How a visit by the King boosted town’s fortunes

Craigweil House, Aldwick
Craigweil House, Aldwick

It was 84 years ago that the perspective of our small seaside resort on the south coast was to change forever.

In 1929 King George V came to the area to recuperate after a serious illness and whilst there is frequently much talk of his visit, I thought we should take a specific look at the visit and events that surrounded it.

King George and Queen Mary arrived on February 9, 1929, and eventually left on May 15, 1929, a period of only 13 weeks that was to have many implications for the future.

The town of Bognor was bestowed with the suffix of ‘Regis’ on July 26, 1929, in recognition of the visit.

The king and queen stayed at Craigweil House, Aldwick, which was soon to become a centre of attraction both for the world’s media and general sightseers – both visitors and residents alike, as can be seen from a private diary entry, which reported for April 1, 1929, “D & I took 11.40 bus into Bognor especially to see Craigweil House.”

Sir Arthur du Cros, who was the founder and president of the Dunlop Company, placed Craigweil House at the disposal of the Royal family. The house at Aldwick had been built at the beginning of the 19th century and was described as being a ‘substantial mansion in the Elizabethan style, with balconies and terraces looking directly over Aldwick Bay’.

The house had been extended by Sir Arthur Du Cros turning the three-storey mansion into a special building, with terraces, two wings, eight suites and accommodation for 20 servants. There was a music room which also contained a cinema, stage and an electric organ, the music of which could be piped all over the house. He also had seawater laid on to all the bedrooms.

The lawns swept down to the beach with 200 yards of private promenade. The house, which stood within its own grounds, covered 15 acres and was half a mile from the main road. This was an ideal situation for the police who were protecting the king during the visit.

One of the main attractions of the house was that many of the windows faced south, which meant that they caught the maximum sun available to help the king’s convalescence. However the weather was not that accommodating because within six days of his arrival the weather turned colder and soon the grounds were under several inches of snow, which remained for a further three weeks.

For the town of Bognor this visit encouraged all the hoteliers and traders to prepare for an influx of visitors.

Even the local telephone exchange had to become prepared as they reserved 42 lines exclusively for the use of Craigweil House. Local charabanc companies were soon advertising trips to the town to catch a glimpse of the house and maybe even the Qqueen.

Word of any visit by Queen Mary to various areas in the locality soon spread and onlookers developed into large crowds, because Queen Mary was so popular.

So much was the interest in the royal visitors that at one time there was a reward offered of £500 for any photograph taken when Queen Mary visited Woolworth’s, however I am not aware of such a picture taken during this visit. However a picture was taken in the April when Queen Mary visited the Burgess Bazaar in Waterloo Square.

When King George V returned to Windsor, Sir Arthur Du Cros handed Craigweil House over to the Bognor Town Council for a period of 12 days to allow members of the public to visit the house. During this period 15,827 people roamed throughout the house, adults paid 1/- (5p) and 6d (2 1/2p) for children raising £754.17s.6d for local charities.

People visited the king’s bedroom, sat in his chair and viewed the sandcastle built by his granddaughter in the grounds. His granddaughter is now Queen Elizabeth II.

For the traders and hoteliers the story was very different. Because members of the public believed that any visit to the area would be greeted with higher prices and over-charging, they actually had one of their worst seasons, to the extent that many hotels and boarding houses even reduced their charges in an effort to attract the absent visitors. One trader is reported as remarking: “Bugger the king’s visit” in response to questions about the royal visit.

In July 1929 a special Thanksgiving service was held in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the king’s restoration to full health, which was broadcast to the nation.

Here in Bognor all the churches also held Thanksgiving services, and it was reported that all the churches were full to overflowing. In St John’s Church, London Road, there were over 1,000 in the congregation with extra chairs having to be obtained for the service.

There was a report in a local newspaper during July 1929 regarding the pending name change of the town. “Bognor Regis is a name not without its critics. Personally I am only too glad that the town was not entirely altered and that it did not lose its identity.” The report concluded, “Bognor had by the King’s visit been dragged from obscurity and broadcast to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

Following all the euphoria of the nation regarding the king’s return to health there was a specific interest retained in Craigweil House. Numerous postcards were produced featuring the King and Queen and the house itself.

A ceramic model of the house was also produced as a lasting memento of the visit. So in 1932 the locals were astonished when news broke of the sale of the house and its contents.

There had been plans afoot to turn the house into a hotel or residential home, but nothing came of this and by 1938 the house had been demolished and the site cleared, leaving only the stables. The land was divided into building plots, which were put up for sale.

Interestingly in 1964 an application was received by the Bognor Regis Council to have one of the houses converted into a nursing home. Their response: “It would be quite wrong to have a nursing home at Craigweil.”

It is interesting to note many people still, to this day, ask where they can visit the site where King George V stayed to recuperate. The story is as much alive today as it was in 1929 when the centre of the empire moved to this area.

I suspect some people who now live on the site of Craigweil House are not fully aware of the implications of their site. I am also aware that for many people the renaming of Bognor to Bognor Regis was unacceptable as the king had stayed at Aldwick, and visited the area and especially the church in Pagham regularly, whilst he only visited Bognor, it is alleged, for approximately 40 minutes.

Whatever the reasons, we now have a name that to some is a music hall joke, to others a status symbol. However, whatever your beliefs, King George V and Queen Mary did stay in the locality to continue the trend of royal visits, much as Sir Richard Hotham had intended in the 1790s.

DESIGNS ON HOUSE n Pages 64 & 73