Characters Introduction Nowhere else in the country can have such a collection of characters and eccentrics as the Island and Royal Manor of Portland. Most people's experience of the Island is a lightning dash to and from Portland Bill to look at the lighthouses. They are totally unaware that they are passing through a wonderland of craggy beauty, inhabited by the most interesting, amusing, intelligent, proud, insular and uniquely eccentric people in the U.K. A hundred years ago, you could have guaranteed that all but a handful would have been purebred Portlanders, marrying within the community and seldom, if ever, leaving the Island. Times have changed and the Portlanders are probably now a minority, but they still have an iron grip on the culture and attitudes of the population. It is remarkable how quickly strangers conform. We could write at length about current Portlanders, but we will confine our tales to the past. Most of the characters inhabit the first three decades of the century - well within living memory during the twenty years we have been collecting information and writing about them. Sadly, Portlanders have not, in the past, committed very much to paper and almost everything of this rich cultural tradition has been lost. In some senses, Portlanders' memories are still rooted in the past, which we can illustrate with one anecdote. In the late 70s, during the early days of the Free Portland News, the telephone rang at 6.45 a.m. I recognised the voice at the other end of the line as that of Percy, an old Portland friend. "Get up to Easton at once." he said, "I've got a big story for you." I protested that I was unwashed, unshaven and had had no breakfast. Percy was aploplectic with rage. "Call yourself a newspaper man?" he demanded "Get up here. I'll give you five minutes." I gave in to force majeure. I arrived within five minutes to find Percy just starting on an enormous cooked breakfast. As some concession to the urgency of the matter he was already wearing his cap. "What is the big story, Percy?" I asked. Percy raised one finger to caution silence and carried on eating. I waited patiently until he had finished eating, wiped his mouth on a tea-towel sized handkerchief and stood up. "Come!" he said, crooking his finger. We walked up to Easton Square and stopped opposite a shop with a 'For Sale' sign in the window. "Come!" he said, walking across the main road as if all that could be feared was the occasional horse and cart. The shop was next door to an Estate Agent and, in the corner of his window, within six inches of the shop in question, was a photograph with brief particulars and the asking price. The price was in the order of £15,000, outstanding value for a shop and living accommodation in the heart of the Easton shopping area. "You will, this day, make £100 for yourself.” said Percy triumphantly. "I don't understand." I protested. Percy was contemptuous. "Look at the price." he said, "If I were you I would get on to that Paul Foot in the Daily Mirror." "What about?" I asked, feeling stupid. "It's those foreign landlords." said Percy angrily, "They're greedy, trying to take away our shops." By foreign, Percy probably meant Weymouth, or possibly even Underhill. "I'm sorry," I said "but I can't see anything wrong with the price." Percy stood for a moment, trying to control his exasperation and making allowances for ignorant strangers. "That shop," he said, "belonged to my Grandfather and is worth £200." I thanked Percy and went on my way rejoicing. There was nothing for Paul Foot, but he had opened a window for me on the attitudes of old Portlanders, firmly rooted in an unchanging past. Percy nagged me for a few months for not using his story but eventually forgave me and contributed many items to the paper. I was sad when he died but glad for him that he was joining his ancestors, in an afterlife where Portland never changes and shops are always £200. To return to the theme of our book, we have discussed with many people why Portland should produce so many characters. In-breeding has been suggested but we would discount this. The Island had almost as big a population at the end of the nineteenth century as it has now and there has always been the judicious introduction of new blood. It is said that, at one time, there were only four surnames on Portland but we could probably produce a list of 30, which would be widely accepted as Portland names. Another suggestion is that extreme poverty produces characters and eccentrics. This certainly existed until recent times, but the same can be said for many other parts of the country. Portlanders looked after each other and nobody ever starved because there was always the supreme provider, the sea. Page 1
Characters The real reason, we believe, is the Portland sense of humour. Offhand, we cannot recall a Portlander ever telling us a joke, but they will relate, at considerable length and in minute detail, events and situations which occurred maybe a hundred years or more ago. It is entirely a verbal tradition which is very difficult to reproduce in print. We have heard yarns which will make you ache with laughter, which appear very flimsy, or even banal, on the printed page. The tradition in Portland is that groups of older men would gather daily at a number of locations on the Island, to talk about the weather, fishing and other important matters and, in the process, swap stories about Islanders past and present. It has gone on 'time out of mind' but sadly, seems to be coming to an end. The current and future crop of retired Portlanders are sophisticates of the radio, TV and motor car age and have abandoned the measured life-style of their ancestors. The question often crops up of the authenticity of some of the tales. There is a story, from the Great War period, of a message being passed down the line, which started as "Send reinforcements, we are going to advance" and ended up as "Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance". As in any verbal tradition, we have no doubt that the tales have been changed in the telling and transferred from one person, and one generation, to another. We are convinced, however, that they are all basically true. It is not in the Portland character to make them up and, as we have said, it is a group tradition, and the chances are that there would be somebody else in the group, who would know the tale and take delight in correcting it. Portlanders spend quite a lot of their time in arguing small points of detail, particularly about their history, which they insist must be correct. In, the early '80s, we published a small booklet on Portland yarns entitled "It could only happen on Portland", which grouped stories under such headings as "Portlanders and Religion"; "Portlanders and Fishing" etc. We now, obviously, have a much greater volume of material and found it very hard to follow the same pattern. We thought of dividing them under the name of individual characters but, of course, they react with each other and it is very difficult to separate them in this fashion. We have therefore decided to present them, very much as we acquired them, as individual tales or episodes. Further books, which will obviously be necessary, can then run on seamlessly. To give acknowledgements would be a lengthy exercise, taxing the memory to its limits and requiring almost another book. Any of the hundred or more Portlanders who have contributed these tales could tell them much better than we can. We are grateful that they have entrusted us with the task.
