When I think of southern England in the 1940s, the image that comes to mind is Walmington-on-Sea . . .

Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, aka Dad’s Army

A 70s childhood meant that one of my first images of life in the 1940s was shaped by Dad’s Army on the BBC. Thanks! I still enjoy it all these years later.

In amongst the characters and the locations (I’m thinking of the novelty rock emporium and Jones’ butcher’s shop), there is the sense of a community facing incredibly difficult circumstances and coming together with a sense of purpose. All those great George Formby songs, Make Do and Mend posters, and people getting involved remains a source of inspiration. It is nostalgic, but not without a grounding in the reality of wartime Britain in 1940. Walmington-on-Sea was fictional, but based on those south coast seaside towns in Sussex. We definitely need a future post on the relevance of Dad’s Army to Transition Towns and energy descent!

The 1940s is still within living memory of many people now in their 70s and 80s. What was Worthing like then? Does my vision of Walmington-on-Sea hit the spot? What can we learn from those who lived through it?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, oral histories are an important way to uncover what a town was like before the age of cheap oil (usually this means pre-1960s). Hearing personal reflections help piece together a history of local resilience, as it was then, and an indication of what has changed (which usually translates to a loss in resilience over time, as cheap oil undermined local economies and eroded skills).

This second interview was slightly different to the previous one because Margaret (the interviewee) had returned to Worthing after a long absence and noted some changes, although most of her comments relate to the 1930s and 1940s. I’m adding most of the interview here: just the transcription with no other analysis. The hope is that eventually parts of this may be incorporated into an Energy Descent Action Plan.

Did you notice huge differences in Worthing when you returned (1992)?

Well it had spread. Roads here that I’d never heard of. Mother and father had moved into George V Avenue when I was about 14. The houses were still being built. This was around 1933/4. When we lived over the flat in Rowlands Road, there was a field and a barn opposite. I can remember that they put a rope all the way around, a whole lot of men heaved on it and pulled the thing down. That was where the bingo hall is now (previously the Plaza cinema).

Plaza Cinema, Worthing (in 1969)

What do you remember about food in those days?

My father had an allotment, so I think he grew most of our vegetables. Although my mother used to shop along Montague St. I remember Lough’s Sweet Shop. They made all their own sweets and ice cream. Gorgeous place. You walked for everything. You just ate what you were given. My father grew red and yellow tomatoes. During the war, he used used to pack up boxes and boxes of tomatoes to send to his sister who lived near Newcastle. They couldn’t get tomatoes up there.

What can you tell me about getting around?

We had pushbikes, otherwise we walked. If it was too far we took Stent’s taxis. That was in Erinswell Road. The old boy started it and I always remember he had no teeth. His sons eventually took over the business. I think everything was family businesses in those days. Boyfriends did have cars. Our coal was delivered with a horse and cart.

There was always a dairy at the back of us in Rowlands Road. They used to wheel the cans at 4 in the morning and we never used to hear them! My bedroom was at the back too.

What were houses like then?

Lots of my friends lived in a flat above a shop. They just had coal fires, and also in the bedrooms, but they were only lit if you weren’t well. When we moved to George V Avenue, there were electric fires in the bedrooms and the dining room and a coal fire in the lounge. There was a bell from each bedroom to ring for downstairs. Some houses had servants. We had a servant before the war. A Char. A woman what did. She used to come in to do the ironing and heavy cleaning. I always remember that at 11 in the morning my mother and the char used to sit down for tea and biscuits. The electric fires were a big step up! The lights were all electric. In the shop it was all electric. My grandmother lived in Lewes and she had paraffin lamps. I think she had gas in the kitchen, that was all.

What were shops like?

They were all small shops: very individual ones. You had a shoe shop, and a butchers and a fishmongers. Silverthornes was there then. We had fish and chips every Friday night. A family called Rolfe had the butchers. Actually we had rats at the back of the shop because we were between the fishmonger and the butcher. It wasn’t a disgrace to have mice or rats, you just accepted that you had them. We used to set traps. Father set the dog to catch any mice in the kitchen. Hubbards was quite a big shop (where Debenhams is now). Bentalls was there (opposite where Beales is now). Kinch and Lacks (a dress shop) was where the bookshop is. The other one was Water Bros. Along Montague St. Potter Bailey had a wonderful smell. They used to sell seeds.

What can you tell me about community in Worthing at that time?

I think we knew everybody along Rowlands Road. When we lived in George V, Kingsway flats caught fire. My mother took in a young girl and an elderly woman who lived with us for ages because her flat had been destroyed.

What elements from the past should we try to take with us into the future?

There are lots of buildings that should have been left. It was a great pity they took down the old town hall. There were some lovely houses that were bulldozed and they just put up flats.

Worthing Town Hall in early 1930s.

I think we did a lot more for ourselves. When we were young we used to make all of our own clothes. Especially during the war. Someone gave us a whole lot of stuff to use.