Pevensey - History

The town of Pevensey was originally built on one arm of Pevensey Bay, a tidal lagoon extending some four miles inland from the present coastline. It is thought that, as a port, it reached its highest peak of prosperity in about the eleventh century, and that from about 1200 its harbour was in decline, owing to natural silting, the eastward tidal drift of shingle across the mouth of the bay, and the 'inning' or reclamation for agriculture of the surrounding marshlands. By the sixteenth century Pevensey Bay had virtually disappeared. The town was still described as a port in 1596(1), but a century later (1698) a report on the south coast harbours by members of the Navy Board and Masters of the Trinity House stated that the haven was now closed and 'irrecoverably lost'(2). The customs office there was suppressed in 1714(3), and in the early nineteenth century Thomas Horsfield reported that 'the channel is quite choaked up at a short distance from the shore, or rather, nothing is left but a narrow drain, the receptacle of a few boats'(4).
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the period from which most of the documents in this collection date) Pevensey was a minor centre of the coastal fishing trade and of the area of pastoral farming which comprised the Pevensey Marshes. As a market town it was less important than Hailsham, whose population by the 1830s was significantly increasing in comparison with that of Pevensey. The most remarkable change in Pevensey's neighbourhood during this period, however, was the astonishingly rapid expansion of Eastbourne, during the second half of the nineteenth century, from a village to a large urban watering-place (its population grew from 3,433 in 1851 to 42,701 in 1901(5). The hamlet of Pevensey Bay itself eventually became a minor seaside resort, although its growth had scarcely begun by the end of the nineteenth century.
Pevensey's Membership of the Cinque Ports Confederation
By the early thirteenth century Pevensey was a corporate member of the port of Hastings, which was a member of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. It thus shared in the privileges of the Ports, the most significant of which were freedom from certain major customs and taxes and from suit at royal and other courts of Law outside their own boundaries. It owed in return the duty of contributing financially to the quota of men and ships demanded by the sovereign from Hastings for the purpose of defence. By 1541 disputes had arisen between Pevensey and Hastings as to the amount of money owed annually by the former to the latter; although these were, in theory, settled in that year by the agreement of which PEV/816 in this collection is a copy legal proceedings took place between the two Corporations in the early eighteenth century (see PEV/818-819), apparently as a result of Pevensey's increasing difficulties in raising the required sum.

The Corporation and its Courts
The area of the Corporation's jurisdiction was the Lowey, or Liberty, of Pevensey, which during the period covered by this collection comprised the parishes of Pevensey and Westham and part of the parish of Hailsham(6). The Corporation consisted of a bailiff, jurats (corresponding to aldermen) and the commonalty. Administration was mainly carried on through four courts, the Court of Record, the Hundred Court, the Sessions and the Assembly.
The Court of Record was a court of pleas held fortnightly, but not necessarily regularly, by the bailiff to deal with civil cases (important in a trading community) concerning mainly debts, detained goods and trespass. When necessary it became a court 'pro estraneis' to deal with the pleas of strangers (ie. persons domiciled outside the Liberty). From the end of the seventeenth century final concords concerning property within the Liberty were enrolled among the court's records. It is clear from the minutes that from about 1700 this court was held very infrequently, and by the late eighteenth century it had fallen into disuse. Final concords, however, continued to be enrolled in the minute book until 1831.
The Hundred Court probably originated as a court at which presentments were made in the same way as at a court leet. However, by the end of the seventeenth century, when the court minutes in this collection begin, the Hundred was invariably held 'unacum sessione pacis', and from the reign of George I it was held only once a year, simultaneously with the Easter Sessions since the bailiff and jurats presided over both courts. By the late eighteenth century, although the two courts continued to be held concurrently, their functions had become clearly differentiated, the only business remaining to the Hundred Court being the annual appointment of constables for the parishes within the Liberty.
A separate Commission of the Peace was first expressly granted to the Cinque Ports and their members by charter of James I in 1605, the jurats becoming Justices of the Peace ex officio. It appears from the existing minutes that the Pevensey Sessions were not particularly busy; during the eighteenth century they were held usually only twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was the practice for the more serious criminal offences to be tried at the County Quarter Sessions, the jurats having agreed with the County Justices in 1825 for the lodging of prisoners from the Liberty in the county gaol and house of correction at Lewes (see PEV/253). In the nineteenth century Petty Sessions were also held.
The Assembly dealt with matters pertaining to the government of the Corporation (e.g., the administration of Corporation property, the levying of rates, and the election of its officers), and could be attended only by the bailiff, jurats and freemen. The Annual General Assembly began on the first Monday after Michaelmas with the election of the bailiff and other officers of the Corporation in Pevensey Church, and continued with frequent adjournments, sometimes throughout the following winter. Special Assemblies were held when necessary at other times of the year. The procedure for the annual election of the Corporation's officers is set out in rough formularies which have survived among the manuscripts in this collection (PEV/58-59, 68).

The Abolition of the Corporation
In comparison with those of the five Head Ports, the Corporation of Pevensey was very small. In 1668, indeed, it was reported to a Brotherhood of the Cinque Ports that 'Pevensey has but a bailiff and two jurats and if any fall sick no court can be held and if any die the corporation might cease'. It was therefore ordered that 'a Common Assembly shall be called within ten days when three persons shall be elected jurats out of the freemen on pain 20 li.'(7). The Corporation was not affected by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 (although an investigation into its workings had been made in 1834 by the Municipal Corporations Commission); however, under the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1883, it ceased to exist, together with many others, from 25 March 1886. After an interim period during which the management of its funds was in the hands of a committee appointed by the former Corporation, the Pevensey Town Trust was instituted, under a scheme proposed by the Charity Commissioners, on 25th March 1890 (PEV/1154). The Trust was to consist of five Representative Trustees and four Co-optative Trustees, who were to manage the residual property of the Corporation.

(1) Victoria County History of Sussex 2 (1907), 150.
(2) Victoria County History of Sussex 2 (1907), 159.
(3) J. H. Andrews, 'The Customs Ports of Sussex 1680-1730,' Sussex Notes & Queries 14 (1954), 2. See also J. H. Andrews, 'The last years of Pevensey Haven,' J. & Trans. Eastbourne Nat. Hist. & Arch. Soc. 13, PEV/3 (1953), 18-19.
(4) T. W. Horsfield, The history, antiquities, and topography of the County of Sussex, 1 (Lewes: J. Baxter, 1835), 306.
(5) Victoria County History of Sussex, 2 (1907), 226.
(6) M. A. Lower, A compendious history of Sussex, 2. (Lewes: Geo. P. Bacon, 1870), 89, states that originally it also comprised a portions of Bexhill.
(7) F. Hull, ed., A calendar of the White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports, Kent Records 19 (1966), 523.

Updated: Sunday, October 30, 2016 16:21