Burying a Cow Chiswell brothers, Dap and General, who made a living the best way they could, were commissioned by the Portland Council surveyor to retrieve a dead cow from the beach and bury it. They hauled the cow up from the beach and dug a hole. They had just manhandled the heavy animal into it when the surveyor turned up and told them that the hole was not deep enough. They then dug a separate, deeper hole. The surveyor was amazed to find two holes but announced he was satisfied with the second. When he returned to pay them, he found the two holes neatly filled in and levelled, leaving a large pile of surplus earth. He asked Dap what they were going to do with it. "Leave that to us sir." said Dap. "We are going to dig another hole and bury it."
Return of the Prodigal son Uncle Satan was a bit of a problem to his family. He was a legendary drinker and it is recorded that he once went out on Christmas Eve to buy a goose and returned in February with only the vaguest idea of where he had been. Eventually, the family got together and paid for a one-way passage to Australia. Nothing was heard from him for a few years and then a letter arrived. Uncle Satan had given up the demon drink, had prospered and was returning to Portland. There was high Page 2
Characters excitement and, on the appointed day, the whole family gathered at Portland Station to welcome him. Their disappointment can be imagined when all the passengers had left the train and there was no sign of Uncle Satan. They were starting to drift away when the guard started unloading the luggage van: boxes, cases and trunks - and Uncle Satan; completely paralytic. After a month, when whatever money he had, had been spent on wild binges, the family once again clubbed together and paid for his return to Australia.
A nice day for a Funeral During his time as a Funeral Director, Dicky Hoskins was one day driving the hearse up Fortuneswell when a thunderstorm broke. Dicky, who was terrified of lightning, leapt down from the cab and scuttled into the house of a friend. The solemn procession, mainly on foot, was left to manage the best way it could. In the friend's house, a bottle of Whisky was produced and they got to talking of this and that and the storm had been over for half an hour before Dicky stirred himself. When he appeared again, Dicky was livid with rage to find that the deceased's son had climbed up on the hearse and was about to drive off. Words were exchanged, coats were removed and the combatants had to be separated by fellow mourners. Peace being restored, Dicky was about to resume when he got to wondering whether the family would pay his bill. He therefore stepped down and demanded payment in advance. Again, words were exchanged, coats removed and a few blows struck until wiser heads conferred, went round with the hat, and the fee was paid. Only then did the cortege resume its stately passage.
Dodger the Sweep Dodger had his own business at last, as a self-employed Chimney Sweep. A kindly lady had given him his first job. She heard nothing for a very long time and eventually could not resist peeping round the door. Dodger was on his knees in the fireplace, his hands clasped in prayer. He was praying, "Please God, give I back my brush.â€? He had turned the rod the wrong way and the tools of his trade were firmly stuck up the chimney.
One way trip Uncle Bartholomew worked at Castletown loading boats and barges. Like many Portlanders of his generation he had lived a long life without ever having the need, or the curiousity to set foot off the Island. His habit during the lunch break, was to have several pints of beer in the 'Jolly Sailorâ€™ and then settle down for a snooze until somebody aroused him. One day there was consternation when Uncle Bartholomew could not be found. General consent was that he was taking his last lunchtime sleep at the bottom of the harbour. Meantime, Bartholomew was working his passage on a one-way, non-stop trip to London. He had settled down in a corner of a Stone Barge which was just about to sail.
Bobby's Politics There was high excitement in Easton. A leading Labour politician was visiting the Island and was addressing a meeting in the Methodist Hall. Bobby Tripe had seen the posters and was there early, securing a seat in the front row. The politician gave a powerful speech, covering all the main issues of the day and there was prolonged applause. He then asked for questions and, as is usual, there was an embarrassed silence. Then Bobby put his hand up. "We haven't had any refreshments." he said. Refreshments had been advertised on the poster.
Characters Peg-Leg gets stuck Being a Port and Naval base, peg-legs were quite common on the Island, the most famous belonging to an irascible character in Castletown, unimaginatively (for Portland) known as Old PegLeg. He could work as hard and as effectively as anyone with two legs but his main source of income was an illegal 'Crown and Anchor' game which, like Damon Runyon's crap game, was 'permanent floating'. One day, while on his business in Castletown, his peg became firmly wedged in a grating. All efforts to release it failed so the grating was levered off and the whole ensemble was carried into a local engineering shop so that the grating could be knocked off. While this was happening, a sailor fell down the unguarded drain and broke his leg so badly that it had to be amputated.
Captain's error Captain Cont achieved fame on Portland with his masterful lack of command of the English language. His most famous story concerns an encounter he had in Weston. What happened was that the Captain recognised a friend approaching and waved to him. The friend waved back and headed towards him. It turned out to be a mutual mistake of identity and they did not know each other at all. Captain Cont related the incident as follows:- "He thought 'twas I and I thought 'twas he and when it came to 'tweren't none of us."
Losing a fortune Every Portlander dreams of finding a 'Ducky Stone.' For centuries they were used as door stops, because of their weight, until it was found they were actually solid silver bars or coins (ducats) rolled into shape in the sea. The last one found fetched £4,000 at auction, although Portlanders are reluctant to admit to finds and we do not doubt that they still turn up on the beach. Jotey CollingsDryer was doing a bit of casual beachcombing up at 'passage', (Ferrybridge), and found fifteen of them. They were far too heavy to carry and it was getting dark so Jotey buried them on the beach, carefully marking the spot. That night, for the first time for many years, the sea overtopped the beach at 'passage', obliterating any marks and rolling the Ducky Stones deep into the pebbles. They have never been seen again.
Postcard from Purgatory The meeting place, for cabbies and men about town, was Mitchell's, the Blacksmiths, at the top of Fortuneswell. Here the master raconteur, Dicky Hoskins, held court to a spellbound audience. A blot on the landscape was Swanage Joe, the lamplighter, who insisted on being there and was conducting a personal campaign to save their souls. One day he said to Dicky, "There's a special place for people like you who swear and blaspheme." "Where's that then, Joe?" enquired Dicky. Swanage Joe could not remember the word 'Purgatory'. "I can't think of it at the moment," he said "but it begins with a P." Dicky decided to help him. "Poole, Pucknowle, Penzance," he suggested, "Paris, Patagonia, Pennsylvania?" Joe was furious. As he stormed out of the room he said "You'll know where it is alright when you get there!" "I'll send you a postcard." said Dicky.
