Royal Military Canal

Royal Military Canal History

The French revolution was over after 16 years of unrest. The British had often feared that revolution fever would cross the channel and cause a rebellion in Britain too. Although this never happened, the worry was enough to put businessmen off investing canal ventures and the canal mania era had could to an end. Unfortunately the end of the French revolution was not the good news it should have been. France had a new leader - Napoleon! He systematically began to invade Europe and the worries of a British civil war now changed into fears of being invaded.

A truce known as the Peace of Amiens had been agreed between Britain and France but the British were forced to go into war with Napoleon when he seized Malta. The British military becameincreasingly worried about a French invasion of Britain. They felt it was only a matter of time before Napoleon attempted to cross the channel and land on the south coast. The most likely place for the French to arrive was at Dungeness, right in the south east corner of the country.

The area was not well defended because much of it was unused marsh land - ideas were put forward as to how to defend this land. One idea was to built dozens of fortified towers along the coast, another idea was to simply flood the flat marsh land but the assistant Quartermaster-General, Lt. Col. John Brown, put forward the idea of using a canal as a defence.

It would be wide and deep enough to cause the attacking forces many problems and could also serve as a fast route on which to move troops and ammunition. General Dundas and the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York, fully backed the scheme and it was decided to build a canal slightly inland with 86 defence towers along the coast.

Prime Minister, William Pitt, (himself a great supporter of canals) received the idea with enthusiasm.

The waterway was to be named the Romney Canal, it would run from Winchelsea Beach in East Sussex to Hythe in Kent. Civilian contractors were appointed to build the canal with John Rennie as "consultant".

He surveyed a line and was then given the job of devising ways to stop flooding in winter. (It is quite ironic that Rennie should have been given the task of getting rid of surplus water because most of the other canals he built suffered from water shortages)! Rennie re-routed streams into the canal and constructed water pipes to serve as extra feeders in dry weather. The western end of the route would use two rivers so water would not be a problem there.

The main "ditch" (as it was called by the military) was to be 62 feet wide and 9 feet deep. It would be around 25 miles long with a further 5 miles made up of the two rivers. A road was to be built all the way along the northern bank, around 50 feet away from the water's edge. The road would be raised 3 feet above land (or marsh) level and would be 30 feet wide. A parapet would be built along the road, built from the soil dug from the canal cut. Work was estimated at £200,000 and this was one canal which would not see prospective shareholders fighting over subscriptions! It was paid for in full by the government.

William Pitt got very involved with the construction of the new waterway. He spoke to all the local landowners and convinced them that the scheme was of great benefit to them whether the French invaded or not. It would provide an excellent drainage system during floods and act as a linear reservoir during summer. The landowners trusted and supported Pitt so much that they willingly gave up the necessary portions of their land, the canal was often referred to as "Pitt's Ditch"!

The government, ever fearful of a French invasion, grew impatient with the slow progress of construction work, only 6 miles had been built in the first year. There had been delays caused by bad weather and flooding and the marshes were by no means the greatest landscape to cut a canal through. The contractors were to blame (said Rennie) for poor workmanship due to bad supervision. The government sacked the contractors and took over the running of the canal themselves. This caused the navvies to walk out and eventually Rennie resigned. The government then installed a military work force to continue construction led by the assistant Quartermaster-General, Lt.Col. John Brown. This would seem to be a devastatingly bad tactic but in fact the rest of the route was quickly finished and the whole 30 miles was ready just one year later!

In August the full line of the Romney Canal was complete. It ran for 25 miles from Hythe to the River Rother. It had cost (for once) almost the exact amount originally estimated and was finished well on schedule. However, in the 2 years that it had taken to construct, the French had lost the Battle of Trafalgar, given up the idea of taking over Britain and turned their attentions on Austria instead! The likelihood of an attack on Kent was now very small. Instead of an important strategic problem for the French, the waterway was now an important political problem for its owners - the British government. It was fast becoming an embarrassment as people began to ask questions about the appallingly high costs of a 30 mile ditch which did nothing, went nowhere and was widely regarded (by the press) as something that Napoleon would have sniggered at if he'd ever come across it! After all, he'd conquered most of Europe, if he could cross the Channel to reach England he was hardly likely to be put off by a 60 foot ditch!!

Following the death of William Pitt in 1806 the government changed from Tory to Whig and back to Tory again within the space of 12 months. During this period some local landowners began to get annoyed over the amount of their land that had been taken up by the "useless ditch" with no compensation being paid to them. To remedy this the government decided to put the canal on a proper legal footing and in August parliament granted itself an Act for "The Royal Military Canal" which would allow the waterway to be opened to commercial traffic.However, much improvement work would be needed and it would take around 3 years to bring the route up to commercial standards.

