Month: July 2012

Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum – An Introductory Note

I am preparing an edition of Robert Dolling’s “Ten Years In A Portsmouth Slum” (1895), and thought the following introduction might be of interest to anyone with a fascination for the city of Portsmouth, its extremes and its privations.

Editor’s Introduction

The city of Portsmouth that stands on the island of Portsea at the beginning of the 21st Century is a very different entity to the collection of towns and settlements to which the Reverend Robert Dolling was appointed towards the end of the 19th.

The whole of Conway Street and its environs, where his crowning achievement, Saint Agatha’s church, was built was wrecked by a single bomb during World War II. Perhaps miraculously, the church of St Agatha’s still stands, surrounded by roads that lead elsewhere, a little island of the past not completely swept away by the brutality of German bombs or the modernity of traffic schemes.

Standing in the church today, it is fascinating to imagine the maze of narrow streets that surrounded the basilica, which was opened just a few short weeks before he departed after a stubborn dispute with his bishop. It is humbling to consider the thousands of lives Dolling’s particular energy touched, the battles to improve people’s lots that went on in this area. And it is peculiar today to think of the basilica now as devoid of a parish, with the crowding slums around it long departed.

The part of Landport that was Dolling’s area of influence was crammed under the high walls of Portsmouth dockyard and stretched out towards Commercial Road. It is the presence of the dockyard that perhaps accounts for the attitude to life of many of the people who lived on Portsea Island, and in Landport in particular.

In the dockyard, around 6,000 men, skilled and unskilled, made a living fitting out and repairing the ships that were the lifeblood of the British Empire. Their lives were hard and the skills the dockyard needed from them had little to do with being civilised or Christian.  They needed to be strong, to be able to strike a rivet accurately, to work hard and to turn up on time not too much the worse for wear after whatever excesses they had got up to in the pubs, alehouses, brothels, cockpits or other places of entertainment they had been in the night before.

Alongside the workers in the dockyard were the sailors. Men who had been often at sea for years on end, were battle-hardened, and were used to drinking to excess in the seedy backstreets of Imperial possessions the world over. Landport was one more such place.

Meanwhile, the town of Portsmouth itself lay off to the south and east.  Ostensibly genteel along its High Street, Portsmouth contained massive barracks buildings where soldiers were penned up, awaiting a mutiny, an insurrection or a war to be called on to do their duty.

With so many rootless men around, and with an extraordinarily high number of watering holes around the town, it is little surprise that thousands of prostitutes lived there, plying the streets for trade, or running their businesses from more discreet “bad houses” in the dark recesses and narrow lanes of Landport, Portsea and Portsmouth.

The back streets of Portsmouth were slums even in the 1880s. King’s Bench Alley, Portsea, was only 2 feet 7 inches wide at its narrowest point, and never broader than 4 feet. Squeeze Gut Alley, in Portsmouth had a name that told you all you needed to know about its size. The houses in Landport were similarly sardined together, huddled between the dockyard and Commercial Road. Often a toilet in a back yard was shared between several families, and running water was drawn from a communal pump. Families were stacked close by each other – and – as Dolling himself notes – were prone to a clannishness that meant people in one street wouldn’t speak with those from the next.

With little need for education, since the dockyard would supply the work for many Portsea Island families, existence had a harsh physical quality. There were honest workers of all sorts living in Landport, and (as Dolling notes) children everywhere playing on the streets. There were vagabonds and tramps and those seeking work but unable to get any – and all the mish-mash of the very bottom end of Victorian society. There were shopworkers too, glad to have gainful employment, but who were made to work exceptionally long hours by shop owners who thought nothing of imposing on them a fourteen or fifteen hour day. With this as the background to their lives, no surprise that what Dolling considered to be the elevating influence of religion, along with that of simple social interaction and more satisfying relationship-building were not easily discovered among the people of Landport.

It is into this setting that Dolling strode on his mission to spread The Word, and act as a beacon of light and civilisation.

His background, the son of a wealthy landowner in Northern Ireland, English educated, with a strong feeling for the presence of God-in-man made him a simplistic theologian and a natural champion of the common man.

He came to Portsmouth after running a mission in the East End of London, and eventually became the priest at Saint Agatha’s Church in Conway Street, Landport.

Dolling’s approach to the slums of Portsmouth suited his personality, and that of the town, too. He was extremely active, and realised that the children of these tough families would not want their religious lessons over-egged. It was more use to the people around him to give them the things that were missing from their lives – an opportunity for people from different streets to socialise under one roof, the chance for young men and women to dance together as an opportunity to bring some gentleness to their courtships, the closing of the brothels and the opening of a gymnasium, public baths, almshouses and a grand church.

