The Mermaid Inn
An inn. A smuggler's hideaway. A home to priests. A bohemian club. And apparently very, very haunted. Oh and secret passages and a visit from the Queen.
What else would you expect from a building that's been around in some form since 1156?
The Mermaid Inn is on Mermaid Street in the ancient town of Rye, East Sussex, southeastern England. One of the best-known inns in southeast England, it was established in the 12th century and has a long, turbulent history. The current building dates from 1420 and has 16th-century additions in the Tudor style, but cellars built in 1156 survive.
What led this inn to become a fixture of infamy and hauntings in this small town?
Episode: File 0035: The Ancient Winchester Mermaid Inn Pt. 1
Release Date: July 9th 2021
Researched and presented by Halli
The Early Years
The dating varies, but a popular notion is that the stone cellar dates all the way back to 1156, which is the believed to be the same year the original inn was built. The inn was known in its heyday for its custom-brewed beer and cheap lodging - at just a penny a night.
But in 1377, the French burned down almost the entire town of Rye during the Hundred Years War. Very little was left of the town.
In the 1420s, the inn was rebuilt but retained its cellars. It underwent further renovation in the 16th century, much of which remains today. Catholic priests who had fled from Continental Europe escaping from the Reformation during 1530 stayed in the inn, which is testified by j.h.s. (Jesus Homnium Salvator) inscribed in the oak-paneled "Syn's Lounge". Between 1550 and 1570, the Town Corporation organized many functions such as the "Sessions Dinner", the "Gentlemens Freeman's Dinner", "Mayoring Day" and the "Herring Feast". Queen Elizabeth I was also a guest at the inn around this time.
Ultimately, the Inn ceased to operate by 1770. It was not until 1993, when the current owner purchased it, that it once again opened its doors.
Smuggling and the Hawkhurst gang
As a port town, Rye served as an integral pawn in the king's service when it was returned to England from France in 1247.
Nearly surrounded by water, such coastal towns formed a confederation for the Crown's military and trade purposes. The main obligation of ports like Rye was to provide ships for the king's service. In return, port towns received the privilege of being tax-exempt and basically received a free pass on bad behaviors.
Rye thus became a hotbed of smuggling activity. Smugglers snuck tea, tobacco, silk, and spirits into 18th-century England and though overwhelmed by the sheer number of smugglers, officials nonetheless confiscated these things when they could.
The inn had a strong connection with the notorious Hawkhurst Gang which used the premises during the 1730s and 1740s. This large group of smugglers controlled territory from Kent to Dorset from their base at the Oak and Ivy Inn in Hawkhurst, but they used the Mermaid Inn as a secondary location. There are a myriad of secret tunnels, including one which ran from the cellars to the Old Bell Inn (built 1390) in The Mint, a street which runs parallel to the north of Mermaid Street. A revolving cupboard at the end of the tunnel in the Olde Bell would then be used by the gang for a quick getaway. A resident of Rye remembered the smugglers as;
"When the Hawkhurst Gang were at the height of their pride and insolence having seen them (after successfully running a cargo of goods on the seashore), seated at the windows of this house (the Mermaid) carousing and smoking their pipes, with their loaded pistols lying on the table before them; no magistrate daring to interfere with them"
The gang terrorized southeast England from 1735 until 1749 with their notorious violence and they intimidated other guests at the Inn by drinking with their loaded weapons on the table.
According to legend, officials confiscated tea from the Hawkhurst's ship, which the gang famously stole back from the King's Custom House in Poole.
The Hawkhurst Gang had no intention of letting His Majesty get his royal hands on their contraband.
Two weeks later, in a daring midnight raid, 60 men from the gang rode into Poole, stormed the customs house with crowbars and pickaxes, packed their saddlebags with tea, left behind the cumbersome casks of brandy and rum, and coolly rode away.
So brazen was the raid that no one stopped them. As the gangsters rode nonchalantly through the villages, locals gathered to watch, among them a shoemaker named Daniel Chater, who had worked with one of the gang leaders, John Diamond, during the harvest. Diamond, in a cocky, post-heist mood, tossed his old mate a small bag of tea.
That gesture would have the most dreadful consequences imaginable.
Word got around that the shoemaker knew the gang leaders. Months later, when Diamond was picked up on grounds of suspicion, and the authorities needed someone to identify him, they had just the man.
On Valentine's Day 1748, a terrified Chater and an elderly customs officer named William Galley set out for Chichester, where Diamond was being held. On the way, they stopped at the White Hart Inn, whose landlady had two smuggler sons. Suspicious of the strangers, she summoned a few gang members, who, after plying Galley and Chater with drink, went through their luggage and read the incriminating documents they carried.
"Hang the dogs," the smugglers' wives declared, according to popular accounts. "They came here to hang us."
What followed over the next weeks would shock even the most hardened criminals. The men were awakened from their drunken sleep by a smuggler who jumped on the bed and drove his spurs into their foreheads. Galley and Chater were flogged till they bled, mounted on one horse with their legs tied under the horse's belly, and whipped through several villages on a 15-mile northward journey.
"The couple turned upside down several times, so that the horse's hooves repeatedly struck their faces," writes Roy Moxham in Tea: Addiction, Exploitation And Empire. "Occasionally, one of the smugglers would crush the customs officer's testicles."
Unbelievably, the two men survived the journey. When the gang reached the Red Lion pub at Rake - once again, they had a friend in the landlord - they chained Chater in a small shed outside. Then, in a foxhole, where smugglers stored bags of tea, they buried the customs officer, after first flogging him unconscious.
But when Galley's body was disinterred, he was found sitting upright, his hands before his eyes. "He had been buried alive," writes Moxham.
