Hailsham – Not just Another Sussex Town.

Hailsham High Street. Note the church peeping over on the right.

Hailsham looks like many other small Sussex towns when you first visit it, with the same High Street full of Charity shops, franchised cafes, banks and supermarkets.

But if you examine under its layers you’ll discover centuries of interesting history.

So where to start?

Hailsham has a population of 25,000, is now eight miles inland from the sea – although it wasn’t always – and it has one of the lowest crime rates in Sussex.

During the Roman times, the Saxons arrived and named Hailsham Haegels Ham.

In the Domesday Book it was called Aylesham and in the 13th century, it became Haylesham.

At high tide, it was possible to row a flat-bottom boat from where Ersham Road is, across to Pevensey. This was possible until the 1930s after heavy rain.

Marshfoot and Saltmarsh Lanes were places where boats could set out from.

In the 13th century during the reign of Henry lll, Hailsham was granted a Market Charter. This was held in the town centre at Market Square and livestock were driven in across well-used routes over several miles.

From the 15th century onwards, the market had standard troy weights which consisted of the grain, pennyweight (24 grains), ounce (20 pennyweights), and pound (12ounces).

In the 16th century, tanning and leather-work industries became popular alongside the buying and selling of livestock.

As Hailsham grew bigger, the market was moved from the town centre to a new site to the East of town.

The café there is now a listed building.

On the other side of the road from the Market is an alleyway with a sign saying Hailsham Museum. We’ve walked past it many times over the years, always intending to go in it ‘one day.’

We finally walked along the alleyway. The museum is at the end, to the right. And it’s a complete surprise as it’s much bigger than we expected.

It’s run by volunteers who are members of the Hailsham Historical & Natural History Society.

Today it was manned by Rosemary and Mick Bridger. They were both enthusiastic and knowledgable.

There are items dating back through the centuries, all tastefully set out.

I will be returning for a longer look.

The museum is open on Friday and Saturday mornings, 10am-12.30pm, May-October.

For more information about the Society or the museum, contact the Chairman, Richard Goldsmith 01323 843102.

Just off the High Street, looming in the background, is St Mary’s Church. It dates back to 1200 and part of the North wall possibly dates from the original building.

The church that you see today dates from 1425-50.

During the Protestant uprising, part of the church was sacked and burnt.

In the 19th century alterations were carried out inside the church. The South aisle, the porch, vestry and South chapel all date from this time. In the South wall is a piscina. It means a swimming-pool in Spanish, but this piscina, one of three in the church, is for washing Holy Communion items.

During WW2, a bouncing bomb landed nearby and blew out all but one of the stained glass windows. It was the Faith, Hope and Charity window in the North wall that survived.


In 1849 the trains arrived when the station opened with the London to Brighton & South coast Railway running to Polegate on what is now known as the Cuckoo Line.

From Polegate they could catch another train to Eastbourne.

In 1880, a single train line ran north to Heathfield and later in the same year ran on to Tonbridge Wells. The name Cuckoo came from the railwaymen themselves. There was a legend that each year on the 14th April, the first cuckoo was released at the nearby Heathfield Fair.

The Terminus pub was opposite the station. It’s now a kitchen and furniture store.

You can imagine what opportunities this form of travel opened up for Hailsham!

Outside Tesco stands a strange statue of a man pulling on what is not obvious at first as a length of rope.

Thomas Burfield in 1807 began manufacturing rope, twine and sacking. It was made from soft fibres, imported hemp and cannabis.

The warehouse had to be very long so that the rope could be stretched out and twisted.

Burfield’s original site is still there. It’s now called Marlow Ropes Ltd. The rope is mainly made from nylon and polyester nowadays and is popular internationally in the yachting industry.

1965 was a sad year when a passenger survey showed that only 250 commuters a day were travelling on the line and 23 of them were season ticket holders.

A new timetable deliberately had long waits between connecting trains. This made it easier for Beeching to shut the line three years later. Hailsham’s trains stopped running after 119 years.

The tracks were removed and the Cuckoo line became a hiking trail.


Turn right at the end of the High Street on the one-way road into George Street and you’ll come to the Pavilion.

It opened in 1921 as a cinema. Some of the residents weren’t happy about it, but it became very popular.

Mr Shipman, one of the Pavilion’s two owners, used to sit in the orchestra pit at weekends, playing the piano.

There is no record to say if he was any good at it!

During the war  the cinema was a welcome form of relaxation and entertainment, showing films twice daily, every day of the week. It was very popular with the Canadian troops who were stationed nearby.

The Pavilion ceased to show films in  1965, the same year when the trains stopped running. Two years later the Pavilion became a Bingo Hall.

In 1985 ‘house’ was called a final time as the premises were sold  for a tidy sum of £65,000, but nothing happened after its sale. It remained empty until the early 90s when a fundraising scheme was launched to repurchase it. Funds, grants and subscriptions raised enough capital for the building to be bought and undergo a thorough restoration. It stuck to the original design with all the period features.

On the 1st February 2000, the cinema was reopened to the public by June Bourne, once the town’s Mayor whose love for the building started the campaign.

 The Pavilion has to be one of the most elaborate venues ever built in a small town. Double-storey with stuccoed windows, pilasters and quoins, visitors would walk 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 and a boy with a basket of bread & fish.

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 visit what at first glance seems like yet another boring Kent or Sussex town with rows of similar shops, why not investigate further? Read a book or look online before you go there. Dive down side streets where you might find a row of Medieval cottages or an ancient church towering above the town.

If towns could talk,  I wonder what tales Hailsham could tell!



  • Lyn Funnell

    Lyn is the co-owner of Unknown Kent and Sussex. She lives in Sussex. Lyn has been writing for most of her life, both Fiction & Non-Fiction. She loves cookery & creating original recipes. She's won a lot of prizes, including Good Housekeeping Millenium Menu & on BBC The One Show as a runner-up, making her Britain's Spag Bol Queen! She has had nine books published so far. History, Travel & Restaurant Reviews are her main interests.

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