New website explores Worthing past and present

Worthing is the largest town in West Sussex, with a population of 111,000. Two hundred years ago, the population was less than 5,000. Fifty years before that it was less than 500.

Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 7:05 am
Worthing Village Voices- Homefield, 1897

It’s one of the fascinating facts you can ponder on the new local history website Worthing Village Voices (www.worthingvillagevoices.org.uk), a site which recalls the days when there was still such a thing as Worthing Village and the seaside town we know today was only just beginning to emerge.

The website has been created by historian and heritage consultant Chris Hare, working with film-maker Chris Evans and web-designer Roland Allen.

Chris was born in Worthing and has lived in the town most of his life. It was while still at school he developed an interest in the history of his town. His first articles on Worthing and Sussex history were published in the West Sussex Gazette in 1987, and his first book, Historic Worthing – The Untold Story, was published in 1991. Since then Chris has written 14 books and booklets and numerous articles.

Worthing Village Voices, is a new departure for Chris, Not only is it a website rather than a book, it also includes what Chris calls “the history of now” – interviews with people who live in the ‘old village’ area of Worthing today, many of whom only moved here in recent years: “I recorded my first oral history interviews over thirty years ago,” recalls Chris, “and since that time I must have interviewed well over 150 people.”

These were older people, telling Chris about their memories of Worthing, or other parts of Sussex, in the days of their childhood and youth. “The people I have interviewed have ranged in age from 66 to 104, with most being in their late 70s and 80s,” Chris explains. “These are people looking back on times gone by from the vantage point of old age. They know that most of their life is behind them and they are reflecting and refining their personal experiences of the past.”

Chris wondered what it would be like to interview younger people, who have most of their lives ahead of them. Their stories would be about the here and now and their hopes for the future, rather than memories of long ago seen through the perspective of hindsight.

“I was particularly curious to find out,” Chris continues, “why people decided to move to Worthing, what they liked about living here and whether they intended to stay. I also wondered how they coped with the covid pandemic and the various lockdowns. It seemed to me that future generations of historians would find such an archive of great interest. Rather than old people looking back, here are younger people describing an experience as it happened.”

The average age of the people interviewed was 41, with most of the couples interviewed being in their 30s. Older people were interviewed as well, including one woman who had lived in her present home for 40 years.

“The older memories nicely contrast with the impression of the newcomers. The interviews cover all sorts of themes, including such diverse topics as pubs and shops, to memories of the 1987 Storm, and even an interview about a ghostly happening.

“As well as the interviews, the Worthing Village Voices website also contains three other sections, allowing the user to explore many different aspects of local heritage and culture. There is an historic slideshow that contrasts old black and white photographs, paintings and drawings with the same view today. I think users of the website will be astounded to see what a picturesque backwater old Worthing still remained in the middle years of the nineteenth century. The urbanisation and assimilation of the old village into the growing seaside town was not really completed until the end of that century.”

There are some striking photographs of Homefield Park, which was laid out in the 1870s. The park was much larger than the one seen today. About one third was built upon in 1970 to accommodate the growth of Worthing Hospital. There was once an ornamental lake that rivalled any seen in the parks of bigger towns and cities. In ancient times this land was a common field, in which each peasant, living the village, would have been allocated a strip of land to farm. As this field was the closest of the four fields to the village, it was known as the ‘Home Field,’ to distinguish it from West, Middle, and East fields.

Worthing Village Voices also incorporates work undertaken for the Worthing Village Heritage Project ten years ago. There is the Old Worthing Street pages, that record the history of all the old buildings of the village that are known to have existed (most were demolished during the twentieth century). “it is a superb piece of exhaustive local history research,” Chris adds, “and all credit should go to Barrie Keech, Mike Standing, and the late Ron Kerridge, who were responsible for all this primary research.”

Finally, there is a section of the website that shows local people learning about the history of this part of Worthing, and includes revealing trips to Worthing Museum and West Sussex Record Office. There is also a film of Chris leading a guided walk around the ‘old village,’ and revealing some colourful vignettes from its past, including the tale of smuggler, William Cowerson, who was shot dead by the coastguard by the Teville Stream in February 1832.

Chris would be very pleased to receive feedback from users of the website – what people liked, what could be improved, what they would like more of. Chris can be contacted at [email protected]

Both Worthing Village Voices and the Worthing Village Heritage Project were funded by grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported by the Sidney Walter Centre, Sussex Road, Worthing.