Worthing then and now: For better or worse?

A very wintry Worthing in 1900
A very wintry Worthing in 1900

“Worthing this coming winter looks like being a cold, starved, unapproachable and lifeless town. We have little to look forward to if the Government persists in its attitude of freezing us out of everything that represents our only source of well-being.

“What would we give for a resurrected Cromwell who might say: Get ye gone and give the place to honest men.

“In the meantime we have only empty plates, empty grates, empty petrol tanks to look forward to in the coming empty winter.”

Written by a local newspaper editor in 1947, two years after a Labour Government swept to power, this editorial reflected the bitter disappointment of Worthing residents who had survived five years of war and expected better times.

By 1947, rationing of food was more severe than it had been during the whole period of the Second World War.

Economic austerity was a fact of life for Worthing residents struggling to make ends meet.

To make matters worse, heavy snow blanketed the town in the winter of 1947, and the sea froze over.

People stumbled through arctic conditions to reach offices and shops.

Cuts in electricity blacked out street lights and reduced heating and lighting, in offices and homes, to a maximum of five hours each day.

In the depths of that bleak midwinter a flu epidemic added to the misery and left people wondering if we had won the war, or lost it.

Contrast that picture of life 67 years ago with today.

Then there were few fat people and children died of malnutrition.

Today we are told there are too many fat people and obesity is crippling children.

In Worthing another significant difference between 1947 and today is the amount of traffic on our roads.

In 1947, petrol was strictly rationed for essential transport such as Southdown buses and military vehicles.

People cycled to work and the shops, and roads were quiet; no roar of engines.

The loudest sound on the A27 between Worthing and Lancing, at certain times of the day, was the clip clop of hooves as the horse-drawn milk float returned to the Broadwater dairy after delivering milk in Lancing and Sompting.

Today, every road is chock full of vehicles. Only the increasing use of traffic lights to chop traffic into manageable chunks allows pedestrian and cyclist to cross the nose to tail traffic on main roads.

People shopped locally because they had no other choice. The corner shop flourished.

At a time of strict rationing a nod from the local grocer could send one housewife home with the bacon; a frown could send another back with a few slices of Spam.

Housewives, advised by Government experts, learned to make the most of the meagre foodstuffs they could buy.

After queuing at the marble counters of Sainsbury’s, or Home & Colonial, a little dried egg, dripping and a quarter of mince provided a family meal.

One staple of a British diet still available without rationing coupons was fish and chips. When frying tonight signs went up long queues soon formed outside the local chippy.

Queuing for fish and chips became a social occasion. A time to chat with friends and neighbours: for young men to entertain themselves, and the queue, with songs learned from popular radio programmes – BBC of course.

Romance bloomed in long queues and blossomed walking home with warm packets of fish and chips on dark nights.

One romance, the fairy tale marriage of a beautiful Princess to a handsome Prince, warmed the cockles of the nation’s heart.

The 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth married the Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947.

As the bells of the abbey rang out, they pierced the grey austerity of the year with promise of a new era to come.

Millions clustered round their family wireless set to hear the glad tidings – courtesy of the BBC, of course.

For children, the post-war years marked a time of personal freedom: a time to play in the traffic-free streets, to run across the downs, to swim in the sea or cycle across the county.

There were dangers, of course, but a nation that had survived a bloody war had learned to live with smaller risks.

67 years later experts warn that a generation of children “are being contaminated by a cocktail of addictive computer games, test-driven schooling, increased traffic and an irrational fear of strangers that leaves them unable to play outside”.

In 1947, the law, authority, teachers and parents ruled.

Children were beaten if they broke the rules and beaten again if father found his child had transgressed.

Discipline was strict, and church and school hammered home the basic messages on right and wrong.

Classes of 50 were common in local schools, each child seated in a pecking order that went from the brightest to the least able.

Examinations decided the order. Top marks, top place; bottom marks, bottom place.

The 11 plus exam decided who went to a grammar or secondary school.

Today, there is less respect for authority at all levels. Society has splintered into millions of individual decisions and nobody trusts or respects the pillars that formerly supported the roof.

Should we be surprised if the roof appears likely to fall?

Today, there are twice as many people living in Worthing as there were in 1947.

Towns and villages have expanded, green spaces vanished, and roads widened.

And yet the county is still mainly rural; still full of the natural beauty residents enjoyed 60 years ago.

Today, we take for granted refrigeration, central heating, computers, television, double glazing and global travel.

None of those things existed for the humble citizen in 1947.

Many houses were dimly lit by gas-light. Milk curdled. Bread was always a dirty grey colour. Coal and wood burned in the grate. Ice formed on the inside of windows. The BBC had a monopoly on spoken news and entertainment. People queued to see films at the cinema as they queued for most things. A mystery coach ride from the Promenade at Worthing always stopped at the same café in Midhurst. People died of malnutrition, children suffered from rickets, and in Worthing infantile paralysis had just begun to cripple or kill young people.

In 1947, the average life expectancy for a man was 67, and 71 for a woman.

67 years later, the people of Worthing are, in the main, better fed, better housed, better protected and live 20 years longer than their counterparts in 1947.

The Worthing editor who wrote: “We have only empty plates, empty grates, empty petrol tanks to look forward to in the coming empty winter” would surely appreciate the home comforts of today?

Half starved, half frozen, his chilblained fingers rattling an ancient typewriter, the old editor might contemplate his modern replacement with more than a touch of envy.

Today, we have the material comforts people hungered for in 1947.

But, 67 years later, the dream of a comprehensive health service is under attack.

Churches are closing as congregations dwindle and divorce increases.

The mountain of personal and national debt escalates daily, and global warming has replaced atomic warfare as the current deadly fear.

Is life in Worthing 2014 better than it was in 1947? Or do you think it’s worse?

n Send your memories and photos to James Connaughton, via email to james.connaughton@jpress.co.uk, send them by post or pop into Cannon House, Chatsworth Road, Worthing, BN11 1NA. Telephone 01903 282351.