Actor and playwright John Bartlett spins an atmospheric yarn of love, tragedy and the lash set in the Portsmouth dockyard of old.
“Farewell, farewell my own true love, this parting gives me pain
You’ll be my hope, my guide, my star, till I return again
My thoughts shall be of you my love, though storms be raging high
So fare thee well, remember me, your faithful sailor boy.”
The imposing gates of Portsmouth dockyard are the backdrop to this story which took place many years ago. Today The Hard, as it’s known, is an architectural mess. What should be the focal point to the city mainly comprises a faceless railway station, a dull bus terminus, some ugly sixties tower blocks and some other nondescript buildings, many of which have been empty for at least ten years. To be fair, there are a number of interesting Victorian frontages that now serve as pubs, fish and chip shops, a newsagent, a taxi rank and, with its incongruous green sign, the Co-operative.
Overall the impression is squalid, uninviting and depressing; even some of the more attractive façades remaining are under threat of demolition or redevelopment. The lack of vision for the area is staggering. What should be the jewel in the crown for tourists visiting the city is, I have to say, by and large an eyesore. In World War II, the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the area. Will the council wreak even more devastation?
More happily, on the outer reaches of the dockyard is the imposing sight of HMS Warrior. When commissioned in 1861 she was the largest warship in the world and, a year later, she started active service with the Channel Squadron. Her supremacy was not to last. By 1864 she’d been superseded by ship designs that were faster, had thicker armour and were armed with bigger guns. Having started a revolution in naval technology, she was all but obsolete within a decade.
Drawn up on the mud and shingle of the part of the harbour still exposed to the sea is a collection of small fishing and pleasure boats. To the left is the relatively new concrete pier which juts out from the shore to connect with the old Victorian train station which also, at an angle, projects into the sea to allow for a sufficient depth of water for the Isle of Wight ferry. Running alongside the old station is a floating gangway that rises and falls with the tide and ends in a pontoon for the Gosport ferry. The two separate piers, for train and bus, effectively create a triangle, which has long since been covered over with yet more concrete and tarmac in order to create the bus terminal.
On the foreshore there is a badly executed, rather stiff statue dedicated to the Mudlarks. The plaque would have you believe that this was the spot where they carried out their mucky activities. This is not true, as I vividly remember from my boyhood crossing the old bridge to the railway station, transfixed by the sight of children up to their knees in the stinking mud scrabbling for pennies tossed into the sludge by the hurrying passengers from the bridge above. This original bridge, made of iron and held together with rounded rivets, was situated quite a long way under the much newer bus terminal.
The old cast iron bridge
I have often thought that anybody brave enough to splodge about in the mud with a metal detector underneath this unsightly visage to the harbour would be rewarded with the small change missed by the tenacious youngsters of a bygone age.
The dockyard gates, at the centre of my story, have not changed a great deal. In their current form they likely date from the eighteenth century. There are two heavy wooden doors flanked by two equally solid-looking square stone pillars. The grey of the stone stands out from the dark reddish brown brick of the outer dockyard perimeter. Atop the two pillars are two gold leaf balls. In the old days these two balls were linked together by a rather splendid hanging lamp that arched its way across the void. Sadly at some point in the not-so-distant past, but beyond my personal recollection, the arched iron structure was removed, probably owing to age and metal fatigue or perhaps to allow for the passage of tall vehicles.
However, the gates still retain a sense of authoritative dignity. With the passage of time they have come to look satisfying in their own right. Today the open gates are a busy thoroughfare for tourists entering the dockyard to visit HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose or the naval museum. I remember at one point the gates were either closed or there was a chain across the entrance and anybody on foot had to pass through the smaller, but no less substantial, door to the right-hand side of the heavy main gates. The small guardroom was manned mainly by sailors in uniform, the only attraction on offer at the time being HMS Victory and the naval museum. All members of the public had to be vetted prior to admission.
Having set the scene, the short family story I want to tell pre-dates living memory by a long time. I am not sure exactly how far it goes back but I would guess at least the first half of the nineteenth century. There are no names, just two people caught up in the barbarity of the day. We have a sailor and his true love; two almost forgotten ancestors entwined in a tryst.
When I was a child, my Nana would embellish the story round the dining room table. She was good at adding atmosphere to it. It was easy for a young impressionable boy to imagine the water frontage with the old and not so familiar pubs – the Ship Anson, the Kepple’s Head, the Ship Leopard, the Victoria and Albert and the White Hart. Even some of these old drinking holes have now passed into folklore.
At the end of the nineteenth century the area was aptly named ‘the Devil’s Acre’ because it boasted thirteen pubs all in close proximity with one another. It is not hard to imagine the variety of nefarious goings-on that were, in those days, normal neighbourhood behaviour.
Imagine the area after dark, the mist rolling in from the sea, the wet cobbles glinting in the gas light, the dismal road sweeping off to the right where it becomes Queen Street and its plethora of public houses now nearly all swept away by the tide of modernity. Towering above the dockyard gates the solitary lantern twinkling balefully above a hackney coach waiting at the entrance. The horse pawing at the cobbles, creating miniature sparks like so many elfin sprites. The motionless driver, hat pulled tightly down over his ears. Wound round his grimy neck a thick woollen scarf or muffler. Hunched over, whip in hand and cursing under his breath, the man’s heavy half cape and overcoat giving the cabbie shape and substance. Inside the shiny black cab a pretty young woman, dressed in her finest, anxiously peering out of the smoke blackened windows.
Out of the gloom three figures shuffle towards the cab. The central figure is slumped and half-conscious, his weight supported by the burly men on either side. The cab door is flung open and the ragged bundle of a man is pitched forward into the dark maw of the interior. Before the cab door, with its decisive click, has time to shut, the two men have already turned on their heels and are disappearing back into the night. The cabbie flicks his whip and the impatient horse sets off knowing that soon his labours will be over for the night and he can rest in his stall.
From one of the pubs, a habitual fight spills out onto the road. Leering women in long filthy skirts laugh drunkenly at the spectacle. Careering out of the shadows, two drunks, barely able to stand, lurch along the street without a glance at the rapidly fading coach as it’s swallowed up by the night.
They have no care for the mangled, bloodied, member of humanity slumped in the depths of the black cab. They have no notion of the young woman weeping over the crumpled body of the young man, who only a few days previously had taken her up the aisle: ‘To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part.’ They have no idea that this man will never walk again. Not a thought for this young sailor who has been flogged to within an inch of his life for overstaying his leave. Now of course, with the relentless passage of time all this is forgotten. The two drunks, like the coach and its occupants, have slipped into oblivion.
“The first thing they did, they took me in hand
And they flogged* me with a tarry strand.
They flogged me till I couldn’t stand,
On board of a man-o-war, boys.”
*Flogging in the Royal Navy was abolished in 1879.