A few years ago I was asked by the Littlehampton Heritage Group to look into the history of two Littlehampton streets: Pier Road and Bayford Road.
Over several weeks, I did a lot of research and began to compile my findings. However, as often happens, other things took over and it looked like the work would never see the light of day.
With time on my hands, lockdown has allowed me to reassess so much of what I’ve done, from the tens of thousands of live music, automotive and floral photos I’ve either never shared or those that I’m giving new life to, re-edited them with a new eye.
This story of Littlehampton, a small seaside resort on England’s south coast, is not a comprehensive history of the town. Rather, it’s a look at arguably its most interesting area: between the sea and alongside the River Arun.
Although roughly parallel to each other, the two roads are markedly different, with Bayford Road having little in the way of historical interest compared to Pier Road.
Before detailing my findings, here’s some context.
Originally known as Hanton, which evolved into Hampton and eventually Littlehampton to avoid confusion with Southampton.
During the eighteenth century, Littlehampton developed from a small fishing community to a popular seaside destination. It’s not a holiday resort as, bafflingly, there are no hotels in the town. That didn’t stop many notable people including Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley and John Constable spending time in Littlehampton.
The town’s status as both a port and a seaside resort led to economic success in the nineteenth century, with a railway line and even a cross-channel ferry to Honfleur in France being introduced.
The town’s population grew tenfold over the century, from 584 in 1801 to 5,954 in 1901. Littlehampton remained a popular seaside resort in the twentieth century, becoming known as ‘The Children’s Paradise’ in the 1920s.
Today, especially during the summer months, Littlehampton remains a destination for day trippers.
The vast majority come to the town’s two beaches, East Beach and West Beach or to take advantage of its river activities such as boating and yachting.
For a seaside destination, beyond the beach and the river, there are surprisingly few attractions. The most notable being Thomas Heatherwick’s iconic East Beach Cafe, an award-winning cafe, opened in 2007, whose unusual, rust-patinated contemporary design continues to divide opinion. But not with me. Personally, I love it and have probably photographed it more than any other building.
Considering how the designer/architect has gone on to create so many extraordinary building and projects around the world, I still find it amazing that his first ever building is here in Littlehampton.
East Beach Cafe is the one world-class building in Littlehampton. Unfortunately, the promise of a ‘Bilbao effect’ on the town never materialised.
Today, there are some 83 ‘listed’ buildings in Littlehampton. Ironically, East Beach Cafe is not one of them. Of course, many are listed for just one, sometimes hidden, aspect of their construction or history. In truth, few of those listed buildings have any architectural or historical merit.
This is well illustrated when looking at Pier Road and Bayford Road which together have very few buildings that could be deemed to be “of special character”.
On Pier Road, these are numbers 8, 10, 12 and 14, the drill hall and Floyds Cottages (1–5) These Grade II listed fisherman cottages date back to at least 1705.
On Bayford Road, they are numbers 128, 130, 132 and 134 as well as Victoria Terrace which runs from 17–137.
Like much of the town, both roads are very different today from when they were first created. And, just like many places elsewhere in Littlehampton, both currently contain empty properties.
It has to be said Bayford Road is a pretty unremarkable and unloved street. To my knowledge is also the only street in Littlehampton to have two names.
Described to me by one resident as ’welfare street’ because so many living there are on benefits, it has little of genuine interest. Even its best known claim to be “the longest continuous Victorian terrace in England” is both widely contested and difficult to prove.
Running from 17–137 on the west side of the road, there is little of interest among the 220 houses and flats, most of which have been extensively modernised over the years (with most sporting characterless replacement windows, doors and paintwork.)
On the front of No 119 is a small grey sign with the words ‘Victoria Terrace’, but the most interesting feature can be seen above No’s 59 and 61.
Here is a carved terracotta detail that features a portrait medallion of Queen Victoria and an inscription of all the countries she ruled over. Above it is the date 1887 which one assumes was the year in which the terrace was completed. [1887 marked Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, commemorating 50 years on the throne.]
