From barrow boy to star of Cash in the Attic, John Cameron has done the lot

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Lovely ripe ’nanas and five lemons for a pound. C’mon missus, you know you want ’em.’

The cheeky, squeaky-voiced lad did not know it at the time, but his family pitch at Charlotte Street market would prove the perfect training ground, if not battleground, for a life which would turn him into a TV star.

John Cameron

John Cameron

John Cameron was 12, his voice unbroken, when he started paid work and ‘calling out’ on his grandfather’s fruit and veg stall in Portsmouth’s famed street market.

It was a rough, tough apprenticeship, but one which was the ideal preparation for what he would eventually become – Britain’s most instantly recognisable auctioneer, the man who became known simply as The Hammer on TV shows like Cash In The Attic for his prowess with a gavel.

Those Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the market also taught him the importance of dealing with the public, how to persuade them to part with their cash, and, most importantly, how to perfect the hard sell.

Now the boy who grew up on a city council estate and went on to gain a degree in Fine Art Valuation has returned to Southsea as new owner of the fine art and antiques side of Nesbits Auctioneers, where he used to work for nothing as a student.

John, 43, is hugely proud of his Sultan Road roots and the life skills he honed in the back streets of Buckland growing up in the 1970s. But it is the Charlotte Street market and its influence to which he returns time and again during our conversation.

‘It was simply the best apprenticeship for life, being around people who traded on their wits day in, day out,’ he says.

It also gave him a zest for life and a dizzying work ethic which he puts down to that grandfather, who also introduced him to the antiques world, and his late mother.

‘I’d go down there at 6am on Thursdays and Fridays before school helping to ‘pull out’ and ‘flash up’ – get everything looking smart – and would be back there afterwards to help with the ‘pull away’.

‘On Saturdays I worked all day. I was 12, in 1982, when I started to be paid. My grandfather said I could have £12 a week, a pound for every year of my life.

‘I always asked for it in pound notes because I wanted a wad, money on the hip.’

Making money runs deep in the family psyche. His grandparents on his mum’s side came from an enormous south coast fairground/showmen’s dynasty.

‘I come from a family that could barely read or write, but that didn’t stop them becoming very wealthy.

‘They knew how to earn money and how to keep money. It’s from them that I get my work ethic.’

John recalls the Charlotte Street experience helped him develop the thick skin he was to need as his life progressed.

‘I’d be calling out ‘‘five lemons for a pound’’ in this high-pitched voice and my brother would take the mickey remorselessly because my voice hadn’t broken.

‘But it taught me to overcome any embarrassment about performing in public – and that’s what you are in the market business a performer. If you don’t get your act together you don’t sell and if you don’t sell you don’t live.’

But as with so many of us, it was a teacher who would eventually set John on the road which would define his life – Harry Bourne at the City of Portsmouth Boys’ School, Hilsea.

John adds: ‘I’d always assumed market life would be the life for me. It was a wonderfully romantic lifestyle. When my grandfather died in 1988, I wanted to take over the family business, but I kept being told the market was finished.

‘I was testing as a child. I was bright, but didn’t know how to use it and I was wasting my school years until I met Harry, a wonderful man.’

Harry, the woodwork teacher from Stamshaw who had started out as a carpenter, persuaded his old firm to take John on as an apprentice.

‘I was very lucky. But I was a £27.50-a-week, YTS [Youth Training Scheme] kid who gave his mum between £10 and £20 a week and I needed to supplement my earnings, so I cashed in on the craze at the time for stripped pine.

‘I bought myself a dip-and-strip tank and commandeered some garages my grandparents had.

‘I had a machine shop in one, storage in another and the strip-and-dip tank in the other. It was not environmentally-friendly.

‘I’d buy the pine stuff from antiques dealers, the boys in Fawcett Road and Highland Road, dip it in a caustic soda mixture, jet-wash it off and make repairs using my carpentry skills before selling it on. It was easy money.’

But John’s life reached a crossroads when his back went – prolapsed discs caused by years of humping 56lb bags of spuds around and unloading hardwood timber from lorries.

He went to the careers office in Lake Road, told them he was interested in antiques and woodwork and was pointed in the direction of that Fine Art Valuation degree course.

‘That changed my life,’ he adds. ‘I graduated with a 2.1 and finished in the top 10 of the 120 who took the course.’

During his three years of studying he worked, without pay, in Nesbits auction house in Clarendon Road, Southsea, learning how to become an auctioneer and immersing himself in the world of antiques. He ended up as the head of the Fine Art department.

And it was while working there as an auctioneer that his television potential was spotted by the production company which made Cash In The Attic.

‘That programme lasted for 10 years and there were spin-offs from it such as Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. It was a truly fantastic experience which has opened so many doors for me.

‘I’ve become friends with people like Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon, Jennie Bond and Aled Jones. I met and have become firm friends with David Guest and do all his charity auctions. Then there’s the lovely Mary Berry, Michael Winner and Antonio Carluccio.

‘I’ve met the cast of Corrie, EastEnders and Hollyoaks. Not bad for a lad from Buckland eh?

‘I still have to pinch myself to realise that all this has happened to me and it’s really all down to those early days calling out ‘‘five lemons for a pound’’.’

It was in January that John Cameron rejoined the Portsmouth auction house which launched his career to television stardom, taking over the fine art and antiques sector of Nesbits Auctioneers.

John says: ‘I was doing my degree in fine art valuation at Southampton Institute – now Southampton Solent University – and wanted some experience to go with my degree. My local auction house was Nesbits in Clarendon Road.

‘I did about two years there alongside my studies, just helping out.’

After graduating, John went to work at prestigious auctioneers Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury and a year after that David Nesbit offered John a full-time job.

However, television beckoned and John left to concentrate on that, and to set up his own valuation company, John Cameron Associates, which is next door to Nesbits.

‘I’ve always stayed in touch with David,’ adds John. ‘I mentioned to him that if there was ever an opportunity to acquire the business, I would be interested. He approached me in October and I’ve acquired the fine art valuation business, which is separate from the estate agency business.’

The world of auctions has changed since John has had less of a hands-on involvement in it, with auctions happening online at at the same time as they take place in auction houses.

Every lot also has to be photographed, rather than a selection for a glossy brochure. As a result, John says he will be looking to get an assistant fairly soon and he will also be continuing with his television work.

‘I’m looking for someone to be like I was when I first started out – driven by a burning desire to succeed, ’ he says.