The Extraordinary People of Portsmouth: Mary Goodchild

In her latest profile of everyday yet remarkable Portsmouthians, S&C Contributing Editor Christine Lawrence meets a 103-year-old lady who recalls Zeppelins, D-Day and the Great Depression.

Maud Mary Goodchild, known as Mary to her friends, a delightful lady and Portsmouth resident, was born in Brighton in 1913. She spent the first eight years of her life in a children’s home there until she moved to Portsmouth to live with her parents in Reginald Road. I interviewed her in the home she has lived in since her marriage to Arthur in 1934, just a few doors down from her childhood home.

Mary was just a year old when World War I started. She remembers looking up and seeing an airship. ‘I saw this darn thing going across the sky,’ she says, wondering, no doubt, as to where it was heading. It was in 1916 that the first Zeppelin airships bombed London. Perhaps this was one of those on its way to the capital.

She has happy memories of life in Brighton. Her mother was in contact with her and would come to visit her and take her to the beach sometimes. She made friends with a little boy called Henry and remembers being taken to Woolworths with the other children in the home for a treat. She believes that someone must have donated money for the children to be taken shopping and were each allowed to choose a present.

She tells me that during the Great War and afterwards she went to school in Picton Street, Brighton. There was a shortage of teachers at the time due to the menfolk being lost to the war. This meant that she went to school one week in the morning and one in the afternoon. She walked to school at the bottom of the hill – there was a sweet shop on the corner. She would play with the little girl who lived in the shop and, when Mary left Brighton, the shopkeeper gave her a bag of orange and lemon slices as a parting gift.

In 1921, Mary arrived in Portsmouth. She lived with her mother and father for the first time in her life in Old Portsmouth and initially went to Swan Street School. She recalls walking through Victoria Park to school. Later they relocated to Reginald Road and Mary moved schools to the one opposite her home. She left school at fourteen years old but can’t remember when she first went out to work. Her father had been gassed during the war and work was scarce so he ran a little shop out of the front parlour of their house. She describes helping him in the shop, walking at four am on a Saturday morning to Charlotte Street to collect fruit and vegetables for her father to sell in the shop.

She laughs when I asked her how they got to the market. ‘We walked of course,’ she said. ‘Everyone walked in those days. There weren’t any buses at four in the morning!’ The shop was successful as eventually he shifted it to bigger premises in Milton Road. The “house” shop in Reginald Road was turned back into an ordinary house and her parents lived there until they died.

Mary then talks about life in 1920s Portsmouth. She says that she could have told me the names of everyone living in the street back then but today it’s different. In the old days, when new people came to the street you got to know them but now you don’t even know when new people come – they go to work all day and you never see them. She tells me that she’s been living on her own in the house since 1981, when her husband died. ‘He passed away in that chair – just died one evening watching telly.’ She indicates an empty chair across the room.

Mary married John just one month before her 21st birthday. They had no children and of Mary’s extended family, she is the only known survivor. Life in the 1930s was simple, she explains. ‘We would cycle and walk a lot. We’d cycle to Gosport, all the way round on the mainland. We would go dancing on a Tuesday night at the Dance Club along the Southsea Front. We used to catch the bus in Winter Road and go down to the Pavilion at the Rock Gardens. John would go for a pint some evenings and once a month we would go together to the Railway Club meeting.’

After 35 years Mary still misses him. She kept going to the club after he’d passed away, whenever she could. She took a job in a grocer shop for a while, then when that job petered out she joined the Salvation Army, working in their cafe. She describes the old ladies who would come in, sitting by the fire with their cups of tea, treating it like their home. They’d sit there until their dinner was ready. After eating a good hot meal, they’d cross the corridor into the church for their afternoon meeting.

This all came to an end when someone in the higher echelons of the Salvation Army thought it would be a good idea to open a new cafe a few doors away. It would be more financially viable, they said. Mary describes it as being too commercialised and not very convenient for the old ladies. ‘They had to put their coat on to go to the cafe, and then when it was time to go to the meeting, they had to put their coat on again to walk along the road. They don’t get many in there now. After that I went to the Salvation Army charity shop in Highland Road and worked there.’

When asked about World War II, Mary has a few alarming memories of the bombing in Portsmouth. She says that it was noisy sometimes, startling maybe, but ‘we got through it somehow. There was a bomb in a street fairly near which got a few of the houses, but nothing nearer’. The family never had a shelter. She’d go off each morning to the railway station where she worked in the parcel office. Though it was normally a man’s job, she was offered the position on a temporary basis as the gent who normally worked there had been called up to fight in the war.

The months leading up to D-Day passed almost unnoticed, she says. ‘We didn’t see many troops, not around the town. They were out of town. I didn’t go near the barracks. We didn’t see them go off as it was in the night. There were loads of boats but I didn’t see them going. I saw the boats the day before but I went to the beach in the morning and the sea was empty. After D-Day it was very quiet in Portsmouth – they were all busy over the way. We just got on with it, didn’t take much notice.

‘Then the men started coming back. I lost my job then. I went to work in the Danish Bacon factory. Rationing was still in. We used to count out the number of eggs required for each shop, and so much cheese. It was all laid out, their allowance for the number of people they had on their books. Later I worked in a little cake shop around the corner from here, the corner of Landguard Road. There was a butcher opposite. The cake shop had a bake-house in Adair Road where they made their own bread.

‘Later I worked in a grocer shop in Albert Road. I worked for St. Helens outdoor catering as well at this time – they had a shop opposite the cemetery. They would pack their van with all the cooked meals ready to go and do all the Masonic dinners. We’d get taken there in a van or car, mostly out of town. We had to serve the dinners, dressed in black with white aprons.’

Mary shows me her collection of photographs, and a beautiful cushion with a collage on it of pictures from various points in her life. This was a gift from one of her friends for her 100th birthday. She is puzzled as to why I would be interested in writing about her, as she views her life as being quite ordinary.

Looking back over her lifespan, she was born a year after the sinking of the Titanic, in the same year that suffragette Emily Davidson was killed after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby, and the year before World War I began. When Mary was a child, women could not receive a university degree – this was only possible after 1920. Television was invented when Mary was 13 years old, women were given the vote when she was just 15, the same year that ‘talkie’ movies came into being and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

She lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the abdication of Edward VIII, the Jarrow marches, World War II, the birth of the NHS, India’s independence from Britain, the partition of India, Concorde, decimalisation, the opening of the Channel Tunnel linking London to Paris. She still lives in her little house in Reginald Road, the same house she moved to when she married John in 1934.

So, maybe Mary’s life is an “ordinary life”. What makes her extraordinary is the fact that she has witnessed so many years of living in this small community in Portsmouth which, on the face of it, seems to have changed little. The street is still filled with the same terraced houses that were here all those years ago. There are cars parked in the road and no children playing in the streets these days but it’s still the same at heart and it’s when you go inside and talk to the people living here that you realise the importance of what has been experienced by the ‘ordinary’ people of our city.

Photography courtesy of Maud Mary Goodchild.