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History of local government in Sussex

The history of local government in Sussex is unique and complex. Founded as a kingdom in the 5th century, Sussex was annexed by the kingdom of Wessex in the 9th century, which after further developments became the Kingdom of England. It currently corresponds to two counties, East Sussex and West Sussex.

After the Reform Act 1832 Sussex was divided for purposes of administration into an eastern and a western division, these divisions were coterminous with the two archdeaconries of Chichester and Lewes[1] and also the three eastern and three western county subdivisions respectively. In 1889, following the Local Government Act 1888, using those same boundaries, Sussex was divided into two administrative counties, East Sussex and West Sussex together with two self-governing county boroughs, Brighton and Hastings, later joined by Eastbourne. In 1974, under the Local Government Act 1972, the county boundaries were revised with the mid-Sussex area of East Grinstead, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill and Hassocks being transferred from the administrative area of East Sussex into that of West Sussex, along with the Gatwick area that historically has been part of Surrey. The county boroughs were returned to the control of the two county councils but in 1997 the towns of Brighton and Hove were amalgamated as a unitary local authority and in 2000, Brighton and Hove was given City status.[2]

There continue to be a range of organisations that operate across the entirety of Sussex, even though it is administered as two non-metropolitan counties of East and West Sussex. Organisations operating across all Sussex include the Diocese of Chichester, Sussex Police, the Sussex Archaeological Society the Sussex History Society and the Sussex Wildlife Trust. In 2010 the Sussex Association was established as a branch of the Association of British Counties, which is a society dedicated to promoting awareness of the continuing importance of the 86 historic (or traditional) counties of Great Britain.


Saxon periodEdit

Sussex and the other main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at about AD600

Sussex originated in the 5th century as the Kingdom of Sussex, which in the 9th century was annexed by the Kingdom of Wessex, which with further expansions became the Kingdom of England. While Sussex retained its independence it is likely that it would have had a regular assembly or folkmoot.[3]

Sussex seems to have had a greater degree of decentralisation than other kingdoms.[4] For a period during the 760s there may have been as many as four of five kings based within the territory, perhaps with each ruling over a distinct tribal territory,[5] perhaps on a temporary basis.[6] It seems possible that the people of the Haestingas may have had their own ruler for a while, and another sub-division may have been along the River Adur.[6]

At some stage in the Saxon period Sussex was divided into administrative areas which became known as 'rapes'. It is possible that the rapes represent the shires of the ancient kingdom of Sussex, especially as in the 12th century they had sheriffs of their own.[7] Another possibility is that the rapes may derive from the system of fortifications, or burhs (boroughs) devised by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century to defeat the Vikings.

Various local folkmoots would have been held in Sussex, for instance at Ditchling,[8] Tinhale (in Bersted) and Madehurst. Placename evidence for early assemblies in Sussex comes from Tinhale (from the Old English þing (thing) meaning hold a meeting, so 'meeting-hill') and Madehurst (from the Old English maedel meaning assembly, so 'assembly wooded hill').[9] There is also a location in Durrington that had the name gemot biorh meaning a moot barrow or meeting barrow, a boundary barrow.[10]

The early hundreds often lacked the formality of later attempts of local government: frequently they met in the open, at a convenient central spot, perhaps marked by a tree, as at Easebourne. Dill, meaning the boarded meeting place, was one of the few hundreds in Sussex that provided any accommodation.[11] From the 10th century onwards the hundred became important as a court of justice as well as dealing with matters of local administration.[12] The meeting place was often a point within the hundred such as a bridge (as in the bridge over the western River Rother in Rotherbridge hundred) or a notable tree (such as a tree called Tippa's Oak in Tipnoak hundred).[12]

Late medieval periodEdit

At the time of the Norman Conquest there were four rapes: Arundel, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings. By the time of the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror had created the Rape of Bramber out of parts of the Arundel and Lewes rapes, so that the Adur estuary could be better defended.[13][14][15] Between 1250 and 1262, the rape of Chichester was created from the western half of Arundel rape.[14] From this time onwards, Sussex was divided into—from west to east—Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings rapes.

