Many people will be sad to learn of the death of Sid Wakeham who passed away on 18th August, aged 79.
Everyone knew Sid as ‘Father Christmas’, a role he played in the Sompting Village Morris ‘Mummer’s Play’ for decades. Sid was a founding member of Sompting Village Morris and kept dancing long after the other founding members had hung up their bells and hankies.
I interviewed Sid at his local pub and second home, The Richard Cobden in Cobden Road, in 2004. Looking back on those notes today it can be said that Sid was as dyed-in-the-wool Sussex as any man could be and to use that old, but on this occasion entirely apt, cliché, “we will not see his like again.”
Sid was born on the 30th January 1937 above Claxton’s butcher’s shop in Lyndhurst Road. All his family were born and bred in Sussex. His dad’s family had come from Horsham, including his grandmother who lived to the ripe old age of 104. His father’s family came from Petworth. One grandfather fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.Sid was brought up with singing. His dad sang music hall songs, but his grandfather sang the old folk songs of Sussex that died out so quickly after the First World War. The only songs that Sid sang as a young man were rugby songs. In the late 1960s he was playing rugby at Castle Carey when he bumped into an old friend who was dancing with Broadwood Morris from Horsham. From then on Sid was hooked.
At first Sid and his friends would drive to join Morris sides in other towns but the oil crisis of the early 1970s changed all that, as Sid explained, “When petrol went up to 50p a gallon we thought, ‘we can’t keep going up there, we’ll form a side in Worthing.’” Mickey Sparkes, “an old postman and fisherman down by the Half Brick,” managed to secure the Post Office Social Club in Chapel Road as a practice venue.
In good weather they practised outside. One day an old lady came up to them said “Would you like the Sompting Village Mummer’s Play?” Her name was Mrs Pullenbury and her uncle, brother and father had all performed the play in Sompting before the First World War. She still had the original script and hoped that Sid and his friends would revive the play after a gap of sixty years. They were delighted to do so and indeed so impressed were they that they decided to call themselves The Sompting Village Morris in honour on the ancient play.
Sid with his great beard was the obvious choice to play Father Christmas. “In those days I had to spray it white but obviously that did not become necessary in later years!” Sid remembered Sompting Village Morris were one of the first sides to allow women to join and to dance – “that was our folly,” Sid told we with a laugh. In actual fact, the inclusion of women greatly increased their membership – to over 60 – and their popularity.
By the 1980s Sompting Village Morris were singing all across Sussex. They then started appearing at folk festivals, including Sidmouth in Devon and eventually internationally too. Mrs Pullenbury’s relatives probably never left Sompting village unless it was to fight in the Great War.
Sid recalled that two of the early members, Mike Longhurst and Mike Palmer, knew a number of old folk songs that they taught to Sid and the other members. They also used to go to The Fountain at Ashurst where the old landlord, Len Pelling, knew and sang many old Sussex songs. Soon the whole side were singing their hearts out at the end of a performance. This was especially true at the George and Dragon at Burpham on Boxing Day following the performance of the Mummer’s Play. That is where I first met Sid and the other dancers in the early 1980s. Boxing Day afternoon singing at Burpham remained a great fixture for many years, until the pub ‘gentrified’ and the boozy bellowing of old anthems began to sit rather uncomfortably with the refined diners in the pub restaurant!
Sid had some wonderful memories of Worthing in the 1940s and 50s. He remembered that family members sought to get around wartime rationing by catching and cooking their own food. As well as rabbits, rooks and pigeons were a regular dish. Sid remembered that the family once sat down to seagull but “it was horrible – oily and rank.”
Sid had memories of the war coming very directly to Worthing, including the day bombs dropped close to the family home in Lyndhurst Road – on that occasion a number of Canadian soldiers billeted in a neighbouring house were killed. Despite such incidents, Sid did not really see the danger: “I thought the war as a small boy was brilliant.” On one occasion he and some friends stole some live bullets from commandos stationed in the town. They later threw them on a bonfire, which they thought was great fun. Other children in the town were killed playing with live ammunition – Sid’s life could have ended before it had really begun! But children were far less under parental control during the war, with fathers away and mothers working hard to keep family and home together under trying circumstances.
Life did not get easier for people after the war, with rationing continuing until 1955. Sid remembered that Christmas presents in the late 1940s included an orange and a pen, although the handmade train set that his dad made for him, complete with replicas of Ham and Ladydell bridges, was the very best present of all! People used to make their own sweets and their own toffee – Sid remembered going from house to house to ask neighbours to contribute ingredients.
He was sad to see the end of the old bonfire night tradition in Worthing. For generations, Worthing folk had built great bonfires on the beach, but in the early 1970s Worthing Council banned the old tradition. Many local youths ignored the new by-law and continued to build bonfires, but council bulldozers came along to plough their efforts into the sea. When others persisted and built and lit bonfires on the evening of November 5th, the authorities intervened as Sid recalled: “The last time we had a bonfire on the beach, the fire brigade came down and put it out. That was a shame. They’d stop Lewes if they could.”
Sid was very pleased at all the money that Sompting Village Morris raised for charity – £12,000 in 2004, the year I interviewed him. Sid had a big heart and was never happier than in the company of family and friends. Boxing Day will never be quite the same again.