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A 1950s Portsmouth Childhood
By Valerie Reilly
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Valerie Reilly
All rights reserved.
HOUSE AND HOME
'That's not a baby, it's a blooming elephant,' laughed my parents' good friend Fred Flewin when he came to see me in St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth, where I was born in November 1946. Fred and his wife Doris ran a greengrocer's shop in Fratton Road, Portsmouth, called Flewins, and Mum told me that they bought some lovely things for me as a baby. I was born by caesarean section, as mum was so tiny and I was quite large. In those days, it was such a serious procedure that she had to stay in hospital for two weeks to recover. As I was born before the NHS was in operation, my parents had to pay £25 for my arrival; that must have been a lot of money to find in those days.
Between 1940 and 1945, Mum had worked at Airspeed in Portsmouth, making the wings of aircraft. She loved that job and was good at it; she was even commended by the Lord Mayor for her good work. Of course, when the war was over, the men came back and had to have their jobs back. My mother was very disappointed and had to take a job cleaning carriages at Southern Trains at Fratton until November 1946, when I was born. At the time, my father used the train to travel from his sister Alice Newman's house and antique shop in Fishbourne, where he was living at the time, to Portsmouth Dockyard where he worked. He used to chat to Mum when he got off the train, and they became friendly. This must have been in September 1945.
The next time they met was in the Royal Dragoon pub in Kingston Crescent, Portsmouth. My father's friend George Martin was landlord of the pub and Dad sometimes played the drums there to accompany the pianist. My mother came into the Royal Dragoon with some friends one evening in 1945 and started messing about on the piano, with my father playing the drums. Soon after that my parents started courting and became engaged, and then married on 29 December the same year. They had to marry in Portsmouth register office as Dad had been married years ago and was now divorced. (Once sited in St Michael's Road, it has now been relocated to Milldam House in Burnaby Road. The old building is now a pub named the Registry.) The Church then refused to marry them and because of that Mum wouldn't have me christened after I was born. She always said that as she wasn't good enough for the Church, then the Church wasn't good enough for her daughter, so I remained a heathen.
The Royal Dragoon pub closed down in 1970 to make way for the Baltic Office block, one of many pub closures since the 1950s.
When Mum and I left hospital after two weeks' confinement, I started my life in Portsmouth at No.45 Twyford Avenue in Stamshaw. It was then the home of my grandparents, May and Harry Macklin. The front of the house was used as a shop, where Gran sold second-hand furniture, clothes and toys; in fact, anything of value. Most of the stock was bought or given to her by the wealthy ladies she visited in Southsea. The shop was quite dark and the flooring was bare boards. The stock was scattered around the shop, with clothing hung up on rails. At the back of the shop was Gran's living room, filled with heavy wooden Victorian furniture, including a large leather chaise longue, which had horsehair coming out of a split in the back of it. There was a dining table over by a window, and on top of it was a red chenille cover. Her kitchen was in a glass conservatory leading into the garden and I remember Gran boiling live lobsters in a large pot out there. I'm sure I heard them scream.
Gran's garden had long grass and very few flowers, so it was a bit wild looking. An enormous iron gasometer towered above the houses, way beyond her garden. This huge metal building in Rudmore was demolished in 1978, when Commercial Road was widened. In the corner of Gran's garden stood a huge pile of junk: old buckets, broken chairs and old furniture. This was probably from the shop, but it was still a bit of an eyesore. In the summer, Gran would sit in the garden on an old chair with a jug of stout, which had been purchased from the snug in the Air Balloon pub, opposite the house. She would have a glass in one hand and her cat Peedy for company, whilst I rode up and down on my trike. Gran was well known in this area of Portsmouth, as she gave some of the poorer families clothes for their children, as well as loaning money.
Grandma's favourite pub, the Air Balloon, was one of approximately 1,000 pubs in Portsmouth years ago; there was one on almost every street corner. Being a naval town, they were all very busy then. Without television and the technology we have today, the pub was the main focus of entertainment, especially for men. There was usually a public bar where the working man or sailor could meet up for a drink, a smoke and game of cards, dominoes or darts. Some of the Portsmouth pubs were quite small; not much larger than the front room of a house. This was the case for many pubs when they started out.
The Air Balloon sadly closed in 2005 and was due to be turned into flats. An arson attack damaged the building in 2007, but it is now being renovated. There are now only about 100 pubs left in Portsmouth at present.
The site that Gran's shop occupied was eventually demolished to make way for the flyover built in the 1970s. Quite a few large and lovely old houses were destroyed in the name of progress in Portsmouth over the years, not necessarily due to being bombed. In the 1930s, Gran, Granddad and my mother Violet lived close by, in a grand old Georgian house at No.535 Commercial Road in Mile End. It was three storeys high with a basement as well as a large ballroom, in which my mum used to teach tap dancing; she would put on shows for charity and in hospitals during the war. I think a Mavis Butler ran a dance school from there in the 1950s. The house was painted black and white, and before Gran took over the lease, it was known as Doctor Blackman's house. The house used to be a listed building, but caught fire, which was very convenient as the space was needed for the flyover.
