Crime and Punishment

Justice in the 17th, 18th and 19th century was often lacking for serious crime, due to the poor detection then available. Although hangings took place, many an innocent person was sent to the gallows and many villains got away with murder. But stealing was always harshly punished. The poor and desperate were often transported for as little as stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family.

If one could not pay their debts, a debtors prison was in store. But for lesser crimes, especially in villages, misdemeanors were dealt with  on the spot by the community.  This meant a spell in the Village Stocks.    

Most village stocks were made of stout wood with an iron lock.  Ninfield possesses a rare example of iron stocks. This was why the NLHG adopted them for it’s Logo. There is only one other left in the country at Waltham Abbey, Essex dated 1598. Ninfield stocks were probably forged at the Ashburnham Forge which is the next village. The date is unknown.

Ninfield Stocks and whipping post in 2022

Although many a drunk or wife beater probably spent an uncomfortable day in the stocks, being pelted with rotting fruit or vegetables, Ninfield stocks also have wrist locks on the whipping post and the Cat of Nine Tails was also probably used although there is no written evidence of its use in Ninfield. At a time when divorce was not available to poor folk, there was an old custom of wife selling. This involved dragging your unfortunate wife in a halter round her neck to the stocks and selling to the highest bidder. The last transaction of this kind in Ninfield was in 1790. A man sold his wife for a pint of gin in the evening but had a change of heart in the morning when he bought her back.


1831 October

Joseph S……. 27 year old living in Ninfield.

Transportation, 7 years

1837 April

Joseph F…. 16 years old living in Ninfield.

Stephen F…. 18 years old living in Ninfield

Transportation, 7 years each

1844 September

James D…. 52 years old Ninfield/Bexhill

Transportation, 7 years

1848 February

John M……. 65 years old living in Ninfield

Transportation, 7 years


Suicide was a crime up until 1961 when the Suicide Act decriminalized it. It had been seen as self murder and those who failed to die could be imprisoned.

The body of a suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground as it was thought to be an act against God. Therefore, it was the custom to bury a body at a cross roads.

In 1675 a man hung himself from the ancient yew tree in the churchyard at Ninfield and was buried at the cross roads of Crouch Lane.


Smuggling was widespread in East Sussex due to its coastal border. Villagers assisted and traded with the smugglers. Many houses were used to hide the elicit trade from the authorities. If caught the punishment was harsh.

Ninfield was no exception. There were tunnels built and battles fought to keep the supply of wine, spirits, tea and other illegal goods flowing. Once offloaded from the secret rendezvous on the beaches or the Haven, the goods were transported by wagon  for London distribution.

The famous Hawkhurst gang ran most of the smuggling in the Ninfield district. But it was a more local gang that on the night of 3rd January 1828 took part in the fatal  Battle of Sidley Green. A Ninfield man called James who took part, had his sentence of death commuted to transportation for life to Australia.


“Smuggling on the South Coast “

by John Cheshire and David Swales

A brief illustrated history of smuggling activities along the Sussex and Kent coast from the early days in the late 13th century to the present day.

The Workhouse

If you were very poor, sick, an unmarried mother, or an orphan who had no means of supporting yourself,  in the days before state welfare, your only option was the ‘poorhouse’. Although it was not a crime to find oneself in this situation, the grim reality of it must have felt like punishment. Often whole families were sent to the Workhouse where they were given food and shelter for a hard days unpaid work.

The provision for workhouses for  the destitute goes back to the sixteenth century. Purpose-built Workhouse buildings that sprang up in the Victorian period were soon to be found in all towns. Villages often rented a dwelling for the purpose, sharing it with neighbouring villages.  Ninfield’s workhouse was thought to be at Hooe Common. There was a larger one at Hailsham. Many of the big town buildings which housed hundreds of the poor and sick were later to be turned into hospitals. Even today there is a reluctance for the elderly to go into an old hospital building because of it’s past history as a workhouse.

Hailsham Workhouse, (the Central House on the Hellingly side of Hawks Road) until 1932.