Steyning Museum archives: Rogues and Ruffians

Steyning has not been without its rogues and ruffians over the centuries.

John Wolgar, who we have met before as the horseman who rode round the harvest fields of Steyning in 1338 checking on progress, was apparently “not a credit to his family or his native town”.  So said the Reverend E.W.Cox in one of the 200 articles he wrote for the Parish Magazine between the wars.  He was, said Cox, a notorious evil liver with more than one murder to his name.  A ‘Hue and Cry’ was raised and, for a while, “he led the romantic but perilous life of an outlaw”.  Cox’s articles are full of these juicy details but, sadly, he never says where he found them.

What we do know is that when Edward III went to war against France, John, to escape his pursuers, joined Edward’s army.  There he acquitted himself with such distinction at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 that “he attracted the attention of Michael de Ponynges [Poynings]”.  A few days after the battle Michael reported on both his valour – and his misdeeds – to the King who granted “on the testimony of Michael de Ponynges a Pardon, for good service in the war of France, to John Wolgar of Stenynge in the County of Sussex, of the King’s suit against him for any homicides, felonies, robberies, and trespasses in England . . and of any consequent outlawries.”  The condition of his pardon was that he should remain in the army so long as the war continued.  But there John Wolgar’s story, as we know it, ends.

Such was the lawlessness of the Middle Ages that, in the 15th century, Steyning felt the need to employ a night watchman.  It must have been an edgy responsibility at times in the blackness of the night, and not without its dangers.  In 1466 “Thurstan Cookson lay in the night in ambush and molested Robert Frenshe, the tipstaff  [or night watchman] then and there with a cudgel and attacked him and beat him and wounded him”.  Even Robert’s assistant had it in for him.  He was “John, the parish clerk” . . “a common watchman and night perambulator who, with John Hyder, assaulted Henry Bayly and Robert Frenshe during the night against the Statute of Winchester” – for which the parish clerk, probably a lay helper for the vicar, was fined 6d. 

These reports from the Court records reflect the rough and tumble of life at that time, often in surprising detail.  For instance they would frequently make a valuation of the weapon used in an assault: “William Dregge molested Christopher Perys with a stick worth 1d and the said Christopher attacked the same William against the peace of our Lord the King”.

We lose track of these ruffians by name as the centuries pass but the threat of violence remained.  There is an edict from 1699, displayed in the Museum, from John Fagg (M.P. for Steyning) and John Monke (of Shoreham) which says “Forasmuch as this County is much infested with many rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars, and other idle persons that can give no good account of their life and conversation, to the danger of the inhabitants . .” we “charge and command you . . to make diligent search in all the parishes and tythings within your said Borough for all such rogues, vagabonds and other suspected idle persons, and to apprehend and bring before any Justices of the Peace, to be dealt with according to the law, hereof fail not”.  The law demanded that they “shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town”.

The stocks which were used for these minor offences were at the Mouse Lane end of Steyning, but they would not have been a sufficient punishment for the likes of John Wolgar, whose more serious crimes would have been dealt with at the Assizes.

Some Cheshire stocks photographed in c.1900
30 years after the last use of stocks as a punishment.
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