Denton, dishes and elephants – a jazzman’s memories linked to Worthing benefactor

Retired jazz musician George Walker has reflected on his childhood in Worthing and working life in the town’s theatres.

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 4:23 pm

He was one of a number of readers who wrote in following our article about James Gurney Denton and what he did for Worthing all expressing shock and sorrow at the name change from Denton Lounge to Pavilion Atrium.

George said the article jogged many memories about his time at the Assembly Hall, which Alderman Denton funded, and Pavilion Theatre, where the Denton Lounge was built using money from his bequest to the town.

He said: “I have some personal history with the Denton Lounge. Its opening day was the day after my 14th birthday, not that it’s at all relevant.

Denton Gardens as it is today, still a much-loved seafront oasis
Denton Gardens as it is today, still a much-loved seafront oasis

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Denton and all he did for Worthing – has it all been forgotten?

“In the summer of 1962, I had my first holiday job, washing dishes and teacups in the Denton Lounge kitchens, earning a whopping four shillings an hour (20 pence).

“Since those days, the Lounge has been a place of frequent resort when entertainment was available in the Pavilion Theatre – a rendezvous before, or in the interval of, any performance.

“It has itself been a venue for less formal entertainment, thé dansants, jazz sessions and the like. I am pleased to say that I performed there with my jazz band on several occasions, most recently under the aegis of the excellent John Gander, who is a mainstay of Worthing musical activity.”

Denton Gardens on a postcard postmarked 1931

George was born in Worthing Hospital and lived in Lancing most of his life but has now settled in Broadwater.

His father was a carpenter working for Worthing Corporation, based in a depot in High Street, and his parents ran old-time dances for 30-odd years at venues like the Labour Hall in Lyndhurst Road, the Scout HQ in High Street and the Civil Defence HQ by Broadwater Bridge.

George said: “I was a scene-shifter on the Wednesday matinées at the Pavilion and met some of the fading stars, such as Clarkson Rose, Norman Vaughan and the great Denny Willis.

“At the Assembly Rooms, I had two jobs, the back-breaking one of heaving the hall seating from under the stage – rows and rows of three, four or five heavily-upholstered collapsible seats, then arranging them around the wrestling-ring; then the scary one, climbing on top of and across the glass ceiling via a flimsy ladder, to let down a rope on a pulley to raise the huge floodlight into position above the ring. The memory still makes me shudder!”

Denton Gardens in the sunshine in February 2008

George graduated from Cambridge with a languages degree and taught in Chichester, Barbados and at Windlesham House, always playing jazz as a sideline. He then left teaching to play as a full-time professional.

He said: “The first money I made as a musician was from playing very poor flamenco guitar in La Casita, a frothy-coffee bar in Bedford Row. I would take a melamine soup bowl round for tips after every three numbers.”

George was pleased to note Denton Gardens still bears the name of the man who gave the land to the town in 1922.

He ‘set a hare running’ in November 2006 when he wrote a letter to the Worthing Herald, asking if anyone remembered the huge mechanical elephant which gave children rides in Denton Gardens.

Ros Dengate provided this photograph of the elephant ride in Denton Gardens

His letter said: “In the early 1950s, I recall walking with my father in Denton Gardens, Worthing. To my delight, and completely unexpected, there was a large mechanical or robotic elephant walking along the path between the flower-beds.

“It was not lifesize, but big enough to impress my young eyes. The man in charge of it at one point stopped it and opened a big trap door in its side to display the works.

“I don’t recall any noise from it, but half-remember the sight of cog wheels and gearing. Dad and I lingered a while, then left, probably to catch the 31 bus outside The Dinner Gong restaurant.

“There were no accompanying clowns or stilt-walkers, so I don’t think it was anything to do with a visiting circus.”

George had wondered about the memory for years and was thrilled when several readers replied to confirm he was correct.

Ros Dengate from Durrington provided a photograph and remembered feeling ‘rather worried as it seemed quite high up at the time and rolled from side to side’.

The damaged fish pond and bare flower borders in Denton Gardens in 2006

Denton Gardens have been treasured for decades and in 2008, residents fought to save them from the axe when they were proposed as a site option for Splashpoint Leisure Centre.

Many remember the ornate garden pond which was a feature of the northern end of the gardens, now filled in with earth and grassed over.

It had to be drained about 15 years ago due to a serious water leak and was later smashed up by vandals. The fish and other pond life were transported to other ponds in the area and the water was drained away.

The gardens are a seafront oasis filled with colour but in 2006, due to severe water shortages that year, none of the beds were planted up, leaving them barren earth.