Exact weight Sue and Jabez kept cows and sold their milk around the Island. They used the same methods as their ancestors and must have been the last dairy in the country to carry their milk around with a yoke and buckets. They were at constant war with the local Medical Officer and the Weights and Measures authorities. The Portlanders liked their milk and continued to patronise them. Their sister Pru’ kept house for them and had a little side-line. She used to make sweets and sell them to the children on their way to school. Pru’ was very punctilious about weight. She Page 4
Characters carefully weighed out the sweets on a little brass scale. If it was slightly over or under, she would bite a sweet in half and return the other half to the jar.
The sea's bounty Milord was Portland's most successful beachcomber. He was known to cover up to 35 miles a day on the beach and the sea supplied everything he needed. It fed him with fresh fruit and tinned food, which he supplemented with a diet of garden snails, boiled and eaten with great relish. He spurned money but would barter for his small additional needs. His currency was timber, mainly hardwood beams, collected on the beach. He smoked a Meerschaum pipe and filled it from a whole bale of finest Virginia tobacco, both gifts from the sea. The beach is not quite so provident today. There is no longer the carnage among shipping in Dead Man's Bay and ships no longer jettison deck cargo - but Chesil Beach is still very interesting for the modern day beachcomber.
The amazing Doctor Sequah Portlanders have always revered their doctors but they have an inbuilt tendency to try alternative medicine. Doctor Sequah was wildly popular because he not only sold patent medicines, like Cerebral Unction and The Elixir of Life, but also put on a show, complete with his own brass band. Painless tooth extraction was a specialty, but nobody knew if it really was so because it was always accompanied by a prolonged roll on his big bass drum. His miracle cures astonished the audience. He also regularly visited the Channel Islands and in 'The book of Ebeneezer Le Page' there is a description of people throwing away their crutches and, the next morning, painfully crawling around looking for them. To draw a crowd, Doctor Sequah held competitions and we have a record of one such competition, which was to tell the biggest lie. The winner said he had a telescope so powerful that he could train it on the Shambles Lightship and hear every word the crew said. His prize was a clock which was stolen before he got it home. It still exists on the Island but the present owners tell us it has never kept good time, because it was stolen.
Great Finesse Portlanders will tell you that Nuncle Hiram was the strongest man that ever lived and he is certainly credited with some astonishing feats of strength. In his younger days, he was anchor man of an invincible Portland tug-of-war team which was challenged by the Army's equally invincible team. As the officer in charge surveyed the large teak-tough quarrymen he felt a bit unsure of the wisdom of the challenge so he indulged in a bit of psychological warfare. He approached Nuncle Hiram and said, "I think we shall beat you because we have great finesse." Nuncle Hiram, used to everybody being referred to by a nickname, looked along the line to try to identify the owner of this wonderful name. He was not impressed. "We'll pull thee, Great Finesse and all." he said. And so they did.
Charlie's cake guage Charlie Blackrats' workmates were mystified. They were used to his eccentricities but could not understand why, every day, he brought a piece of cake for his lunch and, every evening, took it back home again. It took some time and some subtle questioning to work it out. Charlie shared a house in The Grove with two other bachelors and each did his own catering. He had come to the conclusion that, while he was at work, one of the others was helping himself to a slice of his cake. He was therefore trying the cake in the hole each night to see if it fitted.
Characters Accidental suicide At a time when it was not quite so illegal as it is nowadays, Levi had a large collection of seabird eggs. Ever alert, he spotted a nest on a ledge below Blacknor and decided to come back during the night and help himself. He got to the chosen spot, swung himself over the cliff and, unable to find any footholds in the smooth rock, hung on by his fingertips. He then got to wondering if, in the darkness, he had come to the wrong place and there was a yawning 200 foot drop beneath his feet. He struggled for some time to pull himself up and then hung on for a muscle-tearing quarter of an hour his cries for help becoming feebler and feebler. Eventually he had to let go and, with a scream, dropped six inches onto the ledge.
Ideal Chairman There was a very important Public Meeting in Southwell in connection with a scheme to supply water. Jealously guarded public rights were at stake and agencies like the Crown and the County Council were represented. In accordance with the proper procedure for such meetings, the Portlanders were invited to elect their own Chairman. They chose a highly esteemed elder of the community, a Mr. Pearce, who was so deaf he could only hear if you shouted into his ear trumpet.
Lost lunch Dap and General were working on the coaling ships, earning good money and, as a reward, their Mother had made a large meat pie for their lunch. The brothers were thrilled. Dap, working up on deck, showed it to everybody and General, shovelling coal in the hold, found the morning dragged. He could hardly wait until lunch break to sample the luscious pie. When he came up on deck, he found that his brother, Dap, had hurled it into the harbour. A workmate had convinced him that it was rat pie.
Follow that pipe Little Billy Frenchy worked at Whitehead's canteen where he cleared away plates, singing a little song of his own composition, "Give I pudding, give I lovely pudding." He always wore oversize trousers which concertinaâ€™d down to his ankles. One day there was a riot because of the poor quality of the food and poor Billy had the contents of all the plates tipped down his voluminous trousers. Each morning Billy would walk from his house in High Street, the length of the Beach Road, contentedly smoking his pipe. One day, the wind in his face was so strong that he was having trouble lighting it. He therefore turned round, lit it and carried on the way he was facing, arriving back home at the same time as he should have got to work.
Jack, Joe and Jim Jack Nap is the holder of the Portland tipplers all-comers record, having managed to get himself banned from every pub on the Island. He was a drinker of the first â€˜waterâ€™ and one of his tricks was to go into a pub with an empty bottle and tip dregs and unguarded drinks into it, escaping with a lethal cocktail. In a famous court appearance, of which there were many, the Portland Police Sergeant was asked if he considered that Jack had been drunk. He replied, "It's hard for me to say sir, as I've nothing to compare it with as I've never seen him sober." The police liked to arrest Jack, but first they had to get past his faithful goose and dog, Joe and Jim, who followed him everywhere and defended him. The Police must have managed to do it fairly frequently because Jack was so often in Dorchester Jail that he had his own allotment there.
