I wasn't kissed until I was 19. It wasn't too bad but I immediately thought I was pregnant

Portchester Castle Picture: Ryan Atfield

Carcass of dog found dumped at Portchester Castle

It's a story with which Charles Dickens would have been familiar, except that it happened in the city of his birth a century after he started writing.

It's a tale of a child's survival against the odds, rooted in appalling poverty and social deprivation.

It all happened just 75 years ago. Sadly, many others of her generation will recognise the conditions into which she was born. But the record of her life does have a happy ending.

It's the story of Christina Smyth. She is now an energetic, sparkling 82-year-old who rides her bike around Portsmouth, plays badminton, has learned to unicycle, is a skilled wood carver and published poet. Just a few of the latent talents she discovered late in life.

Christina is candid. 'I don't know if my mother was on the game, but she was rather easy with the men.

'When she was pregnant with me she was thrown out of her home in Portsea. It was the custom then for unmarried mothers.

'The story goes that a senior police officer found her on the streets and took her to the workhouse in St Mary's Road, Milton. I was born in that workhouse on September 4, 1928.

'On my birth certificate it says I was born in Milton Road. I now know that was code for the workhouse.

'It wasn't until I was 14 that I discovered I was illegitimate – a huge social stigma in those days.'

Christina grew up living in a succession of rented homes in Portsea with a mother, Ivy Loughlin, who she says showed her no love.

There was eventually a stepfather, a stoker in the navy, who fathered at least two of her three siblings.

'It was incredibly tough, rough and often violent living in Portsea in the 1930s. They were no more than slums.' She remembers accommodation in Cross Street, Frederick Street and Church Path North.

'When the fleet was in all the sailors wanted were women and if they got one pregnant, the navy just moved them somewhere else. There was no social responsibility at all.'

Christina adds: 'My mother had various jobs including peeling huge sacks of onions for pickles. She got 6d (2.5p) a sack. She also worked in the kitchen of a cafe in Edinburgh Road used by dockies where she did nothing but shred cabbage.

'While she was working I had to look after my sister and brother who were about three and two.

'We used to go down to The Hard and watch bigger kids mudlarking for the odd coin.

'But we only survived by going to the Salvation Army for a 'farthing breakfast'.

'We took a basin or a cup and were given porridge, bread and jam and hot cocoa.

'We ate it at a trestle table covered in white paper. If it hadn't been for that we would have starved.

'The churches also ran soup kitchens where we also went with our own bowls.'

But Christina was bright and lapped up learning at the Beneficial School, Circus Church School and the Free School in Kent Street, Portsea.

Two days before the Second World War started on September 3, 1939, and at the age of 11, she was evacuated by train with a brother to the village of Preston Candover near Basingstoke.

'I loved it there; discovered a whole new world. I really thrived at school, but, you know,' and here her bubbly tone falters, 'my mother never wrote to me once'.

But at the age of 14 she was sent to work as a kitchen maid at the stately home, The Vyne, near Basingstoke which was the seat of Sir Charles Chute and is now owned by the National Trust.

A public school from Deal, Kent, had moved in for the duration of the war, and Christina spent her long days helping prepare meals for the 80 inhabitants.

'I got up at 5am, started work at 6am and finished at 11pm. We got an hour off to wash, but I often fell asleep.

'My first job of the day was to stamp on all the cockroaches on the kitchen floor and chase away the rats which ran along the pipes above the range.'

Towards the end of the war the school moved back to Deal and Christina went with it. 'I hated it and began to cry all the time. I think I must have been depressed. I wanted to go back to Portsmouth but my mother didn't want me at home because she had become a welder in the dockyard.

'After two-and-a-half years I came back to Portsmouth. My mother met me at Waterloo and I remember standing in the corridor of the train looking at her and thinking, 'I don't know this woman at all'.

'I did move in with her but she had "lodgers" and sailors living with her.

'I'd learned to speak well and got some decent manners but my mother smacked me round the head and told me not to bring my "fancy talk" back here.

'She used to take me to dances to try to meet a man so she could get me off her hands, but I was under strict orders never to let on she was my mother. I had to pretend she was my sister.

'I had no sex education at all. I wasn't kissed until I was 19. It wasn't too bad, but when it happened I immediately thought I was pregnant. That's how naive I was.'

Christina got a job as an usherette at the Apollo cinema next to the Kings Theatre, Southsea, where a customer saw her potential and got her a job as a telephonist at the coal merchants Fraser & White's in Old Portsmouth.

She married, had two children (both of whom have degrees) and has two grandchildren and in the 1960s relaunched her education by starting evening classes.

A widow for 32 years and now living in Stamshaw, Christina adds: 'Women had come out of the war with a new-found independence.

'They'd had jobs and there was no way they were going to go back to being subservient housewives. They had nowhere to put kids while they worked so I set up a nursery which I ran for 15 years.'

She attends numerous adult education courses at the Omega Centre in Somers Town, Portsmouth, and, among others, is in the third year of a creative writing course there and is being encouraged to write her life story.

From all her learning has come the approval she has craved all her life. 'I never knew parental love. When I pleased a teacher with good marks or reports, it wasn't the grades I loved, but the praise. I need it to this day.

'I went to see my mother shortly before she died. I said to her "Mum, tell me you love me. Are you proud of me?". All she said was "silly cow".'

With that Christina pulls on a pair of high-visibility over-trousers and heads for her new bike. 'I must dash. I'll be late for my next class. I'm learning how to attach pictures to e-mails today.'

POEM

Christina Smyth's creative writing skills led to the inclusion of one of her poems in the recently-published This Island City – the first anthology of verse about Portsmouth.

The Guildhall Clock by Christina Smyth

The Guildhall Clock chimed 12 o'clock; it also chimed at three

It chimed again at 5 o'clock when it was time for tea.

But then it stopped in wartime when bombs blew up the lot

The 'Play Up Pompey' melody was very soon forgot.

But hark, good news has come our way; it was in the Evening News;

A new bell's going to be installed; it's been a long time due.

And so good Portsmouth people; let all of us rejoice

The heart of our great city has been given back its voice.