How Chichester has changed over the years - with pictures
PUBLISHED: 11:13 24 February 2015 | UPDATED: 14:16 20 March 2015
The discovery of an 80-year-old book inspired Paul Baxter to track Chichester’s changing landscape
What Chichester landmarks would an artist choose to represent the city’s architecture and history? A reliable bet to top the list would be the cathedral, looming large over the city, its spire even visible from the sea. From later centuries, the Market Cross (c1500), the 18th century Council House and the Butter Market (1807, much altered in 1900) would also contend for places in the top ten. All of these sights featured eight decades ago in a delightful book which I discovered when researching the work of a local architect. West of the Arun, published in 1932, contains drawings of local buildings and scenery by students at the City of Chichester School of Art. And about a third of the book is devoted to Chichester itself.
The sights mentioned above may elicit little surprise but the students also hunted out some lesser-known parts of the city. Even in the cathedral they gained access to little visited areas such as the triforium (the gallery above the arches of the nave, choir and transepts). At a time of more relaxed attitudes to health and safety, there are even views from the parapet and from a door in the roof.
Chichester has changed and grown but the book highlights how much has survived the past 80 years. This is no doubt partly due to the efforts of the Chichester Society, whose work to preserve the city’s architectural heritage was celebrated at its 40th anniversary in 2013.
Among the more modest corners of the city to feature, there are two drawings of the steps and archways in the East Walls. Today these walls look little different, apart from the disappearance of the door in the larger archway. A shop in Westgate has also survived, then a confectioner’s, now recognisable as the Old Cottage Indian Restaurant. Its neighbour to the right was not so lucky. It must have disappeared when Avenue de Chartres was driven through Westgate Fields in the 1960s.
Like the shop, some of the grander landmarks have seen changes of use and of name. What is now Edes House in West Street was in 1932 the County Hall. This late 17th century house has been known by various names during its history, including Wren’s House (in the mistaken belief that it was the work of the famous architect).
The County Council was soon to move to the big new building, completed in 1936, behind its former home. Its previous base later served as the County Library headquarters and as the County Record Office. Splendidly restored, Edes House is now used for Council committee meetings and for cultural events and weddings. Though largely unchanged today, it lacks the gates shown in the 1932 drawing.
Also in West Street, the impressive doorway of numbers 16-17 has changed little since 1932 but is no longer the entrance to Oliver Whitby School. Founded in 1702, the school closed at the end of 1949, merging with Christ’s Hospital School near Horsham. During the Second World War the store Morants, bombed out of its home in Portsmouth, moved into part of the school building. When Oliver Whitby’s closed, Morants took over the rest of its site. It is now the House of Fraser department store, although the school motto Vis et Sapientia (strength and wisdom) is still visible on the upper level.
Part of another long-vanished school was located in number 5 East Pallant, a fine three storey Georgian building. Founded in 1924, Chichester School prepared boys for the armed services and universities.
An advertisement from 1932 boasted of two boarding houses and extensive playing fields. Although stripped of its climbing plants, the East Pallant building looks little different today from the drawing in West of the Arun.
As with schools, the number of churches in central Chichester has dwindled. There were once eight parish churches within the city walls. The book depicts the tower of one of them, the tiny St Olave’s in North Street. Another artist sketched the tower of St John’s, not a parish church but a so-called proprietary chapel, built in 1812 as a commercial venture. Both buildings still stand today although they no longer function as churches. St Olave’s is a Christian bookshop and St John’s a concert venue.
The picture of a barn in The Hornet reminds us that, for much of its history, Chichester had strong connections to the surrounding countryside. The links to agriculture had an impact on other senses than the sight. The livestock market ceased to be held around the Market Cross in 1871 but its new location was still close to the city centre. In 1900, the writer William Hudson complained that, despite its attractiveness from a distance, “Chichester is not in itself sacred, nor pleasant, nor fragrant to the nostrils.” He thought that the smell derived not only from animals but from “long-covered old forgotten cesspools” perhaps mixed with the odour of incense from an earlier age when it was regularly used in churches. Whatever the explanation of the stench, Hudson suggested that it could engender a form of depression known as ‘the Chichesters’.
The agricultural character of Chichester found more favour in an account closer to the date of our drawings. R.Thurston Hopkins, writing in 1929, suggested the city was “the common meeting place of bulls and bishops.” He also found the odours more congenial in this “dear, decorous Victorian lady of a town.” Hopkins praised Chichester’s “wonderfully sweet and jolly” kitchen gardens, although he regretted the decline of the corn trade, which had led to the fading of “the delicate bouquet of good Sussex wheat.”
An aerial view of the city in 1935 shows fields coming right up to the city walls. By the 1960s, suburbia had encamped around much of Chichester’s historic core. In the Buildings of England volume for Sussex (1965), Ian Nairn remarked that the outer areas to the north and west now resembled outer Manchester, a comment that was kind to neither city. On Chichester’s southern side, he still found views to gladden the eye, although he feared they would soon be lost. Nairn commented that “a walk down a footpath starting in South Street opposite the old theatre can give one of the most piercing townscape experiences in England.” Here were “open rough fields beside a stream with the cathedral towering above the best preserved section of the city walls.” However well landscaped, the ring road and the schools planned for this area would “taste like American bottled beer after Draught Bass.”
The footpath and stream are still there today, so perhaps Nairn’s predictions of doom were a little overstated. The Buildings of England series of books is being revised, and when the new volume for West Sussex is published, I expect that its authors will still find much to celebrate. Change brings benefits – many local people opposed the closure of the city’s Cattle Market in 1990, but if he were alive today, William Hudson would probably welcome its departure. Indeed, with traffic restricted in the historic centre, he might feel that the contemporary city is kinder to the nose than it was a century ago.
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