Pevensey Town Trust was formed in 1890 to look after the dissolved corporation of ‘The Bailiff, Jurats and Commonalty of the Town and Liberty of Pevensey’ which means nowadays they run the Court House Museum and Cattle Market car park, writes Robert Slater.
The gaol and museum is reputed to be the smallest town hall in the country, packed with historical gems of Pevensey’s history and maybe some lingering vestiges of previous ‘residents’.
Just a small village, Pevensey was once a harbour and basked in its association with the Cinque Ports (in its case Hastings).
At times the Port of Pevensey provided a ship for naval use and when English soldiers sailed to fight at Agincourt, the fishermen of Pevensey were ordered to the Normandy coast to fish and supply the English Army at the siege of Harfleur.
Right up to around 1698 when the Pevensey Haven was finally sluiced at its entrance, ships of up to 60 tonnes could sail up to and unload at Pevensey Bridge – itself dating right back to 1300.
In later years the trade was several hundred tonnes of iron (cannons and cannon balls) from the Ashburnham Iron Works. There was a customs office in the village until 1714.
The Court House Museum and Gaol in part dates back to Tudor days and the robing room, prison cells and exercise yard below date from the Georgian period of 1714 to 1830.
Trials took place once in the court and if you were unlucky enough to receive the death sentence, it would mean as a Freeman of the Borough, a drowning at Pevensey Bridge at high tide (or if not then you would be hanged outside the town limits).
There are a variety of inquest records and one example is from 1791 when John Fitsall was found dead on the road from Hankham to Langney.
Another is in 1802 when John Humphrey, a pilot on board HMS Gun Brig Starling, was found drowned on the beach by the Upper Hatch. In 1833 an unknown man was shot while resisting arrest by preventative officers and in 1851 James Elphick drowned by throwing himself into a stream while of unsound mind.
In 1870 James Fox accidentally drowned in a pond, in 1873 W M Fox was run over by a roller and in 1875 Charles Ticehurst drowned by falling from a bridge into Pevensey Haven.
There are lots of drownings as you might expect but also records of suicides from poisonings by arsenic to the cutting of throats, jumping down a well and all manner of grisly ends.
The last time the gaol was allegedly used was for a German airman in World War II and for an inquest according to one elderly gent at the end of the war when he and one other were guarding the mothballed Wartling Radar Station. His subordinate had the job of cleaning the officer’s gun everyday until one day he decided to shoot himself. The body was evidently brought to the Court House.
The Court House and Gaol have been a museum now for around 50 years. This year there are going to be some major improvements at the museum and the heaters upstairs have already all been replaced.
Old plaster will be hacked off in the cells and lower area and replaced with lime plaster and limewash as it should be. The front door is being replaced. Then there are three rotten and non-working windows to be replaced and the outer wall and drainage problems all sorted out.
All of these will cost a lot of money and considerable time as it is a Grade II Listed Building so trustees need to find the right experts and obtain correct conservation permission.
The whole lot is kept going simply by a £2 parking fee in the car park, entrance fees and a group of trustees, curator and clerk together with Volunteers, all local people, who all give their time for free.
It’s all keeping history alive for the future generations of Pevensey.
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