Pevensey Court House Jail and Museum

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Pevensey Court House Jail
Museum in Pevensey
High Street
Near Eastbourne
East Sussex, BN24 5LF

Rating: Brilliant history of Pevensey
Prices: Very, Very well priced. ?1.50 pp
Info: A must-not-miss history of Pevensey. Incredibly cheap, we spent 50 minutes there talking.

Built in 1541, the old Pevensey Courthouse museum and jail remains as a rich slice of history, the 16th century building (Tudor beams still intact) made up of the court room, prisoner's dock, magistrates robing chamber and two prisoner’s cells below and exercise yard outside.

It was in this claustrophobically small looking Pevensey Court House and Jail, with its intimidating iron spiked walls, that sentence was passed down to criminals. Executions took place in Gallows Lane, not half a mile down the road. More on the death penalty in England in a minute.

Featuring the oldest surviving Cinque Port Seal, this grade 2 listed building was used as Pevenseys Gaol, Court and Tudor Town Hall up until 1886 when the borough was dissolved. The Pevensey Court House acted as the smallest Town Hall in England. There were a further six cells under the building (now gone) with the property attached being built for the Jailer circa 1700.

Up the road from the Court House is the Royal Oak and Castle pub and restaurant, outside which stands a tree encased in iron railings: This was the site of the stocks for the Court House, which was across from the market held outside the castle. The Royal Oak and Castle pub was run for many years by the lovely Diana, wife of Don Powell of Slade, considered to be one of Rock’s best drummers.

Executions in Sussex were held in Horsham, then later Lewes and were made public as a reminder and a warning to citizens, of the pain and horror that would befall those who broke the law.

Most of the old Pevensey Court House records were burnt in 1886 when it was dissolved, however, copies of all punishments meted out out in England are also kept in London.

Pevensey Court House and Jail. Stocks were outside the Royal Oak and Castle pub and restaurantCapital punishment and the death sentence in England:
Between 1723 and 1820, the English Penal Code became increasingly severe, and “The Bloody Code” as it was known, made the death penalty mandatory for a seemingly never-ending number of offences.

Year Number of crimes punishable by death in England
1688 50
1765 160
1810 222

It’s worth noting that normally, only 20 or so crimes would virtually guarantee the execution of the prisoner, and that in a great many cases the death sentence would have been commuted.

England was run by the property owning middle classes, who were naturally keen to protect their property from the larger number of underclass citizens, those individuals whose lives were considered to be of little value.

Many citizens of Pevensey were executed, either by drowning (the sea came right up to the castle) or by hanging. Sometimes a choice was given, to be hanged, or instead, to have ones limbs bound fast, whereupon the individual would be thrown into water.

In the 65 years from 1735 to 1800, an incredible 1596 females were condemned to death in England, with 1243 being reprieved and 356 executed. 32 were burnt alive, and the majority of the remainder were executed by hanging.

A typical hanging in England usually began very early in the mornings and escape prior to the execution was unlikely, as a blacksmith was needed to remove the leg-irons and handcuffs of the condemned. A Yeoman would immediately bind the hands of the individual in front of them (and also around the body and elbows) so they could pray.

Several people would usually be hung together, first loaded into open horse drawn carts (typically sitting on their coffins) surrounded by armed cavalry. The court officer responsible for prisoners would be amongst the procession, as would a prison chaplain, the hangman and his assistants.

The more notorious the criminal, the bigger the turnout. The crowds that lined  the streets would insult and hurl objects at the prisoners, stopping at a church on the way to the gallows.

After a hanging, bodies were cut down to be claimed by friends or relatives and fights often broke out between rival parties over possession of the bodies. Whilst wealthy criminals would buy coffins for themselves, many of the poorer criminals sentenced to death were would not have been able to afford a coffin. Friends and relatives would sometimes sell the body of the deceased for dissection.

The hangman had the right to claim the clothes of the deceased, so some prisoners would wear their oldest least expensive clothes, whilst some dressed to look their best. It was common for people to want to purchase the rope that hanged particularly notorious criminals, which the hangman would sell to them, which is where the saying “money for old rope” comes from.

