Canterbury cathedral mentions a grant of one acre of land there by Robert the Small to his sister.

Both 13th Century maps and aerial surveys confirm the Rother’s wide waterway at Smallhythe. However, 17th Century maps indicate the impact of the changing course of the river, with significant narrowing of its northern channel, alongside the washing away of old Winchelsea. The changes would have had much impact for shipbuilding. Adjacent land was being reclaimed for agriculture.

The talk focused on archaeological excavations at Smallhythe. There is a record of the 19th Century discovery of the hull of a large medieval vessel. An excavation towards the end of the 20th Century found evidence of a slipway in Elphick field and a 15th Century brick kiln (since bricks were required to fit ships’ galleys.) In the Forestal field they also found a few old ships’ timbers and the nails and washers used for their fitting – alongside the general detritus of 14th Century potsherds, 16th and 17th Century hop tokens, a thimble and an Edward VI coin.

Nathalie is a key member of subsequent excavations during the summers of 2021, 2022 and 2023. 16 trenches have been dug so far. Although no evidence has yet been found to confirm a fire in 1514, which led to the rebuilding of the church, there is material to indicate the location of Smallhythe’s foreshore, such as unused ships’ nails and washers. Further excavations hope to indicate how the coastline would have changed between the 14th and 17th Centuries.

The digs have also revealed the foundations of a house, possibly with a cellar, alongside jewellery, a woodworker’s axe, an animal bell, an eight ounce weight, and much broken pottery and bottles ranging from medieval times to that of Ellen Terry.

A particular excitement for those involved has been the evidence, from the first day of digging in 2021, that Smallhythe had also been a Roman settlement. 32 kgs of broken pottery were unearthed in 2021, showing a settlement was there at least between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD, alongside evidence of the presence of the Roman merchant navy, perhaps taking advantage of Smallhythe’s proximity to Wealden iron resources.

The stream of questions which followed reflected the total engagement of members during Nathalie’s most stimulating talk.

David James