I have yet to find out who built the terrace or why the road was named Bayford.
The biggest building on the road is right at its southern end, although technically it is listed as 90–91 South Terrace. Currently lying empty, this is the former club house of the Littlehampton Sailing Club. As far as I can tell, it’s been unoccupied since around April 2017.
Formed in 1886, The Littlehampton Sailing Club became The Littlehampton Sailing & Motor Boat Club in 1909.
I believe the building itself dates back to 1925, although there’s nothing on the outside to confirm this. LSMC went into administration in 2009 and the club’s assets were acquired in 2010 by Robert and Fiona Boyce who now run the Littlehampton Yacht Club on the west bank.
The Terrace Club, a sports and social club, occupied the building from July 2015 to April 2017.
Prior to becoming The Terrace Club it was known as The 03 Club.
There are two guest houses on Bayford Road, although a resident told me both are now run as halfway houses.
Bayford Road itself is bisected by New Road. The much smaller northern section contains a few retail units including at No 10, Cafe Lusitano, a Portuguese cafe, at No 6, Iberico, a Portuguese food store, a laundrette and a shop selling cleaning materials.
Why the prevalence of Portuguese businesses? To my knowledge, Portuguese fishermen came to Littlehampton as the town once had a thriving fishing industry. According to the Littlehampton Gazette (21 May 2004) “There are some 500 Portuguese living in Littlehampton.”
The most famous resident of Littlehampton however hailed not from Portugal, but Italy. Anita Lucia Perilli was born in a bomb shelter in Littlehampton in 1942, the daughter of Italian Jewish immigrants, Gilda and Donny Perilli, who had recently arrived from Naples to ran the Clifton Cafe in the town. The cafe is no longer in existence having been demolished and replaced by flats.
In 1976, when she was 33, with the help of a £4,000 loan, she opened her first Body Shop up the coast in Brighton. Roddick went on to become a very wealthy woman, a retail pioneer, and a global eco activist publishing a bestselling biography, Body & Soul. The Body Shop went public in the mid-1990s, and in 2006 the company was sold to the French cosmetics giant L’Oréal for about $1.14 billion.
A year later Dame Anita Roddick died of a brain hemorrhage. She was 64. While there is no longer a Body Shop branch in Littlehampton, the company’s headquarters remains in the town.
The Pier As its name suggests, Pier Road is named for Littlehampton’s small pier, officially called the East Pier, which is on the east side of the River Arun.
Littlehampton began to develop as a port as a result of constant silting of the River Arun— said to be England’s fastest flowing river. The prefix of ‘Little’ was probably added to ‘Hampton’, in order to distinguish it from the larger Southampton further along the coast. The expansion of port activities led to a new river mouth being cut in 1735, alongside the building of a wooden harbour. At this time it was also known as Arundel Port.
Of the two piers that were built to fix its position, the West Pier no longer exists, but the successor to the original East Pier is still there, having been rebuilt first in 1860 and most recently in 2001.
Unlike its bigger neighbours at Worthing and Bognor, Littlehampton’s wooden pier is small and apart from some seating, has no structures on it. It doesn’t feature on the National Pier’s Society list as they consider it to be a breakwater rather than a pier.
The Lighthouse A 40ft pyramidal tower with a light had already been built at what became the start of the pier in 1848. This became the rear range for a shorter 26ft tower at the end of the pier, built in 1868. Affectionately known as ‘salt & pepper’, both were demolished in 1940 to prevent them being used by the Germans as navigational markers.
In 1948, the current 23ft concrete tower was erected. The front range is a simple green light on a 10ft pole.
Harbour Park Travelling north from the pier, along Arun Parade, [constructed in 1930] one passes Harbour Park on the right. This small amusement park was originally created in 1932 by Billy Butlin and called Butlin’s Park. It was built on the site of the old east bank fort and windmill.
