Learn about life in Worthing during the First World War

Worthing historian Chris Hare is set to give a series of talks about Worthing during the First World War on Saturday, August 2. Here, Chris gives an insight into what life was like in Worthing at that time, as well as talking about a new book about the First World War, and a screening of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ at the Pier Pavilion.

St John Ambulance at Worthing during the warPicture credit: http://www.westsussexpast.org.uk/
St John Ambulance at Worthing during the warPicture credit: http://www.westsussexpast.org.uk/

The First World War caught Worthing by surprise. Like most people in England, folk in the town had little interest in continental politics or in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at the hands of a Bosnian Serb in June, 1914.

They had other things on their mind. There was widespread anger over a local police scandal, and militant Suffragettes were proving increasingly unpopular.

Superintendent Bristow was demoted to the rank of Sergeant, and Sergeant Gilbert was demoted to constable by the new and overbearing Chief Constable, W.S. Williams.

Stills from Oh What a Lovely War

Bristow’s crime was not only that he had played cards with his men at the police station in Ann Street while off-duty, but that his wife had supplied them with beer.

At Littlehampton, Inspector Slade was demoted to Sergeant for frequenting public houses.

Local people were furious and angry meetings were held demanding the reinstatement on the officers and the sacking of Williams.

The mayor feared that the riots that had gripped the town 30 years earlier were likely to break out again unless those in authority listened to the voice of the people.

Enemy aliens being rounded up on the streets of Worthing in September 1914 Picture credit: http://www.westsussexpast.org.uk/

In 1913 a big Suffragette rally at The Kursaal, now The Dome, had been broken up by angry demonstrators.

Now, a year later, groups of Suffragettes were holding meetings on the promenade by the pier, demanding Votes for Women and the release of their imprisoned colleagues.

The women always had to contend with barracking and derisive insults, but matters began to escalate, and attempts were even made to seize them and throw them in the sea.

One local newspaper observed that the woman had been saved by the ‘gallantry’ of the local police, who intervened to stop them being assaulted.

Wounded Indian soldiers visiting Worthing in 1920 Picture credit: http://www.westsussexpast.org.uk/

When war was declared on August 4, it was almost as if a national holiday had been announced – large groups of excited people swarmed around the main streets of the town and onto Marine Parade, singing patriotic songs and waving flags.

No one imagined the horror that was to come.

Over 600 Worthing men died in ‘The Great War,’ and many more returned wounded, both in body and in mind. Young men who had gone to fight came home prematurely aged. Over four years of bloody conflict left an indelible mark that would not be easily erased.

Some understanding of what soldiers had to face is found in the letters they wrote home to family and friends.

In October, 1915, Gunner Alban Pennel wrote in moving terms of the scenes he had witnessed at the front in a letter to Councillor Ellen Chapman, later Worthing’s first woman mayor: “Our Colonel was killed instantly whilst leading his men into action, and the Adjutant was severely wounded shortly afterwards. The enemy snipers invariably pick off the officers first.

“Our losses in the rank and file were heavy. They advanced without a waver in the face of an inferno of shell, machine gun, and rifle fire.

“It is terrible to think of a fine Battalion like ours, which took a year to form, being reduced to nearly half its original strength all in about an hour. The road I was in was a fair shambles, full of dead and wounded...”

Following the introduction of conscription in 1916, a military tribunal, that included local councillors, including the mayor, was established to hear submissions from men who were seeking an exemption or a deferment of military service.

To the exasperation of the military representative, Colonel Browne, the Worthing members did their best to help these men, especially when they came from families who had already lost family members to the war.

New First World War book

On August 4, a new book about the First World War, Great War Britain: West Sussex, Remembering 1914-18, will be published by History Press, in association with West Sussex County Council.

The book is the culmination of a two-year HLF-funded project led by county local studies librarian, Martin Hayes, and former county archivist, Alan Redman.

In their introduction, they explain that the book “is a record of service and sacrifice, both on the home front and overseas on the Western Front and in the other theatres of war.”

The authors, who were supported by nearly 200 volunteers, who undertook research and transcription, are at pains to highlight, not just the suffering of the war itself, but the consequences for those who survived and retuned home, where many “suffered financial problems, reduced incomes, low pensions, unemployment and some surprising public hostility.”

The book, to which many local historians contributed individual chapters, offers a window onto life and death a century ago.

We learn how ‘local aliens,’ many of them waiters, were rounded up in September, 1914, by Worthing police, and transported to detention camps in Aldershot and Newbury.

Paul Schweder, the wealthy and controversial owner of Courtlands at Goring, became the target of a whispering campaign that alleged he was a German spy.

Chief Constable Williams, who had not forgiven Schweder for his role in the campaign to reinstate Superintendent Fowler, ordered a raid on Courtlands – a very humiliating event for such a proud man.

No less a person than Lord Leconfield joined the chorus of slander and innuendo.

In a famous court case, Schweder sued Leconfield for slander and won, receiving damages of £100.

Schweder, despite popular misconceptions, was not German or of German origin, but had been born in England and had served his country with distinction.

The book also contains photographs of the Indian soldiers, wounded in France, who were taken to the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which had been converted into a military hospital for their use.

Convalescing Indians took trips to Worthing where they were met by enthusiastic crowds.

Local newspapers reported that they received loud cheers and cries from the ladies to “come again”.

‘Oh, What a Lovely War’

Peter Lovett, of Worthing Film Club, has been organising a series of events and activities to coincide with the showing of ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, at the Pier Pavilion.

There will be a great timeline stretched out on the pier that will record all the names of the Worthing men who died in the fighting and the year in which they died.

Chris Hare and Paul Holden will be leading people along this timeline, recounting the horrors of individual battles and the personal stories of those Worthing men who died.

There will also be period entertainments, provided by the Southwick Players, who put on the stage version of ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ earlier in the year.

Peter believes that the film, directed by Richard Attenborough and adapted from Joan Greenwood’s stage play, is a classic of British cinema that everyone should see.

To ensure an authentic experience, the 1969 film is being shown in its original 35mm form, which is sure to add greatly to the atmosphere.

Many scenes were shot locally, in Sussex, including on the West Pier at Brighton, now sadly a wreck, following storm damage and two fires.

“We hope that this will be a day to remember,” says Peter. “We also hope that it may help our visitors to become more aware of The Great War, and of those who lost their lives in that conflict. We hope also to recall the dogged stoical humour of those who fought, born of their need to endure the unendurable.”

Chris’s talks about Worthing during the First World War, and the years leading up to it, will be held at the Sidney Walter Centre on Saturday, August 2, from 9.30am to 1pm.

In the afternoon, Chris will be at Worthing Pier working with members of Worthing Film Club, who will be showing the classic film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ at the Pier Pavilion.

Tickets for the film cost 0£10. Details can be found at www.facebook.com/onlocationfilmsworthing or by calling Worthing Theatres on 01903 206206.

Tickets for both the film and Chris’s talks cost £20, details of which can be found at www.historypeopleuk.org.uk or by calling Chris on 07794 600639.