It’s fascinating to look at old photographs of Midhurst and imagine yourself wandering around the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of a bygone age.
The obvious difference from a century ago, of course, is the amount of traffic on the roads.
Charles White’s view of North Street in the early 20th century is striking for the absence of traffic and, by modern standards, the rudimentary road surface.
But many of the buildings are easily recognisable to anyone who lives in Midhurst today.
What differs considerably is how those buildings are being used. So much has changed, even in the past 50 years.
In the book Midhurst in Living Memory, Jennie Chevis recalled: “Midhurst had every shop that anyone could want, so nobody had to leave town to do their shopping.
“It had butchers, bakers, greengrocers, ironmongers, grocers, clothes shops, antique shops.
“All the shops were owned by the people who ran them, and most of them lived above the shop in a flat. This was before people had cars.”
One of the businesses was Pescod and Son, the ‘high-class’ grocers located on the east side of North Street in a shop now occupied by the British Heart Foundation.
In one of the views shown here, you can see the shop on the far right-hand side of the picture and there are staff posing in the doorway.
John Holland worked there as a youngster and recalled what went on.
He said: “Practically all the goods we sold were loose. We had to pack flour, sugar, all the spices, dried fruits – everything came in huge boxes. We had a machine out the back of the shop to put currants and sultanas and things through to get the stalks off.
“At the back of the shop was the ‘smoke hole’ where we smoked bacon, not for our own use but for farmers and people who killed a pig.”
And it was hard work too: “Opening hours were 8.15 until six o’clock on a Monday and Tuesday, 8.15 to one o’clock on a Wednesday because it was half-day closing, 8.15 to seven o’clock on Thursday and Friday and 8.15 to eight o’clock on Saturday.
“But I didn’t finish directly the shop closed because all the provisions had to be put down in the cellar, and the shop cleaned ready for next morning. And often on a Tuesday night it would be even later because Pescods delivered right out to Lodsworth, Lurgashall, Iping, Stedham, Harting and miles around.”
One building that has completely disappeared is the old Public Hall. It was built in 1882 and a large clock, paid for by public subscription, was added to the façade. It was a red-brick, Victorian-style structure, taller than most of the buildings around it, and had a very distinctive spirelet. The hall inside was 70ft by 35ft and could seat 700 people.
The Public Hall is probably best remembered as a cinema. The first moving pictures were shown there on December 30/31, 1896 when Miss Maggie Morton brought her production of Blue Beard to Midhurst. But it wasn’t until about 1910 that there were regular film showings.
The Midhurst Times of March 28, 1913 declared: “Moving pictures are quite a craze in almost every town and now Midhurst is possessed of that sort of entertainment.
“Last evening was the initial show of a series of Gaumont films... the pictures were highly appreciated by a large audience.”
Local resident Andy Robertson recalled: “In my day, and I was born in 1927 and started going to the cinema when I was nine or ten years old, it was owned or rented by Arthur Scrase, who used to officiate as a DJ, always in a black tie, all gravy-stained.
“His wife used to sit in the little cubbyhole where she took the money. Arthur used to switch on and then nip into the Horseshoes or the Angel, and if the film broke down, as it often did, he had to be sent for, all stamping or slow-hand-clapping, and then we’d get our money back.”
By all accounts, it wasn’t always the most comfortable of viewing experiences, either. Customers made do with rows of chairs and the heating system was hopelessly inadequate.
Bryan Trusler spoke about the place with mixed feelings: “We used to call the cinema the ‘flea-pit’ and I can remember that sometimes we had a job to see through the mist of smoke. It was awful because everyone smoked then.
“I used to go on Saturday mornings to the matinees. There were lots of cowboy films, never any sight of blood, no-one got killed, but they were great fun. We used to pay 4d to sit in the first four rows and would come out with a stiff neck because we were looking up at such a funny angle.
“Sometimes we got in for free because the toilet window opened out on to an alley and one boy went in and paid and then two or more went in through the window.”
After the war, the cinema was renamed the Orion and times could be good, as in 1958 when The Bridge on the River Kwai played to full houses every night.
But television had a huge impact on audiences and the cinema eventually closed in 1962.
Sadly, it was demolished in 1966 to make way for a supermarket – initially an International Store, later renamed Gateway, then Somerfield, before passing into the hands of Tesco.
But we’re fortunate that so many old buildings in North Street have survived and that there are local residents who care deeply enough about the town’s history and architecture to fight for them.
n You can obtain a copy of Midhurst in Living Memory from the Midhurst Society.
Please visit their website at www.midhurstsociety.org.uk for details.
West Sussex Record Office has a number of illustrated talks coming up:
The Royal Sussex Regiment at Loos and Gallipoli 1915 on September 29, ‘Tales from the Rails’ – stories from the days of steam on October 27, ‘A Peep at the Pixies’ - exploring the life and literary archive of Anna Eliza Bray (1790-1883) on November 24, Screen Archive South East – Developing and Preserving the Screen Heritage of Sussex on January 26, 2016.
Tickets cost £7.50 (advance booking essential). Please call 01243 753602 to book and pay, or visit www.westsussex.gov.uk/ro for more details.
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