Womens' Tower, former prison cells and exercise yard


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Rye Castle Museum, 3 East Street, Rye, TN31 7JY


Ordnance survey map of Womens' Tower, former prison cells and exercise yard
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Statutory Address:
Rye Castle Museum, 3 East Street, Rye, TN31 7JY

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Sussex
Rother (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


A former womens’ prison, cells and exercise yard, all of 1837 and built to supplement the existing prison provision of the adjoining Ypres Tower. A project to renovate the Womens’ Tower was completed in 2013.

Reasons for Designation

The Womens' Tower, former prison Cells and Exercise Yard are listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: these are bespoke and solidly built structures designed to complement the section of Rye Town Wall and the adjoining Ypres Tower with which they were functionally related in providing prison accommodation for the town of Rye;

* Historic interest: these buildings are a reflection of the 1830s drive by local corporations to improve prison provision;

* Degree of survival: the Womens' Tower has been sensitively modernised on the upper floor but is otherwise intact the ground floor cell displayed as a museum exhibit; three of the four cells are also un-modernised (the fourth retaining historic features), and the exercise yard remains legible including its 'anti-escape' iron spikes to much of the length of wall;

* Group value: the buildings hold group value with the Ypres Tower and supplemented its court/prison function in the C19.


There is a long history of the use of the ‘Rye Castle’ site as a prison. This probably dates from 1495 when the Rye Corporation acquired the freehold for the tower from its then owner. Certainly by the early C16 Ypres Tower was in use as both the town gaol and its courthouse. In the early C19 the prison accommodation was expanded with an exercise yard added to the immediate NW of the tower in 1819; this was partially converted to a soup kitchen in the mid-C19 (Rye Museum photographic evidence). Both are shown on the Ordnance Survey maps of 1872 and 1898 but had been demolished by the 1909 edition. In 1837 a womens’ prison (the ‘Womens’ Tower’), was constructed to the NE of Ypres Tower, the two being joined by a further exercise yard which is shown on the 1872 OS map as the gaoler's garden (following downgrading of the prison to a lock-up) and now (2016) presented as a medieval garden. Women had been held separately in prisons from the 1770s onwards but the additional accommodation at Rye was part of a wider movement in the 1830s when local corporations were individually improving prison provision; given this there was a very wide variety in the type of building erected. The yard’s N wall follows the line of, and partly incorporates fabric from, the C14 town wall. (While repairs to Rye’s defences are recorded in 1246 these were probably just earthworks as it is not until 1329 that grants of murage – i.e. permission to construct the walls – are recorded, see Harris 2009, 18.) The N exercise yard wall was also employed as the S wall of a house or houses illustrated on the Van Dyck drawing of 1633-4 and shown on Ordnance Survey maps from the 1st edition of 1872. This building was demolished following Second World War bomb damage (see below). Also in 1837 a set of two-storey cells, with two cells to each floor, were built externally to the E wall of Ypres Tower, using that tower’s wall as their back wall.

Ypres Tower ceased to be a prison in 1891 as Rye Police Station had by then been built. It is presumed that the Womens’ Tower, yard and cells became disused at the same time.

In 1942 the Rye Castle site was quite badly damaged during an air raid. This destroyed the roof of the Ypres Tower and that of the Women’s Tower, and so badly damaged a number of houses to the immediate north of the site - including those built up against the town wall and 1837 exercise yard - that they were subsequently demolished. Part of the N exercise yard wall was probably rebuilt at this time.

Repairs to Ypres Tower took place in the 1950s and in 1954 Rye Museum took over the first and ground floor, adding the basement in 1959, and thus began the site’s present phase as a museum and tourist attraction. Major structural work to the Ypres Tower took place in 1996-7, funded by Rother District Council with further repairs and alterations in 2005-7. The Womens’ Tower was the subject of a restoration project, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which was completed in September 2013. It is now open to the public.


A former womens’ prison, exercise yard and cells, all of 1837 and built to supplement the existing prison provision of the adjoining Ypres Tower (separately designated). A project to renovate the Womens’ Tower was completed in 2013.

WOMENS' TOWER MATERIALS: the tower is built of coursed stone rubble with dressings of ashlar or brick.

PLAN: square in plan and of two-storeys with a crenelated parapet concealing the modern flat roof with a central lantern. Access is via a single doorway in the N elevation. An internal straight stone staircase runs up the internal W side and provides access to the upper floor.

EXTERIOR: the principal elevation of the Womens' Tower is its N entrance elevation. The single entrance is to the W and has a tooled stone lintel, above which is a stone plaque which reads: ‘VICTORIA REGINA AD 1837’. To the E are two windows, one lighting each floor. To the ground floor the original cell bars are retained but to the first floor is a modern timber casement (not of special interest). The W wall has a single loophole window at first floor level, with an ashlar surround, lighting the internal stair. The S elevation has two similar pairs of windows – a pair to each floor - which are now blocked. The E elevation also has two similar windows (now blocked), one to each floor. Probably those on the S and E elevations were never proper loopholes but rather faux loopholes to help the tower blend with the Ypres Tower. Rainwater goods are original cast iron.

