With its distinctive chequerboard exterior combining Caen stone and knapped flint, the Marlipins building in Shoreham-by-Sea has been an eye-catching landmark for centuries – in fact, dendrochronological analysis suggests that it is the earliest surviving secular building in Sussex. Its original purpose presents more of an enigma, however. The meaning of the word ‘Marlipins’ has been the subject of much debate, though it is possible that it stems from an early medieval form of tax called ‘malpenning’, and the building could have been a toll house or customs house, or secure storage associated with commercial activities in the small port town.
The Marlipins was acquired in 1925 by the Sussex Archaeological Society (which recently celebrated its 175th birthday; see CA 379 for more on its history and the other properties in its care, including Lewes Castle and Fishbourne Roman Palace), and opened as a museum the following year. From its earliest days, its purpose was ‘principally for the housing of antiquities and pictures of local interest’, and the Marlipins still fulfils that role today. The building has been closed for most of the last two years, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has now fully reopened to the public.
The main, older part of the museum is characterfully atmospheric, framed with historic timbers, while a modern extension to the rear houses archaeological collections (including finds uncovered during this space’s creation). Upstairs, displays focus mostly on social history, offering insights into some of the most distinctive elements of Shoreham’s past. These include Swiss Gardens, the Victorian pleasure grounds which, at their peak, attracted 5,000 visitors a day; the town’s airport – reportedly the oldest in the UK, and the world’s oldest purpose-built commercial airport still in operation – whose Art Deco terminal building is a popular filming location; and Shoreham’s role in the early film industry, as well as the bohemian beachfront ‘Bungalow Town’ that sprang up as a result. Together with cases exploring the town’s role in the Second World War, notably as a key launching point for the D-Day landings, there is also an impressive display of large model ships dating back to the Victorian period, and a ‘children’s corner’ housing dressing-up and other activities. Meanwhile, the top floor of the rear extension is currently home to a temporary exhibition of colourful ship portraits.
On the lower floor, the eclectic exhibits have a mainly maritime focus, with highlights including an ornately carved early 19th-century tiller arm depicting Antony and Cleopatra and the pyramids; as well as poignant mementoes created from the recovered timbers of shipwrecks. The archaeology gallery at the back showcases finds spanning prehistory to the present day, among them a section highlighting the area’s important Neolithic flint mines. Deceptively small and engagingly presented, the Marlipins is packed with insights into Shoreham and West Sussex’s eventful past.
The Marlipins Museum is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11am to 3pm until the end of October. Entry is free. See www.sussexpast.co.uk for more information.