The prejudice of the higher classes against a priest of the poor, the intransigence of those with vested interests and moneyed profiteers from “fallen” women were all hindrances he overcame. What’s more, the practicalities of teaching people to live a more social life were many, not least the complaints of mothers who noted that their children’s clothes were worn through by kneeling to pray.

All the while, Dolling was most definitely on their side, and actively so. His attitudes were against the intellectual, and in favour of the practical. His attitude to the poor and the uneducated is stated clearly in a few words, that reveal where his sympathies lay:

“For ten long years, day and night, there were lessons for me to learn, if I only had the grace and modesty to learn them. Even in that in which men might know more, knowledge, they are but as babes and sucklings in the presence of those whom they condescend to teach, that is, if knowledge means the knowing of things likely to be useful to the knower and to the community. In speech, too, how much we have to learn; how terse and in what few words do our dear people express themselves, while the man who wants to harangue them wraps round with innumerable words, which darken all counsels and prevent all understanding, the thought that the slum lad expresses in three or four words to the point. And as to manners, every single man in my home was a gentleman, that is, if thinking for others and treating them with forbearance and tenderness and love, and striving to make them feel at home and at ease, means being gentlemen. The roughest, rudest, most ignorant lad, after a month’s residence, has obtained these graces.”

This book is Dolling’s account of his time in Portsmouth. It is rich with the flavour of the Anglo-Catholic church in the 19th Century – and with something else besides. It gives an insight into the life of the town, into the characters who lived here and the different stratas of society. It reveals the prejudices of the classes, like the astonishment that Bishop Thorold pronounced when being told that the two charming chaps he had sat next to during a dinner in Landport were accomplished thieves, or the way in which Dolling took Landport people out for day visits to wealthy benefactors in the country in an effort to infuse them with the finer points of civilization. It shows the emotional satisfaction to be had from a society that isn’t only interested in getting the poor to work, but also to enjoy themselves in activities other than drinking and gambling – and how providing amenities to do that has a positive effect on people at last enabled to live fuller lives. It shows the benign effect of building a society with the ability to interact and rub along together and putting structures in place that bring out the better sides of people.

There are lessons here that we could learn again, at the start of the 21st Century.

It also reveals the humour of life as a priest in Portsmouth, the highs and the lows. The children who wrecked the gymnasium just because they could, the begging priest whom Dolling took by the nape of the neck and threw out of his house, the visiting Member of Parliament, the guardsman and clergymen staying with him over Christmas who he put on a ration of cheese and bread with the rest of the household as punishment for whoever wrecked Blind Willie’s hat.

In all, there is much to recommend the Reverend Robert Dolling’s book, and much to marvel at. Enjoy!

Matt Wingett, Southsea, Portsmouth, 2012.

Opening To A New Three Belles Story Chapter 1 – The Cloche Hat

Okay, so this is the opening chapter to a Three Belles Story, as yet untitled. Hope you like it!

1. The Cloche Hat

The slim young woman moved through the swirling night fog with increasing apprehension. It’s like walking through a cloud, she thought as billows of opaque air curled around her. The woman, whose name was Anneka, suddenly felt very alone in the streets of the island city of Portsmouth.

It’s got to be here somewhere! she continued – the grey air seeming to make even her thoughts difficult to focus. Can I really be lost?

Little patches of orange light faded in a few yards to tracing paper faintness in the darkness – tiny planets atop disembodied iron poles like unnatural constellations. This is eerie. She took a breath and listened to the click of her shoes on the pavement. The fog pushed in, its cold fingers on her neck.

Instinctively, she pulled up the collar of her elegant knee-length camel coat, tightening the broad belt around her waist with its chunky bakelite buckle.  A foghorn groaned with a long, low echo across the city – one of the blind giants on the Solent – and she felt a sense of helplessness inside. Where was she? Goodness, she was due to sing in just a few minutes and had only stepped out to save a call from being drowned by the noise of the pub. One quick step into the fog, then another…

That call. The man’s voice had faded in and out as she’d plugged her other ear with her finger – the signal pulsing and fading and difficult to hear over the mournful foghorns.

“…The shop…” the voice said, over and again.  “Don’t… the shop…”

He had a strange, clipped accent which made him difficult to understand, and before she could hear more, the call had cut off.

