The Portsmouth man striving to keep our city’s history alive 

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If you have a Facebook account, and you live in the city, then there’s a good chance you’ve visited a group called Memories of Bygone Portsmouth. Log on today and you’ll see grainy black and white images of tots from Ivy Street in fancy dress for the Queen’s Coronation.  

Another member has posted his offer letter for an apprenticeship at Wadhams in Exmouth Road, Southsea, in 1969. And there’s a shot from 1960 of some beautiful young ladies who worked at Co-op House, in Fratton Road. 

JJ Marshallsay outside the D-Day Museum, Southsea

JJ Marshallsay outside the D-Day Museum, Southsea

Each of the posts garner dozens, sometimes hundreds, of ‘likes’ and joyful comments from members who love walking down memory lane. 

Read more: Days when Portsmouth was a plane-making hive of activity

They are the work of John – known as JJ – Marshallsay who set up Memories of Bygone Portsmouth five years ago having grown frustrated at the lack of a forum for people to share information about the heritage of his beloved home city. 

JJ, 52, from Wymering, expected to reach about 500 people – in fact, the group now has almost 30,000 members. His passion for Portsmouth and its  history was sparked by his paternal grandfather, Jack.

Picture of an unknown boy from Memories of Bygone Portsmouth

Picture of an unknown boy from Memories of Bygone Portsmouth

Read more: Why does Portsmouth have so many streets with the same names?

He says: ‘When I was little my granddad used to take me out at the weekend and show me places of interest around the city. He was born and raised in Q uay Street, Old Portsmouth, where the BAR headquarters are now.

‘He would take me to t he Camber and Penny Street, Hot Walls. He’d tell me stories about the old days, of how when the tide was at its highest, you would see rats pouring on to the streets from cellars doors.

Read more: These trades were part of Portsmouth’s fabric

‘When my grandfather was born, in 1914, it was a time of extreme poverty in Old Portsmouth. I remember him telling me how he couldn’t believe how much the houses sold for there when in the old days they were all slums. He was so poor he would go to school with no shoes on. And that wasn’t unusual.

‘Those pictures he painted while we were walking the streets fired my imagination, and I couldn’t get enough of it.’

Little did Jack know the impact those walks would have on his grandson. Now a military historian, JJ is one of the founder members of the Pompey Pals, a group which  set out to recognise the sacrifice made by the people of Portsmouth during the First World War. 

There is now a museum dedicated to those men and women, in Fort Widley, where JJ is a volunteer guide and model maker. 

He says: ‘I want the people of Portsmouth to remember all those who fought in the Great War as more than just names on a slab. They sacrificed their tomorrow for our today.’ 

And since its inception five years ago,  Memories of Bygone Portsmouth has reunited long-lost family members, forged friendships between strangers and even solved a ‘murder’. 

He is an old-fashioned type of chap, gentle, doesn’t swear and comes from a long line of tradesmen, shipbuilders in the dockyard, and boilermakers.   

JJ says: ‘Portsmouth is characterised by the great community spirit of its people. I live in Wymering, and when I first moved here it was a closed shop. But once they got to accept me it was quite wonderful.

‘There’s a tough side to the city’s character too. Until the 1960s this wasn’t just a naval city, it was a garrison city. With barracks up at Gatcombe Park, there were soldiers guarding the entrance to the city.’ 

JJ has even met relatives he didn’t know existed through the group.

He once posted a piece about his grandparents who were killed in Chichester Road, North End, during the Second World War blitz.

He says: ‘A lot of people were talking about it and one said, “I lost relatives there as well”. Once we spoke we realised we were related.

‘I get quite a lot of messages from people saying they discovered lost friends or family through the site. It’s a lovely feeling to be reuniting people.’

It’s been a tough few years for JJ, who separated from his second wife and lost his job. 

He says: ‘Memories of Bygone Portsmouth has helped me a lot.

‘I’ve been single now for two years and it has, at times, been quite lonely but I’ve focused a lot on the site and spent a lot of time in the library doing research.

‘I’ve made friends with a lot of pensioners. They adore the group and it feels like one big happy family.

‘ Some are lonely, so this is a way of letting them know there is someone they can talk to.

‘Some are bereaved and find real solace in the group. There’s always someone at the end of the internet.’

Putting rumours of a ‘murder’ to bed

Although their numbers are many, the members of Memories of Bygone Portsmouth are a close-knit group.  

On Friday more than 100 met up at Waverley Bowls Club to have chat, swap stories, and listen to music from the likes of Glenn Miller. 

JJ even gave out awards to long-standing members.  

The  group regularly take on projects when an exciting piece of a puzzle comes up on the site – and they even helped solve a ‘murder’. 

For many years a rumour abounded about the death of a toddler in what was then Arthur Street, Landport, during the Second World War. 

Someone posted about ‘Billy Boy’, found in a static water supply, and how they thought he’d been murdered.

Member Rachel Ballard was fascinated and tracked down the boy’s death certificate. It turned out to have been a tragic accident and, after the little boy’s brother spotted the story, Rachel was able to put the rumour about the ‘murder’ to bed. 

JJ says: ‘It was very satisfying to be able to give the relatives of the tragic little boy closure.’

Another project on the go at the moment is to identify the little boy in the picture above. The large photo was found in a skip and has now become the group’s mascot.