One of the first women builders, Midhurst’s Betty West tells where it all started

Betty in her garden shed''Pictured by Louise Adams C130588-6 Mid Builder Betty
Betty in her garden shed''Pictured by Louise Adams C130588-6 Mid Builder Betty

AN EVACUEE who started a new life in Midhurst also spent years building a very unusual livelihood.

Betty West became a builder when she was 16, after helping her stepfather, Jim Valenti, who was in the trade.

“I started going to work in Easebourne on Saturdays to help my stepfather,” she said.

“I loved it so much I stayed for six years.

“I have never heard of any other women who were building at that time. It was because then men hadn’t come back from the war yet, so we were doing their jobs.

“My stepfather was short of help. It must have been 1948 when I started.

“We met lots of people and did some absolutely super jobs around the area.”

Betty was born in Peckham, London, but was evacuated to Midhurst when the war broke out.

“I lived in the cinema in Midhurst with my mother’s uncle and aunt,” said Betty.

“My stepfather was a projectionist at the cinema. At the time he also worked for the Cowdray Estate.”

When Betty’s mother came down to visit her daughter, she met Jim Valenti and they set up home in the village just outside the market town.

Betty said: “We didn’t build whole houses, we just repaired things really.

“At the back of the church in Midhurst there is a stone wall. We built that. I suppose it was hard work but I really loved it.

“My stepfather was especially good at stone work – he trained me up with all his skills so I knew what I was doing.

“We had lots of laughs.

“I was a convent girl, so I had had quite a quiet life, but this was great fun.

“I used to have to go and get my boiler suits specially fitted from a shop because they didn’t make them for women. It wasn’t especially glamorous but I did get a few whistles.”

Betty described how she used to travel to work with her brother on a tandem when her stepfather was using the van.

“It was great fun – he used to tell me I wasn’t pedalling enough.”

Betty, who is now 80, now lives in a Heyshott house with a long family history.

“My husband was born in the house next door,” she said.

“We also helped to build some of the walls.

“Now my grandchildren are growing up there.”

After she was married Betty began work in Gillhams shoe shop where she stayed for about 40 years.

“I loved it! I suppose that’s the sort of person I am really. I enjoy whatever
I’m doing.”