It’s August 1915 and the country is two years in to the War To End All Worlds.
Down in Sunny Worthing, however, there
is still a lot of entertainment going on. Page upon page of the Worthing Gazette is dedicated to fulsome reviews of the latest offerings at the Dome, the Picturedrome, the Winter Hall, the Dome Gardens. Here you can watch, if the fancy takes you
(and apparently he plays to packed houses) Mr Philip Ritte and his ever popular Concert Party. Or over in the Dome Gardens, there’s the E|ysian Pierrot Party for your delectation and delight. One night was billed as Topsy Turvy Night when
the gentlemen dressed as ladies and vice versa. Our ancestors knew how to enjoy themselves – despite the fact that, for every ticket bought, an “Amusement Tax” had to be paid. Presumably if the audience was not amused they could demand their
I am now almost finished (just 24 more pages to go!) the first part of my newspaper indexing task for the Great War Project, which is to record all
the war-related events recorded in the Worthing Gazette over the four months of July to September 1916. I know what you are thinking – what has Mr Ritte, with or without his concert party, got to do with the War? And did the Topsy Turvy Night,
whether or not pierrots were involved, contribute to the war effort in any way?
OK, I admit it, I find it very, very hard to concentrate solely on the task in
hand when there is such a wealth of wonderful snippets of information to be gleaned from these yellowing pages.
Here’s a typical heading “A BOY AND
EGGS”, with beneath it the quite tantalising sub-title: “What the policeman saw through the hedge.” There follows a long column reporting how nine year old Edmund Butler was hauled before the court for stealing a couple of chicken’s
eggs, fresh from the coop. His mum was fined 5 shillings for his misdemeanour (that's 25p in today’s money.)
Dozens of people
find themselves similarly at odds with the law for failing to observe the regulations against showing a light after dark. One poor mother explained to the court that she had had to light a candle in order to give her child some cough medicine. No
mercy for her: a ten shillings (50p) fine was meted out.
The advertisements are every bit as fascinating. One local dentist is keen to prove his credentials. Not
only can he promise “painless extractions” but also the supply of “first class artifical teeth from £2 and 2 shillings a set “as supplied to HM Expeditionary Forces.” I imagine them all going "over the top" with their false
teeth gleaming. Then there’s the quite amazing Budden’s Skin Ointment which “destroys every form of Eczema, acts like a Charm on Bad Legs, is infallible for Piles, cures Ringworm in just a few days, and removes the most obstinate Eruptions
and Scurvy.” All for 9 pence a box!
Then just as I am chortling away, the real news hits home. I’m transfixed by the story of 20 year old Private
Donald Turnham - “A Noble and Worthy Soldier” says the newspaper headline - who died in action in France on 21st July 1916. In a letter to young Donald’s parents, his platoon commander, one Lieutenant Lumsden wrote: “The
loss has been a truly grievous one for me, your son being not only a worthy and noble soldier but one of the finest men in my platoon. He was a man who played the game. I wish I had more men like him.”
I have always loved words. Stories, poems, speeches, those little verses in birthday cards, letters – yes, especially, letters. It’s because I love words that I write this Daily Blog. I would write it even if nobody
was reading it (though I am very, very glad you are!) Words can sell a box of ointment, record a court hearing, review a concert performance. At their very best, coupled with compassion and understanding, as Lieutenant Lumsden knew, they can do
so very much more.
I don’t know who Lieutenant Lumsden was, and, yes, it all happened such a long time ago - very nearly a hundred years ago. But how
I admire that man who, in the midst of War, took the time to write such beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate words of comfort to those poor, despairing parents who had lost their lovely boy.