The new "company" needed to be run properly so commissioners were appointed. Amazingly the government appointed themselves; the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Speaker of the House, the Commander-in-Chief, the Quartermaster General and the Master General of the Ordnance! The Commissioners first act was to reward Lt. Col. John Brown for all his efforts in devising the canal and finishing its construction. He received £3,000 and a mansion in Hythe.

In November, while improvement work was in progress, a massive storm led to extensive flooding between West Hythe and Shorncliffe (at the far eastern end) which washed away nearly 2 miles of the south bank of the canal. The government purchased a wider band of land to the south of the canal to strengthen the sea defences.

In January the regimental stores burnt down and severely hampered the repairs to the south bank. Three weeks later a heavy storm hit the area and coincided with a large spring tide causing the unfinished repairs to be washed away once again. The canal became filled with shingle and portions of the military road were also badly damaged. Amazingly the whole length was fully repaired within 3 months.

During 1808 and 1809 the commissioners spent over £80,000 of government money finishing off the canal by replacing temporary wooden bridges and building a brand new stone bridge at Iden. They resurfaced the whole of the road and re-covered the towpath with shingle.

Finally, in April, the canal was fully opened to the public (though short haul journeys were already being made on the route for several months prior to its official opening). Before the canal had opened, a wharf at Shorncliffe was already being used as a busy landing place for timber and coal and the route also became unique in Britain as it was the only canal to make a trade out of carrying hop poles!

The canal's Act of 1807 allowed the government to charge tolls on the carriage of manure (fertiliser) and farm produce. It also allowed the "company" to exclude local landowners (who's land adjoined the waterway) from having to pay tolls. As well as the usual navigation tolls the government were also able to charge for passage along the well built military road which ran beside the canal throughout the whole route. They also sold grass for sheep grazing along the canal banks and on the parapet which ran along the road. The Commissioners even decided to run their own carrying company with barges pulled by the Royal Wagon Train!

A sluice at Star Lock (known as Scots Float today) just east of Rye was destroyed by floods and was not replaced for nearly 20 years. Although this left the land to its east susceptible to floods and made the river tidal to the east of it, it did not hamper navigation.

Once again the country was fearing attacks from France and the government were pleased to have kept the Military Canal under their own control. A defensive cannon and 80 Danish guns which had been captured (stolen) from Copenhagen were fixed in place along the canal. Of course, the attack from France never happened and the canal simply continued as a fairly useful transport system. As well as goods there was also a passenger service between Hythe and Rye which was run by a Mr. Pilcher, though its success was fairly short lived. The army ran a regular convoy of barges from the River Rother to Hythe - taking 4 hours.

Poor Mr. Pilcher's passenger service was struggling and he cut his route from 22 miles to 19 miles by terminating at Iden rather than Rye. Three years later he had to cut the service by a further 3 miles to Appledore.

A sluice was rebuilt (19 years after the original was destroyed) at Star Lock, just east of Rye. This meant that the River Rother was no longer tidal to the east of here.

Mr. Pilcher gave up his packet boat service and passenger travel on the canal came to an end. His reason for abandoning the business was mainly due to pressure from the canal commissioners who claimed his fast moving boats were damaging the canal banks.

The canal saw its best year in terms of income though just as much money was coming in from the canal side road tolls as it was from the actual waterway. Even then the usage was low compared to most canals and the route never returned a profit.

The government decided it was time to stop playing with boats and they handed the running of the route to the Ordnance Department. The whole canal was run by one army officer and 60 troops who performed the duties normally associated with lengthsmen an lock keepers.

At first very little changed and commercial traffic continued to use the waterway as it always had done. However, once again the public were asking questions about the cost of the route, the canal was well known throughout the country as an embarrassing military folly, people like William Cobbett wrote articles on the great waste of public funds and also harped back to the ridiculous notion that Napoleon could ever have been foiled by a 60 foot ditch. No matter how ridiculous its defensive qualities were, there is no doubt that the Royal Military Canal helped the local people immensely.It provided both a waterway and one of the best roads in the country.People could travel easily between Rye and Hythe which had previously been a near impossible journey across Romney Marsh. The canal also provided excellent drainage which meant there was more arable land available and this in turn greatly reduced incidents of "marsh fever"!

A new passenger service is thought to have begun though the dates are not clear and the service didn't last long. In total there were just 21 barges licensed to use the canal at this time.

A survey showed that the canal desperately needed dredging if it was to stay open to navigation. The man in charge at this time was Master General Sir Hussey Vivian who had already described the canal as "an absurd means of defence which ought never to have been built". Clearly the right man for the job (not).

He clearly did not understand (or agree) that dredging would aid passage on the route, he thought enough money had already been wasted on the canal over that past 40 years and rather than help to keep theroute going, he drastically cut the number of soldiers who were employed on it. He also reduced expenditure and maintenance.

