John Oke Bartlett continues his storytelling of Portsmouth’s pub history and the larger than life characters he has met along the way. In the third of the series, we meet Ted, a regular at the The Rocket pub – formerly the Railway Hotel – in Cosham.
Before moving to Australia, my great friend’s local was ‘The Rocket’, which was situated just a little beyond the crossing gates of Cosham High Street. This splendid Victorian building, originally The Railway Hotel, had been built to capitalize on passengers alighting or embarking from Cosham railway station. Surprisingly, on the other side of the road, early pictures depict a rural agricultural scene with peaceful open fields stretching away into the distance – a far cry from the busy road and somewhat rag-bag High Street of today.
It may be hard to imagine but Cosham, at one time, was a village. Nestled at the foot of Portsdown Hill, Cosham was partially commercial and partially rural. At one time, the London stagecoach must have passed through there. Extra horses would have been hitched on to make the steep climb out of the village, to the brow of the hill and then to The George Public House on top. Later, in the same way, extra horses were used for the horse drawn bus service. Eventually, in 1903, all this was swept away by a new tram system known as the Horndean Light Railway which ran between Portsmouth and Horndean.
Whilst undoubtedly the trams took people to and from work, the service also enabled access to the seaside during the day. Or sometimes, a day away from the hustle and bustle of the town for a Sunday outing in the Hampshire countryside.
It is reputed that the owner of the tram company lived on the hill in a house situated just behind The George. This is long since gone, owing to civil engineers cutting through the hill to lower what was then the main A3 London Road. Being the proud owner of the Horndean Light Railway, there were certain inherent privileges incumbent with the position, one of which was a plentiful supply of free electricity. This was provided by a wire that ran from the overhead power supply of the tramway into the house. In the evening, when the trams struggled up Portsdown Hill, the lights in the house would dim. A bonus for an impromptu time and motion study – apparently the ‘Boss’ would check his watch to see if the trams were on time or not.
Eventually, as all things must, The Horndean Light Railway went the way of all flesh and ceased trading in 1935.
During the Victorian and through into the Edwardian era, it was a widespread practice to ‘take one’s constitutional’ by walking from the railway station, up Portsdown Hill, to Candy’s Pit and the ‘Jones Bellevue Tea Gardens’. If something a little stronger was required, maybe a visit to The George Public House. No doubt that, on returning down the hill, a reciprocal visit to the Railway Hotel was also on the cards before boarding a train for home.
As the decades passed, Cosham lost its village status and grew into a small town. Opposite the Railway Hotel, the open fields were built on and gradually the same fate befell the patchwork of partial arable and grazing land on the hill. The trams ceased to run and the annual funfair, held on the top of Portsdown Hill, stopped coming. The Bellevue Tea Rooms closed and the Railway Hotel lost its status as a hotel and simply became ‘The Railway’. Eventually, even that name was lost, as for many years, the pub traded as ‘The Rocket’. Inside, what once must have been a stylish Victorian interior, replete with aspidistras and a large ticking clock; the two bars were knocked down into one vast space and an ugly plastic, sun-room style extension was tacked onto the Northern elevation. With the fading fortunes of the pub, the clientele changed too, gaining a deserved reputation where things could ‘kick off’ at any time. To this insalubrious environment, entered my jocular friend Ted.
Ted was a larger than life character who was loved by all and a friend to many. A pint in the Railway or Rocket, when Ted was a local, could be an unsettling experience; especially later in the evening when the ‘lads’ were looking for mischief.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my boys,’ he would say, ‘they’re alright once you get to know them.’
It would be a brave man indeed who picked a quarrel with Ted when they were around. Of course, it was typical of the man to befriend all humanity, in all its guises, from rough to polished diamond. Perhaps his many years in the Navy had taught him how to get along with all walks of life. After all, a life in the senior service entails rubbing shoulders with all and sundry, good and bad. Looking at pictures of him now, there is a visible twinkle in his eyes along with an infectious smile hovering around the corners of his mouth.
Ted, whose real name was John, gained his change of identity and moniker in the Navy after the band leader Ted Heath. His Australian wife in later years insisted on calling him John, but to us, he is and always will be Ted. Originally, he was from Devon where he grew up under the watchful eye of his kindly mother who nevertheless, was always ready to give him a clout if the need arose. By all accounts, according to Ted, this was a relatively frequent event, deserved or not. Different times attract different sensibilities and what went on then would not do for today. During the war, times were hard and a youthful Ted frequently supplied a coney for the pot. He even made a bob or two selling the odd rabbit to the local butchers.
