Old Town Hall
The Old Town Hall has had many uses in its lifetime. It served the old Borough of Seaford for some 300 years (1560s to the 1880s) as Town Hall Court House and Gaol . It was once described as having a diminutive outside stair case leading to a diminutive entrance door topped by a diminutive spire. Underneath it had a diminutive prison. A ground floor entrance led to the Town Hall, whilst the staircase led to the small court room.
Its appearence now is somewhat changed from earlier times. Today its is a used as a community tea room. The Old Town Hall is one of the Town’s listed buildings, although it was nearly lost to the town in a fire in the 1980s during the time it was used as the local St John Ambulance HQ. Below is a drawing of the Town Hall by HH Evans, a well known artist of Seaford buildings. More can be seen in the Museum in the Martello Tower on the Esplanade.
The following is an extract from a leaflet published by Edna and Mac Macarthy based on one of their books – “Sussex River: Journeys Along the banks of the River Ouse” published in 1983.
It seems incredible now that this building served as a Town Hall, Courthouse and Jail for the Borough of Seaford for over 300 years, from the 1560s to the 1880s. Its appearance has been altered, for it was once described as having a “diminutive” outside staircase leading to a “diminutive” entrance door and topped by a “diminutive” spire. Underneath was a “diminutive” prison. A ground floor entrance led to the Town Hall, but the outside straircase led upstairs to small Court room.
At one end of the small court room a chair for the Bailiff (remember he was a magistrate a well) was on a raised dias, and down both sides of the room were the benches for the Jurats. The Town’s coat of arms was prominently displayed beside the Bailiff’s seat and on the wall hung four heavy leg chains. These served to remind of past judgements, and to forewarn the accused of what the future may hold. The Town’s records report many trials here. In 1801 John Gordon was found guilty of forgery and he was sentenced to be transported beyond the seas for seven years. He probably served at the notorious Botany Bay and it is interesting to speculate whether John Gordon ever returned.
But an even more bizarre incident is recorded for 1583. A shepherd was charged with sheep stealing at “Chingtinge” – now Chyngton part of Seaford. He was found guilty and the sentence would normally be one of death. However the accused claimed “the Benefit of the Clergy” and a Minister was sent for to hear him read from the Bible and to question him on religious matters, Finally the court granted the Benefit of the Clergy and the sentence was commuted from death to branding of the left hand. In the 16th century the power of the Church was obviously still great. But even the Bailiffs were sometimes at fault and in 1768 Bailiff Joseph Gouldsmith was fined five shillings (25p) for non attendance at court.
Diana Crook, a local history writer, has compiled “Treasure Chest A Seaford Anthology” a fascinating insight in to Seaford and its inhabitants – copies available from Seaford Museum. Diana quotes:
First, of course,must come the town hall, ridiculously small to us in 1974 with a population of 16,000 but quite adequate for the business of that day. All the town’s business, except the actual election of the Bailiff, took place here, the courts, the elections and every other civic function. It has become fashionable now to laugh at the pomp and ceremony of the eighteenth century carried on in every small village with the upmost seriousness, no less than the great Charles Dickens himself poked fun at Seaford’s town hall because the bailiff’s chair was merely a bench placed against a wall which bore the painted replica of the chair back.
More stories about errant Seaford folk and their court appearances can be found in Diana’s book.
Now walk past the Old Town Hall and look at the building just above the left turning.