Midhurst – where time stood still?

Red Lion Street [1944] with A A Holford (boot repairs), now Comestibles, & H C Farne (fishmonger)
Red Lion Street [1944] with A A Holford (boot repairs), now Comestibles, & H C Farne (fishmonger)

I WAS lucky enough to live in Midhurst for several years so I’m often drawn to old photographs of the town amongst the vast collections here at West Sussex Record Office.

Our collection of more than 250,000 photographs, prints and drawings includes a series of images captured by Frederick Goldring during the 1930s and 1940s.

When I look at his photographs of Midhurst, I’m struck by how little the town has changed. The road system is still pretty much the same and most of the buildings have retained their unique character. But how true is it to say that time has stood still?

In fact, inside each of the shops that line West Street, Red Lion Street, Church Hill and North Street, much has changed. For one thing, there were more butchers, bakers, grocers, fruiterers and fishmongers than we see today. A quick glance at the Kelly’s directory of 1938 shows there were at least six butchers and six fruiterers for instance.

Shopping habits were very different back then. People bought their fresh food from small, family-run businesses in the heart of town. There were, after all, no supermarkets and, without the modern convenience of fridges and freezers, people tended to buy ‘little and often’.

And people speak very fondly of these shops. In a book published by the Midhurst Society, local resident Jennie Chevis said: “At the age of four, I would do all my mother’s shopping in West Street. She would give me a basket and a shopping list and a purse and I would be marched down the road and I went to all the shops in West Street. They all knew me and I would give them the basket, list and money, and they would wrap everything, put it in my basket, put the change in the purse and off I would go to the next shop.”

Children of the 1940s describe Maides’ toy shop in West Street as a ‘treasure trove’. With its dimly-lit atmosphere, distinctive smell and low tables stocked with every conceivable toy, the shop was irresistible to a child lucky enough to have a few pence to spend on the way home from school. And of course there were the sweet shops, like Budds in Bepton Road or Ewens on Church Hill, which sold ice creams and had row after row of glass jars full of delicious treats.

The town supported an array of other businesses too, some of which are still to be found today. There were watch and clockmakers, drapers, tailors and outfitters, opticians, chemists, newsagents and tobacconists, boot and shoe repairers, chimney sweeps and coal merchants.

For gentlemen in need of the ‘short back and sides’, they could visit one of several hairdressers and pay in the order of tuppence (2d) for a shave and four pence (4d) for a haircut. One of the salons was on the northern side of West Street – H C Wright and Daughter – in the shop now occupied by The Real Flower Company. Like many hairdressers of the period, they sold tobacco too.

Of course the pace of life was slower in some respects – the shops were closed on Wednesday afternoons and there were very few cars and lorries on the roads. But there was plenty going on and these shops were a hive of activity, sometimes opening late into the evening.

When I hear people reminisce about the shops of the 1930s and 1940s, I often wonder if I will feel the same nostalgia about the businesses of today. Surprising as it may seem, I just might. When I think of Jefferson’s butchers in West Street and Comestibles delicatessen in Red Lion Street for instance, both of which source their food locally and provide an outstanding service, I’m reminded that there is still a glimmer of the days when small independent shops ruled the roost. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of them.

n West Sussex Record Office will be holding an open day on Saturday from 10am-4pm; visit our website for more information at www.westsussex.gov.uk/ro or contact us on 01243 753602.