Peter’s eventful life of service and adventures

Peter Booth on guard duty at HMS Chembur, Bombay, India
Peter Booth on guard duty at HMS Chembur, Bombay, India
Busy businesswoman Abbie Curtis with her one-year-old daughter Harper Picture by Habibur Rahman  (171362-754)

REAL LIFE: Balancing business with family life

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Do you know, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of people I meet with such marvellous backgrounds and no-one to hear about them.

They also know more about the history of this city than any book can tell you. That is why writing this column brings me so much enjoyment and satisfaction.

The air raid shelter today

The air raid shelter today

I met Peter Booth last week and he had such a life – especially in his early years – that I just had to tell you about him.

Peter, now 86, has lived in the same house in Tipner Road, Tipner, since 1933. His parents bought the house for the princely sum of £400. At the time he was eight and his father was serving in the Royal Navy.

Peter’s life was filled with navy talk as his father had another four brothers serving at the same time, plus another in the RAF.

Aged eight, Peter joined the naval cadets based at HMS Excellent, Whale Island. He remained with the unit until 1941 when he joined the Air Training Cadets for a short while before being called up.

Peter told me that at the time there were several naval cadet units in the city apart from HMS Excellent. There were units at Victory Barracks (now HMS Nelson), HMS Dolphin, Gosport, HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays) and the Royal Marine Cadet Force, based at Eastney Barracks.

Every year there was the annual naval cadet gun-run on Whale Island parade ground. They used a lighter field gun than the men used and Peter tells me that HMS Excellent won the trophy several times when he was in the unit.

When Peter left school in 1939 he delivered groceries on a bike for a local shopkeeper but met a builder and was offered a job at 6d an hour for a 48-hour week.

Peter worked that out at one pound four shillings a week (£1.20) and jumped at the chance. He was only mixing cement at the time but had the chance to learn to lay bricks as well.

It was about the time of the outbreak of the war and the firm he worked for, Hilliers, was contracted to build brick air-raid shelters. Peter laid some bricks on a shelter in his own back garden and this shelter is still there to this day.

When Peter turned 18 he was called up for national service and joined the navy. After basic training at HMS Collingwood in Fareham he was sent to Stockheath Naval Camp on the Leigh Park country estate of the Fitzwygram family.

From there he was sent to HMS Peewit in Scotland for several weeks before returning home.

One day he had to help deliver bags of cement to HMS Dryad at Southwick which was used to build tunnels, he was told. Then he had to work on Horsea Island which was still an island at the time.

At the western end of the island opposite Portchester he assisted in putting down quick drying cement. It was laid at low tide and then when the tide had come and gone the concrete had set as hard as rocks.

Peter never did find out what it was all about but believes it was something to do with D-Day.

Next he was sent to Selsey Bill in Sussex to clear barbed wire and other sea defences.

He and his mates were all under canvas for the next four weeks as after the clearing they were set to work on building jetties and piers out to sea.

Of course, Peter and his mates were building landing stages and piers for the embarkation of the troops for D-Day. I wonder how many people know about what happened at Selsey?

During subsequent postings, Peter travelled a lot. And it was while he was stationed in India at HMS Chembur that he became involved with the Indian naval mutiny.

Peter and a mate were walking along a street one day when they were spotted by a party of sailors who chased them.

It was only by entering a shop and locking the door that they were saved from a beating.

While in the shop there was another Indian sailor and Peter asked him what it was all about.

The sailor told him that he only earned 25 rupees a fortnight and were not like the rich British sailors so they were demanding a rise.

Peter worked out his wages in Indian money and told the sailor that he was only on 35 rupees a fortnight himself which astounded the Indian sailor.

When Peter’s war ended he was sent to Winchester to build council houses.

He also did some work on the Leigh Park estate for a while and then helped build what’s now the Royal Maritime Club in Queen Street, Portsea.

Part of his work was placing stone effigies in the brick work and they are still there to this day.

Now some 20 years after retiring, Peter can look back on a lifetime of adventure which saw him travel to places he never knew existed before the war.