Joan Hennessy was one of the first group of women at Worthing Girls’ High School to learn German.
He got a job at a domestic agency in Chapel Road, Worthing, in the 1930s and began translating letters from Germans applying for jobs.
It was then that he realized that there was a great need for housing for Jews fleeing persecution from Hitler, and he set about finding them places to stay.
Inside the Chichester store where time stood still
During that period, Joan helped house hundreds of refugees, including Basque children fleeing the civil war in Spain.
Joan, then known by her maiden name Joan Tennant, was a leading figure in the International League of Friendship, based at the Beach House in Worthing.
Speaking to the Herald in March 2009, Joan said: “When I was a child, my mother took me to the war memorial dedication and pointed out the names of people she had met.
“I don’t know if she deliberately made me dislike the war, but I did and I was determined to do everything I could to help peace.”
Joan was one of several women who promoted the humanitarian effort in the 1930s. She appeared in the book Storm Tide: Worthing: Prelude to War 1933-1939 by Worthing author Michael Payne alongside Marion Barber, Dorothy Thornycroft, and Joan Strange, who they also worked tirelessly to promote peace in Worthing.
Joan’s important role in Worthing’s humanitarian effort, helping hundreds of German Jews find a place to live in the 1930s, came to light when Michael knocked on her door while doing research for his book on HighSalvington.
The couple struck up a friendship and it was thanks to Joan’s photographic memory that she was able to remember much of what happened during that period.
Michael spent hours chatting with Joan to get an idea of what the city was like before World War II. Once the book was complete, he would visit the 92-year-old woman every week to read a chapter from the book to her, as she had vision problems.
He said at the time: “It was a wonderful discovery to find Joan. She has the advantage of knowing many of the personalities of that time. The book would have been possible without people like Joan, but it certainly wouldn’t have had the human touch.”
Joan was able to give Michael additional information about the time. For example, she told him about Rose Wilmot, who used to open her house to young people when they needed a place to stay.
She was grateful to Michael for sharing his book with her in person, as he said he didn’t get along very well with audiobooks.
Joan passed away peacefully at Worthing Hospital on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at the age of 97.