Although the origin and original purpose of the rapes is not known, their function after 1066 is clear. With its own lord and sheriff, each rape was an administrative and fiscal unit.[16]

Early modern periodEdit

17th century map by Wenceslas Hollar showing the six Rapes of Sussex, including the Rape of Chichester, which existed from the 13th century

Administering such an extensive county as Sussex as a single unit had proved difficult: the traditional meeting of the court of quarter sessions at Chichester in the south-west was a long distance from much of the county's population and no single venue met the needs of such a diverse county. A statute of 1504 created a system where the sheriff's court alternated between Chichester and Lewes. By the 1590s every administrative arrangement within local control respected the subdivision of the county[17] into an eastern division, made up of the rapes of Hastings, Lewes and Pevensey, and a western division, made up of the rapes of Arundel, Bramber and Chichester.

Sussex hosted seven rather than the usual four quarter sessions. During the assigned weeks for Epiphany, Easter and Michaelmas, one court convened at the western section of Sussex on Mondays and Tuesdays and another court convened in the eastern section on Thursdays and Fridays.[18] The western meetings followed a geographical rotation between Chichester, Petworth, Arundel and Midhurst; the eastern sessions always took place at Lewes. The Midsummer quarter session took place for the whole of Sussex at either East Grinstead or Horsham. By the reign of Elizabeth I the quarter sessions for eastern and western Sussex were effectively independent and the office of the Clerk of the Peace was the sole administrative link between the two.[18]

19th centuryEdit

This boundary stone in the centre of Tunbridge Wells marks the historic boundary between Sussex and Kent; after the Local Government Act 1894 the south of Tunbridge Wells and the south of Lamberhurst were administered as part of Kent

By 1835 several Sussex towns had borough status and as part of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 a uniform system of municipal boroughs was introduced. In Sussex the towns of Arundel, Chichester, Hastings, Rye (all 1836); Brighton 1854, Lewes 1881 were all incorporated as municipal boroughs. Under the Municipal Corporations Act 1883 borough status was abolished in 1886 for the towns of Midhurst, Pevensey, Seaford and Winchelsea, whose corporations had not been reformed by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. New municipal boroughs were later created in Boroughs incorporated in England and Wales 1882-1974 for Eastbourne (1883), Worthing (1890), Hove (1898) and Bexhill (1902).

Between 1834 and 1930 poor law unions existed for administration of poor law relief. In 1860 the north of parish of Frant in the Rape of Pevensey became part of the Tunbridge Wells Local Government District.

Together with several other counties (Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Yorkshire) Sussex was for administrative purposes divided into an eastern division and a western division. An informal arrangement for several centuries, the division of Sussex for administrative purposes was formally confirmed through the County of Sussex Act 1865. In 1889 county councils were created for the eastern and western divisions and county boroughs were created as part of the Local Government Act 1888. The rapes of Arundel, Bramber and Chichester comprised Sussex's western division and the rapes of Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings comprised the eastern division, with the exclusion of the large towns of Brighton and Hastings which became county boroughs. Sussex continued to be classed as a single county under the act and retained a single lieutenancy and shrievalty.

Map of Sussex in 1851 showing the six Rapes

The Local Government Act 1894 saw the southern area of Tunbridge Wells, known as Broadwater Down, which had previously been part of the parish of Frant, together with the part of Lamberhurst south of the River Teise transferred for administrative purposes to Kent County Council.[19][20]

In 1894 the remainder of the county, that was not a county borough or municipal ('non-county') borough, was divided into urban and rural districts by the Local Government Act 1894. A new county borough for Eastbourne was created in 1911:

Sub-division Rapes Top tier local authorities in 1889 Changes to top tier local authorities 1889-1974
Eastern Hastings, Lewes, Pevensey East Sussex (administrative county),
Brighton, Hastings (county boroughs)
South of Tunbridge Wells and south of Lamberhurst administered by Kent (administrative county, 1894)
Eastbourne (county borough, 1911)
Western Arundel, Bramber, Chichester, West Sussex (administrative county) none

Changes in 1974Edit

Local government in England was reformed in 1974 by the Local Government Act 1972.[21] Under the act, the ridings lost their lieutenancies and shrievalties and the administrative counties, county boroughs and their councils were abolished.[22] The area of Sussex was divided between a number of non-metropolitan counties:[23]