Chater was next on the list. Death by bullet was too slight a retribution for this rat, the gang decided. So he was starved and beaten, and finally taken to a nearby well. As he knelt down to pray, a gang member hacked his nose off with a clasp knife. The bleeding Chater tried to fling himself into the well, but was held back. Five men tried to hang him on a noose they had rigged up. When this rough mechanism failed, they cut him loose and dropped him head-first into the well. When he continued to groan, they flung rocks and gateposts on him to finish the job.
"Even by the standards of the time, all this was considered too barbaric," writes Moxham.
That an old customs officer had been tortured and buried alive shocked people to the core. And the shoemaker, too, was after all a local. The mood began to turn. The Hawkhurst Gang went from heroes to monsters. People came forward with information.
The authorities, outraged as much by the storming of the King's Customs House as the vicious way in which Galley and Chater had been murdered, offered large rewards for the capture of the gang members.
It didn't take long for 11 ringleaders to be captured and executed. Of them, those treated as accessories got away lightly - which meant they were hanged and buried. Those convicted of murder faced what was perhaps the most feared punishment of the age: They were hanged, and their bodies hung in chains and left to rot in the open, as a warning to all. Cutting these bodies down was illegal.
The Hawkhurst Gang did not survive this infamous affair. In any case, it had been losing popular support. As the gang grew more powerful, its members had begun to terrorize the local population. The men of one village had even formed a militia to oppose the gang's abusive ways and constant demands for horses, money and food. With this final act of criminality, local sanctuary and intelligence were withdrawn.
And yet - and this indicates how entrenched tea drinking had become in England - the smuggling went on for decades. Fear of neither the noose nor gibbet deterred smugglers. It was only in 1784, when the 25-year-old Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger boldly slashed the tea tax - from 119 percent to 12.5 percent - that the smugglers finally lost their market.
By 1770, the building ceased functioning as an inn. By 1847, it was in use as a house and was owned by Charles Poile; the yard at the back, through which there was a footway leading to High Street, was called the Mermaid Yard.
The inn functioned as a club in 1913, after it came under the ownership of May Aldington, mother of the novelist Richard Aldington. It was then a popular locale for many artists like Dame Ellen Terry, Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde's "Bosie"), A.C. and E.F. Benson and Rupert Brooke. In 1945, during World War II, the inn functioned as a garrison for Canadian officers. It was later purchased by Mr L. Wilson, a Canadian, who had been garrisoned there. The Mermaid Inn had the honor of hosting a luncheon to Her Majesty the Queen Mother when she was named as the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports during her visit to Rye in 1982.
Under the name Mermaid House and The Mermaid Hotel, the Mermaid Inn was listed at Grade II by English Heritage on 12 October 1951. This defines it as a "particularly important" building of "more than special interest". As of February 2001, it was one of 75 Grade II listed buildings, and 2,106 listed buildings of all grades, in Rother -the local government district in which Rye is located. The Mermaid Inn is presently owned by Judith Blincow and Robert Pinwill, who bought it in 1993.
In late 1982, the exterior of the inn was used in the post Monty Python film Yellowbeard, alongside its neighboring church square and infamous cobbled Mermaid Street leading to the inn.
Today, it has 31 rooms, some of which feature four-poster beds and antique furniture, and its AA Rosette-winning restaurant serves traditional British and French cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients.
The Mermaid Inn is well known for its hauntings and has been subject to an investigation by Most Haunted. The events in one room have been described as "one of the most well-organized ghostly scenarios anywhere".
Room 1 (James): is said to be haunted by a lady in white or grey who sits in the chair by the fireplace. Guests have reported waking up in the morning and finding their clothes on the chair wet, despite no windows or pipework being near the chair.
Room 10 (Fleur de Lys): is said to be haunted by the ghost of a man who has terrified guests by walking through the bathroom wall into the main room.
Room 16 (Elizabethan): was said to be the scene of a duel involving two men "of unknown date and origin" (although they have also been described as wearing "16th-century clothing"). After fighting through some of the nearby rooms, one of the men was killed, dragged into the adjacent room and thrown through a trapdoor into the dungeon below. Many unexplained light anomalies have been recorded in the middle of the night. On one occasion an employee was tending to the fireplace when all of the bottles on the bottle shelf at the other end of the room fell off; the experience caused him to resign. The ghost of a maid is said to be present in the inn; she was the girlfriend of one of the smugglers of the Hawkhurst Gang and was killed by his fellow gang members as they feared she "knew too much and would expose them."
Room 17 (Kingsmill): is named after Thomas Kingsmill, a Hawkhurst smuggler who inhabited the inn. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who was said to be the wife of the Hawkhurst gang founder George Gray. She was said to haunt a rocking chair in the room; guests would wake up in the middle of the night and see the chair rocking on its own, and found the room icy cold. The chair was eventually removed from the premises because it caused so many disturbances with guests.
Room 19 (Hawkhurst): is said to be haunted by a gentleman in old-fashioned clothes. One American guest reported seeing him sitting at the end of her bed: in terror, she spent the night in the adjacent room with a mattress pulled around her head.
Judith Blincow, who owns the inn and has worked there since 1980, states, "Although I have not personally seen ghosts, I certainly have met some very convinced and frightened guests."
As varied as they are spooky, The Mermaid Inn's ghosts are the stuff of local legend, with no shortage of mediums, psychics and amateur ghost hunters lending credence to its incorporeal credentials.
But , for owner Judith Blincow, who has run The Mermaid Inn since 1993, the spectres come part and parcel with the property. She ain't afraid of no ghost.
She said: "I've never had a bad feeling here, so if there's anything really there, it's accepted me."
She is also keen to emphasize that The Mermaid Inn is more than the sum of it's sometimes otherworldly parts, trying not to take its spookier residents too seriously. She said: "It's just a lot of fun. We're all very tongue in cheek about it."
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