On a hot day back in June, I visited the Mint House in Pevensey. I was there for a unique photo shoot organised by the unstoppable Nils Nisse Visser who (with permission) holds reenactment photo shoots to help raise the profile of important buildings.
But apart from watching the photo shoot unfold, it also gave me a chance to get access to both the building and to Harriet Tait (Chair of Trustees) whose enthusiasm, love and knowledge of the Mint House is infectious. I wanted to know more about why the Mint House is often described as one of the most significant buildings in Sussex. But what I learned probably revealed more questions than answers.
It’s a building that has changed as often as the fortunes of Pevensey itself, so it has more than a few stories to tell but it’s also fortunate in that the building hasn’t been too badly interfered with over the last 100 years. That means the professionals involved with the house can slowly, carefully and sensitively peel back the layers to unearth its secrets and tales and learn more about the people and events that surround this historically massive little town.
The Mint House sits at the top of the High Street opposite the entrance to Pevensey Castle. Many of the more longstanding locals have memories of the Mint House as an antique shop which it was from 1908 to 2013. Its current owner bought it in 2018 and the Friends of the Mint House Trust gained custodianship in 2021. The aim is to raise funds to buy it, restore it and open it as a museum and eco heritage centre.
The oldest parts of the Mint House date to the 16th century. It was not a Mint House then but had a large main hall and a completely separate kitchen. It’s believed to have been a civil building of some sort and could have been a courthouse, town hall or perhaps a secular hospital / hostelry (there were known to be three Pevensey hospitals but the location of one of them is unknown – could it be here?).
The old kitchen was built in about 1580 shortly after the original main hall and presents a bit of a mystery too. It is the largest, most intact tripartite (three-bay) kitchen in Sussex. But at the time it was built, the building was not residential so why did they need such a big kitchen?
Making a house a home
By the second half of the 1600s, the Mint House was no longer a civic building and had been converted into a residential building which it remained for about 200 years before being split into three cottages by the mid 19th century (a time when Pevensey was in decline). The three properties had been reunited into one by 1908. It’s not known who owned the Mint House in 1600 but Pevensey was in a period of prosperity in the 17th century due to the iron industry and during this time the upper hall was divided into rooms, fireplaces were installed and the rooms were decorated in the style of the time. Whoever did this was probably wealthy but who was it?
Damage to the walls in what’s known as the Painted Room revealed daub (clay, dung and hay) and painted plaster. The decorations would have covered the whole room and date from 1580 to 1600. At about this time, the service buildings at the back were also linked to the original building at the front. The 17th century oak-panelled room has ‘Leviathan’ carvings, although these and the panelling may have come from the nearby Manor House which was demolished in the mid-19th century must have been added later.
In the backyard, there is a Victorian glasshouse that still has some of the original mechanisms. In 1890 a William Herman lived at the Mint House selling fruit, vegetables and flowers which he would have grown here. All sorts of other artefacts have also been found in the yard which include Medieval pottery, medical bottles, a Medieval coin, an old key, a Victorian shoe and other artefacts
A taper mark is a symbol carved into the wood by burning the wood with a candle and then scraping it to form a flame shape. The significance of these isn’t clear but they were deliberately done and thought to be superstitious. There are a number of them to be found at the Mint House. Who carved them and why?
Legends and ghost
Any house as old as the Mint House will have its own strange and unexplained tales. One such tale at the Mint House is that of an Elizabethan lady appearing through a wall although the extent to which this was a publicity stunt by the owners of the antique shop is as unknown as the lady’s identity. There’s also told of a man named Sir Harry Ralt jumping out of a window in 1605 to stop noisy neighbours and having a sword fight before dying of his injuries – but there is no evidence (yet) to support this tale.
The Friends of the Mint House
Each room at the Mint House reveals a little bit more about the people and events of the past, and there seem to be hundreds of little details still to be explored and explained. The Friends of the Mint House is a charity dedicated to its purchase, preservation and restoration (subject to planning). They would like to create a heritage centre that will tell the story of the people of Pevensey, Westham and the surrounding areas of Sussex. They regularly hold open days, community events, regular quizzes, education days and archaeology days for both adults and children. You can find out more here: https://www.minthousepevensey.co.uk/
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