Memories of the Portsmouth mudlarkers

Margaret Foster next to the memorial statue to mudlarkers at The Hard, Portsmouth. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (141056-729) PPP-140804-154359001
Margaret Foster next to the memorial statue to mudlarkers at The Hard, Portsmouth. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (141056-729) PPP-140804-154359001
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As she stands next to the mudlark statue that she raised money to build, Margaret Foster looks out over The Hard and points out a raised, green-painted walkway.

Although the construction of the bus interchange has changed the face of this part of Portsmouth’s coastline, the bridge reminds Margaret of her childhood in the 1950s – a place from which crowds of passers-by would throw coins as she performed in the mud below.

‘I’m visualising myself now, taking myself down there. It was absolutely magic. To feel that mud squelching between your toes, it was such a wonderful feeling.’

Located outside the entrance to the Historic Dockyard, the statue celebrates the experiences of these mudlarks, a fascinating part of Portsmouth’s heritage.

The project, which was completed in 2010, was partly funded by the profits of a book Margaret published called Mudlarkers: Memories of Earning a Few Bob In Portsea, a collection of true stories told by people from the area.

Over three years, what initially started as a 20p pamphlet with a couple of interviews grew into a book that has now sold 3,600 copies and raised about £16,000.

‘It’s gone to New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Thailand. It has absolutely blown me away,’ says Margaret.

The book has even got the royal seal of approval. ‘The Queen likes to read local history books, so I sent her a copy. I received a lovely letter back from her lady-in-waiting saying that she will enjoy reading the book.’

Margaret, who lives in Queen Street, Portsea, knows exactly why the book has been so popular. ‘It’s taking readers by the hand and leading them back down memory lane to the older people who gave their stories.

‘It’s full of history. That was our life, and that is our heritage. That is what the book is about: the city and Portsea.’

She interviewed one of the book’s subjects, Ivan Harbert, on his deathbed.

‘His story was so moving. We shed tears, we laughed, you wouldn’t believe the deprivation that there was. I couldn’t believe some of the stories I was hearing.

‘Some children used to creep down in the night and get a razor blade to get a slither of cheese out of the larder.’

With a knowing look, she adds: ‘Mudlarking was a form of begging, even though we entertained the people in the mud, which was fabulous.’

‘We did cartwheels, headstands, rolled over in it. But there were some parts of the mud that were like quicksand and a couple of times I sank up to my neck. But we were lucky, the fisherman were always there to help us.’

She adds: ‘You can see in the book that we were all hard-working children, we didn’t just mudlark to help put money on the table,’ she adds.

‘We helped park the cars that came down to The Hard; we used to chop wood and sell bundles; we would go cockling and winkling, which was quite dangerous, and sell them in pint jars.’

She flashes a smile. ‘We got up to all sorts to earn a few bob, but mudlarking was the easiest, the best, and the funniest.’

She points to a photo in her book. It is of a little girl, a cheeky grin spread across her face as she poses in her Sunday best, looking slightly worse for wear.

‘There I am, that was my first day mudlarking. Would you believe it was a brand new, velvet, bright red dress!

‘Somebody said: “Little girl, here you are”, and chucked me down a penny. Then came another penny, and then a ha’penny, and then some threepenny bits, and before I knew it I had too much money in my hand and I didn’t know what to do with it.’

The only solution was to convert her skirt into a pouch in which to put her earnings.

‘It was getting heavy because the money was wet and I was picking it up with stones as well, and soon enough there was muddy water dripping out of it.’

Her brothers, who were also mudlarking, had to help her. ‘They thought by standing me under the standpipe across the road they would get the money and mud stains out, but of course it just went dirtier and dirtier until it was just one big brown mess.’

Some weeks Margaret and her fellow mudlarks would earn £4, more than her father’s wage. ‘Our money went on luxuries that mum couldn’t afford to buy us, like ice creams and sweets.’

Margaret, who has been a councillor for the Charles Dickens ward for more than 10 years, knew how profits from the book would be spent. ‘I decided every single penny would go into the community so Portsmouth children would benefit.’

She pulls chequebooks from her handbag and shows some of the good causes that have benefited from her generosity.

‘I have given £5,000 to Hilsea Lido so children across the city can use the pool, I have given hundreds to the theatres to help with children’s productions, anybody who needs a little bit of funding.’

In recognition of Margaret’s community spirit and the story she has to tell, the New Theatre Royal has commissioned a play based on the stories she has compiled. They will be performed as part of the theatre’s eventual reopening.

‘I’m pleased there’s going to be a production, and who knows, one day it could become a film. Its so steeped in history.’

Margaret waves to one of her constituents. ‘To a lot of people mudlarking was dirty, but we never suffered any illness as children.

‘I’m 62, and I’m just starting to get a few laughter lines now but we’ve all got good skin, so the mud did us good. We might have had cut feet and cut fingers, but the mud did us good!’

Writer Bernie Byrnes, who lived at North End, Portsmouth, from the age of 14, has been commissioned by the New Theatre Royal to adapt Margaret Foster’s book into a play for the New Theatre Royal’s opening season.

Bernie, who is originally from Newcastle upon Tyne, is currently one of the theatre’s associate artists in residence and has worked on similar community-based theatre projects in Portsmouth and London.

She says: ‘I was approached by Liz [Weston, Head of Education] about the project and then met her and Margaret. I was instantly taken by the idea.’

‘Getting this book is brilliant because it has done a big chunk of the hard prep work for me,’ she continues.

‘Ordinarily on a project like this I would spend months interviewing people and transcribing their recollections. Finding the right people is a huge task in itself.

‘Luckily for me Margaret had already put the legwork in so I got to jump in at stage two.’

Bernie is now entering the intensive writing period. ‘Margaret’s book is full of wonderful voices and capturing them is an enjoyable challenge.

‘There are also interesting facts about what Portsmouth looked like then, what life was like in post-war Britain and it’s important that this is spot-on too.

‘I really enjoyed meeting Margaret and her sister Carol Brett, on whom the lead character is loosely based, but actually feel like I know them better as children than who they are now.’

Mudlarkers – Memories of Earning a Few Bob in Portsea (Portsea Memories Publishing £7.99) is available from branches of WH Smith and Waterstones.