Pre-Peak Histories #2

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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.

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Pre-Peak Histories #1

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Honour the elders!

Worthing Beach, 1955

That is the suggestion in the Transition Handbook, for helping your town in its transition towards resilience and away from oil dependence. How though?

I did a series of oral history interviews through Transition Town Worthing in 2010/11 to get a flavour of a  time before mass consumerism, central heating, and mobile phone shops. The interview I did with Barbara (below) was one of my favourites.

What transpired was a fascinating sense of both continuity and also a world that has changed fundamentally. Much of what was built in the 1930s still survives, but to hear about it as it was being built on former farmland becomes a vision of huge and exciting change, as well as the final goodbye to the semi-rural edge of the town. The outward expansion of Worthing happened at the expense of losing valuable, productive farm and horticultural areas, and coincided with the growth of car ownership.

Here’s Barbara in her own words:

What are your memories about Worthing in the ’30s and ’40s?

We used to play at the end of Sea Place which was all fields, and on the beach, dodging the waves. We had one very cold winter, 1937 I think, when we used to skate on all these icy ditches. We used to climb trees. There were trees at the bottom of George V Avenue. There were trees at Goring. We once made a sort of catermeran boat from wood they had for the breakwaters.

We walked or cycled everywhere. Durrington Bridge wasn’t made up (before the War), they had pavements but not a made-up road. The other side of that was all fields. They were ready to build on it but then the War came and they had to stop. It was fields from there to Titnore Lane. My mother used to say we were ‘raking around!’ We didn’t have to worry about anything. We just came home for our lunch then were off out again.

What do you remember about food around that time?

1948 Culberry Nursery, Angmering

There were nurseries all over the place. Worthing tomatoes were very famous. There were carnations and flowers. There was one at Goring. It’s all houses now. I think they grew things like cabbages and sprouts. There was a nursery in Terringes Avenue, one or two on the Littlehampton Road, there was one in Heene Road even! And probably cucumbers as well.

After the War food was rationed. Bread and butter. I’m sure we had New Zealand butter after the War. There wasn’t much coffee; we had that awful Camp stuff! I don’t remember ever feeling deprived really. I was used to it I suppose. All the shops were local. On Rowlands Road there was Chaplins and Potter Bailey; they were grocers. They were all little shops. Langmeads, the Maple Leaf, and Frosts. They were dairies. There was a Sainbury’s with lovely marble counters and brass weights. That was on the Goring Road where the Co-op is. And the Home and Colonial. Tarring Road had lots of other shops. Butchers of course and bakers. Knowles the Baker was a local one. Mitchells: that was a Worthing family. They had a cafe just over the entrance to the arcade in Worthing. We used to have birthday parties there. Tea and games upstairs. There were ironmongers I worked in a little private library on the Goring Road, Mason and Hodges bookshop, and the customers would come in and say they’ve got oranges across the road. So we used to shoot and get them or bananas, even eggs sometimes. We had fish gradually after the War, and there were fishmongers.

For a long time after the War you couldn’t go on to the beach because it was all mines and gun enplacements. We all had to grow food in our back gardens. We had to dig up our lawns and dig for victory. Compost heaps and potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes. I didn’t do it. It was my parents who did it. I might have helped occasionally. After the War I think most people were quite glad to get their grass and flowers back!

What was transport like then?

Southdown Bus on route 106 to Ferring and Goring, around 1950

Well I didn’t have a car until I was 45. I can remember that a lot of people had little motorbikes. People gradually started getting cars, but when we moved here, in 1960, I doubt that there was more than about two cars in the road. Now you can’t move for them. So it was very gradual. There were buses, Southdown Buses. Lots of people cycled, Worthing being flat it was very handy for cycles.  There weren’t really that many cars until well into the 80s. Plus the fact that most of the houses in this road are now flats, so you get two cars up and two cars down. Instead of having one car per house, you end up with four cars.

What was your house like?

There were a lot built in the 1930s I suppose, tremendous amount. We were very upset as children because they started cutting down our trees and building houses. After the War, of course, they really took off; even more going west again.

My parents bought a house in 1938 in Bruce Avenue for £999. That was a semi-detached, 3 bedroom, with quite a big garden.

You got an ideal boiler and a porcelain sink with a wooden draining board. You had a fitment with a bit that pulled down, and you worked on that bit, and then you had cupboards. That came in all the 1930s houses.

