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Alan Woolven of Horsham

Alan Woolven

Alan started out playing the piano and accordion in local bands, but his life changed dramatically after a tragic incident on Picts Hill in 1945...

I was born at 78 Bishopric, Horsham in 1930. My father was a train driver, operating steam trains on local routes including the old Downs Link.

When I was five, I started playing the piano. My father was a pianist but was never taught properly, so he was keen for me and my brother to learn. I was tutored initially by Marjorie Monk, then by a brilliant musician called Stan Redford, the organist at Warnham Church, until he was called up during the war.

One night, my parents took me to watch Mrs Leighton's Accordion Band and asked if I’d be interested in trying out. I was excited by the idea, so they found an accordion and I joined the band. During the war, we became a resident band at The Odeon in Horsham, playing every fortnight on a Friday evening. We didn’t receive any money for playing, but were treated to a fish and chips supper and that was the highlight for me. 

After a while, I played my first solo, Temptation Rag and a few weeks later I performed Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5. For a while, I played more accordion than piano, although I was progressing as a pianist under the tutelage of Stan Sutton, who was choirmaster and organist at St Mary's and a teacher at Collyer’s.

A splinter group called The Serenaders was formed from the accordion band and we played for soldiers at army camps. We were all children, except for the pianist and drummer. We often performed for Canadians based at Winter Gardens in North Street and at the soldiers’ base at Denne Park. 

The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was set up to entertain the troops. Well known entertainers and singers including Max Bygraves and Vera Lynn would perform as part of the war effort. My mother, who was involved in organising The Serenaders, was approached by ENSA, asking if I would play the accordion to troops. I was given time off school, so I was happy! At the time, I attended Victory Road School, which burned down in 1940. 

I loved playing for the troops. I played on Christmas Day and Boxing Day at the Canadian hospital in Roffey, after the soldiers had been badly hit at Dieppe. As usual, I wasn't paid any money but the soldiers would give me pies, chocolate and sweets. I was thrilled, as we didn't have much to eat during the war as everything was rationed.  If you lived further than three miles from a venue, you’d be picked up by an ENSA truck. But anyone living closer had to ride their bicycle or walk, because of a shortage of petrol. I remember the top of bicycle lights were painted black so that any German aircraft overhead couldn’t see you.

On 17 March 1945, I cycled to Southwater Village Hall to play for Canadian troops with The Serenaders. The concert finished at about 10:30pm and me and my mum were among the last to leave. We rode home, down Picts Hill where The Fox and Hounds pub was (now The Boars Head). You didn't have things like crash helmets back then.

We were passing the pub when my mum hit a Canadian soldier, who had left the pub to go back to camp. He was so drunk that he’d collapsed in the road. She hit her head as she was thrown backwards, just in front of me. A Canadian truck coming along the Worthing Road stopped and they took my mother to Horsham Hospital, but she died from the bleeding before we even arrived. She was 40 and I was 14.

I did blame myself for a time, as she was out that night because of me. That was the end of The Serenaders and I haven't played the accordion in a band since. However, a few months later, I performed an accordion solo on Carfax bandstand on VE Day. Everybody in town knew what had happened, so there was a lot of support for me. It was an emotional day. It was hard, but I did it because my mother would have wanted me to.

Before mum died, I won a scholarship to technical college. However, there were concerns that working with bricks and mortar was damaging my hands and affecting my music. So, I left college and instead became a hairdressing apprentice at a salon in Horsham. 

I met a girl called June Garman at a Drill Hall dance when I was 16. Her father was leader of the Horsham Borough Band and her brothers played the cornet and trumpet. One night, there was a talent competition at the Drill Hall and the prize was £5, which was a lot of money for a boy my age. June’s older brother was competing too. We both played and he finished first, but the best three all went into a grand final and I just snuck in. I decided to play a different piano piece in the final; the Warsaw Concerto. I won first prize, beating June’s brother, but her father was not happy! I won't repeat his words, but he thought it was a fix! The judges were the renowned trumpeter Freddy Woods and saxophonist Jim Petts. As it transpired, Roy Garman went on to become a professional trumpet player. 

I was called up for service and after months of training became a wireless operator at RAF Coastal Command. I can still remember Morse code, which I learned at Compton Bassett. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I was involved in musical concerts at RAF stations all over the south. I would often perform on the same bill as another accordionist, Jack Emblow, who later recorded music for TV programmes including Last of the Summer Wine.

