Brightlingsea’s beach huts

Why does a little seaside resort in Essex give the town of Sandwich in Kent 50p a year?

To find the answer we need to learn a little about the Cinque Ports (from the French for five, cinq, but pronounced sink not sank). They comprised Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe. Broadly speaking, in return for supplying the King with ships and manpower, they received certain privileges:

“Exemption from tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit (the right to punish shedders of blood) and fledwit (the right to punish those who were seized in an attempt to escape from justice), pillory and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce (the breaking into or violation of a man’s mund or property in order to erect banks or dikes as a defence against the sea), waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.”

Basically, they didn’t need to pay any tax and could smuggle what they liked. A lucrative deal, and nice if you could get it. Unfortunately, problems had plagued the Cinque Ports from the start, not least that their harbours were prone to silting up. Hastings was the worst affected; to try to get round the problem, Rye and Winchelsea became what was known as limbs of Hastings, later to be bestowed with the title “Antient Towns”. That’s not a typo, by the way.

Seeing the limbs as a way out of their problems, the others followed Hastings’ example. Most of these limbs were in Kent or Sussex, geographically logical. Only one was located in Essex. It would seem that the men of Sandwich had a penchant for Brightlingsea’s oysters and could also see the advantages to be gained by the town’s convenient location halfway to the annual Herring Fair at Yarmouth. Sandwich, tempted by the ships that could be pressed into service from this thriving port, and Brightlingsea, keen to secure the financial rewards and freedoms associated with the Cinque Ports, were a match made in heaven.

These days, the link between the two towns is largely symbolic. Every year, on the first Monday in December, All Saints’ Church on the edge of town hosts what’s called Choosing Day. The Deputy of Brightlingsea, the officer responsible to the Mayor of Sandwich, is elected. And as part of this ceremony, the ship-money owed to Sandwich in lieu of the service of men, ten shillings – or 50p in new money – has to be paid.