Reading the Riot Act: Turbulent time in Worthing's history relived in community play

A turbulent time in Worthing’s history, when severe unrest and violence led to the reading of the Riot Act, was relived eight years ago in a community play.

The Just Cause was written and directed by Ann Feloy, and the hugely successful performance saw a cast of 200 tell the tale of the uproar caused when the Salvation Army made its first foray into Worthing.

For much of the 19th century, Worthing’s image was tarnished by the unruly behaviour of the town’s Bonfire Boys and the frequent riots and protests that erupted in the town. Too much beer, some people said, was the cause of this regular mayhem. In response, local temperance societies campaigned for a more sober town.

Working class women were at the forefront of the temperance movement, as they were the main victims of their husbands’ drinking, which, at best, reduced the meagre family income, and at worst, led to domestic violence. The arrival of the Salvation Army in Worthing in 1883 was welcomed by these women but deeply resented by their menfolk, many of whom formed themselves into a Skeleton Army to oppose the Salvationists’ antidrink crusade.

Telling the story of this turbulent time, the play was staged in Christ Church, Grafton Road, in June 2014. It was funded by a £50,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant and took two years to come to fruition. Following the first performance, the cast and audience – many dressed for the Victorian theme – paraded along the seafront to Splash Point. Ms Feloy said at the time she wanted to give people the opportunity to show off their costumes after putting so much effort into their designs.

Having previously written for performances for the Edinburgh and Brighton fringe festivals, Ms Feloy said The Just Cause was the biggest thing she had done. Research for the project was headed up by her husband, local historian Chris Hare. The first year was all about research, with volunteers looking into the characters of the time in Worthing. They read through old Christ Church parish magazines and local newspapers to find the history of the 1880s. The second year involved writing and workshops, followed by auditions and rehearsals.

The Just Cause was billed as a Victorian romance and a 'rollicking good riot'. Former mayors Tom Wye and Bob Smytherman took part, Tom as Captain Drummond of the West Sussex Constabulary and Bob as the town crier. Children from Chesswood School, Sion School and Worthing Youth Theatre also appeared, alongside performing arts students from Worthing College.

In one of the play’s dramatic moments, two young thieves, played by Trilby Baxter and Alice Norton, were hauled before Worthing magistrates, charged with stealing eggs. They are facing several lashes of the birch, until it emerged they had thrown the eggs at the Salvation Army Band, at which point the attitude of the magistrates, who were hostile to the Salvationists, softened considerably. The young defendants were let off with a small fine.

Also in the news: