Rye has many connections to the Dengate family, being the nearest major town to several of the small Kent and Sussex villages where the Dengates made their home. The picturesque town of Rye now stands over- looking the Romney Marshes, being once surrounded by sea. Over time the sea has receded, but Rye still retains its harbour and its marine connections, which date back to Norman times when it was owned by the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy and later became one of the famous Cinque Port towns. By the eighteenth century, Rye had become a major centre for smuggling and some of their secret passages and tunnels are still in evidence today below the small mediaeval, cobbled streets. The Dengates (so far!) have no known connections to smuggling, although there was a Dengate presence in the town at this time, so you never know!
A walk through Rye, East Sussex
The first Dengate to appear in the town’s parish registers is Edward Dengate (1724- 1766), from the Wittersham Tree. Edward married Anne Catt there on the 6 November 1758 in St Mary’s Church, Rye. There the couple baptised four sons and one daughter. Despite ongoing searches, however, no descendants have been traced from this family.
In 1759 Edward Dengate was granted a lease for 99 years of 6 rods of ground in part of the waste lands belonging to Rye Corporation at 5/- per annum, on the condition that he built a mill there. Unfortunately, this mill burnt down c.1876 and was replaced by the current mill. Edward died in 1766 and was buried in the churchyard. If ever a headstone existed for him, it is now no longer visible. His wife, Anne, remarried in 1772 to Stephen Tilley.
St Mary the Virgin church has dominated the Rye skyline for almost 900 years. In 1377 when Rye was looted and burnt by French invaders, the church suffered extensive damage. The roof fell in and the bells were removed to France, only being recovered the following year when a group of men from Rye and Winchelsea sailed to Normandy to retrieve them! In all there were 27 Dengate baptisms in St Mary’s Church, 13 marriages and 21 burials.
Around the year 1830, James Dengate (1783-1833) became the Sexton of St Mary’s church, meaning that he was the church caretaker. He was also required to dig graves and ring the church bells. After his death, the job was later taken on by his wife, Frances and his son, David Dengate (1825-1913). James, Frances and children occupied one of the tiny houses adjacent to the church in Church Street. The 1861 census for Rye later shows that David Dengate, his wife Eliza and their eight children resided at number three Church Street... One wonders how they all survived in such a cramped house!
There is just one legible Dengate grave in the churchyard, and that is a slightly unusual double-sided one for James Dengate and some of his family. The inscriptions read: 'In Memory/of/James Dengate/who died October 25th 1833/Aged 50 years/Leaving a widow and 8 children to lament their loss/Also of/James Samuel son of/James and Frances Dengate/who died February 18th 1840/Aged 22 years'. The other side of the grave reads 'In Memory of/Frances wife of/James Dengate/who died May 7th 1854/Aged 67 years/Also of/Harriott their daughter/who died January 9th 1849/Aged 20'
Just off of the square which surrounds St Mary’s Church is Rye Methodist Chapel, which was for many years the nearest non-conformist Methodist church to Wittersham, Peasmarsh and other surrounding villages. It was used for the baptisms of the five children of John Dengate (1795-1864) and his wife Sarah of Wittersham, before their emigration to Australia. It was later used by Thomas (1830-1908) and Frances Dengate (1833-1924) of Peasmarsh for the baptisms of 4 of their 13 children.
The suicide of George Dengate
On the 13 April 1834 a one George Dengate (from a so-far unknown branch of the family tree) committed suicide in the town of Rye. He was buried in St Mary’s Church after a full inquest, the details of which still survive. The inquest took place in Rye Town Hall on the 17 April, being conducted by the town’s mayor and coroner, William Ramsden Esquire. The first witness was Robert Swift, who stated, “I was coming into town from my work and first as I had passed the house occupied by John Wheeler under the Gallows Bank I was informed by Thomas Bond that there was some man drunk or hung up the Gallows Bank or hung up the Gallow’s Bank. I went up the bank accompanied by Bond and when we reached the top near Mr Edmund’s field I saw a person in a stooping position who appeared to have a string around his neck part of which was also hang- ing down his back, when I came close to the person I discovered that one end of the rope was fastened to the branch of a tree growing on the bank. I cut the rope and then discovered that the person was George Dengate late of Rye labourer. He appeared to be quite dead but the body was not cold, I did not cut or loosen the part of the cord which was around his neck thinking that it was of no use. John Wheeler came to my assistance and we moved the body into a more convenient situation on the bank. Wheeler sent for a surgeon. Mr Wilson came in about a quarter of an hour.”