I married June when I was 20. We moved into a single room within a house in Horsham and life was hard. I was studying to become a concert pianist, which I eventually gained from Trinity College, London. June helped me with the written work and exam preparation, which I wasn’t good at. To gain my certificate, I played Bach, Mozart and a Schumann piece which was 36 pages long. I played it from memory! To help supplement my hairdressing money, I would enter talent shows. There was a big one at Butlin’s and first prize was a week’s holiday, which was great for me and my family!

When the Korean War started, I was recalled as a wireless operator. June thought it was the end of the world. She didn’t think she would ever see me again! I was stationed in Northwood, the headquarters of Coastal Command, and then Gibraltar. But once again, my time in the RAF was defined by music. 

When I was de-mobbed, I returned to Horsham, now living in a flat on Station Road. Then, in 1956, I opened my own hairdressers near the iron bridge on East Street. I was busy right from the outset. One day, an Italian customer told me about a relative of his who was a hairdresser in Naples and wanted to move to England. I agreed to be his sponsor, as I needed an extra pair of hands. He couldn’t speak a word of English and had never seen electric clippers. But he was a dab hand with a cut-throat razor! When I decided to move on from hairdressing, I had two shops and the Italian continued at one of them. The Morrone family still cut hair in Horsham today.

I was reunited with a school friend, Charlie Berwick, when he came to fit floor tiles at my house. We started chatting about flooring and there seemed to be a business opportunity, so we became partners. He taught me about flooring and we did very well, but had different ideas for the direction of the company. We went our separate ways on good terms and remained friends until he passed away. Berwick's is still going as a family-run business whilst my son is still at the company I formed, Supafit Flooring.

I established Supafit with two partners, one a flooring fitter and the other a carpet fitter. We started out on East Street and later the business moved to Roffey, then to its current site on Blatchford Road. June and I moved to a house off Blackbridge Lane. Our bungalow was the first property built on our road. When the company was  more established, I could afford to extend and even built a swimming pool in 1976!

Music has dominated my life. I’ve played in countless bands over the years including the The Conchords and The Van Woolven Quartet. I must have played at every church and village hall and accompanied very good singers at theatres, including The Capitol, along the way. 

Perhaps the best I played with was an 18-piece band in Hollywood. I played the piano during a break in their show and afterwards joined them for a few other performances. I also visited Sun Studios in Memphis. June encouraged me to play the old piano in the studio. The security guard told me that I’d broken every rule in the book, but he didn’t mind as at least I could play well! It was great to do that in a studio where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash recorded classic songs.

Radio Mercury was based in Crawley and for a long time was a very popular station. Supafit would support its charity work and I would play the piano at musical fundraisers. Mike Read would be there on the guitar and singers including Dame Vera Lynn and Anita Harris would all give up their time too. I have also played concerts for leukemia, as a granddaughter of mine suffers from it. 

I recorded a CD about 30 years ago. We became lifelong friends with another family we met on holiday in Spain and every time they visited us, their young son would head straight for my piano. I suggested that he have lessons, as he clearly had an interest. He eventually became musical director at Carlisle University and kindly gave me the opportunity to record.

June and I were unfortunate, as two of our children died during infancy. We lost our first son after a few days and a daughter passed away due to liver complications whilst very young. But June was very brave and wanted to try again and we did eventually have a daughter, Trudy. 

June suffers from Alzheimer's. I visit her at the care home every afternoon, seven days a week, where she has been for several years. Sadly, it has reached the point where she doesn't really know who I am, but she does know that I’m there. She cannot talk or walk and needs to be hoisted in and out of bed. 

For me, Alzheimer's is even worse than cancer, because you are fighting a losing battle. Nobody ever wins. Cancer is dreadful, of course, but there is a chance of success. With dementia, the government doesn’t get involved and it costs the family a lot of money for the care. They often get very little for that money. 

I remember when West Street was a two-way street and it was amazing to see a single car! I would walk down it and know everybody. Now, it’s rare that I see a single old face in town. When I do, I reminisce about The Odeon and the Drill Hall dance. I have written a piece of music for the RAF, with lyrics too, and I hope that I can take to the Carfax Bandstand once again to perform it.