You had probably a horrible fireplace and you got a bathroom with an airing cupboard in it usually. And that was it, really! Coal fires in the sitting room. Apart from that you just got on with it! I suppose we might have had the odd electric fire, but not normally you didn’t. And oil stoves. When we came here we had a special oil heater in the kitchen and that was it. Then we put the little Valor stoves in the bathroom just to warm it up a bit. We were tough I think, because we had some cold winters! ’61 or ’62, the sea froze!

We didn’t have central heating here until about 30 years ago. I had a washing machine when my son was born and that was in 1961. Other people probably had them before I did! They were the little square ones with the electric ringer and then we got twin tubs. Then we got automatics eventually. Before that, it was a bucket on the gas cooker! I boiled everything up in this tub and then you put it in the sink, then you put it through the wringer, but you didn’t go out to work, at least not many people did, you had all day to do it. Whereas now, you couldn’t do that if you were going out to work as well. You’d never get it done! I’m laughing because my kitchen is not a modern one.

Can you say something about community back then?

Worthing was a smaller place in the 50s.

South Street, Worthing, around 1955

You had the Rotary, and the church, Guides and Scouts. As it grew I suppose it got less so. Most people didn’t move around so much. We didn’t really go into each other’s houses too much, but we did help each other out. It was more . . . you didn’t have television in those days so you probably visited each other a bit more in the evenings. We didn’t have TV until the 60s, but a lot of people had it in the 50s.

Worthing was much nicer in the 50s, with the old Town Hall which gave it some character. The old library was rather nice. That was where the museum is now. All the shops were individual. All the familes too. There was the Hubbards, and the Mitchells, and the Water Brothers, and Bentalls. They were all local people and somehow that gave it more of a community feel. It was much more personal because you knew the people. The bandstand was nice because they had concerts. We went on a Sunday to hear the band playing. They used to have summer shows on the pier. One was called Gay Parade.

We went to the theatre and the cinema much more often. There was a wonderful shop called Bernard Bakers, which had seconds. It was a kind of ramshackle shop, along Chapel Road. They were there for a long time. There were dairies where they sold milk and butter, eggs. Frosts was a dairy with these lovely marble floors. It all helped to keep the milk cool because of course they didn’t have any fridges then, did they? We didn’t have a fridge until about 1950. We went to the shops every day, otherwise the milk would go off. We used to have a man come on a bicycle on a Tuesday to take your order, go away and bring it back two days later.

What has Worthing lost since the 50s?

Shops. We’ve lost some cinemas. That fact that when you walked everywhere, you met more people. People were pushing their prams with their babies, Cooking skills. Younger generation buy ready-made this, ready-made that. I didn’t! You read that they waste a lot of food, whereas if you’re a war-time child, you never waste anything ever! Lots of manual skills. Not many people do dress-making anymore, or knitting. Now it’s cheaper to buy it ready-made. My mother used to buy remnants, then come back and make us dresses. Now, it wouldn’t be worth it. Shame. Darning socks. I was very good at that! Turning collars on men’s shirts. I used to unpick them, turn them round, so they didn’t get worn. Sheets too. We used to do sides and the middle. The sheet wears down the middle doesn’t it. So, you would cut it down the middle, put the worn bits to the outside, sew the two edges together, so you then got more use out of it. We all used to do that! Sides to middle.

What were you glad to see the back of?

Coal fires! Shovelling. You had a coal bunker outside so you had to shovel the coal into coal hole, bring it in, make your fire, light it, then you had to take the ashes out in the morning and throw them away. Oh dear me, that was hard work. You came in and you were all cold and you had to light the fire. Then it wouldn’t draw so you used to have to put newspaper in. We used to keep our coats on until the house got warm. Washing too was hard work before having a washing machine. Yet it isn’t so long ago, really. Things have gone faster and faster and faster! We did lots more reading then too. Once TV came people didn’t read so many books.

Taking part in oral history research opens up a strong sense of community, as those in their 80s and 90s are often excluded. It also enables us to build a picture of the recent past: a time before all the things we take for granted today. Learning about life 60 or 70 years ago is also about living through a period of ‘energy ascent’: a growing abundance of cheap energy during the 20th century.

What we need to learn from our elders is that change happens, sometimes over a very short time scale. Asking a teenager to imagine life without Facebook or their mobile phone, let alone a reliable electricity supply, is guaranteed to generate a look of incredulity. Even for someone in their 40s, thinking of a time before the internet becomes a trip to a dimly-remembered past, as I discovered recently in a chat with someone at work. People have really short memories, and very often a complete lack of awareness of what took place only a few decades ago, well within living memory of many.

Next steps? Talk to your elderly neighbour about life in the past. It’s virtually guaranteed to put a smile on your face. And theirs.