INTERIOR: the tower is entered through a cast iron 9-panelled door. This opens into a small stone-flagged area at the base of the stairs. To the E is a doorway which leads into the ground floor cell (its original planked cell door, with an observation hatch and iron studding, is secured against the N wall). The cell has a stone flagged floor and a projecting brick chimney stack in the E wall. The original fireplace has a very shallow brick arch; the iron grate is a replica of the period. A replica wooden candle sconce has been fixed to the chimney breast above (both replicas are not of special interest). The room is lit by a single barred cell window in the N wall.

The staircase leads up to a second cell door on the first floor. This is in situ and is planked with iron studs to its interior face. The upper ‘cell’ is now in use as an office and store and has been modernised including a modern timber casement in the N wall and a flat roof with a central lantern, all of 2013 (all of which are not of special interest).

CELLS MATERIALS: coursed stone rubble with a mixture of stone and brick dressings.

PLAN: the former cells are built against the E face of the Ypres Tower and use that wall as their rear (west) wall, also parts of the tower’s turrets as their S and N walls. They are of two storeys with two mirror-image cells to each floor. The upper floor is reached via stone steps up from the N gate into the exercise yard; the lower cells via stone steps down from the same gate. Each cell is accessed via a door in the E elevation.

EXTERIOR: each cell has an individual solid wooden planked door. The upper cells and the ground floor S cell have a small cell window high in the wall above and outside its respective door. The ground floor N cell’s window is immediately above its doorframe. All windows have cell bars with secondary modern glazing (not of special interest) behind. A downpipe between the pairs of cells is the original cast iron. A modern metal safety balustrade (not of special interest) has been installed on the first floor external landing and down the side of the steps into the exercise yard.

INTERIOR: all cells have paired doors (an inner and an outer door). The external doors to all are wooden plank doors with iron hinges and iron studding internally. The inner doors are similar but have heavy duty locks and small observation grills; the inner door to the first floor S cell has been replaced with a modern timber glazed door (not of special interest) as this room has been part modernised for use as an office. The two ground floor cells retain simple brick flat-arched fire places. The first floors cells have brick barrel-vaulted ceilings and stone wash basins. At the time of inspection (November 2015) the cells were in use as stores, the contents of which may have masked other historic features. (Modern heaters and electrical fixtures, fittings and lights are not of special interest.)

EXERCISE YARD MATERIALS: stone rubble with some small areas of coursed brick.

PLAN: the former exercise yard is roughly trapezoidal in plan and is accessed via a gateway at the W end of the N wall.

DESCRIPTION: the yard wall encloses a space between the Ypres Tower and cells and the Women’s Tower. Its long axis runs broadly W-E. The external face of the N wall is of stone and brick. The Stretcher bond brick courses occupy the bottom third of the wall at its NE corner and run between that corner and a shallow stone buttress to the W. The external face of the E wall is entirely of coursed stone rubble. There is a small buttress at the NE corner. The S wall external face is also entirely of coursed stone rubble. While a difference in colour to the upper courses might suggest a later rebuilding of this section, the presence of the original ‘anti-escape’ iron spikes on the interior suggests that this is unlikely to have been rebuilt since 1837. The wall steps up at its junction with the Ypres Tower (where the cells are located internally) and is crenelated. High up the wall here is a small barred window with a replacement ashlar stone surround which lights the interior of the first floor S cell. There is a small battered brick infill at the junction of the south wall/cells and the Ypres Tower. All of the walls have triangular-profile cap stones.

The internal face of the N wall has brick courses in the central portion (probably matching the same on the exterior). Towards the NE corner are two horizontal iron ties. The S wall internal face has brick at the junction with both towers; there is also a brick section and to the E of the Ypres Tower is a section where the bottom third or so of the wall is brick. All walls (except for the western portion of the N wall) are battered towards the top. There are iron ‘anti-climb’ spikes along the full length of the S wall until it steps up to the cells, and along parts of the N and E walls.


Books and journals
Brodie, Croom, Davies, , English Prisons, (2002)
Draper, G, A History of a Sussex Cinque Port to 1660, (2009)
Martin, D , Martin, B , Rye Rebuilt, (2009)
Rye Castle Museum website, accessed 11 November 2015 from www.ryemuseum.co.uk
Harris, R B, 2009, Rye Historic Character Assessment Report, Sussex Extensive Urban Survey (EUS)
Hogg, I, 2013, Archaeological Watching Brief Report Ypres Tower, Rye, East Sussex. Archaeology South-East report; project 5700
Margetts, A, 2011, Archaeological Watching Brief Report Ypres Tower, Rye, East Sussex. Archaeology South-East report; project 4847
Martin, D & Martin, B, 2007, An Archaeological Interpretative Survey of Ypres Tower, Rye, East Sussex. Archaeology South-East report; projects 466 & 2296.
Priestley-Bell, G, 2000, An Archaeological Investigation at Rye Museum, Rye, Sussex. Archaeology South-East report; project 1232


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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