Above the town, there was an anti-aircraft gun emplacement manned by American troops – now here was a chance for rich pickings from the unsuspecting servicemen. It wasn’t long before Ted and his friend had become kind of mascots and surprise, surprise, sweets and chewing gum were soon forthcoming. You can be sure Ted was a frequent and welcome visitor to the Yanks on the hill. Then one day after making the steep climb up to the ridge, Ted was greeted by a hive of activity – the American’s were leaving.
‘Hi there, John boy, right glad you dropped by, hardly time to say goodbye. We have our orders, we’re leavin’.’
Ted looked genuinely sad to see them go. It wasn’t just the sweets. He and his best mate, Tom, had formed strong friendships with the men and they with him.
‘Well it’s been nice knowing you both, here have some gum’ The sergeant reached into his pocket and tossed a couple of packets to the two boys, ‘be seeing yah!’
‘Goodbye and well …’ Ted blurted out.
‘Thanks for everything,’ said Tom finishing the sentence as best mates often do.
‘Now, see that patch of fresh earth over there?’ The sergeant said knowingly tapping his nose. ‘After we’ve gone, if you were to, well, if you were to, well er, so long boys nice knowing yah!’ Then with a wave, their jeeps, trucks and neatly wrapped up guns roared away never to be seen again.
What did the sergeant mean? The two boys pondered for a while and grabbing a couple of sticks, half expecting to discover the latrine, they idly scratched about in the freshly dug soil. The sticks easily sank into the earth and then suddenly, no matter how hard they tried, would go no further. Something quite solid had been buried just below the surface, seven or eight inches down. Excitedly, the two boys gave up with their sticks and shovelled away at the soil with their hands. It wasn’t long before they uncovered a large, silver, US American army ration tin and below it, there were more, many more. Using one of the handy attachments on their obligatory pen knives they always carried with them, the tin was quickly opened. Sweet sticky juice spilt over their boyish fingers. Inside packed in the syrup were plenty of yellow peach halves.
Even before the war, peaches were a bit of a luxury and not encountered that often; so having a whole tin to themselves was like being in seventh heaven. As Britain was slowly being starved due to the merciless action of the German submarine packs, this miraculous bounty was simply the stuff of dreams. To begin with, they just stared at the inviting fruit, then, in turn, using their fingers, scooped up the sweet yellow peach. Then, almost ritualistically, the boys pushed the peaches into their gaping mouths. The peach juice oozed, squirted and dribbled down their chins as the biggest grins spread across their youthful faces. Their meagre wartime rations had not prepared them for this almost indescribable taste explosion. Having dispatched the first peach, a second quickly followed suit, then another and another until the tin was completely empty.
It was only then that the true enormity of this manna from heaven truly dawned. What to do now? If they made their find known then this secret bounty would be scattered throughout the community like so many leaves in the wind, but keeping it for themselves didn’t seem right either. In the end, with blood being thicker than water, self-preservation won the argument. After all, they argued, they were the ones who had taken the trouble to befriend the Americans.
The adage of ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’ was popular amongst many of the townsfolk; if they disliked the Yanks so much why should they share in this sudden windfall? The two boys solemnly swore a vow that they would tell no one other than their own family about this hidden cache of delicious goodies. They removed two more tins and then carefully covered over the remaining horde, scattering leaves and sticks over the top. Once satisfied that their secret was safe, they set off for home, each with a silver tin hidden up their jumpers to avoid any unwanted questions from nosey parkers. Ted triumphantly threw open the back door and presented his mother with the tin he had nefariously transported down from the hill. Actions speak louder than words and instead of the praise he was expecting, his mother gave him a clip round the ear for stealing.
‘Where did you get that, you little thief!’ she said vehemently. Rubbing the side of his face, Ted tearfully explained his good fortune. It was only then that his mother softened and apologized. The secret stash of tinned bully beef, potatoes and of course peaches, kept both families going throughout the war. Ted, somewhat wistfully, believed there were still some tins buried up on the top of the hill, even to this day.
Picture Source: Barry Taylor