One of the joys of writing this column is meeting people with a story and if I can take them back to certain locations, all the better.
Such was the case when I met Dennis Davis who was born at 21, Broad Street, Old Portsmouth, on February 4, 1929.
His father was a career sailor and absent for much of Dennis’s childhood. His mother cleaned the house of William Wylie, the famous Portsmouth artist.
Broad Street and the surrounding area was a playground for Dennis and his pals – a far different area than the one we know today.
At the end of the road was Point where the chain ferry from Gosport and the Isle of Wight car ferry used to dock. Dennis says: ‘Many think the chain ferry landed at the end of Broad Street. In fact, it was to the left of it and alongside where the Isle of Wight car ferry came in.’
Dennis recalls a third ferry which many do not remember – a foot ferry to Gosport. It was a small boat that carried people across the harbour quicker than the chain ferry. Nearby was the Star & Garter pub and alongside was a cafe run by Malcolm Grogan.
In those days Broad Street flooded and residents slotted wood into grooves either side of their front doors. When the tide rose a man ran down the street calling: ‘Put your boards up.’ A large board was then slotted into place and Stamshaw clay moulded into the groove to stop water gushing into homes.
At the time there was an abattoir at the Camber and animals for slaughter were unloaded from the chain ferry, herded along Broad Street and into East Street before being killed.
Just where the later Isle of Wight car ferry arrived in East Street was an area known as Muck House Corner because when the tide came in all the rubbish from the dockyard was swept into this part of the Camber.
One of the families who lived close to Dennis were the Butchers who ran boats taking visitors around the harbour. Dennis and his pals would ask to borrow a boat to visit Fort Blockhouse across the harbour, which the owner always agreed to. We’re talking about 10 and 11-year-old lads who were very streetwise and knew their way across the harbour. Imagine it happening today.
Dennis’s grandfather Harry Grist was a waterman who lived opposite Wyllie and at one time was one of Sir Thomas Lipton’s crew on the racing yacht Shamrock.
In the Anglican Cathedral in Old Portsmouth there is a famous painting by Wyllie called The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and the faces of the disciples are of local men. Even Jesus is supposed to be Vicar Darnell. The bearded figure on the right was Harry Grist and the face near the feet of Christ was Peter White – Peter the fisherman.
Dennis also remembers the landlord of the Seagull pub keeping a lamb as a pet that would run around the bar, and no one batted an eyelid.
When the war came Dennis was evacuated to Basingstoke which he hated. He saved his pocket money and caught a train back to Portsmouth. He says: ‘The look on mum’s face when she saw me was a picture.’ At that time his father was based in HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness and he and his mother moved there to be near him.
But his mother got news the Broad Street house had been burgled. They returned and found the front window smashed and the front door ajar. Inside, everything was strewn around. Whether it had been burgled or it was blast damage and looters had been at work remains a mystery. Dennis’s mother gathered a few belongings and left the house for the last time.
At the end of the war and paying a visit Dennis saw the house was to be demolished and a cafe with flats above built in its place.
After the war and National Service Dennis joined the Merchant Navy and travelled the world.