She shivered, stopping for a moment to gather her wits and her bearings.  Not a soul around.  Where the hell am I?

She selected the GPS app on her smartphone.  Yet, even as she did so, the fog bunched around her like a living thing – and if she hadn’t been more level-headed, she would have sworn it drained the life from the handset. The icon of an empty battery briefly appeared red before the screen flickered palely and then gave up the ghost.

She directed a fiery gaze into the night, defiantly ignoring the chill in her body.

But despite making a show of it, she was uncomfortable. After her last adventure in this very city only the year before, in which she and the two other members of the singing trio called The Three Belles had been the subject of a haunting, she couldn’t help wondering whether something ghostly was about to reappear.  But no, Freddie Budden, the ghost who had mistakenly haunted The Three Belles had long been laid to rest. Besides, she said to herself decisively, lightning never strikes twice, as the saying goes.

As if reading her thoughts, light flared ahead of her. Golden in the fog, a pool of brightness, rushing from a shop window and spreading the illusion of sunshine in the misty night. She stepped briskly toward the yellow rectangle in the grey swirl where it hovered like a vision of a summer day and found herself before a shop window.

Oh.  And what a shop!  She goggled at the display of vintage clothing before her; the beautiful long lines of a woman’s suit – a Coco Chanel day ensemble, no less! The white wool coat with red floral silk lining that also dramatically covered the lapels looked to be just her size. With it came a matching floral silk blouse and skirt. What style!  But the thing that did it for her most of all was the cloche hat.  Neat, simple, exquisitely cut from white felt, with a little red rose stitched on the side, and a playful line of diagonal white felt angled above the eyes.  Perfect!

What is this place? she thought, forgetting the 15 minutes to the gig and the other Belles waiting for her in the pub. She was transfixed by that suit, and especially that hat.

Taking in the vintage shop’s dark wooden shelving through the window, the little display compartments at the back like something from a hundred years before, she marvelled with wide eyes: Not seen this before – must be newMy, they’ve done it so well, too!

Seeing the OPEN sign in the door, she decided it might make sense to just – well – just pop in and get some directions, and maybe take a quick look around, too, while she was there.  Without a second’s thought, she stepped inside, out of the eerie fog, into the nostalgic smell and comfortable warmth of a vintage fashion boutique exclusively set up to sell clothing from the Roaring Twenties.

She eyed the room in a kind of ecstasy of appreciation. The immaculate flapper’s dresses, the T-bar shoes with sparkles and spangles, the long elegant lines of exquisitely cut coats, the strings of pearls on the mannequins and – oh – yes – those delicate little white cotton button-up gloves on the counter.  She picked them up and felt their lightness under her hand and their softness, running them through her fingers as she looked around her.  She admired the little touches in the shop. Squatting in the corner of the room, in full mahogany splendour, a wind-up HMV gramophone player, its horn spreading  over it like the bell of a lily. Nice! And even the till on the counter, she thought, even that is in pounds, shillings and pence. My goodness!

“Hello?” she said to the room, and thought she heard a rustle somewhere.  “Hello?  Anyone home?”

On the counter sat a circular brass service bell with a striker button on the top, which she tapped with confidence.  A loud, high-pitched chime lifted up like a frightened bird and echoed around the room.  Then, as the sound died, she saw, standing in the shadow of a coat rack not far from her, a short man with a red silk waistcoat, little round glasses – and all topped by a fez, of all things! – looking at her expressionlessly, seeming to drink her in.

Realising he had been spotted, he stepped toward a little Chinese incense burner that stood on the counter. A squat green jade bowl standing on four lion’s claws made of brass, with the brass face of a lion on one side, all surmounted by an ornamental top piece. He lifted the lid and dropped a pinch of pungent incense into the bowl. A flame flared up with a blue light for a second, rolling a curl of smoke into the room, strangely reminiscent of the fog outside.

“Welcome, lady, welcome,” he said.  “Welcome to my shop, yes?”

Anneka took him in for a moment longer. A funny little fellow, perhaps four feet tall, a sparkle in his eye now, no longer with that enigmatic look, but a broad smile on his face.  He almost skipped towards her with pleasure.

“How can I help you this fine day?” He raised a hand before she could answer. “Don’t tell me. You like the Chanel in the window? A special piece, yes indeed, let me, yes, let me show you! It is very much your size. Tall, elegant. Yes? Something to bring out your shape… look!”

Before she could answer he was in at the window and had disrobed the dummy with such speed that she wondered if there was some trick to it.

