History of Romney Marsh
The history of Romney Marsh is essentially the story of reclamation of land from the sea, the ongoing battle to drain it and to keep the sea from reclaiming it back. Throughout the centuries all this was happening, life on the Marsh was centred around sheep, smuggling and defending it from invasion.
Romney Marsh is the largest coastal wetland on the south coast of England. It is formed from several linked marshes: Romney Marsh proper forms the eastern portion, with the 'younger' Walland Marsh forming the majority of the western portion, and Denge Marsh to the south. Despite these internal divisions all three portions are collectively known as Romney Marsh.
The Marsh has had a long and complex natural history of formation and alteration which has given rise to very variable geological deposits across its area. Although fertile, the land relies on the constant upkeep of the drainage system and the massive earthen defence walls and natural shingle barriers to protect it from the sea.
Around 6000BC Romney Marsh did not exist. The land where Romney Marsh now is was some 40 feet (7m) lower than it is today and was covered by the sea. 1,000 years later, in 5000BC, farmers crossed the channel and introduced agriculture to Kent.
By 100AD things had changed dramatically. A large shingle and sand bank had built up with materials built up by wave action, known as longshore drift, from Hastings towards Hythe. The marshes that developed inside the shingle banks gradually became dry land.
The Romans had invaded Britain from France 100 years before and had built 10 forts around the Kent coast to protect them from Saxon invaders. The remains of a fort, Stutfall Castle, built by the Romans to protect a major port, can be found near Lympne over-looking what became Romney Marsh. continued...
The Common Seal of Romney Marsh
What Romney Marsh would have looked like in the early 13th century
18,000 years ago the world was in the grip of the last Ice Age. Much of the earth's water was locked up in frozen seas and ice caps and sea levels were incredibly low. The land now occupied by Romney Marsh was a barren rock-strewn landscape.
As the Ice Age ended a great thaw began. Vast quantities of flint nodules, released from the chalk of southern England, were carried by flood waters down to the bed of what beacame the English Channel, ending up as shingle. Sea levels rose dramatically until the whole area became a great sandy bay covering the whole area, with rivers flowing into it from surrounding valleys.
6,000 years ago, three great changes took place triggering the formation of the Marsh.
- Firstly, the shingle deposited on the channel bed, as the Ice Age ended, started to build up, caused by longshore drift, as a barrier at Dungeness and northwards as far as Dymchurch.
- Secondly, this shingle barrier created a large lagoon behind it to the east, which gradually became mudflats.
- Finally, the three river valleys flowing into the lagoons from the Weald high ground left deposits, creating swamps and vegetation
But by c1000BC and after, the sea level started to rise faster than the Marsh was building up.
Roman Map 55BC (larger map)
The coastline in early mediaeval times
In 1287, a storm hit the southern coast of England with such ferocity that whole areas of coastline were redrawn - towns that had stood by the sea now found themselves landlocked, while others found themselves in possession of a new harbour.
Along the coast from Romney Marsh, the port of Winchelsea was completely destroyed. It was later rebuilt several miles inland, where it became the first example of town planning in England being built on a grid system familiar to our American friends. Despite its new position Winchelsea still retained its place as a Cinque Port.
The most dramatic change wrought by the great storm was to the towns of Rye and New Romney. Before the storm New Romney was a thriving harbour town with the River Rother flowing into the English Channel at this point. The storm silted up the harbour completely and diverted the river away from the town. More or less overnight New Romney became landlocked, a mile from the coast. So much silt was deposited by the flood that the land level in the town rose by 5 inches.
If you visit the parish church, which is the only building in the town pre-dating the flood, you will find that the floor of the church is several inches below street level. The pillars in the church provide further evidence of the flood - the level the water reached can still be seen on them.
The Gradual Build Up of Romney Marsh
The River Rother, that had previously entered the sea at New Romney, changed course and now entered the sea at Rye, creating a brand new harbour.
These same storms, however, helped to build up more shingle: such beaches now ran along practically the whole seaward side of the marshland.
By the 14th century, much of the Walland and Denge Marshes had been reclaimed by innings, the process of throwing up an embankment around the sea-marsh and using the low-tide to let it run dry by means of one-way drains set into the new seawall, running off into a network of drainage ditches. The drainage dykes and ditches, known locally as sewers, drain the water from the farm land and allow it to flow either to the sea via outfalls or is pumped in to the Royal Military Canal, eventually also ending up in the sea.
The Great Storm at New Romney Artist's impression on
the cover of the New Romney Town Trail leaflet
The storms of the 13th century were followed in the 14th century by more bad weather, the Great Famine in1315-1317 and the Black Death in 1348-9. The Great Famine and particularly The Black Death, Bubonic Plaque, devasted thepopulation throughout Europe. On the Marsh, the already low population, fell by over half with mortality rates on the Marsh being twice as high as in villages just a few miles away.
Land reclamation was not completed until the 15th and 16th centuries. By this time the Marsh was divided into large sheep grazed pastures more easily looked after by fewer people - and the Romney Marsh sheep industry was born.
In 1462, the Romney Marsh Corporation was established to install drainage and sea defences for the marsh, which it continued to build into the 16th century. By the 16th century, the course of the Rother had been changed to its channel today; most of the remainder of the area had now been reclaimed from the sea.
The economy and landscape of Romney Marsh in the 19th century was dominated by sheep. Improved methods of pasture management and husbandry meant the marsh could sustain a stock density greater than anywhere else in the world. The Romney Marsh sheep became one of the most successful and important breeds of sheep. Their main characteristic is an ability to feed in wet situations; they are considered to be more resistant to foot rot and internal parasites than any other breed. Romney Marsh have been exported globally, in particular to Australia, to where they were first exported in 1872.
Today, the shingle continues to be deposited. As a result, all the original Cinque Ports of the Marsh are now far from the sea. Dungeness Point is still being added to. Although (especially near Dungeness and Hythe) a daily operation is in place to counter the reshaping of the shingle banks, using boats to dredge and move the drifting shingle.
From 1564 the health of the Marsh population suffered from malaria, then known as ague or marsh fever, which caused high mortality rates until the 1730s. It remained a major problem until the completion of the Royal Military Canal in 1806, which greatly improved the drainage of the area. Mortality rates on the Marsh were twice as high as in villages just a few miles away.
This disease probably arrived here as soon as the weather became warm enough after the end of the last glacial, around or before the time of the Roman occupation. The strain responsible was most probably Plasmodium vivax, as records and texts describe agues or fevers at three or four-day intervals. Prior Anselm, of nearby Canterbury, recorded in 1070s and 1080s a case that had every appearance of malaria.
With five indigenous mosquito species capable of being hosts for the malarial parasite, only the Anopheles atroparvus species (picture right) breeds in sufficient numbers here to act as an efficient vector. However, P. vivax likes brackish waters and with the recreation of the old coastal wetlands coming into favour, this could expand the future malarial parasite host reserve still further. Therefore, together with this and the average temperatures in England increasing again, it may be possible to see English malaria successfully re-establish in the marshes.
Key Characteristics of Romney Marsh reference and more information
The Gift of the Sea: Romney Marsh by Anne Rider
Romney Marsh: Survival on a Frontier by Jill Eddison
The Fifth Continent: The story of Romney Marsh and its surroundings by Duncan Forbes
The History of Romney Marsh ... by William Holloway
The Book of Syn: Russell Thorndike, Dr Syn and the Romney Marsh by Keith Swallow
Romney Marsh at War by Edward Carpenter
The Romney Marsh Coastline: From Hythe to Dungeness (Britain in Old Photographs) by Dave Singleton
Royal Military Canal by Paul Vine