Primrose 19th/20th Century

The Primrose is the last of the Rye barges that carried goods on the river rather than at sea, and was abandoned at Rye Harbour in the 1930’s when she was no longer needed. She was built in Rye about 1890, and has a shape and rig that has hardly changed since the sixteenth century, though her construction is of nineteenth-century type.

The Rye river barges were small everyday working craft providing a vital link between the port of Rye and the hinterland of the rivers Rother, Tillingham, Brede and, indeed, the Royal Military Canal to Folkestone. They also worked as lighters in the harbour discharging cargoes from the larger ships

They were particularly used for shifting heavy bulk cargoes of the type that elsewhere in England were conveyed by narrow boats. Principal cargoes were timber, coal, hops, hop poles, manure, sand and ballast, though Primrose is also known to have carried bricks, wool, furniture, glass and livestock.

Over the years, the barge trade suffered various ups and downs, some caused by the changing nature of the waterways themselves, some caused by general economic factors. Also, the dispersed nature of the rural communities they served meant that the trade was never intensive. Then, gradually, over time, first the railways then road vehicles took over as the preferred means of transporting such cargoes and the barges declined. We believe that the Primrose was last fully active in the 1930s.

Eventually she was abandoned in the mud on the Saltings at Rye Harbour and for at least fifty years, she was submerged by strong tides twice a day. A combination of this, and the wash from passing shipping, filled the interior of Primrose with mud, thus inadvertently helping preserve her. People’s memories of the old barges persisted, too, and so it was that, in April 1990, a local resident brought the remains of no fewer than three barges to the attention of the project officer of the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), Valerie Fenwick. Valerie, together with the Nautical Museums Trust (NMT), which operates Hastings’ Shipwreck Museum, formulated and executed a plan to rescue the most complete of those barges, the Primrose, and move her to the Shipwreck Museum at Rock-a-Nore, Hastings.

Preparations for the operation took almost two years. First, a team of volunteers had to dig out the mud from inside and around Primrose and wrap the barge in plastic to make her waterproof. Then Primrose was floated and towed to Rye Harbour where a crane lifted her onto a lorry. Easy to say, but much organisation - and some persuasion - were needed to arrange things such as the crane, the low loader, decide the route and assemble volunteers. But eventually all was ready.

On Sunday, 3 October, 1992, Primrose made her final journey, with police escort, to the Museum where she was positioned in the outside yard. And that is where she has been for the past thirty years or so. Some restoration work was carried out by a team of volunteers, but more needs to be done in order to ensure the survival of this unique relic from a past era.


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