Market trader John’s cry: ‘Yes, I have no bananas’

Here we see John's mother's family of sisters. Their parents, John's grandparents, are sitting in the middle. From left: Annie, Alice, Dorothy, Vany, Nora, Bessie in dark dress (John's mother) and Joan, the youngest.
Here we see John's mother's family of sisters. Their parents, John's grandparents, are sitting in the middle. From left: Annie, Alice, Dorothy, Vany, Nora, Bessie in dark dress (John's mother) and Joan, the youngest.

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One of the joys of compiling these pages is having the opportunity to talk to real Portsmouth people – those born and raised in the city who have lived through its good times as well as the turbulent.

People like 86-year-old John Valvona, who was born in Landport and has spent the rest of his life either living or working there.

John aged 17.

John aged 17.

His whole family came from the city. Indeed his mother Bessie was one of 15 children – seven girls and eight boys.

His grandparents lived in Alfred Street, off Charlotte Street in a two-up, two-down. Where the children all slept is a mystery. All that John remembers of his aunts and uncles was that some were ready to leave home as others were born.

He knew his grandparents vaguely as John was born in 1929 and his grandfather died before the Second World War and his grandmother during it.

His mother left home to be married when she was 16 and moved into a house in a new row of long-gone houses in the Charlotte Street area.

John's stall in Charlotte Street.

John's stall in Charlotte Street.

His father borrowed money from his father-in-law to buy the town house in Amelia Street for £400. It was a three-storey house with a basement.

John says: ‘I’m glad we moved as when a bomb, or whatever it was, wrecked the Conway Street area it took our former house with it.’

During those times of depression and little money there was a way of heating the home that was used by hundreds of poor Portsmouth people.

John explains: ‘We had an old pram which I would sit in and off my brothers and sister Joan would go to the gasworks’ boiler house near Flathouse Quay.

John today, aged 86.

John today, aged 86.

‘When we got there I hopped out and we’d wait in a long queue of people, even though we got there as early as possible.

‘We then went into the office and paid 3d. That allowed us to place the pram under a chute from which hot coke was poured filling the pram. It would last us the week by lighting a fire with a little coal and then placing a shovel of coke on it.’

During the war John and his sister Joan were evacuated to Bordon and he helped on a farm. When his parents came to visit they saw him covered in dirt and tired. So they took him home.

When John left school at 14 he was offered a job in a steel factory near Rudmore or as a Bevin Boy working in coal mines. He went for the factory where, as he was on piece rates, he could earn up to £20 a week. This was in 1946 and a fortune then.

Eventually John joined his father, who was a Charlotte Street market trader. John loved it and remained in the street for the rest of his working life, taking over the stall when his father died in 1954.

At that time the market traded only on a Friday afternoon and all day Saturday. The council rent for the pitch was 1s 6d.

Today we are used to buying all fruit and veg all year long, but back then everything was seasonal.

Grapes arrived in cartons mixed with cork chippings to protect them. John says: ‘We had to take the bunches out and blow all over them to get rid of those chippings.’

For the month leading up to Christmas John dealt only in nuts. In the new year it was back to fruit, but never bananas. The trader next to him was the well-known Billy Clark who always wore a suit and trilby and sold only bananas. John didn’t want to step on his toes.

In the mid-1960s John was offered a shop in Albert Road, Southsea, on the corner of St Ronan’s Road. It became a roaring success as John would never deal in seconds. He had contracts with all the top hotels and boarding houses.

John still attends the market to catch up with some of the old boys, some of whom he trained. A true man of Portsmouth.