Characters Tommy's troubles Tommy Knight, the Chiswell barber, was another tippler whose party trick was to drink 15 pints of beer and then shave a balloon with a cut-throat razor. His shop was next to the Crown Inn and, if you wanted a haircut during opening hours, you had to go and prise him out of the pub. Tommy was inordinately fond of gadgets and he was the first on the Island to have a Squeegee, a rubberbladed tool for cleaning windows. Tommy used to show off to the crowd waiting for the Crown to open by throwing a bucket of water over his window and then cleaning it with a few skilful flicks of the wrist. One day, when his back was turned, a quarryman dropped a half brick in Tommy's bucket. Tommy hurled it through his window, drenching his stock and a customer sitting waiting for a haircut.
Penny Serenade Some Portland characters are so much larger than life that they seem like cartoons. Such a character was Professor Penny, the Underhill music teacher. He wandered up and down Fortuneswell wearing morning clothes and a wing collar, all heavily encrusted with snuff. He had a shop at the top of the road where he sold sheet music and tomatoes, of which he had a liberal supply in and out of season. A popular spectator sport was to go and watch the Professor, sitting in the shop window, darning his socks. There is no doubt that he was a fine musician who could play any instrument despite his inch long fingernails. At a dance, he was playing the violin, went off in the middle of a number to get his bottle of Whisky, returned and sat down on his precious instrument. He then produced an accordion from under his chair and played it with equal proficiency. He was a virtuoso organist on the celebrated instrument at St. John's although his rendition was spoiled by his toneless singing which accompanied his recitals. Children were generally terrified of him and one lady told us that, as a girl, she ran away from home rather than face another music lesson. Her fears were obviously unfounded. Another lady told us of a typical music lesson. Her Mother would produce a cup of tea and a piece of ginger cake, which he would eat with noisy relish. He would then put his feet on the table and sleep soundly until wakened by his pupil at the end of the lesson. A gentleman told us that, when he was a boy, he was standing at a bus stop with Professor Penny behind him. The Professor was humming a classical piece and imitating the various instruments. When it came to a part which featured drums, Penny produced a pair of broken off piano hammers from his pocket and played the drum part on the boy's head.
The King at Fuzzard's The pioneer of Royal walkabouts was not our present Queen but her great-grandfather, Edward VII. On a visit to Portland, the King hired Fat Hodder's horse trap to tour the Island. Afterwards, Fat Hodder had the Royal coat of arms painted on his trap, much to the chagrin of Dicky Hoskins. What really annoyed Dicky was that he was a fierce competitor because, while Dicky liked to spend a good deal of the day in shelters or at Mitchell's, gossiping, Fat Hodder was so overweight that he could not clamber up and down from his seat and, consequently, plied his trade all day. Dicky tried to needle him: "I think it's a disgrace allowing all these scruffs in the cab the King used." "What do you expect me to do?" demanded Fat Hodder. "I'll do a deal with you." suggested Dicky. "You carry the Kings and I'll carry the commoners." To continue the account, one of the places the King chose to visit was Fuzzard's barbers at the junction of Fortuneswell and Ventnor Road. Fuzzard was beside himself with joy and his cup overflowed when Edward accepted a gift of one of the best cigars he had in stock. Fuzzard was still crowing when, ten minutes later, Dicky Hoskins walked in and returned the cigar. He explained that, after leaving the shop, the King had hurled it, unlit, over the nearest wall. Fuzzard was hopping mad, not with the King but with Dicky, and banned him from his shop for life.
Characters Besting Canon Beazor Old William was a very devout character who spent every day in the bay window of his Southwell home ostentatiously reading the Bible. When nobody was looking, he would take a swig from the jug of beer at his feet. One day, Canon Beazor caught him coming out of the Jug and Bottle of the Eight Kings with a brimming jug. The Rector tutted. "I'm surprised at you William." he said, "Hasn't all your Bible study taught you that strong drink is thine enemy." Nobody, not even Canon Beazor was going to best William at Bible knowledge. "And I'm surprised at you sir." he said. "Can I refer you to Timothy Chapter 5, Verse 23 and Matthew Chapter 5, Verse 44." "Refresh my memory." said the Canon. "Take some wine for your stomach's sake." said William "And, Love your enemy."
Angel Umpire Canon Hurley was not only much loved but also greatly admired on Portland. He was a multiple Blue at Cambridge, played football for Leeds United and was a legendary hitter of sixes for the Portland cricket team. When he was batting, the landlord of The George, in nearby Reforne, used to open all his windows. The pitch was, and is, windswept and the Canon had a theory that it was the wind, rather than the ball, which removed his bails. He therefore went into bat with a small jar of jam and used it to firmly fix his bails before taking guard. At a later date, on the same pitch, there was an incident when a Portland bowler removed the middle stump and left the bails miraculously hanging in mid-air. The dispute, on whether the batsman was out, went all the way to the M.C.C. for resolution. To return to the story, during a close game, one of the opposition players refused to leave the pitch when the Umpire declared he was out. He was a large, belligerent man and the situation was becoming ugly. Canon Hurley persuaded him to walk over to the boundary opposite St. George's churchyard. The nearest grave to the pitch, has an angel on top of it with an arm raised and a finger pointed up to heaven in the classic Umpire's pose. "There you are." said the Canon, "Even the angel says you're out." The matter was resolved in howls of laughter. The angel still stands in the churchyard, but some vandal has removed the finger.
Wonder and Nowhere Plundering wrecks has always been as natural as breathing to Portlanders. After one such wreck an impoverished local character suddenly became prosperous and the presumption was that he had managed to 'liberate' the ship's cash box. Ever afterwards he was known as Cash Box Tom. All this happened a very long time ago but he has his lasting memorial in a place name. It is a plot of land off Avalanche Road known as Wonder. The connection is hard to make unless you understand the Portland sense of humour. What happened was that Tom spent a bit of his money on buying this land and his neighbours kept saying "I wonder where he got the money from?" An even odder name attaches to a piece of land in Easton, which is known as Nowhere. Once again a place name has resulted from Portland humour and the passage of years. A Portlander discovered that the plot had no apparent owner so he secretly started cultivating it, hoping to eventually gain the title by adverse possession. Secrets are an unknown commodity on Portland and everybody knew what he was up to. When anybody saw him returning from his expeditions they would always ask him where he had been. The reply was consistently - "Nowhere!".
