worthing history


Reading the Riot Act
FIRED UP: Worthing built its first effective fire brigade during later Victorian years and part of it is pictured here, with two of their steam-powered fire engines, circa 1900. The men were mostly part-time  volunteers. One of their biggest tasks was to tackle a huge blaze that destroyed the prestigious Royal Sea House Hotel, opposite Worthing Pier. Only by working all night and most of the next day did they   prevent flames destroying the rest of the town centre.

BRITAIN’S longest-lived reigning sovereign, Queen Victoria, ascended to the throne at the age of 18 in 1837 and died when she was 81. She made only three brief  visits to Worthing, early in her reign – twice by horse and carriage and once in the royal yacht. While on those occasions only small crowds, numbered in their scores, turned out to greet her, the next 63 years were to change everything.
Freddie Feest recalls some of the remarkable things we owe to our imaginative Victorian ancestors.

IN 1837, Worthing was little more than a small fishing village by the sea, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. 
     It had no esplanade to stem the tides and waves often drove shingle right up to the doors of seafront houses, where ladies of title often sat on doorsteps and bathed their feet in the rippling water.
     Smuggling was still rife and murderous battles between smugglers and revenue men were an all-too-familiar occurrence. But by the time Victoria’s “glorious reign” ended in January, 1901, Worthing had become a prosperous seaside resort with a population of more than 20,000, enough visitors to sustain 48 hotels and public houses, with its own prestigious Theatre Royal and its first public library.
     It had even been immortalised in English literary history as the place where Oscar Wilde wrote his most successful play and named its leading character after the town.
     One of Victoria’s first acts after ascending to the throne on June 20, 1837, was to give royal assent to a Bill authorising construction of the London, Brighton and South Coast railway line.
     This was soon to give Worthing a boost that would leave no doubt about its Victorian prosperity. 
     Up to that point, stage coaches using a circuitous route through the Downs, via Steyning, provided the only regular link with the outside world.
     Worthing in 1837 had 1,028 houses and one post office, located in Warwick Street and run by a woman who also sold millinery.  
     At this time, Marine Parade extended only to West Buildings and the few Worthing inhabitants entitled to vote were “rated” at one shilling each for their names being on the electoral .
     There were 474 on the list in 1837 but only 432 qualified to vote, the remainder having failed to pay the shilling demanded.
     To celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, the poor were “feasted in the meadows” on the west side of Chapel Road and South Street and the wealthy at a grand ball in the Steyne Hotel.
     First train of the South Coast Railway ran between Brighton and Shoreham on May 11, 1840, the journey taking eleven-and-a-half minutes. It would be another five years before the line was extended to Worthing.
     Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort paid their first visit to Worthing in 1842, on their way to Portsmouth.
     That same year, one of the two regular horse coaches running between Worthing and London was taken out of service, for by this time horse-pulled omnibuses were operating a shuttle service from Worthing to meet the new steam trains arriving at Shoreham station.
     Worthing’s Victorian era was also marked by episodic violence.
     In August, 1884, severe unrest and violence led to serious rioting in Bath Place, where the newly-formed Salvation Army had started holding regular meetings. On August 20, after violence and bloodshed, magistrate Thomas Wisden called in troops from Preston Barracks, Brighton, and the Riot Act was read on the steps of Worthing Town Hall.
     One major problem our Victorian ancestors failed to address adequately was sanitation. In 1850, Edward Cresy’s report told of the woefully inadequate sanitary conditions existing in the town. This was also the last year the town set up portable stocks in front of the town hall “to chastise slanderous gossips”.
     In 1852, and largely because of the sanitation crisis, Worthing town commissioners were sacked and replaced by the Board of Health. This year also saw the building of Broadwater Bridge.
     The following year saw publication of Worthing’s first weekly newspaper, the Worthing Record. It was able to record how a great hailstorm in July that year damaged crops, glass and property over a five-mile radius, with damage estimated between £30,000 and £40,000.    
     In 1853, building began of a new Worthing waterworks in Little High Street. It cost £30,000 and all the bricks used were made on site from local clay. The water tower was 110ft high and the tank capacity 110,000 gallons.
     Davison School, in Chapel Road, was opened in 1854 as a memorial to William Davison, who founded the Worthing Free Schools.
     Worthing was enjoying the relative heights of mid-Victorian good fortune but others not far away were less lucky. Thirty-one passengers were killed in the first major South Coast railway disaster, in Clayton Tunnel, north of Brighton, and Chichester Cathedral’s dodgy spire finally expired in 1860 and crashed to the ground.
     Undaunted, the inaugural pile of Worthing’s first iron pier was put into place on July 4, 1861. Designed by Robert Rawlinson, who also designed Worthing waterworks, the cost of £6,500 was raised in £1 shares, mostly bought by local residents.
     By 1864, accident and surgery wards had been added to the Worthing dispensary in Chapel Road, while in Crescent Road, the Roman Catholic church of St Mary of the Angels and the Sion Convent were opening their doors for the first time.
      In 1865, an office was built in Rowlands Road to house the commissioners appointed to administer the “new town” of West Worthing. They ran it for 25 years, until West Worthing became part of the borough of Worthing.
     In 1866, fields on the west side of Chapel Road and South Street were sold by the Shelley family for development with terraced houses, leading to development of the west side of Chapel Road and substantial houses in Liverpool Gardens.
     As Queen Victoria gradually emerged from her extraordinarily long period of mourning for the Prince Consort, public leisure at last gained a greater measure of importance in local affairs. Fourteen acres were given by Charles Heather of Lyndhurst Villa for a “people’s park”, which, in 1881, became Homefield Park.
     When Queen Victoria died in 1901, thousands of Worthing people turned out to mourn her passing. During her reign, Worthing had grown and prospered more than during any other similar period in history.

The wind of change

Ballards Mill, Offington Mill or Broadwater Mill
Ballards Mill, Offington Mill or Broadwater Mill

ECO-POWER created by wind farms is hardly a new concept. In a slightly less concentrated way, Worthing was making use of the idea to grind corn for our daily bread back in the 1700s and 1800s.
     By Victorian times, a row of windmills on the Downs tilted their sails towards the prevailing winds from the south west, supported by several others strategically located throughout the growing town.
     The one pictured here was known at various times in its life as Ballards Mill, Offington Mill or Broadwater Mill, which indicates its approximate location. An earlier mill existed in the same area from the mid-1400s.
     To its west, were the better-known mills on the summit of High Salvington and Highdown Hill, while nearer the coast, and close to Ham Road, where their power was boosted by stiff sea breezes, were the two Navarino Mills. Just south of Mill Road was Heene Mill, located near the junction with Grand Avenue, until its demolition in 1903.
     From 1814, there was also a Worthing Mill, in Cross Street, a few yards south west of today’s central railway station. This one was moved lock, stock and barrel in 1881, to a site close to today’s Seamill Park Crescent, where it became known – after its owner – as Isted’s Mill.
     These windmills were all pre-dated by various water-powered mills, one of which existed at Broadwater Manor in 1086. A tide-mill, called the Seamill, or possibly Sea Myll, was a local coastal feature in 1576, a mile to the east of what 200 years later was to become Worthing.