Rare glimpse of Crabb’s Portsmouth funeral

A rarely-seen photograph of Lionel 'Buster' Crabb's funeral at Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth.
A rarely-seen photograph of Lionel 'Buster' Crabb's funeral at Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth.
jpns-22-07-17 retro July 2017

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My request a fortnight ago for information about Buster Crabb, the diver who disappeared beneath a Soviet warship in Portsmouth Harbour in 1956, brought several replies.

They included this rare photograph, loaned by Nigel Butlin, of Crabb’s interment in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth, on July 5, 1957. The funeral service had been at midday in St John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh Road.

Commander Crabb's room at the Sally Port Hotel.

Commander Crabb's room at the Sally Port Hotel.

Jon Clapham’s parents owned the Sally Port Hotel in High Street, Old Portsmouth, where Crabb spent his last hours and after Jon’s parents sold the business he managed to keep the key fob from room 20, Crabb’s room.

The hotel has now been sold after remaining closed for the past eight years and I managed to contact the new owner, Mark Smith, who allowed me to take a few pictures before he converts it into a boutique hotel, restaurant and bar.

The building’s interior was reshaped in the 1970s, although the basic framework is still there.

This will all be removed and the hotel restored to how it might have looked like in its heyday.

The key to room 20 a the Sally Port Hotel where Buster Crabb spent his last night.

The key to room 20 a the Sally Port Hotel where Buster Crabb spent his last night.

Someone else who was keen to tell me more was Nigel Butlin. He is a member of a very well known family who lived at 53, High Street.

His uncle was Billy Butlin the holiday camp pioneer.

Nigel’s cousin on his mother’s side is Marilyn Cole, formerly of Eastney, and the former Bunny Girl and Playboy magazine pin-up.

Nigel tells me he used to own a small boat kept at The Camber.

When the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze was tied up in the Dockyard he and a friend used to row out to the ship and throw the Russian sailors English magazines. For their efforts the sailors used to drop them money, rings and other Russian bits and bobs.

One day they were alongside the cruiser when the sailors asked them to go on board which they did. This was not an open day when tourists visited the ship, but a private invitation to look around.

They climbed the ladder and remained on board for about 20 minutes.

It was not until later they thought about the consequences and that they might have been kidnapped.

Nigel met Lionel Crabb on several occasions and Crabb even bought his mother flowers.

Nigel told me a story about the cellar at 53, High Street which was well down under the house with a ceiling that was lower than the pavement outside.

In the wall was a bricked up doorway so he and his brother decided to take a hammer and chisel to it to try to break through.

Some of the bricks went through to the other side and tumbled down what sounded like a stairway.

It was then that their mother called them up for lunch. Sat around the table the family were just about to tuck in when they heard a ‘thud, thud, thud’ coming up the cellar stairs.

In one movement they all got up and rushed out into the street. Sometime later Nigel went back down and replaced the few bricks he had removed... and never ventured there again.