Wartime tragedy and community recalled

Wartime damage in Chichester.
Wartime damage in Chichester.

ONE OF Chichester’s worst war-time tragedies is a vivid memory still for Margaret Haylor, just a child at the time of the awful Chapel Street bombing.

Three generations of one family lost their lives.

Mrs Haylor, who now lives in Aldwick, well remembers going to see the Chapel Street site afterwards: “It was only just around the corner from us in Orchard Street. One of our evacuees had been up town with somebody, and so that was a bit of a worry, but she got home alright.”

For the Mitchells in Chapel Street, however, the horror was unimaginable.

Alfred Mitchell was just outside Algiers at the time, serving in the First Army. At a stroke, he lost his mother Margaret, his baby daughter and his grandfather George.

Also killed were his aunt, Hilda Tester and her five-year-old daughter Vera. More lives were lost in St Martin’s Square, nearby.

Alfred’s wife Margaret was spared, her life saved by her weekly routine - a Wednesday afternoon trip to the pictures.

When she got home, her house was a pile of rubble.

Five members of her family - including her 18-month-old daughter - were dead.

Baby Brenda’s shoes and part of her pram were found in Priory Park 500 yards away. For one family, the war had hit home - their home - in the most horrific way imaginable.

Mrs Haylor remembers the older Mrs Mitchell: “We used to deliver eggs to her. She was bed-ridden, bless her heart.”

Even in Chichester, the war was seemingly ever-present: “Every day there used to be about 12 Spitfires used to zoom over. When we saw them, we knew there was going to be a raid.

“We used to watch the dogfights. If a Spitfire got hit, we would be saying ‘Please jump!’ and then you would see the parachute.

“It was awful having people killed. The troops used to live along the road in the theological college.

“Sometimes if they were walking along the road, the Germans would come and try and machine-gun them. It was a sad time.

“But people were together as a community. Everybody helped everybody else. In some ways then there was more of a social life than there is now.”

Mrs Haylor recalls suddenly how the city emptied of troops when the D-Day invasion kicked off.

The prelude was the gliders which passed overhead the night before.

“My dad was in West Street when the bomb dropped on Chapel Street. He had his bike. They were machine-gunning. As kids, we used to look for bullets in the trees outside they cathedral.

“They bombed Tangmere one day, all day long. We sat in the shelters at school. We only used to spend half a day at school because of the evacuees being here. We used to have mornings or afternoons and they would do the other or vice versa.

“But most of the time at school during the war we spent in the shelters. There were no lights in there. But we just used to sing.”

Mrs Haylor’s dad was the city’s first car park attendant, World War One veteran William Walton, a man who went on to become the city’s mace bearer for more than 20 years, a post he combined with that of town crier and hard-working custodian of the Assembly Rooms.

His face is a familiar one in images of civic ceremonies.

He was born, Mrs Haylor believes, in India in 1898. His father was in the army and young William followed suit, putting on his age to serve in the First World War.

“They lived in Worthing then. He worked in a butcher’s shop at 13 and then when he was 17 he went to France to fight.

“When he got there he met up with his father who said he was a ‘little fool’ to come out.

“But he went right through the war. He served 12 years in the army in all. My mum and he were, I think, step-cousins.

“He had known her all his childhood and they were sweethearts. She was called Mabel Paine and she was from Chichester.”

The couple lived in Orchard Street for more than 40 years.