The building that stood at the heart of Worthing
Over the past 75 years many of Worthing’s most interesting and historic buildings have been demolished.
Among those that one would most dearly wish to be able to magic back into existence, none is a stronger candidate than the old Town Hall, which for 130 years stood at the northern end of South Street.
It was the most instantly recognisable – and the most-photographed – building in Worthing, and it is a great loss to the heart of the town that it is no longer there.
The building was also at the centre of Worthing’s history.
Until the second decade of the 19th century, the only route into Worthing from the north was by way of North Street, High Street and Warwick Street.
From the western end of Warwick Street, there was a track that ran north to Teville Common. This track was widened into a road around 1816.
Originally called New London Road – and later Chapel Road, after the Chapel of Ease (now St Paul’s centre) – this became the main road into Worthing.
At this time there was no public clock in the town. This was an important omission in an era when most ordinary people did not own watches, and in 1818 Michael Morrah, one of the town’s doctors, proposed that a clock-tower should be erected, using funds to be raised by public subscription.
In the event, so much money was raised that it was decided to build a town hall as well.
The site chosen, which at that time was a garden enclosed by an elder hedge, was owned by the Shelley family, owners of Castle Goring; and in 1825 negotiations began with Sir Timothy Shelley – father of the poet – for the purchase of the land.
The construction of the Town Hall did not, however, begin until 1834. The building was completed the following year, and the Town Commissioners – who from 1812 onwards had met at the Royal Oak in Market Street – held their first meeting there on June 24, 1835.
The Town Hall was also the location for the monthly county court sessions and the fortnightly petty sessions; and savings bank business was transacted there too.
In those days, only the well-off used banks, and the savings bank was available for labourers, domestic servants and children to deposit small sums for safe-keeping.
Below the main chamber was the garage for the town’s fire engine. The fire escape ladder needed to be readily available when required, and was kept leaning against the front of the Town Hall.
Also below the chamber were cells for prisoners and vagrants. In hot weather, the smell from these cells was so bad that the Town Commissioners sometimes found it almost impossible to conduct their business in the chamber above.
Until the mid-1860s, the western side of South Street and Chapel Road consisted of open ground, as can be seen in the earliest two pictures that accompany this article.
The pasture on the western side of South Street was known as South Street Fields. In the middle of the 19th century, fairs and circuses were held there.
From 1866 onwards, however, the western sides of the two streets were gradually built upon.
South Street was already Worthing’s main shopping street, and the new buildings on the left side of the street were shops.
The buildings on the west side of Chapel Road, however, were originally houses, with small forecourt gardens in front of them, and iron railings abutting the pavement.
The old Town Hall remained in use until it was superseded in 1933 by the new building in Chapel Road, after which it became surplus to requirements.
In 1950, the clock tower was found to be in an unsafe state, and the clock was stopped from striking because of the possible effect on the structure from the vibration.
There was a scheme to rehabilitate the building at a cost of £9,000, but this had to be abandoned because the structural defects were found to be more serious than had been anticipated; and the clock tower was removed.
The removal of the clock tower was the beginning of the end. By the 1960s, the interior was in an advanced state of dilapidation, and the rest of the building was demolished in 1966.
Many English towns had attractive old town halls, but Worthing’s had a particular charm and importance because of its prominent and picturesque location.
Is it conceivable that the building could one day be recreated, perhaps as part of a wholesale redevelopment of the Guildbourne Centre and the area round it?
This is not so outlandish a proposal as might at first seem.
The most attractive building built in Worthing over the last 100 years – the Eardley block opposite Splash Point – almost exactly replicates the Victorian terrace that used to stand there.
What a statement of civic pride it would be to recreate the most iconic building from Worthing’s past at the top of South Street!
The interior could serve a variety of purposes. Here is one idea.
Many of the great names of English Literature – including Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy – have permanent exhibitions in locations associated with them.
Nowhere, however, is there a museum that celebrates the life and work of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest – his greatest play and, if we exclude the works of Shakespeare, the most performed and best-loved comedy in the English language – during two months that he spent in Worthing in the summer of 1894; and one of the play’s two main characters, Jack Worthing, is named after the town.
An Oscar Wilde museum, located in a modern re-creation of Worthing’s old Town Hall?
Stranger things have happened...
• Antony Edmonds is the author of Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon.