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Steyning Museum - Steyning Justice through the Ages



Your Steyning January 2017 Museum NewsSteyning Justice through the Ages 

Five hundred and fifty years ago Richard Pryklove, a butcher of Steyning with a sideline in brewing beer and 11 other men of Steyning, including John Arnold an ale taster, were chosen as jurors to judge the cases brought before the Courts of the Manor of Steyning.

Justice was local: local people passed judgement on local complaints. Mind you, the jurors had to turn up when the courts were held.  If they didn’t they were fined.  And they didn’t always seem to have had an unblemished reputation.  For instance, in 1567 Richard Pryklove was fined for selling “ale by the jug at retail and not by sealed measure” and also for taking “excessive profit” on his meat – all this whilst serving on the jury.  He continued to transgress year after year.  But he might not have done so had he been judged by the ‘Assize of Ale’ enacted 250 years earlier in 1216.  For the fourth offence, he would have suffered “the Judgement of the Pillory”, with the rider that “every pillory or stretch-neck must be made of convenient strength so that execution [i.e. the punishment] may be done upon offenders without peril of their bodies”.  The control of weights and measures, either by our government or by the EU, may not be new but it is certainly more restrained. 

The running of these 15th century courts was in the hands of the steward of the manor with the level of the fines being set by a separate official, both of whom received cash payments.  Earlier records are thin on the ground but we know that in 1337 the expenses of the courts held at Steyning were settled, not with cash, but with the gift of geese or capons.

As time passed a steadily diminishing role was played by the manor courts and, by the late 18th century, it was the Vestry which controlled the administration of the parish with the magistracy being in the hands of the gentry.  

The gentry and people of property had become very concerned to hold on to what they owned.  So, two hundred years ago, they set up the “Steyning Society for the Protection of Property and the Prosecution of Thieves”.  Membership fees helped to defray any losses suffered by members but the Society was also pro-active in bringing thieves in front of the courts.  In one instance £7 was “paid to Mr. Lassiter for his expenses in apprehending and conveying Wickes and Broughton to Horsham [gaol] for robbing him”.  History doesn’t relate what they stole or how he managed to apprehend and hold these two men.  If the parish constable was involved there’s no mention of it.

The Society met in the White Horse – as did the Magistrates until, that is, it was decided that tipsy witnesses should be avoided.  The Steyning court spent some years in a draughty hall in Shoreham where the magistrates wore overcoats it was so cold, but they moved back into purpose built courts at the back of Steyning’s town hall in 1960, with six cells attached.  Looking at the cell door displayed at the museum it is hard to imagine that one prisoner actually squeezed between the bars and escaped.  Then, in 1994, the courts were closed and, with that closure, the centuries old principle of justice being dispensed by local people who knew and were known by their own communities was lost – or, at least, significantly diluted.

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Now read on.  There is an opportunity for anyone wanting to find an intrinsically interesting and rewarding role.  Chris Tod, the curator of Steyning Museum, is stepping down and needs a replacement.  It’s a great job on many, many levels.  It stretches the mind, it offers opportunities for creativity and it contributes to the well-being of the community.  Moreover visitors to the museum come with a willingness to be pleased and inspired – and the company is good.  Get in touch with Chris – on curator@steyningmuseum.org.uk or 01903 813333 – if you would like to know more.


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