Remembering the young Portsea mudlarks

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A teenage lad in rolled up trousers, shirt, braces and flat cap stands with a collecting tin as a little girl kneels in mud holding up a penny.

The pair have been larking around in muck at the water's edge, performing tricks and staging hilarious mud fights, hoping to entertain passers-by and earn a few pennies for their efforts.

It's a scene familiar to anyone who has been around long enough to remember Portsmouth's mudlarks - generations of Portsea children who performed in the mud flats off The Hard for some badly needed cash.

It's also the design of a bronze statue soon to be unveiled at The Hard as a tribute to the legions of children who played and performed in the area from the early decades of the last century to the early 1960s.

Campaigners have spent several years raising the money for the statue, which will also feature former mudlarks' names etched on plaques.

The piece has been created by Hayling Island sculptor Michael Peacock and is being cast in bronze at the Morris Singer foundry in Braintree, Essex.

Hundreds of mudlarks are expected to turn up to the unveiling ceremony, due to take place some time before Christmas.

Former mudlark Margaret Foster remembers well the first time the idea of a statue was mentioned at a meeting of Portsea Action Group - the committee of local residents responsible for the plan.

That was nine years ago and she is excited about seeing the results at The Hard.

Margaret, a city councillor who has also written a book about the mudlarks, says: 'I think everyone will be proud of the statue. Everyone in Portsea is so proud we're going to have something in recognition of the times we had here. It's our history, because mudlarking will never be repeated again.'

MARGARET'S FIRST DAY AS A MUDLARKER

Margaret was wearing a new red velvet dress on her first day as a mudlarker and not surprisingly her adventures landed her in a lot of trouble.

It was in 1957 that she first joined her brothers at the mudflats – and wrecked her new frock in the process.

The picture was above was taken on that very day, the angelic smile masking the drama.

'I don't know if the dress was brand new because we didn't have much money, but it was new to me,' says Margaret. 'My mum let me go out in it but told me to stay close to home. But I knew my brothers were down at The Hard and I took it upon myself to wander off and go and see them.

'I just stood on the shingle watching them but people were throwing me money too. I didn't know where to put it so I gathered up the sides of the dress to make a pouch. Pretty soon the dress was filthy and my brothers decided to try and wash it, but it was velvet and that just made it worse.

'We had to go home with me wearing a new dress covered in mud and, as you can imagine, my mum was furious. We didn't have much money, so it must have been awful for her.'

But it didn't put her off and she enjoyed mudlarking for several years.

THE BOOK

Researching and writing her book, The Mudlarkers, made Margaret Foster laugh and cry in equal measure.

She talked to hundreds of people, hearing funny stories and those with a more poignant touch.

'One woman said they were mudlarking when the planes were going over and bombing the dockyard in the war,' says Margaret. 'They only thought about moving when everyone cleared the bridge. Then they just did belly flops under the bridge. I couldn't stop laughing when I was interviewing her.'

But she also heard how the soldiers would empty their pockets and throw their money to the children. At the time they just thought their luck was in but now appreciate the significance of men giving away the last of their money before going off to war.

The book, which is currently being printed, is full of the memories of the children who went mudlarking and earned money for their families.

'It wasn't just the mudlarking,' says Margaret. 'We'd chop up firewood and sell bundles of that, and jump on the side of people's cars and take them to a parking space. We'd get a shilling for that.

'From the age of about five, we knew how to put a loaf of bread on the table. But we were quite happy to work. They were hard times but not one of the people I spoke to said they didn't enjoy themselves.

'It couldn't happen again. Not with health and safety and there isn't that same kind of poverty. But we were safe children and happy children.'

For that reason, Margaret felt it was important to document the mudlarkers' recollections and says it's a real trip down memory lane.

'It's not just about mudlarking, it's about how we lived our lives. When people were telling me their stories, it was like they were taking me by the hand and reliving it.'

Margaret's book will be stocked at Portsmouth's Tourist Information Centre, local libraries and bookshops.

The proceeds will be used to help fund projects for young people in Portsmouth.