By May of 1841 Sir Hussey Vivian cut the work force down from 60 Royal Sappers to just 7 full time workers - and these were mainly pensioners!By October he'd cut the work force to zero.

The Royal Military Canal began to suffer the fate of many other canals; poor maintenance, competition from 2 local railways and tonnage's fell each year.

While still receiving periodic knocks from the public and press, the canal received a bit of a confidence boost when the Duke of Wellington (who had been Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830 - and therefore had been Head Commissioner of the canal) commented on its strategic value.

Despite the efforts of Wellington and other prominent spokesmen, the canal was virtually on its last legs with the only cargo being shingle, carried inland for use in repairing roads. In fact, the canal was receiving more income from sheep grazing than waterborne transport! The government tried to increase its "grass sales" by leasing more land to farmers.

Two attempts were made in the early 1850's to buy the canal. One was a railway who wanted to close the canal and lay tracks in its place, this was rejected by parliament. The other was a proposal by the Lords of Romney Marsh but this fell through due to financial difficulties.

Britain was once again at war, this time in Crimea. The Royal Military Canal was placed under the authority of the Secretary of State for war. The first thing he had to do was refuse another offer to buy the canal, this time from a Mr. Smith. The best policy was now thought to be to keep the canal in government hands because even as a flimsy line of defence it could still stall an attacking force - if they came that way!

A survey was published which made suggestions on how the canal could be used to earn more money. Among other things it was suggested that the government could make money from selling Elm wood from the trees along the banks which were now over 50 years old.

Traffic continued to use the canal at a small but steady level. There was never a profit though the losses were never more than £400 a year.

Discussions were continually brought back to the subject of public money being wasted to keep the line open. It was finally decided that the canal should be sold off. In February the Kentish Gazette reported that Seabrook Harbour & Dock Company was about to buy the canal (which terminated very close to them near Hythe). However, there was more to it than simply taking on the running of an old waterway. The canal served more importantly as a land drainage system than as a goods carrying route and anybody who took it on had to realise this.

Five years later the government were still running the route but had passed an Act allowing them to give the canal away to anybody who agreed to take on the responsibility of looking after land drainage.

The Lords Of The Level (!) offered to take the canal on and the war department was able to lease the whole artificial stretch from Iden to Hythe. This was no small agreement though, the lease would not run out till 2872! It could be argued that the rent was a little high however - it was set at one shilling per year! This was soon followed by Hythe Corporation who wanted to buy the stretch through their town to convert it into ornamental gardens.

The war department sold off the stretches on the west side of Rye to 4 different owners. By now, trade on the canal was almost none existent.

After a few years of mini revival the canal was down to its last boat.

Commercial traffic ceased after 99 years when the barge "Vulture" paid the last toll at Iden Lock.

The final stretch of the canal to be sold was the length between Appledore and Hamstreet. This was sold to a woman named Miss Dorothy Johnston who instantly presented the whole length to the National Trust. The last part of the "canal" still under War Department ownership was the parapet along the side of the military road. However, just 4 years later the whole canal was requisitioned when WW2 began.The government had a brain storming idea.... If the Germans attacked .... maybe the canal could be used as a line of defence!!!!!


As far as I am aware, there are no plans to restore the RMC to full navigation. However, such a scheme would probably be relatively easy.Locks would need to be converted back from their sluices and culverts under flattened bridges would have to be rebuilt into navigable bridges but most of the canal is in pretty good condition. The waterway's survival is secure as it is used for irrigation, fishing and pleasure-boating for a short stretch within Hythe and also near Rye.

From a walkers point of view there are many stretches which would make for a good day out though annoyingly there are other stretches which are closed to the public for no real reason. However, Kent County Council are said to be strongly looking into creating a continuous linear walkway along the canal. Maybe this has been created by now?

There is nothing left on the route to hint to the unwary as to why the canal was originally built. The only obvious signs of a military or defensive presence are the second world war pill boxes positioned along the route which were built some 130 years after the canal was opened!

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Royal Military Canal Route

All of the Royal Military Canal is still fully watered and can be seen on any good road atlas. It begins in Kent at Shorncliffe, about 3 miles west of Folkstone and 1 mile east of Hythe. Its starting point is just a few yards from the sea wall at the junction where the sea-front road (Princes Parade) meets the A259. There is nothing much to see here today apart from a sluice and a stone landing stage. At first the route is hemmed in, running west below both the sea-wall and the road. Soon it moves away from the sea and runs behind the Imperial Hotel's 9 hole golf course. The hotel is a huge building which stands on the sea-front. Within a mile the route passes right through the centre of Hythe, the local council look after this part of the route and it has been kept pretty and tidy where it runs through the park in central Hythe. My 1971 reference book says pleasure boats could be seen here in summer months. Whether it meant motorised boats or just rowing boats is not clear. Today the canal is the central feature of the town, more like an ornamental lake than a commercial (or military) ditch.The towpath is paved and in excellent condition. Once every two years the town holds "The Venetian Fete" which is said to be a wonderful carnival of boats, floats, entertainment's and fireworks. On the west side of Hythe the canal comes close to the Romney, Hythe & Dimchurch Railway which at one third the normal gauge is said to be the smallest public railway in the world. It runs parallel to the coast for 14 miles to the remote Dungeness lighthouse in the far south eastern corner of Britain.

