Joan Hennessy: How one Worthing woman helped hundreds of German Jewish people fleeing Hitler

The story of a Worthing woman’s efforts to help hundreds of German Jewish people find places to live in the 1930s was told in a book published in 2008.

Joan Hennessy was one of the first group of women at Worthing Girls’ High School to learn German.

She got a job at a domestic agency in Chapel Road, Worthing, in the 1930s and started to translate letters from German people applying for jobs.

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It was then she realised there was a great housing need for Jewish people fleeing persecution from Hitler, and she set about finding them places to stay.

Joan Hennessy, who helped hundreds of German Jewish people find places to live in the 1930s. Picture taken by Malcolm McCluskey in 2009, W09038H9

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During that period, Joan helped house hundreds of refugees, including the Basque boys and girls fleeing the civil war in Spain.

Joan, who was then known by her maiden name of Joan Tennant, was a leading-light in the International Friendship League, based at Beach House in Worthing.

Speaking to the Herald in March 2009, Joan said: “As a small girl, my mother took me to the opening of the war memorial and pointed out the names of people she had known.

Worthing author Michael Payne reading a chapter of his book Storm Tide to Joan in 2009. Picture: Malcolm McCluskey.

“I don’t know if she deliberately made me dislike war but I did and I was determined to do anything I could to help with peace.”

Joan was one of a number of women who promoted the humanitarian effort in the 1930s. She featured in Worthing author Michael Payne’s book Storm Tide: Worthing: Prelude to War 1933-1939 alongside Marion Barber, Dorothy Thornycroft and Joan Strange, who also worked tirelessly to promote peace in Worthing.

The significant role Joan played in Worthing’s humanitarian effort, helping hundreds of German Jewish people to find places to live in the 1930s, came to light when Michael happened to knock on her front door while researching his book in High Salvington.

The pair struck up a friendship and it was thanks to Joan’s photographic memory that she was able to recall much of what happened during that period.

Michael spent hours chatting to Joan to build up a picture of how the town looked before the Second World War. Once the book was complete, he would visit the 92-year-old every week to read her a chapter from the book, as she was partially-sighted.

He said at the time: “It was a wonderful discovery to find Joan. She has the advantage of knowing many of the personalities from during that time. The book would have been possible without people like Joan, but it certainly wouldn’t have had the human touch.”

Joan was able to give Michael additional information about the era. For instance, she told him about Rose Wilmot, who used to open her house to young people when they needed somewhere to stay.

She was grateful to Michael for sharing his book with her in person, as she said she did not get on very well with audio books.

Joan passed away peacefully in Worthing Hospital on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, aged 97.

If you are interested in history, you may like to read about Lancing Carriage Works. CLICK here to find out how its closure affected people in the village