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Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Chichester in 1883

In January 1933, a contributor to Sussex County Magazine set out to describe the Chichester of his childhood.

A compact city of mellow red rooftops

The author, whose name is lost, describes a compact city, squarely surrounded by green fields and undisturbed by motorcars. He remembers a city of mellow red rooftops and walled gardens as seen from the cathedral bell tower. Houses fronting the pavements were reserved and formal with “rusty brown, wire piped blinds with brass beading along the top, and opaque from the outside to keep out prying eyes”. The author’s house was lit by lamps that used to smoke and candles, and they were allowed one candle to go to bed with.  The candles apparently “guttered into peculiar formations called winding sheets” which the housemaid used to say meant a funeral would be held soon.

The memoirs include viewing the world from his upstairs nursery window and their old red brick brick-walled garden with magnolias and a fig tree, sweet williams and nasturtiums. Great care was needed around the nasturtiums as the seeds were used to pickle! The disused family stables were used for storing apples and there was an old Sedan chair in their coach house. The author also recalls a workman digging up a Roman coin in his garden!

Chichester cathedral Sussex

Lions and cattle on the streets

The author recalls being scared of the stone lion on top of the Assembly Rooms, which might come down and catch people at noon, so much so he would avoid going that way. And other hazards of the streets included blinkered horses dressed in “horse cloth” and the cattle that roamed the streets on weekly market day. The best route home for him from Westgate was through the cathedral cloisters and passed the enclosed burial ground known as “Paradise”.

The surrounding villages were pretty remote and only reached by carrier carts, a “stuffy hooded” vehicle that did the rounds two or three times a week. The well-to-do kept landaus (a horse-drawn four-wheeled enclosed carriage with a removable front cover and a back cover that could be raised and lowered), broughams (a horse-drawn carriage with a roof, four wheels, and an open driver’s seat in front), or waggonettes (four-wheeled horse-drawn pleasure vehicle, typically open, with facing side seats and one or two seats arranged crosswise in front). While old ladies and children still travelled in Bath chairs –  a rolling chair or light carriage for one person with a folding hood, mounted on three or four wheels and drawn or pushed by hand.

The fields around the city are recalled as endless green fields and with a network of ungated paths that led to infinity. Huntsdon Common was a haven for the best cowslips in the region and a trip there was a treat. And he recalls one path through buttercup fields that led all the way to Dell Quay.

Chichester Sussex

Elephants and flower garlands

Once a year, Sanger’s Circus came to town, and elephants, camels, circus horses, and clowns on stilts paraded through the streets, with the latter peeping through the windows and causing children nightmares. Other than that, only quiet games were allowed while the adults rested and the city was sleepy most of the day until the toll rang for the 4 o’clock service.

On May Day, school children brought garlands of wildflowers door to door, singing The First Day of May is Garland Day and you gave a penny or a halfpenny for the best one (although they were not for sale). In high summer picnics in a wagonette was the order of the day to the mystical Druid Grove at Kingly Vale or to Goodwood Park. Picnics included a ritual game of “bat and trap”. Autumn was marked by blackberrying, and goose with apple sauce on Michaelmas. On All Saints Day, all the bakers in the city baked cakes covered in a layer of white icing sugar.

Goodwood Race Week was the highlight of the year and the city would be filled with London Omnibuses, hansom cabs (a two-wheeled horse-drawn cab accommodating two inside, with the driver seated behind and viewed by the folk of Chichester with “mild disapproval”), and “four in hand” carriages  (any vehicle drawn by four horses driven by one person). And with these fancy vehicles came crowds of fashionable and exotic people who had travelled down from London or beyond and filled the Chichester streets.

High jinx and volcanoes

Women over 40 wore caps which they took with them to tea parties in wicker cap baskets. After tea, the grown-ups played games such as Vingt et un, Patcheesi and Pope Joan – with counters made of mother of pearl and engraved with Chinese writing.

In summer, the elder generation played croquet, while tennis was increasingly the sport of choice and fashion for the young, although the fashion for tight lacing made this hard for girls. The elderly gents of Chichester meanwhile, played bowls in Priory Park and stood to say their prayers in top hats before they took their pews in church on Sunday. And what about the daring young? Well, they rode bicycles and raced them which was seen as very dangerous!

Finally, and perhaps most extraordinary of all, the author remembers beautiful sunsets caused by the atmospheric conditions created by the eruption of Krakatoa – an Indonesian volcano that had a major eruption in 1883!!

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