Andrew Bowker spent the entire summer of 2002 in the sun-dappled reference section of Portsmouth’s Central Library unearthing a story rarely told these days.
The Havant teacher also dedicated months conducting interviews with older people in the Portsea area of the city about the dark days in the aftermath of the First World War.
What he discovered was a period of abject poverty, sickness and suffering which makes today’s ‘austerity Britain’ laughable.
But throughout all the years of hardship from 1918 until the General Strike of 1926 one thing shone through, the indomitable spirit of the ordinary, working class Portsmouth person.
So from this tale of misery, shot through with people’s unquenchable will to survive, came... a musical.
One Pride... One People was the result with music written by Andrew’s long-term collaborator John Gleadall, a one-time director of music in six secondary schools in south-east Hampshire.
With its gritty, sometimes controversial subject matter, it would have been tricky enough for adults to perform.
But later in 2002 it was premiered by Havant Dynamo Youth Theatre. Its run was a sell-out so the company revived it in January this year and, again, it proved so successful they have been invited to step up a considerable gear and perform it at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, on April 10.
‘I spent the whole of the summer of 2002 in the Central Library researching the period, winding through endless microfilm records of the Evening News to find out exactly what was going on here at the end of the First World War. What I found was shocking,’ says Andrew, 60, who teaches at Bosmere Junior School.
‘Portsmouth was savagely affected in the depression that followed the First World War. It was so badly hit because of the Dockyard.
‘Men, who had wanted to go and fight, were not allowed to and spent the entire war building the warship’s for the world’s biggest navy.
‘But as soon as the war ended the shipbuilding stopped and they were thrown out of work with no benefits, no welfare state. To lose your job in the early 1920s was catastrophic.’
John joins us in the staff room at Bosmere Junior School and adds: ‘What made it even worse was that so many of the soldiers returning to Portsmouth were guaranteed jobs – given the jobs of guys who had worked their socks off during the war hammering millions of rivets into the plates of the Dreadnought warships.
‘There was no ‘‘Homes for Heroes’’ mentality for those men.’
As Andrew scoured the back copies of the Evening News, a wider picture began to emerge. He adds: ‘We talk about austerity today, but there isn’t any compared to then. This country is stinking rich now in contrast to the 1920s in Portsmouth.
‘But against this background of phenomenal suffering, this incredible feeling of community came through – what I call the Pompey Spirit, which exists so much today. Just look at the efforts the fans of the football club are going to save it. So, that’s where the show’s title came from – One Pride... One People.’
The pair have set their work in fictitious Jubilee Street, Portsea. But the inspiration came from real life. ‘I interviewed people from Curzon Howe Road, Bishop Street, Half Moon Street, who had grown up in the 1920s when the area was rife with prostitution and despair.’
John, 61, says they decided to concentrate on the fall-out from the so-called Great War among the poorer classes because it rarely features in histories of the city.
He says: ‘We thought the First World War had been done to death. So we start the show with the only battlefield scene, move on to Armistice Day and then look at the state the men were in when they returned.
‘So many of these guys came back with shell shock. It was little understood at the time and a lot of them behaved in quite bizarre ways.
‘Post-traumatic stress is big news today, but then it was never spoken about. The men would never talk about their experiences in the way that my dad would never talk about the Second World War.’
Dynamo has a membership of about 65 and all but 10 of the youngsters aged 11-18 will appear in the show at the Kings next month.
John says: ‘It’s a huge deal for them. It is for us too.
‘We put it on at the Spring, Havant, earlier this year and we had to turn people away. The reaction from those who saw it was fantastic and then the Kings asked us if we’d put it on there to reach an even bigger audience.
‘It’s such an important part of Portsmouth’s history it really needs to be seen in the city in which it is set.’
A HOLLOW VICTORY
By 1922 the working classes in Portsmouth were on their knees. Unemployment had reached record levels and the Portsmouth Brotherhood was handing out second-hand boots to bare-footed children... and their jobless fathers.
John Gleadall says: ‘It was totally humiliating for the men. They made their wives queue up for the boots which came with PB painted in white on them. They were stigmatised from the word go.
‘They came with the stipulation that they must not be walked too far, but many men were having to walk from Portsmouth to Southampton looking for work to put food on the family table.’
There was a huge gulf between the middle classes of Southsea and the poor living in hovels close to the dockyard, so the city’s fathers decided something had to be done.
Andrew Bowker explains: ‘The council decided to give £25,000 to the poor. It was a good sum and they thought it would raise morale.
‘But at the same time they donated £100,000 to bring HMS Victory out of the harbour and into dry dock in the Dockyard.
‘It was hideously ironic and we reflect that in the show. We had four times the amount being spent on the starving and sick of Portsea, going to Nelson’s ship. It was Portsmouth’s biggest icon, but these people couldn’t have cared less about it.’