A FEW weeks ago I did a talk for West Sussex Archives Society at the County Record Office on the subject of Chichester in the 1950s. As someone who grew up at that time, it was an exercise in pure self-indulgence as it has always been my favourite decade.
Only those who recall Saturday mornings listening to Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites on the wireless, packet of Spangles at the ready, reading the weekly Eagle comic, will have an inkling of the childhood innocence of growing up in that decade.
It began with rationing and shortages as the post-war austerity continued and it ended with Harold Macmillan telling us we had ‘never had it so good’ as economic growth and consumer spending took off.
So much happened in that decade that changed our lives and shaped the future, and for Chichester we have some wonderful photographs that help to bring the memories flooding back.
In this, we owe a huge debt to Harry Guermonprez. He was a photographer by trade, first in Bognor where in the 1930s he managed one of the chemists and photography shops owned by Edward Cleeves and then after the war in Chichester where he set up Chichester Photographic Services.
During the course of his work in Chichester, much of it commissioned by the Observer newspaper, he created a real archival treasure for us in the form of hundreds of glass plate negatives taken in and around the city.
Collecting them, from the loft of his business premises in Whyke Lane, was one of my first jobs when I joined the Record Office in 1975. In those days they did little more than occupy strongroom space as we had no easy way of printing them. Now many of them are digitally scanned and the superb prints provide us with a marvellous photographic record of Chichester in the fifties.
Harry’s images of everyday life in Chichester offer reminders of the city as it was in that very special decade. Tearooms abounded, self-service supermarkets sprang up, household goods multiplied and teenagers spent their time after school listening to pop records in the little booths in Storry’s music shop in North Street. And everyone remembers the overhead shuttle at Geerings drapers shop that whisked your money away to a cashier and reappeared with the change.
His photos of the four main streets show us just how packed they were in the days before pedestrianisation, with four lines of traffic, one parked and one moving in both directions. And there in the midst, standing on his plinth, was the policeman directing double-decker buses round the Cross.
The post-war rise in the birth rate put pressure on schools as Harry’s pictures of packed dining halls and new building work proved. The ‘baby boomers’, supported by the Welfare State and Butler’s Education Act, were already making their mark!
As the post-war economy began to grow, new factories were built and new housing estates appeared. A three-bedroom house could be bought for £2,200. At Adcocks garage in East Street in 1954, a Hillman Husky estate car would cost you £465 (plus purchase tax). Petrol was five shillings (25p) a gallon (4.55 litres).
Community spirit was strong in the fifties. The first Gala Day in July 1955 boasted 30 floats and finished with a torchlight procession. The Coronation fostered the sense of recovery and optimism and the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip in July 1956 brought renewed royal fervour to the city.
But for all the sense of growth and progress, the fifties for me recalls a distant time of innocence and homeliness compared with today. Harry’s picture taken at the finals of the Chichester ‘Ideal Girl’ competition in November 1955 would raise a gentle smile today. The accompanying report in the Observer revealed that the contestants were judged on ‘deportment, neatness of appearance and ability to serve teas’. A different world!
n If you are interested in local or family history, come along to the Record Office in Orchard Street, Chichester, PO19 1DD.
For a special slide and film presentation on The Royal Sussex Regiment, do come to the latest in our series of talks at the Novium, Chichester’s new museum, on Friday, May 31 at 2pm.
For details ring 01243 753602 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org