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Museum archives: Chantry Priests Sheep Pen Lane or Schepynstrete

When browsing through the records of the Court of Morowspeche, a court held in Steyning in the Middle Ages, my eye was caught by a couple of slightly unusual entries. In 1465 we read that 'Thomas Rose (2d) barber keeps a certain dog as a guard – against the form of the statute'. One would imagine that guard dogs were not particularly uncommon but, for this, Thomas, the barber, was fined twopence. Maybe he had failed to keep his dog suitably tied up or kenneled as the law required him to do. Then, four years later he was in trouble again. 'Thomas Rose' the record said 'keeps a certain dog in the Schepynstrete to the great nuisance of his neighbours: a day is given to rectify the situation.' Once more he had failed to keep his dog under control.

The name Schepynstrete does not look or sound a lot like Sheep Pen Lane but that is where Thomas Rose had his barber’s shop. It was quite possibly a muddy and rutted lane because in 1466 we hear that 'The king’s highway towards the garden of William Pelet in the Scheppenstrete is in a bad state and needs repair.'

That these names would seem to have as much in common with the Middle English word chepynge, meaning a ‘market place’, as with the penning of sheep is a little confusing and the confusion continued as, over time, the spelling of the street’s name was simplified.

When Richard Pellett made his will in 1531 he left monetary bequests totalling £194 plus 'the parsonage house at the Church style', 'the nuest myll in Stenyng', a considerable volume of wheat and barley, 361 sheep and 1 cow, together with a barn in 'Sheping Strete'. Over the next 260 years there was little change in this spelling and, when it became necessary to make a record of all the people who had voted in the general election of 1791 the saddler, the sawyer, the staymaker and a couple of labourers were all shown as living in Shippen Street. At the same time the Duke of Norfolk, who had an interest in the outcome of the election, got one of his employees, Jonathon Raine – who was not a Steyning man – to list the owners and occupants of all of Steyning’s houses. He it was who first chose to call it Sheep Pen Street and later writers have stayed with that reading of the name, explaining that it must have been where sheep were penned on their way to the weekly market. Despite the fact that it was the Reverend Cox who contrived the name-plate identifying the sequence of names for the street, he also tells of an old parishioner explaining that it was in the fields leading down to the present day cricket field, rather than in Sheep Pen Lane where 'the thousands of sheep which were brought over the Downs to the market were sorted there by their different owners'.

Sheep Pen Lane took you up to what we now call White Horse Square where, in 1791, three new houses had recently been built. Beyond that, the track led up through the Steyning Open Field to the Downs. 

There was uncertainty over who should look after this track. Court rolls in 1476 demanded that 'burgesses (should) enquire who ought to repair the Kings Highway leading from the Prison House [the Stone House] towards le Portway, and ditch it on either side.' This trackway enabled the yeomen and husbandmen to take their carts and ox-drawn ploughs to the furthest limits of the open field, where the Portway Furlong lay, so it was important to keep it in good condition.

For a while the track leading to the Portway Furlong may, itself, have been known as ‘the Portway’ meaning the track which led to the market. However, it eventually acquired its present name of Newham Lane.

The origins of this apparently ordinary name are actually shrouded in as much uncertainty as those of Sheep Pen Lane – but that will need to be examined on another occasion.

Article by: Chris Tod - Steyning Museum.
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