June Whitehouse is sitting at her sewing machine altering the hems on two of her daughter’s dresses.
She’s in her element. She should be because it’s a position she has been in for 70 years.
There are two signs by her workplace in the corner of the shop – the sixth in Portsmouth to bear her name.
One says: ‘I’m not an OAP I’m a recycled teenager’. The other asks: ‘Would you like to talk to the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s happening?’
That ‘man in charge’ is her upholsterer son John, but June keeps a beady eye on him and all the comings and goings in their shop at Winter Road, Southsea.
June is 83, looks 20 years younger, and has the raucous laugh and sense of fun of a teenager.
She has been running up clothes, wedding dresses, new covers for furniture, cushions, that sort of thing, and earning a living from it, since she left school at 13.
She’s the matriarch of a Whitehouse dynasty in Portsmouth which includes her three children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
She still works three hours a day in the shop, four days a week. She takes Wednesdays off and drives her two daughters, Julie and Sue, to their weekly treat at the cinema in her treasured Nissan Micra.
To say June is old school is an understatement. She had to fight hard to win everything in life and underpinning her philosophy is an incredible work ethic.
‘What would I do if I didn’t work?’ she says. She mischievously lowers her voice in case John overhears. ‘The thing is, I’ve got this lovely house in Myrtle Grove up the road at Baffins, a housekeeper who does all the housework, so what on earth would I do all day if I didn’t work?
‘I’d just vegetate, so I come in here to shout at John... ’
Mother and son have worked together for 40 years, think the world of each other, but June likes to think she’s in control.
That comes from decades of battling to keep her family together.
June was born in 1929 at Andover. ‘My mum, who was from Portsmouth, got pregnant and, as happened in those days, was sent away in disgrace to have the baby.
‘She kept me for two years but in 1931 I was adopted by the couple I called mum and dad who lived in Reginald Road at Eastney. He was in the navy, but when he left we moved to Slough when he got a job in the Admiralty drawing office.
‘I left school at 13 and started work in a factory on the Slough trading estate. I started off making waterproof cot sheets with ties on them before moving on to camiknickers and satin underwear.
‘I’d had a sewing machine since I was very young and made my own dresses. I can remember at school the sewing teacher would tell the other girls to come to me to show them how to do it.
‘It must be a natural talent. I think I was born to it,’ she adds.
June walked out on her adoptive mother when she was 16 and while at a dance at the Savoy on Southsea seafront met Les, a sailor who would become her husband. ‘He had survived the sinking of the Prince of Wales [more than 320 men died when she was sunk off Malaya in 1941] but he was troubled with his nerves because of it forever after.’
They married in 1947 and lived with Les’s mum and dad in Holloway Street, of Arundel Street, before moving to Birmingham where Les tried to find work. They returned to Portsmouth in 1949 when June gave birth to Julie at St Mary’s Hospital.
They lived at Hursley Road, Leigh Park, and Leominster Road, Paulsgrove, but with work scarce they upped sticks and tried London, now with two children in tow.
‘I sold our bits of furniture and with everything we owned in a couple of attache cases, got on a train for London. We had no idea where we’d live.’
There followed a series of rented rooms and a halfway house in Fulham run by the council for June and the two girls, and everywhere June went she took her sewing machine. ‘I was making dolls’ wigs out of great bundles of nylon hair. It earned a few bob.
‘I then ended up doing domestic work for an equerry to the Queen at a house in Eaton Square. It was fantastic because me and the girls got fed by the lady of the house.’
She made enough to rent a house at Carshalton and start doing what is known as ‘outdoor’ work. ‘The bosses would bring work to me and I’d make 30 blouses for five bob [25p] each. I just had to keep on working. It was the only way I could pay the rent.’
But the work dried up. The family moved to Upton Park in the east end and June got her first ‘shop’. It was in a lock-up garage but instead of a door it had a shop front. ‘I worked all the hours God sent while the girls were at school and then in the evenings, but there was plenty of it.’
Then it was on to Walthamstow, another shop, this time with a flat above. And by now John had been bornI worked under the stairs non-stop with one eye on John. When the girls came home from school I’d give them their tea then carry on working.’
But eventually it got too much. She says her husband (the couple later divorced) rarely had work. They fell behind with the rent and something drastic had to be done.
‘We decided to do a moonlight flit. I couldn’t pay the rent so I told the neighbours I was going back to Slough but instead came to PortsmouthIt’s the only bad thing, the only illegal thing, I’ve done in my life, but all I was doing was fighting to keep my kids,’ says June.
It was not long before June had two shops in Highland Road, Southsea, one selling second hand clothes and garments she had made, another second hand furniture. Shops in Fawcett Road, New Road and Frensham Road followed before the move to Winter Road.
‘All the time I’ve carried on working. I don’t know any other way.It must have kept me young. Why on earth should I give it up?’
WARTIME MEMORIES STILL FRESH
During the Second World War June Whitehouse’s adoptive father was recalled to the Royal Navy and the family moved back to Portsmouth from the Slough area. June was living in Cromarty Avenue, Milton.
It was the height of the blitz and a couple of incidents are as fresh in her memory as they were when they happened more than 70 years ago.
June says: ‘I was playing in Milton Park with a friend when two Messerschmitts flew over the park. There were two sailors nearby and I think they were after them, not two little girls.
‘But as they swooped down firing, the sailors threw us to the ground and jumped on top of us.
‘Imagine how little girls felt with two men on top of them. We were petrified, but they saved us.
‘The next day we went back to the park and picked the bullets out of the grass. You have to laugh don’t you?’
And then there was the day the shops in Locksway Road, Milton, were bombed.
June recalls: ‘I’d been good and my aunty and mum had given me their sweet coupons as a reward. I went into the sweet shop on corner of Locksway Road and got a big bag of chocolates, which was fantastic because you only got something like 2oz a week.
‘I came out of the shop and was about 200 yards up Locksway Road when a bomb was dropped on all those shops.
‘The explosion blew me to the ground and I remember my mum running up Cromarty Avenue screaming her head off to see if I was all right. But all I was interested in was my lovely chocolates which had gone all over the pavement.’