Having been evacuated to Haslemere for the duration of the war, I came back to Old Portsmouth sometime before V.E. Day and remember the street parties in St Thomas’s Street put on for us children to celebrate both V.E. Day and V.J. Day.
At that time, we were living at 81A St Thomas’s Street which was in the back garden of No 81 and must originally have been built for the servants and staff looking after the occupants of the big house which fronted onto St Thomas’s Street. Although many of the buildings in Old Portsmouth had been destroyed by enemy action during the war, there were also many which had survived but have since been demolished. On the corner of Lombard Street and St Thomas’s Street there was a bombed site but, as I remember it, the houses on the northwest side from No 81 up to the Penny Bank on the corner of Highbury Street had all survived. These were imposing residences and appear to have been of some importance; No 81 was the home of a senior manager of Fraser and White’s and the Vice-consul for Russia lived at No 82. Access to our house was through a narrow passage between these two houses.
Old buildings were also still in existence in Oyster Street which then continued through to White Hart Road. There was a small general shop by White Hart Alley and, further along, the buildings were used for government surplus stores which made available useful items which were generally unobtainable in those austerity days. At one time they had a consignment of large kites which seemed big enough to support a man and these were sought after for the bamboo poles and the fabric (silk or nylon?) of which they were made. In White Hart Road, there were storage buildings which were rented to French onion men who would tie their onions into strings and hang them over the handlebars of their bikes then to ride around the town offering them for sale. In High Street in front of the Cathedral, there was a row of shops including a butcher, a greengrocer and a men’s hairdresser, all long since gone. There were also shops further up High Street, past the junction with Highbury Street. The ones I remember are a tobacconist, High Street Fur Stores and Barrels, who seemed to sell mostly typewriters, and the Tuck Shop opposite Portsmouth Grammar School; the buildings containing these particular shops are still in existence but have now been converted into dwellings. Another building which has been lost is the Fountain Hotel in High Street near Grand Parade. This has been replaced by Fountain Court, a development of flats.
In the 1950s, Old Portsmouth was given over to industry and trade as well as providing residences for many who worked in the area. Fraser and White’s, who were coal merchants, had huge concrete bunkers on the quay to the inner Camber between Seager’s Court and the Bridge Tavern. Three travelling cranes ran on rails along the top of the walls to the bunkers and were used to unload the colliers docked by the quay then to deposit the coal into the bunkers. The ships were too large for them to be able to manoeuvre into the berth under the cranes without assistance and they used to pull them round the corner of the quay using the ships’ winches and wire cables. Fraser and White’s also had barges, mostly constructed of concrete, presumably for transporting coal to the Isle of Wight and other local ports. Distribution in the Portsmouth area was by four-wheeled horse-drawn carts. The stables were in Lombard Street, on part of the site now occupied by Lombard Court, and backed onto our garden.
The Power Station also used coal at that time and, for a period after the war, the land bounded by St Thomas’s Street, Highbury Street and Warblington Street became a storage facility for its fuel. This coal was fairly fine and stacked up to a good height, sufficient to make an exciting slope for us children to slide down on tin trays! As the Power Station was enlarged in the late forties, the dry dock in the outer Camber (where the Isle of Wight link-span is now sited) was taken over for the C.E.G.B’s (Central Electricity Generating Board’s) own colliers to bring coal direct to the Power Station. It was unloaded from the ships by crane onto conveyor belts which carried it over Gunwharf Road into the building. Two of the colliers which used this dock were the Pompey Light and the Pompey Power.
With Fraser and White’s operations, the Power Station and most people relying on coal for heating, it will be readily appreciated that the atmosphere contained considerable amounts of dust and pollution. Additionally, most houses had sliding sash windows or ill-fitting casements (no weather-stripped double-glazed units in those days) which allowed dust easy access into people’s homes. Washing hung out to dry would also attract soot and so cleaning was a never-ending battle.
The other major industry was Vosper’s Shipbuilders which had its yard in White Hart Road with slipways into the Camber – now the site of King James Quay housing development. They also had land in Broad Street (again now a housing development known as Oyster Quay). The platform between the Oyster Quay houses and the Camber was constructed for Vosper’s to moor ships for fitting out etc. The boats and ships they built and worked on were, of course, then much smaller than those with which they are now involved since becoming Vosper Thorneycroft (VT) with their enormous sheds at the Naval Base and at Portchester. On their White Hart Road/Camber site they had a very large derrick crane which was put up after the war and must have made it very much easier to move materials around the site and onto the ships under construction.
The Camber was also the destination for ships bringing in fruit and potatoes which were off-loaded by the ships’ own derricks or by mobile cranes on the quay. Add to this the small fishing boats and privately owned boats which were moored in the Camber together with boats run by Pickfords and Crouchers between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and it will be seen that this was a bustling little port.
My grandfather, George Feltham, had a boat-building business (G.A. Feltham & Sons) and his workshop had a slipway onto the Camber. The building is still there at the top of the Camber but has been altered to provide living accommodation over a boathouse. The Camber has now been partially filled in for the new housing development and to form part of the Millennium Walk, this section being known as Feltham Row.
The boats were entirely of wooden construction and were limited in size by the nature of the premises. During the war I believe that the work was entirely for the Admiralty, building whalers which were 27 foot clinker double-enders for use as ship’s boats. These boats were propelled by oars or sails but, after the war, a new design was adopted which were of double skin construction and had engines although I don’t remember many of these being built.
When I came back to Portsmouth for holidays during the War, the only beach I can recall being accessible was at Bath Square which was inside the submarine nets which were stretched across the harbour entrance at night. After the war Sallyport beach was again open to the public and was the favoured place for swimming because it always seemed to be a few degrees warmer under the Portland stone wall of 18 Gun Battery and, added to this, the cooling water from the Power Station was discharged through the 'bunny' providing warm water for swimming. Since then, a second opening has been made through the wall and it is not now quite the sun-trap which it once was. Before this opening was formed, it was often necessary to paddle or wade through the water at high tide to get to the main part of the beach.
The extensive bombed sites had been cleared of rubble by the end of the war and nature had started to take over. Buddleias grew in profusion and, when in flower, attracted a wide variety of butterflies. Being children, the tragedy of the lives and buildings lost through bombing did not at that time impact on our consciousness – we just regarded the cleared sites as our playgrounds.
My first school back in Portsmouth was St Jude's which was then in Marmion Road, Southsea. I used to cycle to school then (this would not be countenanced these days) but after I passed the 11+ examination I went on to Portsmouth Grammar School which I did not enjoy. We had to attend school on Saturday mornings and, in theory, had a half-day on Wednesdays. In practice we were put down for sport on four out of five half-days which in the winter usually meant rugby and in the summer it was cricket. In my later years at the school I had the opportunity to substitute rowing for the cricket which was much more to my liking.
In the early 1950’s, the CEGB compulsorily purchased the houses on the north and west sides of Lombard Street and St Thomas’s Street, including our house, to construct their new offices (which is now Lombard Court) and so we were forced to move out and we then went to live in Southsea!
Old Portsmouth has changed beyond recognition in the last fifty years probably for the better although there are many who would not agree. It has certainly lost much of its character!
Keith Feltham