The route continues westerly out of Hythe with high ground to the north on which stands Lympne ("Lim") Castle and nearby is Port Lympne wildlife sanctuary. The minor road from Lympne to Botolph's Bridge crosses the canal and passes the castle. The canal has a parapet running alongside it for most of its route and the original military road runs along its north bank. The road is now open to the public as a footpath.

Near St. Rumwold's Church the canal turns south west and crosses the reclaimed land which makes up Romney Marsh. This sounds like a barren bog-land but it is well populated by villages and small towns. The land is very flat however and when the sun shines - it really shines! The water in this stretch of the canal has been protected for fishing though in 1971 there were strong notices warning people to keep out of the water.

The stretch from Warehorne to Appledore is owned by the National Trust and they keep it in excellent condition, apparently looking more like a beautiful river than a canal. Appledore is said to be a delightful village though before the canal came along it was a marooned island in the centre of the marsh land. The canal provided it with its first safe routes out to Rye and Hythe by both water and road. The flooded marsh was drained into the canal by windmill pumps (later replaced by steam and now electricity). The land became dry and is now used for farming.Marsh fever was virtually wiped out in an instance. The B2080 crosses the can in Appledore.

From Appledore to Houghton Green a minor road clings to the west bank of the canal as it heads south west towards Rye. A lot of the canal section was built with "steps" along its course which were planned as a defence against an attacking army. These take the form of "zigzag" bends where guns could be placed with a perfectly straight view along the canal. An approaching invader could (theoretically) be destroyed before they knew what hit them. Ironically this idea was invented by a French military engineer! A number of these steps can be seen from the road.

About 3½ miles along the canal (or parallel minor road) is Iden Lock where the canal joins the River Rother which enters from the north. The lock had double gates on the lower side to stop excess water from getting into the canal. The lock chamber is still intact and is 72 feet by 16 feet though it was converted into a sluice in the 1960's.Alongside is a fairly large lock cottage built by the army. A toll house and military barracks (now used as a private residence) are also close by. This was where tolls were collected for the western end of the route.

The river stretch is run by the Environment Agency and it is still navigable by permission. The minor road continues to follow the course of the river into Rye. On route there is another lock about 1½ miles on from Iden at Houghton Green. This is Scots Float Lock and sluice built in 1984 to replace the former Star Lock sluice. Basically a sluice is a large lock gate which can open either way to control passage of boats (and water) depending on the state of the tide. Beyond here the River Rother is tidal. A sluice keepers cottage stands alongside the lock.

The A259 crosses over and then the River Brede runs into the River Rother on the south east side of the Cinque Port town of Rye. The Rother heads south into its estuary and out to sea while the canal heads west, upstream on the River Brede. The Brede curls around the base of Rye (which stands up on a rock to the north). There are many interesting things to see in the town away from the canal, including Landgate (part of the town wall), Ypres Tower (part of the castle) and the many ancient streets. A great view can be had from the tower of St. Mary the Virgin.

At the south west side of town the River Brede (the "canal") reaches a sluice and a lock. Here the River Tillingham runs in from the north. Near this confluence is one of the 86 Martello towers which were built all along the south east coast around the same time as the canal as a defence against Napoleon. In 1993 the tower was reported to be in a rather sorry looking state and was slowly crumbling into the scrap yard which surrounded it. A little way up stream on the Tillingham is a sluice gate beside the main road bridge (A259) and just up from the sluice is an ornamental windmill.

The stretch of the Brede which heads south west from Rye was the last part of the canal to be built (in 1809). The A259 stays pretty close to the river on its northern side as both leave Rye. The final part of the canal was probably never used by boats. It leaves the River Brede where the road to Winchelsea Beach leaves the A259, just before Winchelsea itself. There was no lock built at the junction with the river and the course of the canal is too narrow here to have been used with any efficiency. It curves south westerly to the north of Pett Level and then it turns abruptly south near the east side of Hog Hill, though there is no access by road.

One mile further south is the terminus at Cliffe End (about 4 miles east of Hastings) on the north side of the sea-front road. There is no basin, the canal just comes to an end near a bend in the road. Nearby is a white cottage and The Market Stores. Standing on the bank where the canal would have been if it had continued is a public toilet.

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