S&C contributing editor John Oke Bartlett has been collecting anecdotes from Portsmouth pubs for years. This one has an unexpectedly explosive denouement.
There is nothing better than whiling away the time in an old pub with a pint of fine ale and engaging in friendly chitchat with the locals. The Nelson, now closed and long since turned into flats, was a particularly fine boozer whose clientele would have me roaring with laughter within minutes of crossing the threshold.
The Nelson’s architecture was unremarkable. Built according to a classic template, the pub was interchangeable with many a Portsmouth watering hole. Situated at the junction of Victoria Road South and St Vincent Road, the Nelson Hotel (erected 1898) was part of the building boom that Portsmouth enjoyed towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, prior to this date, the site was occupied by the Nelson’s Arms and the Nelson Inn respectively. How sad that neither of these previous manifestations survived modernisation. One can only wonder at what architectural gems have been lost.
The main feature of the Nelson that met your gaze as you came in was the fine old, partially carved wooden bar. The bar faced the front windows with the usual beer engines, upturned bottles of spirits and a heavy substantial wooden shelving unit with Victorian mirror glass. The furniture was commonplace, consisting of wooden tables and chairs which had seen better days. Old wallpaper, ancient framed black and white photographs and the odd mirror or two adorned the walls. To the right of the bar was an arched passageway that led to a snug or lounge bar, which was very rarely used in my day.
The public bar at the front of the building was where all the action took place. Invariably you would find there a group of Portsmouth worthies who had fetched up like flotsam and jetsam. These oddities of humankind were certainly welcomed and welcoming at the Nelson, and it was never long before I was being regaled by some preposterous tale which had me guffawing along with the best of them.
One particular story has stayed with me and that is the tale of Tank. Now it has to be said that I am not directly referring to a tank but to the nickname of one of the customers who frequented the inner sanctums of the Nelson. He had acquired this moniker many years before as a tank driver in World War II.
This particular story is set in the aftermath of that conflict. Tank and his crew had been on extended manoeuvres, lasting for six weeks or so, in the German countryside and they were looking forward to downing a pint or two. As you can imagine the military were very much in evidence with tanks and equipment from all of the Allied forces constantly on the move. The thought of a cool pint kept the morale of his crew going through the trials of filth, muck and lack of sanitation. Finding a suitable hostelry, Tank pulled up in the large car park, which happened to be full of tanks of various nationalities.
The building had escaped unscathed the ravages of the war. The decoration was bright and inviting with large windows overlooking the car park with the forest beyond. Tank and his expectant messmates stepped into the bar to order their first drink for more than six weeks, but they were in for a surprising disappointment.
‘Nein, nein,’ said the formidable German frau. ‘You are too dirty, I cannot serve you. Please leave!’
Incensed, Tank and the rest stomped out and climbed back into their tank. Sentiments such as ‘Who won the war anyway?’ were ringing in their ears. Tank had heard of other crews being refused a drink in similar circumstances, and he had also heard of a solution to the problem.
He swivelled the turret round ninety degrees and pointed the barrel directly at the pub. Not knowing what his intentions were, the alarmed customers, including the matronly frau, instantly hit the deck. With a degree of resignation Tank ordered the gun to be loaded with a blank. He fired, smug in the knowledge that his action would certainly put the wind up the snooty frau and her clientele.
What Tank had forgotten was that, whilst there was no projectile coming out of the gun barrel, there was wadding accompanied by a ten foot flame. He could only watch in horror as the windows of the hostelry disintegrated, the gun flame hitting the back wall and the mirror glass melting in front of his eyes. Tank said he distinctly saw large globules of molten glass dripping down the decimated shelves and pooling on the counter.
Tank instantly accelerated down the road. In his hurry to get away, his turret was still sticking out at a ninety degree angle. As he made good his escape up the road, the row of telegraph poles didn’t stand a chance. They were demolished one by one.
As far as he knew nobody was hurt in this escapade. Owing to the diversity of nationalities and numerous tank crews in Germany at that time he was never caught and brought to military justice. However, with his crew sworn to secrecy, not long afterwards an order was circulated throughout the Allied forces that under no circumstances were tanks permitted to fire blanks at German buildings.
The closure of the Nelson brought an end to this particular group of eccentrics who were cast out like so many leaves in the wind. No doubt individually they found some other place to congregate to spin their amusing tales.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.