For those too young to remember, it may seem strange that some of Worthing’s oldest streets and most historic buildings, were demolished in the late 1960s and early 70s and replaced with the Guildbourne Centre.
Not even the person with kindest heart or most open mind could possibly describe the Guildbourne Centre as being anything other than a red-brick monstrosity: a brutalist piece of architecture right in the heart of a seaside town.
Even worse, it is a shopping centre almost devoid of shops, for the Guldbourne Centre has been as much a commercial as well as an architectural failure.
For once you pass through the automatic doors into the centre, you enter the world that ‘business’ Worthing forgot and most of the town’s residents would like to forget.
This writer remembers as a child seeing the then mayor of Worthing, Stanley Elliott open the Guildbourne in 1974. It was said there would be soon be a high- class cabaret restaurant on the first floor and that the top singing stars of the day would be queuing up to perform at such a premier venue.
It never happened. Indeed most of the promises made at that time never materialised. The shopping centre of the future quickly became the embarrassment of the south coast.
Even the playing fountains on the centre concourse were soon turned off forever after local youths realised what fun could be had by squeezing a bottle of washing up liquid into the pool, resulting in vast mountains of bubbles and suds streaming across the enclosed ground floor.
What Was There Before The Guildbourne?
There were three streets – Ann Street, Market Street and Chatsworth Road (formerly Cook’s Row). Market Street was almost demolished in its entirety, only a truncated segment can be seen at the junction with Chapel Road.
The Royal George was named after the pride of Britain’s eighteenth century navy, which sank in Portsmouth Harbour in 1782 with the loss of 600 souls, including women and children.
The ship was being deliberately listed so that repairs could take place – but no one had thought to close the gun ports and water flooded in, causing the vessel to quickly capsize with calamitous consequences.
Presumably the women and children on board were the wives, sons and daughters of the sailors and that happy reunions were taking place as disaster struck?
Could it be that Worthing people were among the dead and that is why the pub was named in honour of the stricken man-of-war?
Over the years, local people used the Royal George as a sort of community hub, where grievances could be aired and protests planned.
Victorian bonfire boys met here, as did Worthing Council employees during the ‘Great Strike’ of 1919 when hundreds refused to work until their wages and conditions were improved.
The strike committee made the leaders of the council meet them in the Royal George and the councillors and aldermen were forced to agree terms with the angry but united strikers. The pub was closed in 1968 and demolished shortly afterwards.
Also in Market Street was another old pub, The Volunteer. At some point, probably in the late Victorian period it was renamed The Dragoon and a very impressive inn sign showing a dragoon in full uniform and helmet swung from outside the pub for many years.
In 1884, when Worthing was convulsed with riots and the Riot Act was read from the steps of the Old Town Hall, mounted dragoons from Preston Barracks in Brighton, with drawn sabres, trotted into town to restore order. Perhaps the name change was inspired by those dramatic events?
Why were the people of Worthing rioting in 1884?
Because they disliked the presence of the Salvation Army in their town and strongly objected to being preached at and told that prayer rather than beer was the key to a happy and settled life.
The Old Town Hall stood where the steps from the Guildbourne Centre into South Street are now situated.
Many people viewed it as the natural centre of the town – a handsome building with a noble bell tower that was designed by John Rebecca, one of the most highly regarded architects of the Georgian and Regency eras.
The bell tower was removed just after the Second World War and the rest of the building demolished in 1966.
Almost without exception, older Worthing people regret the loss of the Old Town Hall more keenly than any of the town’s other demolished buildings.
Ann Street was named after the wife of Edward Ogle, chairman of the Worthing Town Commissioners (forerunner of the council) in the early 1800s.
Ogle, a retired city financier, lived in some splendour at Warwick House (which stood to the north of The Steyne and has since been demolished) and made himself very unpopular with local people when he tried to claim The Steyne as his own private pleasure garden and fenced it off and barred all but his family and friends from walking there.
The locals, accompanied by a band of musicians, smashed down the fences and assembled on The Steyne, defying ‘King Ogle’ (as they mockingly referred to him) who was forced to ‘retreat’ and leave The Steyne to the people and it has remained with the people ever since.
When the celebrated architectural historian, Ian Nairn, visited Worthing in 1965, he found many of the town’s best buildings had already been demolished or were about to be demolished.
But he was much relieved and pleased to find that the old Georgian theatre in Ann Street was still standing.
Although it was no longer a theatre, most of its best architectural features were still intact and Nairn rejoiced to find such a “precious survival” amidst so much destruction.
Five years later Worthing planners gave permission for the theatre to be razed to the ground and its site is now under the Guildbourne Centre.
Not only was the entire northern side of Ann Street demolished and nearly all of Market Street, also lost was the southern side of Chatsworth Road. Here other old Worthing buildings fell to the bulldozers and demolition men.
Had these streets been preserved and restored they would today be the old quarter of the town – Worthing’s equivalent of The Lanes at Brighton.
Instead we have the Guildbourne Centre for which we must thank the wise counsel and foresight of the Worthing planners and councillors of the 1960s and 70s.
More information about old Worthing pubs can be found at www.worthingpubs.com.
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