“No, listen, I came in here to ask the way – ” she began, a vision of the gig rising in her mind. What would the other two Belles be thinking? She could see Sally’s worried face, hear her talking with Izzie – and Chloe the sound woman looking stressed out.  But he somehow dismissed her concerns with a flourish of his hand as he stepped towards her again. Wearing a commanding expression he dandled the suit before her eyes, the suit’s silk shimmering in the shop’s soft light – the room’s golden glow like magic, the scent in the air, powerfully sweet and delightfully relaxing adding to the effect.

“Here,” he said.  “Feel it. The quality.  It is wonderful? Yes?”

She did as she was bid, feeling the freshness of the cloth, her eyes starting as she caressed it.

“It feels…”

“New?  Yes, like it is brand new, just out of the seamstress’s shop in Paris, aha? Try it,” he said, suddenly.  “Yes, go on. Try it.”

His eyes drilled into hers, and she felt as if suddenly this was exactly the right thing to do. Thoughts of the gig receded to a little corner of her mind, and when he handed her the cloche hat to go with the suit her worries disappeared completely. “The changing room is there – yes – at the back,” he said, pointing with a strangely eager movement.

As she headed to the back of the shop, the sound of classical music, distant, warm and somehow magical, crackled through the room. The shopkeeper was playing an old disc on that gramophone player, she realised.  Well, this is super!

The changing room was behind a gold and black lacquered Chinese screen with a rearing dragon painted on it, beneath a golden clockwork bird in a cage – a little comfortable room with more Chinoiserie – a phoenix taking flight above a mirror. With a sense of anticipation she discarded the vintage 1940s clothing she was wearing for the gig. First the camel coat, then the flowerprint dress, the seamed stockings and the neat flat-heeled shoes of Austerity Britain, before putting on something from a wealthier, happier more decadent age.

The silk blouse felt fantastic against her skin, and the soft knee-length summer skirt had a refreshing coolness about it.  Then came the white coat with its flash of floral silk on the lapels, and the white summer shoes with a Harrods label inside. Finally, above it all, that white felt cloche hat, with the red rose and diagonal band, also in white, sweeping at a bold angle above the line of her eyes.

She couldn’t believe the fit. An absolute gem of haute couture – a perfect ’20s look!

She stepped from behind the screen to a room much brighter than she remembered. The shopkeeper was pulling blinds over the shop window. There was something strange about the light, she realised – as if daylight were trying to flood in.

He turned to look at her, clapping his hands excitedly.

“Very good, now! Very good!” he said, with a kind of breathlessness in his voice.  “Now these!”

He eagerly offered her a pair of pearl earrings, and once they were in place, a string of white pearls around her neck.  Finally, he handed her the white cotton gloves, which she put on and buttoned up.  A perfect fit. Everything, just perfect. All the while he spoke with her, in a steady rhythmic voice as he pulled a mirror from the shadows and gestured her with a wide sweep of the arm and a half-bow to look at herself in it.

“You look good. Very-very good. Yes?  Now you listen to something I say. In a while, you will want to come home.  But you will not be able to come home until you do something for me. It is an errand. A tiny little errand.  A delivery, no more no less, for a friend.  I can’t see him myself, but you will see him, over on the island.  Mr Mitchell, that is his name.  And you will give him this…”

He showed her a small parcel, about the size of a double CD case, wrapped in brown paper.

“And you must bring something back from him.  Anything.  When it is done and you have something from him, then you will bring yourself back here, and you will come home.  Do you understand me?”

Anneka’s eyes were a little glazed. The strange scent rising from the Chinese burner, the glamour of it all and his funny, rhythmic voice had all combined to give her the strangest sensation that this was all a dream.

Now the shopkeeper handed her a small white handbag.

“There is money in there.  A steamer is leaving from Clarence Pier at 12 o’clock. There is a ticket, too.  Be on it.”  He said this last with a kind of military precision. “Now you must know this. Speak to no-one if you can help it. No idle chit-chat. No questions. Just here is my ticket, or the little things of life. You are a stranger there, and if you are noticed bad things may happen to you.  Keep to yourself. For your safety.  And remember, your parcel is for Mr Mitchell.  No one else.  Only Mr Mitchell, the aeroplane designer. He will be at Ryde. With the aeroplanes.”

With this final instruction given to her with an intense look in his eye and a cutting urgency in his voice, the man in the Fez opened the door and showed Anneka out…

…Out into the dazzling sunlight of a late summer’s morning.