The Windmill The Arun Mill, one of the largest ever built in Sussex, was for many years a familiar feature of the Littlehampton coastline. It was built in 1831 by Henry Martin a millwright from Bognor, on land leased to him by the Duke of Norfolk.
Note: Much of the land in and around Littlehampton was once part of the Norfolk Estate. What’s more, many of the town’s most notable landmarks were gifted by one of the Dukes of Norfolk. Whilst over the years, large parcels of land were sold off, the Estate still owns considerable land, including, for example, many of the moorings on the Arun in Littlehampton.
In 1832, the completed mill was sold for £726 to William Halsted Boniface, who later added a dwelling house, storehouse, two cottages and various other buildings to the property. In March 1836 Boniface granted a 21 year lease to Robert Canter of Lewes. On 10 January 1840 the lease was transferred to John Woodhams Jr. in whose family the mill was to remain for the next 60 years.
The theatre Located next to the windmill, Harry Joseph opened the Kursaal in 1911: a Pierrot theatre and fun palace. Come WW1 the Kursaal changed its Germanic name [meaning cure hall] to the Casino Theatre before ending its days as a penny arcade. By 1931, it had changed its name once more, this time to The Plaza.
By 1930, the windmill had become derelict and in December 1932 both it and the theatre were demolished, the land was acquired from the Duke of Norfolk by Billy Butlin and work began building Butlin’s Park.
In 1977, Butlin’s Park was acquired from the Rank Organisation by the Billy Smart circus family and renamed Smart’s Amusement Park. In 1994 it was renamed Harbour Park and today is still owned by Gary Smart.
The Oyster Pond Next on the right is the Oyster Pond, which was built in the early 1800s. There used to be profitable oyster beds off the Littlehampton coast and the circular pond was originally used by fishermen up to 1860 to store oysters.
It was then converted to a boating pond in the 1870s and became a popular location for sailing model yachts. By 1913 it was known as The Ornamental Lake, although by 1956 it was referred to as The Model Yacht Pond.
This is also where South Terrace joins Pier Road.
Flood Defences Flooding along the banks of the Arun has always been a big problem for the town, particularly at the harbour mouth and over the years numerous attempts have been made to protect the land, especially on the East Bank. The first Pier Road Wall was completed in November 1918.
Most recently, the area immediately alongside the river has undergone an extensive transformation. The remodelling of the embankment as part of the installation of a new £22m flood defence wall along the Arun’s east bank began in 2014. Officially, it was known as the Littlehampton East Bank Tidal Walls Flood Defence Scheme.
Today, the only building on the new raised pedestrian walkway is a small wooden kiosk occupied by Riverside Fish who sell a range of locally caught fish.
On the right is a row of buildings most of which today are restaurants and takeaways. On the corner of 61 Pier Road and South Terrace is the Nelson Hotel.
Nelson Hotel Starting out as the Victory Inn in 1840, in the last half of the century the pub’s name was changed to the ‘Nelson and Victory’.
In 1897 the pub was updated by constructing a new building around the original structure, incorporating the older building within the new; a move made to avoid a break in the continuity of the licence. With this rebuild came another name change, this time to just The Nelson.
When the interior of the building was having work done to it in the late 1970s, portions of the original walls, still with the painted signs, were revealed.
The Nelson has been closed since July 2017 although at one point plans were approved to demolish the building and replace it with a new 14-room hotel.
Mussel Row This row of 13 buildings were built in 1829/30 by John Peckham Henley and were first known as Henley’s Buildings. Originally single storey watermen’s cottages, they later became known as Mussel Row. Today, that moniker survives only in the name of a restaurant, 47 Mussel Row, formerly The Riverside Cafe.
In 1929, Mussel Row was rebuilt into the present line of cafes and shops. These properties are much deeper than they look because they are built on the slope of an embankment.
On 18 July 1942, Pier Road was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. The raid badly damaged the houses and 8 people were killed.
Further up Pier Road, the next set of buildings consist of an ACF drill hall and a couple of empty shops, including 46a. Most recently this was occupied by Coastal Cycles/The Dutch Bike Store, although originally, it was a tea room.