OUR FIRST MOVE
When I was a few months old, my parents and I moved to a house in Arthur Street, near Kingston Crescent, Portsmouth. It was a two-up two-down flat-fronted terrace, next to a pub. I don't remember the front room: I think maybe we had a lodger living in there. I do remember one lodger called Bill, though; I think he was the brother of a family friend. He had a mass of wild grey curly hair and sometimes he gave me sixpence, saying, 'Here you are, a tanner for a tiddler.' The back room was all dark wood, with canvas on the floor, a rag rug by the fire and dark, heavy furniture. There was a high mantelpiece with a large wireless standing on the top. Mum used to listen to Mrs Dale's Diary, The Archers and Woman's Hour, and we all loved Dick Barton – Special Agent.
At the back of this room was a small kitchen, or scullery, as Mum referred to it. There were no modern conveniences at all; just a grey and white iron stove and a large, square Butler sink. All the washing of clothes, dishes and bodies was done in this sink, including me as a baby. I remember my lovely Dad using it for his evening wet shave, with a striped towel around his neck. I watched him in fascination whilst he lathered his chin and upper lip with soap from a thick cup and a small bristle brush. He then sliced it off with his razor that had been sharpened on a leather strop hanging on the wall.
We didn't have a bathroom in this house so, once a week, the large galvanised bath was brought into the living room and all the family could have a good soak. This would be in front of the fire if it was winter.
Outside was a cobblestone yard, with high brick walls surrounding it. This is also where the toilet was. It had a wooden seat and a high cistern with a chain pull, with Izal medicated toilet paper that scratched your bottom when you used it. There was just enough room for me to play with my doll's pram out in the yard, and I used to push it up and down with the cat in it.
I was able to ride my three-wheeled Triang tricycle up and down the pavement, at the front of the house in Arthur Street. There were no cars in our street and all the neighbours would watch over other people's children. One day, when I was about 3 years old, a man asked me to sit on the windowsill while he took my photograph. I was scared stiff and didn't relax, even when Mum said it was okay. This resulted in a very sulky looking photo of me in the family album.
As I was so young, the only other memory of this address was an off-licence in Kingston Crescent. In the window sat a moving male mannequin, with a glass in one hand and a bottle of stout in the other (maybe it was Mackeson). The poor chap spent his time pouring out his drink but not getting to taste it.
My parents were unusual in being able to purchase their own house. In about 1950, my parents were able to buy a house – No.6 Beresford Road, North End, Portsmouth – with the aid of a mortgage. The house had three bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen and an upstairs bathroom, and it was a bay and forecourt building. Dad was clever at making things, so soon had the house looking good. It was a bright and fresh-looking place, so different to Arthur Street, and I loved it. There was plenty of space for us and it had a lovely little garden too.
Housing and money was in short supply in those early years after the war. The house cost £1,600, which was a lot of money for my parents in those days. It was very unusual for a working-class couple to be able to buy their own property in 1950, so they must have saved a fair deposit.
SHARING THE HOME
Three of my grandparents came from a long line of Portsmouth families: the Clarks, the Urrys and the Marshes. Among their many trades and professions were fishermen, publicans, shoemakers, cork cutters, sailors and shipwrights.
Grandma Macklin, née Clark, was ill for quite a while and had to spend a long time in hospital. By the time she was better, her little shop in Twyford Avenue had been rented to someone else and Granddad was living with his sister back in London, so my father built him a room under the stairs for when he came to stay. This was just large enough for a single bed. Dad fixed a light on the wall and Granddad kept his clothes in a suitcase under his bed. Gran came to live with us in Beresford Road and she took up residence in our front room until she died in 1956. Gran was diagnosed with diabetes and every day a district nurse came to give her an injection in her leg. We had some of her old furniture in that room, including a large black mirrored cabinet along one wall with all her china and glass displayed on the shelves, along with a beautiful green glass tea set. She had a single bed, a dining table and chairs, plus an armchair next to the fireplace. Gran would sit so close to the coal fire in winter that her legs were red and mottled.
My grandmother always liked to look the part, even when she was very ill; the nurses all called her 'the Duchess'. Whenever Gran went out, she wore a fur coat and a large hat with wax fruit or flowers on the top. I had to put metal curlers in her hair to give it a curl and then she would put on her jewellery, which she kept in a small square wooden box. Every evening, Gran would go over to the Pelham pub on the corner of Chichester Road for a bottle of stout.
Gran was brought up in the Rudmore Cellars Pub in Portsmouth, as her parents George and May Clark were the tenants somewhere between 1900 and the 1920s. Most of her family still lived in Rudmore in the 1950s. The Rudmore Cellars was sadly demolished in 2009, and the ferry port now stands on the site. Most of the pubs in Portsmouth were owned by the Brickwoods Brewery, which was sited near the dockyard from 1848 until 1971. It was then taken over by Whitbread. The building was demolished in 1989 and the site is now used as a car park.
My grandfather, Henry Warner Macklin, was born in Lambeth in London in 1880. His father Thomas had a hansom cab business, and was once a groom in a large house. Granddad ran away to sea when he was 14 years old and lied about his age to get into the Royal Navy. He met my grandmother when he was stationed in Portsmouth in 1902 and stayed in the city. Granddad ran a fruit and veg business in Southsea in the '50s. I spent some time with him one day and enquired why the front of the stall showed lovely fresh fruit but he served customers the bruised produce from the back. I wasn't invited there again. Granddad wore grey woollen trousers with braces over a striped shirt with replaceable white stiff collars. On his waistcoat he had a fob watch on a chain and he wore a large cap to keep his balding head warm. His glasses were round and wire-rimmed and he smoked Player's Navy Cut cigarettes.
When Granddad became ill on one of his visits I had to give up my room, as we couldn't expect the doctor to tend him under the stairs. Granddad died in that room, so I didn't want to sleep in there for a long time afterwards.
I never met my paternal grandparents, Charles and Ann Urry, as they both died in 1943, before I was born. They were both born in Portsmouth and for several years lived in Highgate Road in Copnor, close to other members of the Urry clan. My grandfather was a corkcutter and he made corks for beer, wine, medicine bottles and beer barrels. Granddad delivered the corks to various businesses in Portsmouth, such as Brickwoods Brewery and Timothy Whites, the chemist. There was a selection of cork pictures that he made, displayed in the Connaught Drill Hall near the Portsmouth Guildhall. He was well known in Portsmouth, as 'Corky'.
For families in the 1950s, it was a constant struggle to make ends meet. My family found several ways to help pay the bills, though.
The wages were quite low; I think the average man's wage in the 1950s was less than £10 in Portsmouth. Working women earned much less than men, even if they did the same job. Dad always did overtime and night work, which paid more money. My mum took in lodgers and sometimes did a cleaning job if funds were short. As my father was a drummer and Mum played the piano, they would earn extra cash entertaining in pubs, clubs and at functions at weekends. My parents didn't use a bank as there was no money left over for savings; every last penny was used to pay bills, or put towards food and clothing. Mum had a long green metal box with slots along the top, and into each section she put money towards the mortgage, food and household expenses, which included the gas and electricity meters. They were situated under the stairs, and Mum fed the meters with enough 1s pieces to last each day. If the electric ever ran out in the evening, there would be a mad dash to refill it in the dark, with help from a torch or a candle. We didn't have the expense of a phone or car, and holidays abroad were out of the question for us then. Workers were paid in cash each week, and sometimes if Mum's purse was empty by the end of the week, she would meet my father at the dockyard gates so they could both go shopping together for food for the weekend.
The rooms in the house my parents bought were soon filled to help with the finances. My parents let out the bedrooms upstairs to lodgers to help pay the bills. As a result, Mum and Dad had to sleep in the sitting room on a three-seater red patterned sofa that folded out into a bed. Mum called it a bed settee, and it was very comfortable, as long as you didn't sit at the back, as it would close up on you. Next to the sofa was a single bed that folded into a table; this often became my bed while I was small. There was a time when every room in the house, except the kitchen and bathroom, was used as a bedroom for either a relative or lodger.
When times were difficult, we had two male lodgers sharing the large bedroom. The other bedroom was quite small, and sometimes we would have a single lodger staying in there. Mum was a very generous landlady and served up huge meals, as well as a pile of sandwiches for the lodgers to take for lunch at work. She did their laundry and cleaned their room. It was no wonder then that one man, a Mr Snowball, returned again and again. Mum often became fed up having strangers to look after and sometimes pretended that she was selling the house, so they had to go. A few months later, when she was short of cash, she advertised the room again and back would come Mr Snowball. There was never a shortage of male lodgers in 1950s Portsmouth; I expect this was due to the aftermath of the war.
For a year or so in 1957, Mum became a bit too ambitious, with regard to lodgers. She also wished for us to have a house to ourselves, so she filled No.6 Beresford Road with lodgers and rented No.9 for us to live in. This was fine for a while, but Mum should have hired an accountant as her outgoings outstripped the income received from the lodgers. Soon that idea failed and we moved back into our own house.
For a while, I slept in the little middle bedroom, on a single iron bedstead with a blue and white bedspread on top. On my bedside table stood a Cinderella alarm clock and a blue plastic children's lamp. There was a small pearl-white dancing lady on the front and when you wound her up, she played the Brahms lullaby. The fire in that room wasn't lit unless I was ill, so it was rather cold in the winter. I liked the cold bedroom, though, as the air was always fresh and clear; not stuffy, like centrally heated homes are now. Also, everyone smoked in those days, so the rooms downstairs smelt of stale smoke. My bed was warm and cosy with several blankets and flannelette sheets, plus a rubber hot-water bottle put into my bed by Mum before bedtime. There was only a small rug next to my bed and canvas under that, so you had to hop from one rug to the next to prevent cold feet.
Excerpted from A 1950s Portsmouth Childhood by Valerie Reilly. Copyright © 2014 Valerie Reilly. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 House and Home 15
2 Shops and Food 64
3 Entertainment 82
4 Schooldays 94
5 Family and Friends 113
6 Holidays 139
7 Special Occasions 155
8 The End of an Era 182
9 Memorable Events in Portsmouth's History 186