Karl’s Chronicles; Hailsham – A Town Less Ordinary
Take a walk through any small town with its row of retail, a cluster of banks, net-curtained tea rooms, an austere parish church, and perhaps like a disorganised uncle, a rather shambolic market kept at arm’s length. You could peruse that all towns are the same, centralised attractiveness covering up a nondescript every day. Rather like an impressive painting long since faded, left to hang in a musty gallery where occasionally someone will see its charming realism. More than just a backdrop, a theatrical set-piece where its busy inhabitants weave and jar, play out their dramas, and overlook the rolling years that tumble past. Ultimately none the wiser of the long ancient trail from mud and cart to bricks and mortar, meandering through centuries of subtle and endless changes that set the stage we walk upon.
Take Hailsham for example, population twenty-five thousand, eight miles inland from the southern coastline, and you could file it away with thousands of towns up and down the country that resonate the gradual moulding of modern times. Behind the window displays, café counters and supermarket check-outs, the town’s make-up, familiar but oblivious, belies a wealth of character. Stacked like the bricks of the market wall in layer upon layer of historical markers. Each one part of the overall result having fashioned in a distinct personality etched with mannerisms, eccentricities, and faults. Some embraced to this day, absorbed like sugar into the bloodstream of the national psyche, while most are duly left to glide into quaint nostalgia.
But it isn’t only history or geography that mould and remould a town. Population, politics, economy, war and as we have seen first hand this year, even a pandemic. Filtering down through every conceivable layer, every tiny inlet of our way of life that has shocked and amazed in equal measure, just how fragile the human condition is. Not solely our natural health but human-made networks that human life is built upon. From travel to education, commerce to recreation, all identically breached. The towns and villages have incorporated new policies to combat the spread. These changes, initially daunting and still imperilling, are gradually shaping a new layer to that wall, elevating further the towns quiet absorption of change without changing—an anachronistic body wearing the latest shade of paint.
Reflecting a product of its times, Hailsham has transcended through various spellings across its enduring timeline. The Saxons, a tribe of Germanic farmer-warriors, had swept into Britain during the late Roman empire. They named the area Haegels Ham, referring to the area of Haegel whilst the Doomsday Book also known as The Great Survey initiated in 1086 by King William the Conqueror spelt it Aylesham. In the 13th century, it became Haylesham. The King wished to ascertain precisely where power had fermented during his predecessor Edward the Confessor’s reign—pinpointing the sums of paid taxes and their benefactors. With the death of King Harold by William the Conqueror in 1066 at The Battle of Hastings, England’s chapter passed from the Anglo-Saxons to The Normans.
Hailsham as Eddy Powell comments in his book Hailsham History could be accessed by boat. The idea of rowing a flat bottom boat from the bottom of Ershem Road straight across to Pevensey seems an incredible achievement when you note the miles of fields and marshland in between. Hailsham once stood at the apex of a bay, and as recently as the 1930s, after durations of torrential rain, the boats could set off.
The Romans lost their stone fort of Anderida (present-day Pevensey) in 491AD from a Saxon attack. The vast tract of lowland marsh known as the Pevensey Marsh remained unclaimed by the Romans. At high-tide the marsh would have flooded, creating a lagoon which afforded passage by boat to and from Haegels Ham. Both Marshfoot and Saltmarsh Lanes record those points where boat navigation was possible.
Forward 129 years and we have the failing despotic King John cornered by a group of rebelling Barons to add his seal to the Magna Carta on 15th June 1215. Initially, the King ignored the charter, the ‘law of the land’ which stood in confrontation to the King’s mere will. On King Johns death later the following year, the Barons moved their allegiance to his son Henry III, having him sworn in at Gloucester Abbey by Guala Bicchieri the Papal Legate. The Magna Carta was re-issued in Henry III name and sealed by his regent William Marshal. He encouraged many of the countries barons to shift allegiance from Louis, son and heir to King Philip II of France to Henry. Records mention of activity in the surrounding vicinity. We know that Louis had to fight his way through loyalist resistance in Kent and Sussex in his quest to return to France for reinforcements. Losing part of his regiment in an ambush at Lewes. The very same town would see King Henry III, whose inept ruling had lead to a constitutional crisis, angering many of the barons in his demands for extra finances. A schism formed, seeing Henry III defeated by the Earl of Leicester- Simon de Montfort in the Second Barons War in 1264.