The Drill Hall The building itself was previously a warehouse and before that, part of the town’s first gas works. It is owned by the Ministry of Defence. Currently, it is used by the Sea Cadets.
Continuing along, where it meets the Harbour Board building, Pier Road now turns away from the river. On the right, occupying No 61, is the Gravy Boat restaurant, formerly The Ferry restaurant.
Then there are a run of residential properties on the right hand side of the road. These end at No 29.
Dinky Doo Diner Until recently, this was the Dinky Doo Diner, but after 18 years under the same ownership in February 2019 it ceased trading due to illness and the premises are now empty. By the way, Dinky Doo is apparently an old term for ‘little and good’.
In March 2019, the premises were advertised for sale at £325,000, althoiugh by May 2019, it was reduced to £275,000.
Once located at Fishermans Quay, the Britannia Inn public house dates from c1800 and was much altered over the years. Like so many pubs in Littlehampton, it was closed in the late 1990s and demolished c2011 to be replaced with town houses as part of the east bank regeneration scheme.
Travel north alongside the river and you pass the Littlehampton Harbour Masters building on your right, before reaching the RNLI Station and the slipway.
The current lifeboat facility on Fisherman’s Quay was built in 2002. In December 2020 renovations were completed on the building including weather boarding the exterior.
Today, the lifeboat station operates two inshore lifeboats: a B-class (Atlantic 85) lifeboat, Renee Sherman and a D-class lifeboat, Ray of Hope.
In 1967, the first ever Blue Peter lifeboat, Blue Peter 1, paid for by donations raised on the popular children’s TV show, was stationed in a garage on the east bank of the river Arun. In 2016, after 49 years, the Blue Peter era at Littlehampton came to an end. The original boat has been replaced three times, funded by subsequent Blue Peter appeals, each boat bearing the same moniker, Blue Peter 1.
Littlehampton has a long history with lifeboats and boatbuilding. For years, wooden lifeboats used to be be built at the now defunct William Osborne boatyard that once existed on the other side of the Arun. Indeed, during the Second World War, many of the wooden landing craft were built in Littlehampton.
From the early 1920s David Hillyard built yachts in Littlehampton. The company continued here until 2009 producing more than 850 yachts.
Walking past the slipway, one passes by the white elephant that is The Look & Sea Centre. Originally opened as a visitor centre complete with a history of the town, a Tourist Office (now closed) and a cafe, despite its prime location, the Look & Sea has never been a commercial success. Today, after being closed since 2018, the ground floor has reopened as Harbour Lights, a fairly nondescript cafe.
Continuing along the river leads you to one of the town’s most interesting buildings: Riverside Wharf. Converted by John Pardey Architects from a group of Victorian warehouses that represented the last remnant of industrial building along the east bank, it is a development of five residential townhouses.
Completed in 2013, the project was the brainchild of Jane Wood, owner of the East Beach Cafe. I’m divided over the visual aesthetics of the conversion. From River Road, I find the retention of some of the original brick and flint facade to be jarring, but when seen from the river the building looks so much better.
Riverside Wharf is almost certainly the most expensive property in Littlehampton.
Continuing along River Road one comes to The Steam Packet, a pub that dates back to the 1840s and has only recently reopened after being closed since 2007. It’s notably for being named after the steamer service that sailed from Littlehampton to Honfleur in France between 1863 and 1882.
A little further on the left, alongside the river is the bigger Arun View Inn, built around 1864. Apart from its location, it is both a fairly anonymous building and pub.
Just before the Arun View is the Ferry Footbridge, known by locals as the Red Bridge. It’s the only pedestrian bridge across this stretch of the Arun. Originally, a swing bridge, it was replaced in 1973 by a retractable bridge so cargo ships can pass through the central span and access nearby industrial areas.
So that’s the story of two of the streets that make up arguably the most historically interesting part of Littlehampton. I will continue to update as and when I uncover new information.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary has turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and most recently, ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople.