John Jenkins is the boardroom steward at Fratton Park. He watched his first game there 83 years ago and has taken his passion for the club around the world in a remarkable life
It was 77 years ago that 14-year-old John Jenkins gazed out on these Solent waters before embarking on a breathless life of adventure that could put Ernest Hemingway in the shade.
He has crammed so much into his 91 years that it would leave a man half his age exhausted.
In a nutshell, he:
n Went to sea and was let loose in New York, the West Indies and central America within months of leaving his Southsea school at the age of 14
Worked on one of the world’s greatest and record-breaking liners
Had a close shave with sharks and barracuda while swimming in tropical waters
Took part in the Normandy landings
Guarded a German coal mine in the aftermath of the Second World War and prevented the miners falling into Soviet hands
Took German prisoners-of-war for a stroll on Salisbury Plain
Was burned by mustard gas
Drove a trolley bus around Portsmouth
Received the MBE from the Queen
Still paints in watercolours and oils to a high standard
Has been a steward at Fratton Park for 50 years and is still the boardroom steward
Got his first speeding ticket a couple of weeks ago
He’s a master of understatement. ‘I’ve been very lucky. Had a pretty interesting life really, I suppose,’ he said.
We meet in his cosy and immaculate flat on Eastern Road, Milton, where he introduces me to possibly his greatest achievement. His wife Peggy. They’ve been married 70 years.
‘You know what, she’s still my favourite, he winks. His eyes still twinkle as he approaches his 92nd birthday.
His love of football, and his beloved Pompey, have dominated his life. Born in Collingwood Road, Southsea, in 1919, he went to Albert Road and Highland Road schools and represented both at the game.
‘I still remember my first game at Fratton Park in 1928. We beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2.’
John continued: ‘When I came to leave when I was 14, the football had made me very fit and I really wanted to join the Royal Navy along with a pal.
‘We both went to the recruiting office in Edinburgh Road. He passed, but I failed the eyesight test.’
This is somewhat ironic when you learn that he was made an MBE in 1969 for his military service – with the army.
So he applied to join Cunard and was summoned for an interview in Southampton.
‘My mum took me and somehow I got in and within weeks I caught the train back there to go on board the Mauretania.
‘I was going to be a bell boy and I remember standing on the dock looking up at this huge white ship with four enormous funnels. I couldn’t quite believe she was going to be my home.’
So at 14 he joined the crew of the liner which in her heyday was the largest and fastest in the world. For 22 years she held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.
‘I was the youngest on board and I wonder if I’m the only surviving member of the crew.’
His job was to help the stewards serve the first class passengers in their dining room.
Little more than five days later the boy from the back alleys of Southsea was wandering, bedazzled, the streets of New York.
‘It was summer when we arrived and very hot and I remember one of the first things I saw someone selling blocks of ice cream containing strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavours. I’d never seen anything like it.’
Then the ship departed for her regular cruises to the West Indies, Venezuela and the Panama Canal.
‘Of course I was homesick, but we were kept so busy and there were so many fascinating places to see it didn’t last long.’
In September that year, 1934, John returned to Southampton on what was the Mauretania’s final trans-Atlantic voyage. She went for scrap in 1935.
When the Second World War started, 20-year-old John again applied to join the navy. Again his eyesight let him down.
‘So I waited until I was called up in 1940 and joined the Royal Pioneer Corps.’
He reached the rank of sergeant before he sailed from Newhaven, East Sussex, in a landing craft for Gold Beach in Normandy towards the end of June 1944.
‘We were responsible for supplying all the ammunition which was a bit of a dicey job at times,’ he said with a chuckle.
He moved on into Belgium and after crossing the Rhine into Germany the war ended.
Back in Britain he was sent to help guard a German prisoner-of-war camp on Salisbury Plain.
‘It was obvious they were soon to be sent home so they were allowed out for walks. We had to accompany them but didn’t need rifles because they weren’t going to try to escape.
‘One day their officer came to me and said some of his men had found some bombs in a field.
‘A policemen looked at them, said they belonged to the Home Guard and picked them up. They disintegrated and out came this liquid. It was mustard gas.’