Worthing is the largest town in West Sussex with a population now of approximately 100,000 but its expansion from a small fishing village only began in the 18th century when visitors started to come, prompted by the medical profession who were extolling the virtues of sea-water, claiming it could cure virtually all ills.
1890s postcard of Worthing beach
The town really came to people’s notice when George III decided that his delicate young daughter, Princess Amelia, would benefit from a spell at this little fishing village. It was not long after this that other fashionable people began to sample the water. By 1803 there were a number of streets, several fine residences and some hotels and a few boarding houses. Also in that year a special Act of Parliament was passed incorporating a body of Commissioners charged with the duty of paving, lighting, cleaning, improving the streets and establishing an effective police force. The Act declared that the hamlet of Worthing should be called the Town of Worthing. A Local Board of Health superseded the old Commissioners in 1852 and a Town Council was appointed on the incorporation of the Borough in 1890.
Enjoying Worthing pier
These first visitors were wealthy and fashionable people who expected a variety of entertainment, comfortable lodgings and regular dips in the sea. In 1821 The Esplanade was built, stretching for half a mile from Warwick Road to West Buildings, extened in 1865 to Heene Road and renamed Marine Parade.
British seaside piers date from the early 1800’s. Worthing’s pier was the thirteenth to be built in England at a cost of £6,500 by the Worthing Pier Company. Designed by Sir Robert Rawlinson, the Pier was officially opened on 12 April 1862. Although very popular from the start, both with locals and visitors, entertainment wasn’t considered until 1874 when a 9-piece orchestra was engaged to play for three hours a day ‘weather permitting’. Some years later, in 1881, a German band from the Rhine was contracted to play daily and conditions were improved with the construction of two shelters.
The old pier at Worthing
In 1888 substantial improvements were made at a cost of £12,000. The pier neck was increased from 15ft to 30ft and the head was increased to 105ft to facilitate the construction of a 650-seater pavilion.. Viscount Hampden duly opened the revitalised Worthing Pier on 1st July 1889. Worthing’s popularity grew and soon the resort was playing host to busy steamer traffic. As is often the case with piers, disaster was to strike and on Easter Monday 1913 gale force seas once again proved how vulnerable man’s structures can be. A hardy audience of about 30 had braved the weather and settled down to a programme of light music by the McWhirter Quintet in the pavilion. With the storm’s ever-increasing ferocity, the audience and band members finally decided that enough was enough. Clutching their possessions, they hastily made their way to the relative safety of the promenade, where a large group of onlookers had started to gather. At around midnight Worthing Pier could not take anymore and in one violent moment the wooden neck of the pier collapsed into the sea leaving the pavilion isolated, later to be affectionately named ‘Easter Island’. Over a year later on 29th May 1914 the repaired Worthing Pier was re-opened by the Lord Mayor of London.
The Worthing Corporation purchased the pier for £18,978, in 1920. Visitors to the Pier were charged 2d which included admission to hear an Orchestra play in the South Pavilion. Between Easter and Autumn the Orchestra performed at 11am and 6pm every Monday to Saturday and on Sundays at 3 and 7pm. Monthly tickets cost 5/- and 3/- for a two-week ticket. In 1926 the Council demolished the kiosks and replaced them with a new Pavilion to seat 1,000 people. Designed by architects Adshead and Ramsey it was described as being ‘a pleasant rendezvous for residents and visitors at all times’. It soon become the main home of the Worthing Municipal Orchestra, one of the earliest, full time, all-year-round orchestras at a seaside resort.
When war broke out in 1939 the south coast became a fortress against possible invasion. In 1940 drastic steps were taken to hinder any enemy attack by blowing a 120-foot hole in to the Pier’s decking near the South Pavilion. Worthing was used as an embarkation site on D-Day. In 1942 when fears of an invasion had lessened, the Pier became a recreation centre for troops complete with a canteen, library and billiard tables.
After the war the Borough Council put in a claim to the Government’s War Damage Commission to repair the hole in the decking and refurbish the Pier after years of military occupation and general neglect. The Pier reopened in April 1949 but as materials were in short supply, recycled cast iron water mains were used for some of the Piers piles. In 1947 there was only one shipload of green-heart timber imported into Britain and half of it was used as piles for the landing stage.
Oscar Wilde found Worthing such a ‘charming town’ that he spent the summer and autumn of 1894 here writing ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in the mornings and playing with his family on the beach in the afternoons.
In 1897 an elegant ‘birdcage’ bandstand was built west of the Pier. For nearly thirty years holidaymakers and residents enjoyed numerous band concerts; the Worthing Borough Band regularly performed there. In 1907 a shelter was erected between the bandstand and beach to provide seating for promenaders to enjoy the music in comfort. In 1925 the bandstand was demolished and replaced with the Band Enclosure, designed by Adshead and Ramsey, which was later renamed the Lido. The original canopy over the stage was replaced in 1929 by the present domed roof. Over the years interest in band music declined and eventually in 1957 the Lido was converted into an unheated swimming pool. These days the Lido is a family entertainment centre.
In the 1960’s Worthing was a prime venue for live bands including the Who and Eric Clapton. ‘Star Search’ was a talent show hosted by the Pavilion Theatre and was penned as being ‘the most outrageous talent show in Britain’ and had world wide press coverage. Worthing also hosted one of the first few live National Lottery shows in 1995. ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Dance with a Stranger’ were filmed here. More recently ‘Men behaving Badly’ filmed an episode in one of Worthing’s hotels as well as building a golf course on the beach for the filming.
Throughout the 1970’s to the 1980’s Worthing became the place to retire to. It offers the best of coast and countryside, easy shopping and facilities and is geographically flat making it very accessible. When seaside resorts became less popular, with the massive competition of cheap holidays abroad and full package holidays becoming more and more affordable, Worthing became ‘typecast’ as a destination for the elderly.
Snow on Worthing pier
However, this certainly wasn’t true of the 1990’s and the 2000’s. For three years in a row in 1998, 1999 and 2000 Worthing was voted the most profitable town in Britain, by Experian, a global information solutions company. This shows how far the town has developed over the years. Major companies have now founded their headquarters in the town. Schools thrived and turned out high achievers giving Worthing an intelligent labour force, which appealed to major employers. Young families have now moved in and the shops reflect this, along with the bars and café society. Recent redevelopments have seen the building of luxury penthouse apartments along the sea front and further high quality projects are in the pipeline.
Worthing is forever changing, but it has two consistent factors that will never change. These are the sea to the south and the countryside to the north, and it is these two factors that keep the appeal of Worthing alive for residents, visitors and businesses.