How Georgie lost his hat At one time Georgie Bow lived in the derelict â€˜Scout Houseâ€™ on the beach. He managed to make a living by salvaging a bit of this and a bit of that and was particularly well placed for any bounty from the sea. Georgie felt quite handsome in his rakish straw hat and, with a bit of padding, it was quite handy for carrying things on his head. One day there was a landfall of bales of mutton fat, no doubt lost from deck cargo. Georgie spent a few hours collecting it and had no bother selling
Characters it. In the process, his straw hat got soaked in mutton fat. When he awoke next morning, there were only a few wisps of straw where his hat had been. During the night, rats had eaten it.
Orator Randell Randell was unique among Portland's many wayside orators. He could speak with wit and logic when he had no audience but, as soon as an audience gathered, he was struck with stage fright and could not say a word. His stage was at the Tank, in Chiswell, where he would harangue passers-by. "Are you afraid of the truth?" "Do you want to live in poverty for the rest of your life?" "The day of the new society has come." People were naturally intrigued and would stop to listen, whereupon Randell would push off. Randell was a member of Portland's very small Communist Party, another was Fuzzard who chose a very strange pulpit. His chosen audience were the Sunday afternoon strollers, and lovers, who thronged West Weares. He spoke to them from the cliff, at the end of Cove Cottages and it was so far away that nobody could understand what he was saying. The leader of the party was a Castletown publican and he, and a bunch of party members, travelled to Weymouth at dead of night. They were going to make a political gesture by painting the statue of George III red. The statue was bigger than they remembered and Weymouth was well policed so they put all their paint in a bucket, with the intention of hurling it over the statue. With the assistance of an onshore breeze, they managed to soak themselves and leave the King virtually untouched.
Fighting on the home front Old Nan was a familiar sight in Underhill before the Great War. She spent all day shopping and never bought a thing. She regularly turned over everything in the shops' stock and would often get as far as having things wrapped, or weighed out, but always changed her mind. The exception was the Jug and Bottle of the Sun Inn, where she regularly bought a quart of ale, which she transported home in a massive teapot. If anybody was there when she bought it, she would say, "Doctor's orders m'son." Old Nan came into her own during the Great War when she gave herself the task of defending Fortuneswell against the Germans. Unfortunately she had no idea what a German looked like and many a visiting sailor, or soldier home on leave, was subject to attack with her flailing umbrella.
Learning to ride a bike Portland is famed for its doughty old men, none more so than Old Man Gill. In his latter years he spent most of his time in Castletown, then a thriving Port and Naval Base with a lot of traffic. He had a conviction that the roads were for pedestrians and he would walk slowly down the middle of the road, making the traffic wait. On one occasion he refused to budge and had to be lifted out of the way so that commerce could continue. He was famous for picking fights in pubs, well into his eighties. The trouble was that he wore a wig, which was as realistic as shredded up cardboard. Every time somebody laughed, he took it for granted that they were laughing at his wig. When he was dying, the family took him up to the top of Fortuneswell, well away from his beloved Castletown. The old man responded by rising from his bed, climbing on a bike, which he had never ridden before, and careering down Fortuneswell, nightshirt flapping, whooping at the top of his voice. He was caught by some sailors as he fell off the bike in Castle Road.
To Heaven - by bike Another story, in similar vein, concerns an old man in Wakeham, who was on his deathbed. While his wife and family waited for the end in the next room, he got up, got dressed and rode off on his bike. His daughter, arriving to see him, caught sight of him disappearing round the corner. She Page 9
Characters burst into the house and said, "He's gone! On his bike." The old lady got hold of the wrong end of the stick. She had a vision of a rusty old bike propped up against the pearly gates. "He had to shame us, even in death." she said.
A day trip A charabanc trip to Salisbury was leaving from Chiswell and Dap and General were there early, securing the prized seats next to the driver. As they were waiting for the coach to fill up, Dap kept on stepping off and looking up admiringly. His fellow trippers decided that he must be getting off the charabanc to see what he looked like sitting in it. Roads were pretty rough in those days and the brothers arrived in Salisbury shaken to the core and exhausted. While the others departed, Dap and General insisted on resting in their seats for a little while. After a tour of the cathedral, shopping and a cream tea, the trippers returned to find the brothers still sitting in the charabanc. They explained that they had not been able to follow because they did not know the way. The driver pointed out that the cathedral could be clearly seen from the coach. "Ah yes!" said Dap, with unanswerable logic, "But you can't see the coach from the cathedral."
The Seafarer Boy Male, who had a very distinguished career in the Royal Navy during the war, happened to bump into Bobby Tripe while wearing his officer's uniform. Bobby was scathing. "I've tipped more sea water out of my sea boots than you've ever sailed on." he told him. Boy knew that Bobby had only been to sea once, as a young man, but he never said anything. Bobby liked to talk about his seagoing days. "I've been round the world twice, and lots of other places as well!â€? he used to say. Telling the story of a wreck he had witnessed he said, "Only fifty were saved, all of them dead." Bobby's personal stories were hair-raising. He told of the time he had to row for his life in a tempest, "The water was over the thirlpins." he said, which would actually have placed him under water. He described being rolled into Church Ope Cove on a great wave; "The boat ended up at the top of the beach, standing up like a sentry box," he said, "with me standing to attention in it." This must have been one of the dreaded East winds. Discussing the subject with a group of cronies, Bobby claimed that there was always an East wind at Easter. Others disagreed but Bobby was supported by his friend, Old Ballet. He said, "I've seen hundreds of Easters and there has always been an East wind." Bobby lived into the television age and was enchanted by it. He told a friend. "I've been all over the world but there is one place I'd like to go before I die." " Where's that then?" he was asked. "It's a place called Interlude." said Bobby. Research soon found that B.B.C. Television had been showing footage between programmes, of a palm-shaded beach, with 'Interlude' lettered on it.
Bounty from America Portlanders, although honest as the day is long, have always considered certain things fair game. It all goes back to the 'salvage' tradition where the Portland prayer was-"Blow wind, rise storm, ship ashore afore dawn." The U.S. forces, here during the war, were easy game for the wily Portlanders. It is said that the Americans erected a store in Chiswell, drew up with a lorry, and started unloading food. When they had finished, the store was just as empty as when they started. As they put it into the front, it was spirited out of the back. Suddenly, bully beef and tinned California fruit became plentiful on the Island. As a bit of last minute training, a party of U.S. troops went out to West Cliff, secured ropes, and shinned down the sheer cliff. On the rocks below, their officer gave them a short talk on how they were going to climb up again. When they turned to do it, the ropes had gone. Levi had been taking an early morning stroll along the cliffs, found the, apparently abandoned, ropes, reeled them in and gone on his way rejoicing.
Characters Church handyman Monkey Stone lived in a ruined stable in Brandy Row with his friend Allah. Like a lot of characters he earned his living the best way he could and he was often employed by the Vicar of St. John's to do odd jobs. After completing a large painting job, he asked the Church Treasurer, a local doctor, for his money. The doctor told him that he could not pay him without an Invoice and Monkey was in trouble because he could not read or write. He made the mistake of approaching Dicky Hoskins for help and, somewhere in church archives, there is a bill which reads as follows (heavily expurgated): "To whitewashing the Vicar's lavatory and hanging round pretending to work £1-17s." Monkey presented the bill, in all innocence, and the doctor paid up without comment. On another occasion, the Vicar was trying to conduct a confirmation class but was drowned out by the sound of Monkey, hammering in the vestry. The Vicar opened the door and shouted at him to be quiet. When he returned, half an hour later, he found Monkey in the same position as when he left, frozen with fear, halfway through his hammer strike. Monkey was not a churchgoer and the priest was surprised and delighted to see him enter the church halfway through the Christmas morning service. He wandered round during the service but beggars can't be choosers and he sought him out afterwards to say how pleased he was to see him. Monkey looked at him with haunted eyes. "Vicar," he said, "Have you seen my hammer?"
Hiram strikes For most of his life, Nuncle Hiram was a pillar of the Salvation Army but in his younger days, he was a man about town and many tales are told about his awesome strength. At Portland Fair, he hit a 'try your strength' machine so hard that it collapsed. He had a famous fight with a tough and skilled street fighter known as Mahogany who danced around Hiram, raining blows on him while Hiram muttered "I'll get a plumb on 'ee." Of course he did and the fight was over. One blow from Hiram was always more than sufficient. Even before he saw the light, he still had his convictions. He took a soldier outside the Alexandria, one night, and beat him to a pulp. The soldier's friends, who originally went out to help him, thought better of it. "At least tell us what he did wrong." one of them asked. "He profaned.” said Nuncle Hiram.
The boy who had everything Portlanders have an admiration, and a wonderful folk memory, for showmen. We worked out that one of the patent medicine salesmen they still talk about must have visited the Island in the 1830s. His name is not known but, for some reason, he had the words ‘Love and Truth’ blazoned on the front of his caravan. What Portlanders remember about him was his unfortunate son. Whatever his father was selling, cures for everything from coughs and colds, spots and toothache, to more serious complaints like consumption and scarlet fever, his father would say, "My own son suffered from this and is now completely cured." The boy would then appear with before and after illustrations. Another showman from the same period was known as Mister Pappa, who had a wrestling bear which took on all-comers and never lost. The Flower Pot Man came with Portland Fair and had a regular pitch at Bedlam. He sold fresh flowers but was also a master conjurer. He made flowers grow from seed before your eyes and could make them change colour by passing a handkerchief in front of them. The Bottle Man was a humble Rag and Bone merchant with a delightful touch. He had bottles filled with water suspended above his barrow and played popular tunes on them with a drumstick. Arizona Dan had never been nearer the wild west than Ferrybridge, but still gave wonderful displays of riding, roping and shooting on Verne Common. What intrigued us about him was that his stables and living quarters were in a building off East Street, which was a converted lavatory. It must have been some lavatoryl
Characters Jonah Portlanders have always been, and still are, superstitious. A Portlander told us that, as a boy working in the quarries, one of his regular jobs was to pass lighted newspaper across the pegs, hammered in to split the rock, "To scare the Necromancers away." Sight of a bunny, even a toy one, was guaranteed to send all the quarrymen home for the day. News that the 'Roy Dog' was on the prowl would see shutters up and every door bolted and barred. The 'Roy Dog' was supposed to rise from the sea and devour anybody in its path. This superstition seems to have had a practical purpose because his appearance generally coincided with smuggling runs. The oddest superstition however, is the presence of at least one 'Jonah' in each generation. The last we know of was a Portlander known as Doctor Grip. As he walked the Island, people would melt away in his path. Apparently he was an inoffensive man who lived and died without knowing he was a 'Jonah'. He must have thought Portland was sparsely populated.
Ideal grazing There was no question that Dodger loved his cows. On every possible occasion he would show them off by dressing them in garlands and rosettes and parading them through the street. One day the Medical Officer of Health called, by arrangement to inspect his cow shed. Dodger had whitewashed the walls and scrubbed the floor and, for extra comfort for the cows, had added a carpet on the floor, pictures on the walls and a harmonium in the corner. The Salvation Army held a regular Sunday service, in the open air, in Easton Square. The officer was aware of Dodger, in the front row, listening intently while the band played and the congregation sang â€œThere is a green hill far away." Afterwards he was approached by Dodger, who enquired where the green hill was, as he would like to graze his cows on it.
Going nowhere Leon Cutting, the Easton barber, had a visit from a lady of Southwell. She explained that her husband had died with a seven day stubble on his chin and she wanted him shaved. Leon's normal charge for a shave was 6d but, considering the gruesome nature of the task and the travelling, he wanted 2/6d. "Don't bother!" said the lady, "He's not going anywhere in particular." Another similar story concerns an Easton gentleman who was wakened from a terminal coma by the delicious smell of cooked ham wafting through the house. He called his wife and told her that he thought he could eat some of it. She refused. "You can't have any of that." she told him. "That's for the bearers."