In the mid 13th century during Henry IIIs reign, Hailsham received the granting of a Market Charter. Held regularly in the town centre at Market Square from where livestock were driven in from the out-laying land—attended across well-used routes over several miles in length. From the 15th century onwards, the market employed the use of troy weights which consisted of the grain, pennyweight (24 grains), ounce (20 pennyweights), and pound (12ounces). Whilst by the 16th century, the popularity of the market witnessed the emergence of tanning and leather-work industries operating alongside the buying and selling of livestock. The markets prominence grew in stature.
As Hailsham grew the market’s location impeded movement, first noticed by the removal of the markets Stone Cross in 1800 which hindered the movement of horse-drawn carts and wagons. Sixty-eight years later and the entire market required a new location, away from the High Street to the east of town.
Livestock markets struggled against a double catastrophe in the 1990s, first from BSE and then a year-long closure in reaction to the Foot and Mouth Crisis. Hailsham’s market faced a prolonged tract of uncertainty seeing other markets shut down or sold back to the farming community. Owned by South East Marts, it is the only Sussex livestock auction market still in operation. Able to continue in roughly the same manner to those weary farmers who first brought their animals across the Weald and Downs to sell over 750 years ago.
Behind the High Street, rising above the tiled roofs and defunct chimneys loom the parish church. Parked on a slight hill and encircled by tombstones, the red roof and stone structure with its adjoining bell tower projects the quintessential image of a sleepy English village stereotype. Stifling any surprise to see Father Browning coming down the front path or Miss Marple trundling up it.
Formerly St. Mary’s church, the structure heralds back to the early 13th century, considered by some to be of Norman origin. When Hailsham became a hotbed of Protestanism in 1559, the church was sacked. In the same year, an uprising of the townsfolk saw part of the church burnt. The church has undergone a long series of improvements and restoration throughout its eight centuries of life, the majority occurring in the Victorian era.
Interestingly enough, King Charles I owned all the property along the High Street adjoining the church ground. Brian Duppa, the vicar of Hailsham often visited the King during his trial, going on to become a tutor to the future King Charles II. After Charles I execution, Oliver Cromwell sold off the High Street property which the church publicly contests as an encroachment on church land. An issue that appears still unresolved.
The church went on to suffer another incursion in the second great war when a bouncing bomb fell nearby. Destroying the auxiliary fire station with the loss of one life and blowing out all but one of the stained glass windows. Ironically it was the Faith, Hope & Charity window in the north wall that survived.
One of the greatest modernisations to arrive and pull Hailsham into the dynamic sweep of Victorian Britain’s drive for change was the train. In 1849 the town’s station opened with the London Brighton & South Coast Railway operating services to Polegate on the Cuckoo Line from where another line ran to Eastbourne. Pictures reveal a smart, tidy station with a red brick platform paralleled by white wooden eaves. An adjoining double-chimney building can be seen behind, suggesting the waiting and ticketing halls. A cargo depot and a signal room remain independent from the central structure. The Terminus pub, now a kitchen and furniture store stood directly opposite the station, maintaining a position to accommodate and dine prospective rail travellers.
The train assisted in the transport of Hailsham’s main product, the manufacturing of rope, twine and sacking. First produced by Thomas Burfield in 1807, rope in its humble beginnings was made from soft fibres, namely imported hemp as well as cannabis. Marlow Ropes Ltd stands on Burfield’s original site, continuing the manufacturing of rope but shifting away from hemp to nylon and polyester. Today they are internationally recognised as a leader within the yachting industry.
