Hundreds of Portsmouth children have benefitted from teacher Tony Foot’s guidance, but few could have guessed the troubled and sad start to his life now revealed in his autobiography, writes Chris Owen
Of all the thousands of lessons taught by Tony Foot down the years, probably the most important is the one contained in his autobiography.
For it is a lesson in how a deprived, emotionally-wrecked teenager from Portsmouth’s back streets can go on to build a successful career and family life and dedicate it to helping children, many of them from backgrounds similar to his own.
For a quarter of a century (1979-2004) he taught at Priory School, Southsea, easing and cajoling thousands of pupils through the most formative years of their lives. Hundreds will remember him with fondness.
When he retired and had time to take stock he was persuaded by family and friends to put down on paper the story of his life.
It is a tale of a man with a foot in both camps.
First there was the one marked ‘university of life’ which saw him, as a boy, watch his father die slowly in a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital, spend time in a children’s home and be arrested for breaking into his own childhood house.
There followed a variety of jobs which included selling shoes in Commercial Road, working for the firm which made the Scalextric racing car system at Havant, time spent as a hospital gardener and several years in the backbreaking world of cask-hurling as a drayman.
Then came the epiphany – the moment he decided his life’s experiences and a burning desire to teach, was the path to follow. Oh, and there was an appearance on Mastermind.
It is a shame the book is called A Dorset Footprint. Don’t let the title put you off, for the vast majority of Tony’s story concerns growing up in post-war Portsmouth, those jobs which took him around Havant, Leigh Park, Gosport and Fareham, and, of course, those 25 years at Priory.
The Dorset angle comes from tracing his family tree and the plethora of Foots who emanated from that county and farther west.
Tony, 70, was born in the Isle of Wight two days after D-Day. He had a brother, Fred, who was five years older.
They grew up in the village of Wootton, but when Tony was nine the family upped sticks and moved to his mother’s parents’ home at 16 Garibaldi Street, Rudmore, Portsmouth. That house, that street, are long gone. It backed on to the old St John’s Church, now converted into homes.
‘My parents thought we stood a better chance of making something of our lives in Portsmouth, and dad worked in the Dockyard,’ says Tony.
He remembers frequent visits to Fratton Park. ‘I was carried to games on my dad’s shoulders and like many small boys I was passed down the packed terraces to stand and watch by the halfway line. I was there the day of that record crowd at Fratton Park.’
Tony was bright and to the delight of his parents, especially his dad, passed the 11-plus and went to the Northern Grammar School at North End.
But a year later, as Tony puts it, ‘disaster struck’.
‘It was a few days after my 12th birthday and my father was involved in an accident in the Dockyard.
‘He was found unconscious near one of the ’yard’s huge mobile cranes. Of course, there was no health and safety in those days and to this day we don’t know what happened.’
His dad was taken in a coma to a London hospital, but was ultimately returned to Portsmouth and St James’s psychiatric hospital.
‘Not only did this seem to be a dumping ground for hopeless cases, but to add to the tragedy he was imprisoned in a secure ward that was kept locked at all times.
‘I can’t imagine what they expected him to do, paralysed down one side and capable of speaking only five words. He was a pathetic shell of a man.’
Tony’s mother, already emotionally frail, couldn’t cope. Neither could Tony.
‘My school work suffered. Basically I didn’t do any and that was not the way of grammar schools, so I was expelled.’
Tony adds: ‘I was baffled by it all. I’d gone to school that morning not suspecting anything was wrong and by the end of the day my life had changed irrevocably. ‘
With his father in St James’s and his mother struggling to cope they were evicted from Garibaldi Street and for a period his mum was taken in at St Mary’s House in St Mary’s Road, a refuge for the homeless but still with the stigma of having been the city’s workhouse.
Tony says: ‘I made a brief appearance in a juvenile court and was then sent to an assessment centre near Southampton for various tests.
‘The powers that be decided I was probably not, on balance, going to become an axe murderer, but that I was in need of care and protection.’
So he was taken into care and found himself at the Cottage Homes children’s home on the slopes of Portsdown Hill.
Tony, now living with his Portsmouth born-and-bred wife Sue at Bishop’s Waltham, continues: ‘Watching my father’s anguish, but being unable to help him made me look for someone to blame and I aggravated the staff by running away.’
One evening he set off and returned to his now boarded-up old home in Garibaldi Street.
‘I got in quite easily at the back of the house, but then I saw a light moving up the stairs and the figure of a policeman appeared in the doorway and he arrested me. Apparently I’d disturbed the woman next door who had been saying a prolonged goodnight to her fiancé.
‘On the walk to the police station in Kingston Crescent we considered Pompey’s chances in the new season.’
Eventually family life settled down, Tony returned to live with his mum and he started at Hilsea Modern School in Doyle Avenue.
‘I loved it there, loved the teachers and began to thrive,’ he adds.
‘Looking back, that’s where my love of teaching began.’
- A Dorset Footprint by Tony Foot is published by Stockwell at £13.95.
Tony Foot was driving past the Coach and Horses at Hilsea one day in 1969 when he spotted a sign advertising jobs.
‘I’d been working as a gardener, largely in the grounds of St Mary’s Hospital and before that I’d been dealing with customers’ queries at Minimodels at Havant, the firm that made Scalextric.
‘I fancied a change and in those days Courage had a depot on the Coach and Horses roundabout.’
He went in and somehow ended up convincing the boss that he would make a drayman.
On his second day he became mate for one of the drivers, Bill, ‘who had arms as thick as my thighs’.
‘We left the depot at 7am heading for the naval bases at Fareham and Gosport, but stopped first at a social club in Portchester where we enjoyed ‘‘draymen’s drinks’’ with the chaps from Watneys who were delivering at the same time.’
Tony and Bill moved on to make another 10 deliveries ‘along with about another 10 pints’.
Then came the lunch stop... in a Brickwood’s pub at Gosport where Bill downed more pints while playing darts.
Tony adds: ‘After about 30 minutes we were back on the road again. Just as Bill negotiated a roundabout I noticed him groping around under the dashboard. Triumphantly, he pulled out a pint bottle of Guinness and opened it on the steering wheel.
‘He then drove straight down Military Road, Gosport, passing HMS Sultan, swigging contentedly from his bottle.
‘I calculated that he must have consumed at least 30 pints during our run that day.
‘It was only Tuesday. I couldn’t see how I was ever going to make it to Friday.’