NOSTALGIA: Miraculous escape for thrill-seekers on Portsdown Hill

Mr and Mrs Watkins had a miraculous escape when their car exploded on Portsdown Hill Road in 1912 - about the time this picture was taken
Mr and Mrs Watkins had a miraculous escape when their car exploded on Portsdown Hill Road in 1912 - about the time this picture was taken
The tug Irishman, lost in Langstone Harbour in 1941.

NOSTALGIA: Are you related to those lost in harbour wartime tug disaster?

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The Portsmouth Evening News reported in June, 1912 how a Mr Guy Watkins, a visitor staying on Hayling Island and on a trip to Bedhampton, met with a curious motoring accident.

In company with Mrs Watkins he was driving a high-powered car, one which had recently reached 90 miles an hour at Brooklands race track at Weybridge, Surrey.

HMS Ganges, where cruel PTIs would 'persuade' boys to jump off the high diving board.

HMS Ganges, where cruel PTIs would 'persuade' boys to jump off the high diving board.

As the car was proceeding up the steep incline from the Belmont Tavern to the top of Portsdown Hill the steel thread of one of the rear tyres became unvulcanised (tore apart) and with the fast revolution, the mudguard was torn off.

This in turn cut the thread in two and before the car could be stopped and acting like a flail, smashed the whole of the rear part of the body into a wreck.

Fortunately no one was in that part of the car. Mr and Mrs Watkins had a lucky escape, for the body parted at the join at the centre and the back was smashed beyond repair while the front was quite undamaged.

• I know it is not a Portsmouth subject but there are many ex-HMS Ganges boys still living in the area.

My comments last month about the swimming test and the horrors of being a Backward Swimmer brought back a lot of memories for those ex-Ganges boys out there.

John Stockham tells me of how one boy was gently ‘persuaded’ to jump from the high diving board. 

He says: 'While undergoing the notorious swimming test one recruit – who shall be named Jock for ease of reference – had completed the swimming lengths and was just about to do the final act of jumping off the top board. 

'Now Jock had a rampant fear of heights, he really struggled going over the mast previously. 

'So, picture this skinny wretch standing on the top board, shivering in his soggy (woollen) swimming trunks about to jump into the depths below. 

' He just couldn't do it until the instructor bellowed up at him,  "Jump, you little coward!"

'We all watched from below as Jock made his attempt, jumped, but before falling all the way managed to turn in mid air and grab hold of the diving board with both hands, screaming at the same time as his soggy trunks slipped off into the depths below!

'There were peals of laughter from us brave souls below while the now red-faced instructor started to climb up the diving board to where we thought he was about to rescue Jock – wrong.

'As he arrived at the top of the board and looked down at Jock he raised his foot and stamped on poor Jock's fingers who let go and continued his 'jump' into the pool, again screaming as he fell. 

'Would this be allowed today? No chance!  The bottom line was that Jock actually passed the test and didn't have to attend another Backward Swimmers' session.'

Bob Bloomfield remembers having to attend early morning swimming lessons.

He had to be up an hour before the rest of the boys, much more of an incentive to pass the swimming tests.

Bob tells me: 'When I joined in 1957 I failed the first swimming test so had to attend Backward Swimmers (what a lovely phrase).

'This was at 5.30am. I remember that when you were in the water in your overalls, if you tried to climb out or even hang on to the side the duty PTI (physical training instructor) would use a long pole to push you off. If you kept doing it he would hit you with it. No female PTIs then of course.

'I passed the test, thank goodness,  and went on to serve 37 years.'

Frank Thompson has an opinion on the PTIs. He says he could just about swim but had no idea how to tread water: 'If one of the instructors had had the sense to get in the pool and show me how it was done, walk with the legs and conduct an orchestra with the arms as it were, I would have passed the test much earlier than I did. In the end one of my messmates showed me the technique. 

'Not everyone was a good swimmer but I was good at hockey and represented the ship, whereas many swimmers had no idea how to play the game.’

And Kieran Abley says: 'I was a non-swimmer. It was such an embarrassment having to hang a Backward Swimmer card on the end of my bed so the regulator could wake me up at 5.30am for backward swimming classes at 6am in an unheated pool in December 1966/Jan 67.

'It used to fill me with fear and dread.  I hated the walk to the pool through the frost and snow. 

'Of course, I eventually learnt to swim, not helped by the PTIs pushing you away from the side with their poles. I guess one had little choice but to swim or sink.

'If I remember correctly, the final test was as you described but you had to wear overalls which made it that bit harder.'