Trouble with foreigners There is a strong streak of xenophobia running through Portlanders, which is not surprising as they consider anybody from the other side of Ferrybridge as foreign. Dicky Hoskins' cab was hailed one day by a Government official who was conducting the distinguished head of the Chinese Prison Service on a tour of British prisons. He took them to the prison and was told to wait. When they returned, they found Dicky, with a yard broom and a bucket of water, scrubbing the place where the Chinese gentleman had sat. "I don't want to catch no yellow peril." Dicky explained. A Castletown barber was invaded by the crew of a visiting Portuguese boat who were as sinister a gang of cut-throats as you would ever wish to meet. They stared at the waiting customers, who all suddenly found they had better things to do. In fear and trembling, the barber cut the whole crew's hair while the rest sat picking their nails with knives. At last it was finished and they began to leave. Payment never crossed the barber's mind but their leader paused, produced a tiny monkey from under his jacket and presented it to the astonished hairdresser. Paid in full! The biggest problem in Castletown were the Russian sailors. They were ragged and very poorly payed and they would descend on the shops like a swarm of locusts. Gill's the bootmakers had a special Russian Page 12
Characters latch, remotely controlled from the workbench. They also had a double sided, sign made up. On one side it said 'Closed' in both English and Russian. On the other it said 'Open' in English and 'Closed' in Russian.
Waiting for the Cuckoo Royal's, the clockmakers in Fortuneswell, is best remembered in Portland for a small alteration they made to the layout of their shop. The clock shop was on the ground floor and there was a very busy Post Office in the basement. To speed matters, they fitted a slippery parcel slide to one side of the stairs and caused mayhem among the population who, one by one, went crashing into the basement. A Portlander was passing the shop one day and saw Dap, looking in the window. He returned, almost an hour later, and he was in the same position. Curious, he stopped to see what the attraction was and saw that Dap was staring at a Cuckoo Clock. What had happened was that the Cuckoo had popped out, just as Dap was passing, and he had waited an hour to see if it happened again.
Keep believing Portland was, and still is, an intensely religious community and has spawned some wonderful preachers - but it also had its eccentrics. Underhill's favourite must be Levi Keats who preached his own unique version of the gospel at Verne Gate. He was certainly illiterate and preached passages from the scriptures he had memorised from other kerbside preachers - all somewhat garbled. According to Portlanders, he used to say "Shadrack, Meeshack - to bed you go." but that is probably an exaggeration. When asked what some of his mixed up sentences meant he used to say, "It doesn't matter what it means. It's the Bible isn't it!" When totally stumped for something to say he used to repeat two or three words over and over. "I'm speaking in tongues." he claimed. "Aren't tongues supposed to be in some foreign lingo?" he was challenged. "I'm speaking English tongues." said Levi. Tophill's favourite was Bob Pootey, who was certainly not illiterate and was a genuine lay preacher. His problem was that he loved long, mysterious words , which he did not properly understand, and used to thread them into his sermons at every possible opportunity. Of course there was often a bit of sniggering among the more literate but Bob used to slay them with his standard phrase, "There's a distinct lack of ignorance in here tonight!â€? Tommy Cow stopped the traffic with his preaching which was conducted in the middle of Chiswell. He knelt with a wad of horse manure in his hands which he squeezed through his fingers as he prayed, "Lord, they are all sinners, every one of them except me." Tommy was not above self-centred prayers. He was heard to say once, "Please God, make the Mackerel to stray - but only if I am in the shot." Tommy's best traffic stopping effort was a large banner which he made and spread across the width of the road. It said "Repent for the time has come." A kindly policeman had to do something about it and he removed it and placed it on the beach. Tommy was livid. "It's no good there." he said, "Nobody can see it!" The policeman pointed up to the sky. "He can see it." he said. Tommy was satisfied. 'Keep Believing' was actually a Portland nickname, obtained in the following way. Gert Will was one of the young men about town, who surprised his friends one Sunday, by announcing that he was going to a Salvation Army meeting. They tagged along with him and, perhaps from bravado, Will decided to get up and preach. Once on the platform, he realised that he had no idea what to say, so he preached as follows: "My old man's gone down quarr' - so keep believing. He's taken some bread and cheese with 'im - so keep believing.â€? etc. etc. He never lived it down and, as we said, acquired a nickname which followed him to the grave, but he became a stalwart of the Salvation Army and a much respected member of the community. Another nickname from preaching fell to a character called 'Beneficial'. He was prosperous, a pillar of the church and another public preacher. He insisted on standing up, every Sunday and thanking God for all the bits of good fortune which had befallen him during the week. He always closed the list with the words, "....which was most beneficial."
Characters Beach treasure There must be very few Portland families who do not own treasured objects picked up on the beach. Chesil Beach is a 'fetch point' for channel currents and every day, valuables from centuries of shipwrecks must be washed in and swallowed by the mighty bank of pebbles. They are very reticent about admitting their finds to each other but we often get furtively shown the latest acquisition. Portlanders have a huge advantage because they know their beach, and the tides, and there are certain times when the pebbles are swept aside and the clay laid bare, revealing booty galore. We strangers never hear about it until afterwards. Dap found a diamond ring on the beach and, times being hard, decided to sell it in the Cove House Inn. He went through a lengthy bargaining process with a prospective buyer who got more and more exasperated because Dap would not reveal his price. "Tell me how much you want or you can keep it." he said. Dap was as shrewd as ever; "I want a shilling more than you're going to pay me for it." he said. One of the greatest disasters of Dap's accident-prone life occured when he found what was obviously a very valuable gold coin, about the same size as an old penny piece. Everybody wanted to buy it from him but Dap refused and put it in his pocket. Of course the inevitable happened. He forgot about it and spent it - as a penny.
