Pompey Bar Room Banter 4: Loco Eric, Part I

Continuing his trip down the memory lane of Portsmouth pubs, John Oke Bartlett, reminisces over his time at the Fifth Hants on Albert Road, and the local characters he met there. 

Image credit: GoogleMaps.

The Fifth, as it is frequently referred to, stands tall in the landscape. The Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms is one of those iconic pubs that if it ever closed, Albert Road would be the poorer for it. Currently, if a tenant cannot be found, there is a very real possibility that the pub could be under threat of closure, which would be a very sad day indeed.

Despite so many pubs in recent years putting the towel on the pumps and calling, ‘time!’ for the very last time, Portsmouth still has numerous pubs. However, places like the Fifth, having always enjoyed a unique atmosphere of its own, are few and far between. At one time the pub was known as the Volunteer Arms, becoming the Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms in 1953. In living memory, the pub has always been a Gales house but changed to Fullers when the London based brewers bought up the brewery lock, stock and barrel. Despite the inevitable refurbishment, the pub remains much as it would have been in the 19th century.

There are two bars which have always had, as far as I am concerned, a relationship similar to chalk and cheese. Both bars have their own specific identity and depending upon your disposition you would more than likely favour one over the other and would seldom venture into the domain of the chalk or, for that matter, the cheese.

A friend of mine once came to stay, who in turn brought along with him a friend of his. This friend of a friend turned out to be a police officer in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The mists of time have veiled my memory as to why we ended up on one bright Saturday morning, in the front bar of the Fifth, enjoying a pint of Horndean Special Bitter. In quick succession, the Juke box blared out a variety of classic rock numbers whilst the clientele balefully regarded us with some suspicion. I suppose like attracts like and we must have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.  The CID man, whose name escapes me, confided in us, more serious than jocular, that he would normally be arresting the whole caboodle of humanity gathered in there. In response to this, we inevitably moved into the back bar.

There is a timeless quality about the lounge bar at the Fifth Hants. It is comfortable whilst still retaining a sense of its Victorian past. In an ‘L’ shape, upholstered pews range round two of the walls. Small tables, some fifties style Windsor chairs and a few stools create additional seating. There is an original fireplace, with a carved, dark wooden mantle which also contains period polished metal panels. I would say this is a later addition, probably dating from the Edwardian period. Decorating the walls there is a modest collection of military memorabilia, including a framed Volunteer’s scarlet army tunic. Times move on, tastes change and of course so does the clientele.

I first visited the pub when it was still enjoying the reputation of a ‘must visit’ on a Friday or Saturday night. The robust atmosphere had originally been stoically created and inadvertently nurtured by ‘Gladys’ and her dog ‘Toffee’. It has always amazed me how a mildly offensive, belligerent even, landlord can create an atmosphere that is so attractive that customers almost fall over themselves to be insulted over and over again. And yet still come back for more! Maybe it is the tight ship syndrome as, after all, we all want to know exactly where the boundaries are, otherwise, they can’t be pushed. On the subject of, for those of you who can remember, breaking the boundaries, the ‘lock in’ was particularly sweet. This simple pleasure has all been swept away of course, by the changing of the licensing laws and all day opening.

Sadly, I say with trepidation owing to her reputation, Gladys was before my time and had, ‘shufflel’d off this mortall coile’ some years before I had the pleasure of supping an ale or two within the lounge bar. However, her reputation lives on in the memory of all those past imbibers of the amber nectar who were the faithful regulars of her institution. By all accounts it was reputed that Gladys had been born in one of the upstairs bedrooms and had spent her entire working life behind the bar, first as the daughter and ultimately as the landlady. I suppose, reminiscent to biting the hand that feeds you, such an existence creates a certain kind of attitude. Apparently Gladys was more than happy to serve you a pint prior to closing, but as soon as the clock struck the appointed hour, she used to insist upon drinking up and closing time to the second! Even in winter at five past eleven, she would fling open the outside doors shouting phrases like ‘Outy! Outy! Outy!’. Just like the clock, this axiom was reliably followed up by ‘drink them or you’ll lose them!’ Woe betide you if you didn’t, as she would take your beer and pour it away.

Every dog has its day as they say and the fortunes of a pub ebb and flow. In the late seventies and early eighties, when the pub was regarded as ‘an institution’, the regulars, especially on a Sunday lunchtime, would sit with their pints in serried ranks, draped around the extremities of the room. Amongst other things singing was strictly forbidden, with the one exception – punters were permitted to sing along with the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in the front bar. There were a small handful of select individuals who were allowed to come in off the street and hawk their goods – ‘Land of hope and glory, mother of the free…’  One frequent visitor in and around the local pubs, was the sea food man. Dressed in a short white coat, a chap with a large square wicker basket packed with small trays of cockles, whelks and that sort of thing, would sweep into the room and ‘do the rounds’.  Somehow the purchase of these fishy delights, along with the ubiquitous dash of vinegar, belongs to a different era. As far as I know, in Portsmouth at least, the custom has dropped off as the trade has ceased to be viable.

Don’t miss Part 2 of John Oke Bartlett’s Pompey Bar Room Banter 4, Loco Eric next Friday.

Main image by Sarah Cheverton. Additional image of Fifth Hants pub from Google Maps.