“A small agricultural and fishing hamlet of lesser importance than the neighbouring village of Broadwater” is how Worthing was best described pre-1800, or at least, according to the Victoria County History. No church, no market, and with land split across several different manors and lords, Worthing sometimes does not even feature on the County’s oldest maps! Today, Worthing is a thriving, populous coastal town, being the second largest in the County.
How did Worthing emerge from a tiny hamlet to become a borough of 100,000 people in less than two hundred years? In today’s blog, we’ll go on a quick tour at Worthing through the years. From its early days as a tiny hamlet, to the beauty of the Georgian seaside resort, through the difficulties of riots and epidemics, to renowned market gardens and nurseries, and finally to the impact of war on this everchanging town… There’s been a few ups and downs throughout the centuries!
Worthing In Film
As part of West Sussex Unwrapped, a multimedia project in collaboration with Screen Archive South East, the Record Office hosted a special live talk with Dr Frank Gray, Director of Screen Archive South East, and Martin Hayes, County Local Studies Librarian, on 12 April 2022.
The talk explores the history of Worthing in West Sussex through unique film archives held by Screen Archive South East, with insights from Martin Hayes whose knowledge of the town’s history is extensive. Watch below!
Worthing in the Archives
Worthing appears in the Domesday book and is described as a small fishing hamlet in the mediaeval era. It is perhaps surprising to consider Worthing as one of the smaller and less important settlements in West Sussex.
What changed? With the trend of travelling to the seaside and natural spas for curatives, visits from Princess Amelia in 1798, Princess Charlotte in 1807 and Princess Augusta in 1829 helped establish Worthing as a significant resort. By 1803, with its population sitting at 2,500, it was no longer appropriate to call Worthing a hamlet and it was awarded town status. This allowed for the beginnings of local government to be formed. Finally, in 1812, Worthing had their own chapel, St. Paul’s, and parishioners no longer had to travel to Broadwater for services.
Worthing built up its reputation as a seaside resort throughout the 19th century. Whilst its heyday was considered to be between 1800-1830, the town continued to grow far beyond these years, expanding into other ventures like market gardening. The town hall was built in 1835 and by 1845 the town had a rail link to London. The rail link ensured that, by 1880, Worthing had amassed a population of 10,000 people. With this growth came theatres, parks, cinemas, a grand library and – of course – seaside amusements.
However, the town’s quiet seaside reputation – promoted as an alternative to the faster paced Brighton – was threatened at various times throughout the 19th century. First, in 1832, a smuggling endeavour for 300 kegs of spirits ended with officers firing on the fleeing and largely unarmed group. The shooting resulted in a fear of civil unrest and led to two years of military occupation in the area. In 1850, the deaths of eleven local fisherman during a failed rescue attempt in a storm led to the town’s people subscribing to maintain the first lifeboat. In 1880, the Salvation Army and the Skeleton Army provoked several riots across town, the subject of a previous blog here.
But, one of the biggest threats to tourism in the idyllic seafront town? Arguably, it was seaweed.
The rotting and stinking seaweed was somewhat a perpetual thorn in the side of the Town Commissioners, who at one point in 1828 ordered proceedings against anyone caught dumping ‘seaweed in heaps’ on the beach. Why they believed someone would go to the effort of collecting and throwing seaweed across Worthing beach in the dead of night is somewhat of a mystery. The banning of collecting and using the seaweed, which had long been used as fertiliser for nearby land, certainly did not help matters. The stench, as bad as it could be, was made worse by the discharge of untreated sewage waste into the sea.
Not the greatest look for a budding seaside resort.
Still, the town was the fastest growing in the county, and continued to be a popular tourist destination. It received its Royal Charter in 1890, becoming the Borough of Worthing. With this, the Borough absorbed the neighbouring areas of West Worthing and Heene, and the new Council elected their first Mayor – Alfred Cortis.
This significant step forward and the new council would soon be tested when, in 1893, an outbreak of typhoid struck.
The final decade of the 1800s saw the town’s reputation as a health resort suffer badly and some would argue it was something Worthing never quite recovered from.
In 1893, there was a drought which led to a search for a new water supply. When workman accidentally hit a supply of water that was best described as of dubious quality, sure enough, a few weeks later in May, the first cases of typhoid were reported.
It’s not known exactly how many of Worthing’s residents were infected or died, but it was estimated that one in sixteen of the 16,000 strong population were infected, with at least 188 deaths between May and November that year, 100 of which occurred in July. However, it was a very localised outbreak, with notices calling attention that West Worthing and Heene were utterly unaffected. This was due to their water supply being from a separate source to Worthing’s. Newspapers are a fantastic resource for this time, giving eyewitness accounts, and criticising the ‘exaggeration of events’ such as midnight mass burials to hide the extend of the epidemic. How accurate these reports and critiques are, however, is up for debate.