Sentenced to death, being burnt at the stake in EnglandBeing burnt at the stake: Burning at the stake in public was used in England & Wales to punish heresy for both sexes and for women convicted of High or Petty Treason. Men who were convicted of high treason were hanged, drawn and quartered but this was not deemed acceptable for women as it would have involved nudity.

In Scotland burning was also the preferred punishment for witchcraft (obviously not preferred by the condemned!) It is not known when burning was first used in Britain, but there is a recorded burning at the stake for heresy in 1222, when a deacon of the church was burnt at Oxford for embracing the Jewish faith so he could marry a Jewish woman.
Where a woman was to be burned at the stake for High Treason (mainly offences of clipping filing or forging coins) or Petty Treason, her execution was normally carried out after the hangings. Both men and women convicted of treason were drawn on a sledge to their execution instead of riding in the carts with the others.

Burning was in use throughout Europe and was particularly favoured by the Spanish Inquisition as it did not involve shedding the victim's blood, which was disallowed under the prevailing Roman Catholic doctrine. Burning at the stake ensured that the condemned had no body to take into the next life (which was believed to be a very severe punishment in itself). It was also thought at the time that burning cleansed the soul which was considered important for those convicted of witchcraft and heresy.

Water / drowning torture in EnglandSadly, torture was seen as a completely legitimate means of obtaining testimonies and confessions. Punishments and methods of torture in England have included starvation, beating, blinding, boiling, bone breaking, branding and burning, castration, choking, joint dislocation, drowning, flagellation, whipping, flaying (peeling a person alive, like an apple) roasting, genital mutilation, cutting and disfigurement, the ripping out teeth and nails, and finger or limb and tongue removal. Whoever said the English weren’t a friendly bunch!

Pevensey in East Sussex was once what Eastbourne is now, today – a bustling and prosperous town by the sea. Just as a tsunami will have a negative effect on the development of any low lying settlement or civilisation, so can a receding tide line have a damaging effect on a village or town too, for Pevensey is no longer the popular and thriving English seaside port it was many years ago, the water line having receded to what is now Pevensey Bay.

"The Liberty Of Pevensey" as taken from the Jail House wall, reads:
“Celts, Romans and Saxons were here long before William The Conqueror Landed at Pevensey in 1066. The Normans built a castle within the walls of the Roman fort and the port of Pevensey flourished.

The Royal Charter of King John in 1207 granted the town corporate membership of the cinque ports. As the Sea Receded so Pevensey’s importance gradually waned and in 1886 the corporation was dissolved.

A voluntary body, the Pevensey Town Trust, was then elected to safeguard the town relics and to administer its properties.  The old Court House is almost entirely maintained without external funding and is staffed entirely by volunteers."

... “Please help to keep this unique piece of our history open” it says, at the foot of the signboard, on the front of the Court House in Pevensey and Westham - So go, visit and enjoy. You wont find another museum in England as fascinating for just £1.50 - we spent nearly one hour talking to one of the volunteers there, and wished we had visited sooner.

The inscription on the stone plaque at the front of the Court House reads:

Pevensey Court House Museum & Gaol opening times:
Open Easter weekend, then daily from 1st May to 30th September

Pevensey Facts and Trivia:

  • In 1831 Pevensey had a small population of around 350 people.
  • Local history and legend state that Rattle Road was named so, due to the chains of the deceased which could be heard rattling in the wind.
  • Peelings Lane was named so, as bodies of those who had been executed would be left out as a warning to others. Over time, the skin of the deceased would dry outdoors (after rotting) and then peel away, hence the name peelings lane.

Directions to The Pevensey Court House Jail and Museum, sits across the road from the Old Mint House in Pevensey, situated near Pevensey Castle which is open to the public, not far from the striking Norman St Nicholas Church. The Pevensey Court House post code (Pevensey High Street) is BN24 5LF.

How do you get to Pevensey? The Pevensey and Westham station is on the main line to London, runing from Hastings to Eastbourne - Victoria is a 90 minute journey by train from Eastbourne station.