‘If you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there” runs a well-known maxim. Whether you were there or not, it was a decade irredeemably associated with permissive attitudes and the ripping out of the hearts of so many towns and cities in the name of modernisation, often as a result of dodgy dealings between developers and corrupt councillors. It was also a time of great political turmoil.
I do remember the 1960s in Chichester as I was there – having been born and bred here and it is where I still choose to live. For Chichester the 1960s provided a period of challenge, conservation and culture – and a stimulating time to have been brought up there.
Then, as now, Chichester was regarded as a near-perfect market town with its ancient streets radiating out from its market cross in the shadow its cathedral. It was small (population only 20,000 in 1961) sleepy and took so long to get to from London that its growth had been retarded. It seemed as though the era of 1960s modernism would pass it by. Indeed today’s first time visitors to the city, seeing its streets of well-maintained Georgian buildings and neat parks and gardens, might get the impression that the 1960s had passed Chichester by, but they would be wrong.
Chichester was faced with the same challenges as other places as a result of the received needs to bow to the supremacy of the omnipotent motor car and sweep away whole streets of alleged ‘slums’ and replace them with modern housing. The blueprint for Chichester’s modernisation had actually been set down in the Sharp Report of 1949 which proposed, inter alia, the demolition of 700 ‘slums’ and the creation of an inner ring road and car parks, changes that were supported by some councillors, but feared by others. The seeds of modernism had been sown – they had just taken a long time to sprout!
It was the wholesale demolition of the east side of Somerstown in 1964, when 171 late Georgian artisans’ cottages were needlessly destroyed, that caused outrage, outrage expressed in the national press by no less a personage than Sir Laurence Olivier. Following further losses and the building of the first section of the ring road the brakes were applied, and in 1968 Chichester was chosen as a study in conservation along with Bath, Chester and York, as a result of which it became one of the first conservation areas in the country. The sixties was a time when architecture got a bad reputation and some Chichester developments reflected this, but on the other hand it acquired some new buildings which enhanced the city – the Festival Theatre, the library and the Chapel of the Ascension being three good examples.
Conservation did not mean that Chichester suddenly became preserved in aspic – far from it. Whilst all this was going on it was enhancing its reputation as a centre for the arts with the opening of the Chichester Festival Theatre, with the aforementioned Sir Laurence Olivier as its director, and to cater for its slowly-growing population new housing estates were being built along with two new schools to cater for their young.
Throughout the 1960s the fortunes of Chichester were overseen by Chichester City Council which was made up of people who lived and worked in the city and therefore cared deeply about it, something that the next decade was to bring to an end under the 1974 local government reorganisation.
Most of the research for this talk, and my book Chichester in the 1960s, was carried out at WSRO with the corporation minute books being the starting point followed by the Chichester Observer and other sources in which the collections are so rich. I was also lucky to have access to three seams of previously unpublished photographs by John Iden, John Templeton and Rod Funnell and these feature in both the talk and the book. Much of the material is, naturally, drawn from memory of what was happening around me at the time.