Magnet for authors and poets: Shoreham's rich literary past

FROM the 19th century onwards the illustrious south coast was the playground for the well-to-do heading down from smoggy London and enjoying the large country houses, sea air and quaint towns of Sussex.

A butchers shop, possibly Tom Avis, at the western end of New Road, Shoreham
A butchers shop, possibly Tom Avis, at the western end of New Road, Shoreham

Understandably, it became the setting for many novels and Shoreham was among the featured towns.

Some of the descriptions of Shoreham closely parallel the town we see today; such as the railway and main town roads.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

Detailed portrayals of the undulating South Downs and stretching Adur Valley are scattered through many of the texts about Shoreham.

Such descriptions can be found in Michael Fairless’s The Roadmender about the Adur Valley between Shoreham and Horsham. Published in 1902, the novel tracks conversations people have with a road mender as they pass by on the road to heaven. The text was written by Margaret Barber under a male pseudonym, as with many female authors of the time, to hide her true identity.

Numerous novels give an insight into Victorian Shoreham; both the appearance of the town and attitudes of the people.

William Black, born 1841, wrote Kilmeny in 1870 in which the characters take a trip to Swiss Gardens at Shoreham. This formerly large space enjoyed a boating lake, theatre, concert hall and ornamental ruins. With lyrical verve Black describes the pastoral, charming scene at the gardens which is different to the roads, flats and school that cover the area today. Not only scenes of countryside life featured in these novels, but also more specific places, such as the Red Lion pub.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Rizpah is about Mrs Rook, who is said to have lived in a cottage in Shoreham.

The poem gained wide recognition for its portrayal of a tragedy at the Red Lion pub. On November 1, 1792 two Shoreham men robbed a mail coach and went on to the Red Lion to boast of their success. They were reported to the parish constable and sentenced to death at Horsham Assizes.

Written a century after the event, Tennyson’s poem describes the mother of one of the men who went to collect his bones after he was hung.

This isn’t the only text the Red Lion has popped up in, it also appears as the choice hang-out for the young men in George Moore’s Esther Waters, 1894. The book begins with its protagonist, a poor working-class girl named Esther, arriving in Shoreham to start domestic service at a house called Woodview, based on the real Old Buckingham House (the ruins of which lie near Buckingham Park).

The novel paints a picture of Shoreham and includes many vivid scenes from different points in the town.

His other novel Spring Days is set almost entirely in Southwick and contains accurate descriptions of the town in the 1880s.

The novels action unfolds in the newly built houses on Southdown Road, north of what is now Southwick Square. The main character exalts Southwick Green and its old English beauty.

But it is the enduring depictions of a rural town, stained by the Industrial Revolution and succumbing ever-increasingly to brick and iron losing its rustic appeal, that weave throughout the text. A passage from the beginning of the book reads: “The road led under the railway embankment, and looking through the arched opening, one could see the dirty town, straggling along the canal or harbour, which runs parallel with the sea.”

Judy Upton, a professional playwright and screenwriter, who has lived in Shoreham all her life and writes detailed articles on the literary past of Shoreham, said: “In the 19th century, Shoreham was a magnet for authors and poets, who were drawn to this lively town and port, surrounded tranquil, picturesque countryside. Many of the books, including John Oxenham’s 1913 novel Mary All Alone, and Gilbert Frankau’s Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant feature descriptions of characters arriving by train at Shoreham station, and the coming of the railway in 1840, was in part responsible for the number of writers visiting and often deciding to stay in the area.”

A novel insight into bygone town life

WILLIAM Black’s description of a day trip to Swiss Gardens, Shoreham during the 1860s in Kilmeny.

“When we reached Shoreham, we found that a number of people had arrived, and had already become familiar with what must have been to them the very novel amusements of the gardens.

“Here, some young girls in gauzy white, with red roses in their hair and pink gloves on their hands, were practising archery in a reckless fashion, and getting extraordinary compliments from one or two gentlemen who were their attendants whenever chance brought a stray arrow near the target.

“There a party was playing at croquet, and exhibiting to bystanders a much greater skill in the fine art of flirtation than in sending a ball through the bell. Then there were the quiet walks through snatches of copsewood (with some painted pasteboard figure suddenly staring at you from among the bushes), the greenhouses, the flower-gardens, the lake, and what not, to attract straggling couples.

“I do not mean here to describe the various amusements that occupied us during the day, a picnic on the lawn being prominent among them; nor yet the performance at the theatre, where Miss Lesley sat in the front of the gallery, and endeavoured to keep her numerous gentleman friends from talking to her while the actors were on the stage.”

n First chapter of Esther Walters, by George Moore, describing when she arrives from London in Shoreham to stay at Woodview.

Her first impressions of the town:

“It was a barren country. Once the sea had crawled at high tide half-way up the sloping sides of those downs. It would do so now were it not for the shingle bank which its surging had thrown up along the coast. Between the shingle bank and the shore a weedy river flowed and the little town stood clamped together, its feet in the water’s edge.

“There were decaying shipyards about the harbour, and wooden breakwaters stretched long, thin arms seawards for ships that did not come. On the other side of the railway, apple blossoms showed above a white-washed wall; some market gardening was done in the low-lying fields, whence the downs rose in gradual ascents. On the first slope there was a fringe of trees. That was Woodview.”