County after 1974 Pre-1974 area
East Sussex County boroughs of Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings; municipal boroughs of Bexhill, Lewes and Rye together with the Newhaven, Portslade-by-Sea and Seaford urban districts and the Battle, Chailey, Hailsham and Uckfield rural districts, from the administrative county of East Sussex.
West Sussex Municipal boroughs of Arundel, Chichester and Worthing together with the Bognor Regis, Crawley, Horsham, Littlehampton, Shoreham-by-Sea and Southwick urban districts and the Chanctonbury, Chichester, Midhurst, Petworth and Worthing rural districts from the administrative county of West Sussex

Burgess Hill Urban District and Cuckfield rural district from the administrative county of East Sussex

Kent The Broadwater Down area of Tunbridge Wells and the south of Lamberhurst (both areas administered by Kent County Council since 1894)

East SussexEdit

Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings were county boroughs, which on 1 April 1974 became boroughs within the non-metropolitan county of East Sussex.

Pre-1974 District Post-1974 Successor District
Battle Rural District Rother
Bexhill Borough Rother
Burgess Hill Urban District Mid Sussex
Chailey Rural District Lewes
Cuckfield Rural District Mid Sussex, Crawley
Cuckfield Urban District Mid Sussex
East Grinstead Urban District Mid Sussex
Hailsham Rural District Wealden
Hove Borough Hove
Lewes Borough Lewes
Newhaven Urban District Lewes
Portslade-by-Sea Urban District Hove
Rye Borough Rother
Seaford Urban District Lewes
Uckfield Rural District Wealden

West SussexEdit

Pre-1974 District Post-1974 Successor District
Arundel Borough Arun
Bognor Regis Urban District Arun
Chanctonbury Rural District Horsham
Chichester Borough Chichester
Chichester Rural District Arun, Chichester
Crawley Urban District Crawley
Horsham Rural District Horsham
Horsham Urban District Horsham
Littlehampton Urban District Arun
Midhurst Rural District Chichester
Petworth Rural District Chichester
Shoreham-by-Sea Urban District Adur
Southwick Urban District Adur
Worthing Borough Worthing
Worthing Rural District Adur, Arun

The non-metropolitan counties became counties for purposes such as lieutenancy.[22]

The urban districts of Burgess Hill, Cuckfield and East Grinstead, and nearly all of Cuckfield Rural District were transferred to the new district of Mid Sussex, while the remainder of Cuckfield Rural District was transferred to the borough of Crawley; both areas were transferred from the jurisdiction of East Sussex to that of West Sussex. Mid Sussex's change in county was argued under the Redcliffe-Maud Report's Planning Area enhancing a Second Wilson ministry plan with support from locally resident Lords and of the Heath ministry. Under this plan West Sussex gained an irregular swathe of East Sussex as far as East Grinstead in the north and in its initially passed form, Crawley would have gained two parishes in Surrey instead of the Gatwick part of these. The proposals met with some protest. a 1971 demonstration by 1,500 residents that disrupted traffic on the main London to Brighton road at the proposed boundary.[24] The changes were mostly reversed due to a local poll before its 1974 implementation, with the Charlwood and Horley Act 1974. East to West Sussex land re-designation was kept with the stated aim of uniting all areas affected by the projected major Crawley and Gatwick Airport economy under one supervisory local authority.[25]

Royal Mail reactionEdit

The Royal Mail adopted East and West Sussex as postal counties in 1974. Postal counties are no longer in official use.[26]

1990s local government reformEdit

A review of local government took place during the 1990s which made a number of changes to the counties created in 1974. Brighton regained its unitary status lost in 1974 by joining with the borough of Hove to form Brighton and Hove in 1997. Brighton and Hove subsequently attained city status in 2001.

21st centuryEdit

The abolition of regional development agencies including the South East England Development Agency and the creation of local enterprise partnerships were announced as part of the June 2010 United Kingdom budget.[27] On 29 June 2010 a letter was sent from the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to local authority and business leaders, inviting proposals to replace regional development agencies in their areas by 6 September 2010.[28] Within Sussex two LEPs were created. The Coast to Capital LEP was created for West Sussex, Brighton and Hove and Lewes, plus parts of Surrey and south London. The South East LEP was created for East Sussex, Kent and Essex. The Lewes district participates in both LEPs.

The 21st century has seen greater partnership working between neighbouring authorities. Operating as Adur and Worthing Councils, Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council have operated under a joint management structure, with a single Chief Executive, since 1 April 2008.[29] Wider sharing arrangements between Eastbourne and Lewes were proposed in 2015.[30]

Cultural historian Peter Brandon has called the current division of Sussex into east and west 'unnatural' and advocates the reunification of East and West Sussex[31] while historian Chris Hare has called for a devolved regional assembly for Sussex.[32]

Two devolution proposals involving Sussex local authorities were submitted to the UK Government in 2015. One proposal involved East and West Sussex County Councils together with Surrey County Council and district and borough councils. Another proposal involved the city of Brighton and Hove as well as Adur, Lewes, Mid Sussex and Worthing, which agreed the Greater Brighton City Deal in 2014.

Headquarters of top tier and unitary authoritiesEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Horsfield. The History, Antiquities and Topography of the County of Sussex. Volume II. Appendix pp. 23-75.
  2. ^ John Godfrey. Local Government in the 19th and 20th Century in An Historical Atlas of Sussex. pp. 126–127.
  3. ^ Stubbs 1874, p. 120
  4. ^ Semple 2013, p. 25
  5. ^ Thomas, Gabor (January 2013). "Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for the Anglo-Saxon period" (PDF) (PDF). South East Research Framework.
  6. ^ a b Lapidge et al. 2013
  7. ^ "The Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition, 1911, Online Version". Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  8. ^ Harris, Roland B. "Ditchling Historic Character Assessment Report, June 2005" (PDF) (PDF). Lewes District Council. p. 13.
  9. ^ Semple 2013, p. 90
  10. ^ Semple 2013, p. 162
  11. ^ Lowerson 1980, pp. 42
  12. ^ a b Armstrong 1971, pp. 39
  13. ^ Brandon 2006
  14. ^ a b "Victoria County History - The rape of Chichester". British History Online. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  15. ^ "Victoria County History - The rape and honour of Lewes". British History Online. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  16. ^ Thorn, Caroline; Thorn, Frank (June 2007). "Sussex" (RTF). University of Hull. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  17. ^ Herrup 1989, p. 23
  18. ^ a b Herrup 1989, p. 24
  19. ^ Brabant 1909, p. 312
  20. ^ "Broadwater Down - Relationships and Changes". A Vision of Britain. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  21. ^ Elcock, H, Local Government, (1994)
  22. ^ a b Arnold-Baker, C., Local Government Act 1972, (1973)
  23. ^ Redcliffe-Maud & Wood, B., English Local Government Reformed, (1974)
  24. ^ Boundary protest disrupts traffic, The Times, 6 December 1971
  25. ^ The English Non-metropolitan Districts (Definition) Order 1972: Schedule: Part 38
  26. ^ Royal Mail, Address Management Guide, (2004)
  27. ^ Mark Hoban (22 June 2010). Budget 2010 (PDF). HM Treasury. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 October 2012. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
  28. ^ "Local enterprise partnerships". Department of Communities and Local Government. 29 June 2010. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
  29. ^ "Senior Management structure". Adur & Worthing Councils. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
  30. ^ "Lewes and Eastbourne councils team up to save £2.9 million". Eastbourne Herald. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
  31. ^ Brandon 2006, p. 470
  32. ^ Hare 1995


  • Brabant, Frederick Gaspard (1909). Rambles in Sussex. Sussex: Methuen.
  • Brandon, Peter (2006). Sussex. London: Phillimore. ISBN 978-0-7090-6998-0.
  • Hare, Chris (1995). A History of the Sussex People. Worthing: Southern Heritage Books. ISBN 978-0-9527097-0-1.
  • Herrup, Cynthia B. (1989). The Common Peace: Participation and he Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521375870.
  • Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald (2013). The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Wiley. ISBN 9780470656327.
  • Lowerson, John (1980). A Short History of Sussex. Folkestone: Dawson Publishing. ISBN 0-7129-0948-6.
  • Semple, Sarah (2013). Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion, Ritual and Rulership in the Landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199683109.
  • Stubbs, William (1874). A Constitutional History of England in its Origin and Development, Volume 1. Clarendon Press.