The next to give evidence was Thomas Bond the younger: “About seven o’clock yesterday evening, I was going up the Gallow’s Bank in company with William Butchers and George Sims, when we came near the top, we saw a man kneeling, stood looking at him for about five minutes, and was going closer to him to see whether he was asleep when one of the boys said don’t go near him he’s old Samson drunk and he’ll push you over the cliff. I replied he could not be drunk but must be asleep as he never moved. I did not see any rope round the neck of the man as it was dark where he was. I told Wheeler there was somebody there, he laughed and said it was something stuck up there to frighten the boys. I thought so afterwards myself as there was no hat on his head and I could not see his arms – when I afterwards went with Swift I saw that the cord had been thrown twice around this branch of a tree, and that one end was held by Dengate whose hands were placed under one of his knees, the other being on the ground. I called Swift and stood on the spot until Mr Wilson – there is a trench dug where Dengate was and his knees were in it when I saw him, he appeared so short in consequence that I thought it was a boy. I had not seen any person near the bank, before I discovered the body.”
The surgeon, Francis Henry Wilson was next to testify: “At about eight o’clock yesterday evening I was coming up the high street from my house in the Mint when I met WHicks who said he understood there was a man who had hanged himself near Gallows Bank – I proceeded thither – immediately and on reaching the spot found the body of a man lying on a little open place about half way up the banks – he was quite dead and cold, a cord was round his neck but being satisfied that life was extinct I thought it better to leave him as he was until he had been seen by the coroner and jury. I have no doubt from the position in which the body was found, as stated by the wit- ness Bond, that death was caused by apoplexy from the pressure of the cord on the throat as the twigs or branch over which the rope was thrown was not sufficiently strong to have supported the body which I knew to be that of George Dengate.”
Finally, and giving the most informative description of George Dengate is Sarah Crowhurst, wife of the town blacksmith: “I have known the deceased George Dengate many years he was my near neighbour for three months past I have perceived a considerable alteration in his behaviour, he has been very cross and irritable. His wife has told me now that he has behaved unkindly to her and that she apprehended he would do her mischief she asked me to watch the house and said if any morning I should come in and find her dead, I was to carry her up the stairs for she expected every night her husband would kill her – the deceased was jealous of his wife, and has frequently expressed his suspicions that she had misbehaved herself with Thomas Hayward, Thomas Walker, carpenter, Thomas Kennett, and Mr Kingridge of Brighton with whom the formerly lived , and several others – the deceased was 76 and his wife upwards of 70. I have never witnessed any impropriety in the conduct Mrs Dengate who was a quiet industrious woman and a good neighbour.”
After consultation with the jury, the Mayor then delivered his verdict: “... the said George Dengate being a lunatic and unsound mind did on thirteenth day of April instant between the hours of five and eight o’clock in the afternoon of the same day of a certain place called Gallows Bank situate within the liberty of the town aforesaid then and there being alone with a certain cord of the _? of one halfpenny of which he then and there had and held in his hands and one end thereof about his neck then and there first and the other end thereof twisted around the branch of a tree then and there standing and growing himself then and there with the cord aforesaid strangled and hanged himself and so the jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid say that the said George Dengate then and there being a lunatic and of unsound mind in manner and form aforesaid strangled and hanged himself so that he died.”
Records show that George Dengate was baptised in 1759 in Icklesham Parish Church, one of two children to John and Sarah Dengate (spelt Dungate). John died in 1760 and George’s brother, William was indentured to a company in London at the age of ten. It is currently not known to which tree John belongs, but it could even be a Dungate tree.
It is interesting to note the location chosen by George Dengate for his suicide—Gallows Bank. It was here, until 1566, that the gallows were located and where executions took place. They were later moved to the Strand. Was this a symbolic gesture from a guilty George?