In 1880, a single train line was extended north to Heathfield and later in the same year would allow travel onto Tonbridge Wells. The name Cuckoo came from the railwaymen themselves. Referring to the Sussex legend that each year on the 14th April, the first cuckoo was released at the nearby Heathfield Fair.
The cuckoo had chirped its final call in 1965 when a passenger survey discovered only 250 commuters a day were using the line. Twenty-three of these were season ticket holders. Any ideas to promote the line were deftly abandoned. In fact, under the Beeching Cuts, a new time-table introduced long waits between connecting trains, a ploy to discourage passengers away from the service. Later that year the line was axed to passenger traffic and just three years on, the entire line underwent a complete closure. The era of train travel having run its course in Hailsham, lasting 119 years. With the tracks removed and the station built over, the Cuckoo Line, the final note to the towns locomotive past became a walking trail.
Initially scoffed at as ‘a new-fangled upstart of a cinema’ by some of the towns snobbish residents, the Pavilion opened in 1921 as a fully developed picture palace. Before a proper venue existed, the Corn Exchange on the High Street would fill the plug for those delirious to see the latest releases. 1921 ushered in Cecille B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a film which rocketed its main star, Rudolph Valentino’s career beyond our solar system. However, after a brass-band march around Hailsham, the clashing of cymbals and banging of drums came to its finale outside the Pavilion, playing in Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy The Kid which went onto become the year’s second-highest-grossing movie. Valentino had eclipsed The Kid having ridden off with that achievement of one of those apocalyptic horses.
Mr Shipman, one of two owners of the Pavilion, could be seen down in the orchestra’s pit at weekends, playing along on the piano. The war brought in peak activity with the cinema showing films twice daily, every day of the week. A Sunday license allowed Canadian troops stationed nearby a window of entertainment and like everyone else, a window of escapism as well.
The Pavilion continued until 1965, the same year where the trains would no longer carry passengers. Its calling came two years later, shouted in a set of numbers from the stage as The Pavilion became a Bingo Hall. By 1985 ‘house’ had been called a final time with the premises sold off for a tidy sum of £65,000, though nothing happened after its sale. It remained empty until the early 90s when a fundraising scheme was launched to repurchase it. A consortium of funds, grants and subscriptions raised enough capital for the building to undergo a thorough restoration. Staying true to the original design and safeguarding all the period features which made The Pavilion a historical treasure, and a working time capsule.
On the 1st February 2000, the cinema reopened its doors to the public by a delighted June Bourne, once the towns Mayor whose love for the building kick-started the campaign.
For a small-town picture house, The Pavilion has to be one of the most elaborate and opulent venues ever built. Double-storey with stuccoed windows, pilasters and quoins. Visitors would pass through the central doorway flanked with high columns, while above, on either side of the central window stood a plaster-cast girl holding a basket of flowers while a boy handled a basket of bread & fish.
The Pavilion, designed to entertain by the illumination of film ended up on the big screen itself when Sir Ian McKellen playing Sherlock Holmes in the 2015 motion picture Mr Holmes filmed a scene inside the theatre. A befitting reward for honouring the dedication and talent that went into saving her.
So the next time you take a stroll through your village, town or city and furrow your brow that nothing much ever seems to happen. Take stock for a moment, that behind those house fronts, down the gloomy aisle of the church, across the desks and chalkboard of the classroom, over the musty stage of the village hall, events are continually unravelling. Chances are, you’re living and becoming part of a fascinating place to happily call home.
Several books discuss Hailsham and the county of Sussex. Worth reading is Hidden Sussex – Day by Day by Warden Swinfen and David Arscott. Hailsham History – Book 1 & Book 2 by Eddy Powell.
Francis Frith sells archive photos of Hailsham www.francisfrith.com/uk/hailsham/photos
The Pavilion is soon to reopen and return to business from a prolonged Covid19 shutdown. Check out their website for films, music and theatre performances. www.hailshampavilion.co.uk/about-us/
English Heritage owns the Roman fort of Anderida – present-day Pevensey Castle and is open to the public. www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/pevensey-castle/