The Town Council had to act very quickly. Following a bad mistake in announcing the typhoid epidemic ‘over’ before properly dealing with the infected water supply, the town’s sewers were improved later that year.
However, the town’s reputation as a health resort had been wounded. Newspapers across the country reported on the epidemic, even ones as distant as the Flintshire Observer, who wrote:
The authorities at Worthing are doing all in their power to prevent any recurrence of the disastrous outbreak of typhoid fever which so shattered the towns prospect and prosperity. During the past quarter no deaths have taken place from this appalling complaint, and only two cases of typhoid have occurred. The water supply is now as pure as that of any town in the Kingdom, and the danger has practically vanished. Although the fears of the public are not easily allayed, and the time may yet be far distant before Worthing regains her reputation as a health resort, the future of the town cannot but be fortunate.Flintshire Observer 19th April 1894
This was perhaps an optimistic take on the situation. For at least two decades afterwards, the economy and status of Worthing flagged, not helped by a storm in 1913 which wrecked the pier, followed the year after by the war. The tourist economy was becoming increasingly fragile, though travel links to London and Brighton, and profitable market gardening industry, ensured that the town would not fall by the wayside.
The Market Gardens
The relative decline of Worthing as a seaside resort seemed to coincide with the growth of the other source of income of the town – being a centre for market gardens and glasshouses. From the 1850s until the 1930s, the industry thrived, with the main crops being grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and chrysanthemum flowers. By the 1930s, there were around 250 separate growers with around 1,500 employees.
Yet, the success of the market gardens in many ways contributed to their decline. Unable to make time and space for crop rotation due to demand, the quality of the soil degraded; a problem which was expensive to fight. Competitors on the continent came up with more efficient methods of growing crops, and years of recession in the 1890s and inter-war period impacted the businesses hard. After the Second World War, the glass-house crops industry declined further. Worthing’s ever-growing population needed somewhere to live, and land became in high demand for building new neighbourhoods. By the 1970s, many of these once thriving businesses were no more, but records still exist bringing back memories of these businesses and the families who ran them.
Worthing in the 20th Century
With the coming of the 20th century, Worthing continued to grow. The town’s library, museum and several cinemas opened before the outbreak of war, and some remain in the town to this day.
Politically, Worthing underwent some interesting developments too! Ellen Chapman, a long-time suffragist, became a member of the council in 1910, before women could even vote. She continued to be something of a trailblazer, becoming Worthing’s first female mayor in 1920. Ellen had previously been vetoed from the post in 1914, due to the perceived inability for a woman to lead a town during war time. She would later go on to represent Broadwater as one of the County Council’s first female councillors (the other, Evelyn Gladys Cecil, represented Bognor).
In 1933, the Borough managed to re-elect Charles Bentinck Budd after he announced he was not an Independent candidate, but rather a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). This fact did not go down well with both the Council and many Worthing residents. A series of fights – the so-called Battle of South Street – by the Pier ensued after the BUF held a rally in the town. The clash resulted in the BUF never returning to Worthing.
More than 600 men died during the First World War and over 400 in the Second, and like many towns and villages across the country, Worthing felt the loss of so many. Post 1945 development led to huge changes in the layout of the town, both in terms of new housing estates and new roads, although the demolition of some of the town’s oldest buildings, remains a contentious issue to this day.
After 1945, national policies were put in place to encourage business growth. Worthing benefitted from these and new trading estates were established such as Broadwater, Dominion Way, Goring, Hambridge, Lancing (Brooklands) and Meadow Road (East Worthing). Many new businesses were established, or opened premises, in the town, particularly during the 1960s, including Beechams (now Glaxo Smith-Kline), Daewoo cars, Singer Link-Miles simulators and B&W (Bowers & Wilkins) Loudspeakers. Their facilities and products were photographed by award-winning Walter Gardiner Photography and some can be seen on WSCC’s West Sussex Past Pictures website.
Worthing has continued to grow, providing employment and homes for many, and remains one of the largest and most important towns in the County.
Other online resources worth checking out can be found at both Record Office and Library sites such as:
- West Sussex Learning Resources (Particularly handy for WWI and WWII) http://www2.westsussex.gov.uk/learning-resources/LR/learning/learning_resources.html
- Worthing: a Local Studies Guide: https://arena.westsussex.gov.uk/web/arena/localstudiesguides/worthing?p_p_id=56_INSTANCE_Mbks3hAMRDZM&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=normal&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-3&p_p_col_count=4
- West Sussex Past Pictures – Library and museum’s database of over 13,000 images: http://126.96.36.199/pastpictures/
- West Sussex Record Office Online Catalogue: http://188.8.131.52/searchonline/