Gardeners A lot of Portland gardening stories are tall tales. Benny was reproached by the Rector, one day, for not contributing any of his wonderful garden produce to the Harvest Festival. "I tried to." Benny said, "As a matter of fact I brought along one of my cabbages but I couldn't get it through the church door." A neighbour, in Southwell, asked if he would sell him some of his potatoes. "How many do you want?" Benny queried. "I would like a hundredweight." was the reply. "I'm not cutting up one of my potatoes for anybody!" said Benny. Gardening was a regular subject of conversation at the Eight Kings. After a very windy night, one regular complained that he had had a good crop of parsnips, ready for harvesting, and the wind had blown them up out of the ground. During a prolonged drought, the Curate at St. Andrews led prayers for rain. After the service, he was approached by an irate Portlander. "You want to watch what you're doing." he said. "We're on piecework in the quarries." Dicky Hoskins once went into market gardening and got hold of an allotment on Old Hill. Not being inclined to do any digging, he had the blacksmith make him up a plough and used his horses to do the work. He gave it up when a herd of Portland's wild goats cleaned him out. The strangest gardener was Jacker. He had a hut in Church Ope Cove which is a precipitous climb down many steps. Each season, Jacker would cart soil down the steps, plant potatoes and, when they were harvested, carry them up the steps. Jacker had a perfectly good garden at home.
Going to the pictures Sadly, Portland no longer has a cinema but in the early days, the cinemas were a source of great pleasure. The earliest, in Baker's Ground, was in the open air where you were likely to get a good soaking for your 3d admission fee. The Manager of the cinema in Victoria Square was a wild eccentric who prowled around looking for somebody to evict. He also used to spray the audience with disinfectant. The Palace, at Easton was heavily patronised by the inhabitants of the Monkey Hut, a shelter in Easton Gardens. The old men sat during the day, swapping stories and smoking their pipes and, according to local legend, bringing the smoke out in buckets, but in the evening, they went to the Palace. Bobby Tripe was a trial to the management because he kept up a non-stop stream of advice to the characters in the films. The old men were particularly intrigued by a film they saw, where Cleopatra bathed in asses' milk. Next evening they were all back to see the same film but, this time, in the Circle so that they could see further over the lip of the bath.
Characters Boatbuilders Portlanders seem to have boatbuilding in their genes. It is a rare skill in most places but quite commonplace on Portland. It is perhaps not so surprising when you consider that their ancestors may have been fishing the same waters for a thousand years. Unfortunately, nobody seems to make the traditional Lerret any more but there are always boats under construction somewhere. A lot of thought is put into the boat but none at all into how it is to be got out of the premises when it is finished. When we had an article on the subject, in the early eighties, we located three boats sealed into buildings, one apparently there forever because it was in an attic. Morty built a boat in his front room and believed he could get it out by removing the window. He soon discovered he needed another 18 inches on both sides so, nothing daunted, he set to with a sledgehammer on both sides of the window. As might have been anticipated, the lintel and half the wall came down, severely damaging Morty and, unkindest cut of all, reducing his precious boat to matchwood.
Allah's tramp Allah Bow returned to his stable home, after a convivial night at the King's Arms, to find a very large, very smelly and very drunken tramp occupying his bed. All his efforts failed to move him and, being a freezing cold night, Allah had no choice but to join him in the bed. Next morning, the tramp showed no sign of leaving so Allah had to dig into his slender resources to bribe him to go away. The tramp must have liked that because, next evening, he was again sound asleep in Allah's bed. How the problem was resolved, we do not know. It is likely that Allah called on a few of the local fishermen for assistance but nobody can remember.
The trains never came Doctor Beeching has a lot to answer for in closing Portland's wonderfully scenic railway. It would now be a top tourist attraction and might obviate the need for more intrusive roads. The Victoria Square station was the background for many Portland stories, for instance Dap and General refused to catch the Weymouth train because it was a different engine from the one which had taken them there before. This was on a single-track line which could go nowhere but to Weymouth. The subject of this story is one Batty Showers. A photograph, in old age, taken with Nuncle Hiram, shows that he too was a big, powerful man. He seems to have lived rough for a good deal of his life and, like almost everybody else, made a living the best way he could. It was a fair hike from Castletown Pier to the Railway Station and a few shillings could be made by carrying Naval Officers' bags. Batty Showers always told the officers that they had just missed a train and suggested that they would be much more comfortable waiting in the Jolly Sailor. He assured them that he would keep an eye on the time but, as long as the beer kept flowing, the next train was never due.
Done to a turn Mr. Gemmil used to travel over from Weymouth and buy crabs direct from the Portland fishermen. He was a ruthless businessman and took full advantage of gluts and competition to grind the prices down. He employed Mary Byett to boil the crabs for him, for which he paid her a pittance. He was not much loved. One day he left Mary boiling crabs and went out to conduct another bit of business. When he returned, Mary lifted the boiler lid and there inside was his bowler hat, cooked to perfection. Also done to a turn was his attache case with his notebook, orders and invoices and his packed lunch. Whodunit is a Portland mystery.
Characters Being rude to Abe Jack Cottey was a well liked man about the Island, and a very good footballer, and had a lot of friends although he was deaf and dumb. One night he was fishing at the Bill, with Abe Comben's son and, as the hour was late, they decided to sleep in Abe's hut. Abe's son was up early and was fiddling with the boat when his father approached him, in a foul temper. "Who's that in our hut?" he demanded. "It's only Jack Cottey." his son replied. "He's a queer cove." said Abe, "I spoke to him and he didn't even bother to answer." "That's because he's deaf and dumb." was the explanation. Abe was not in the least mollified. "Why the hell didn't he say so then?"
Using the wind wisely Certain professions seem to have stayed in the same family for generations if not hundreds of years. Portlanders always talk about the 'Lighthouse Combens' and the 'Windmill Pearces'. Possibly the oldest story still current on the Island, concerns one of the latter and it probably goes back to the 17th Century. The many generations of Millers before him seems to have failed to teach the incumbent of the time, naturally a Mr. Pearce, anything about the elements. There were, and still are, two windmills and, when the wind was light, he used to close one down on the grounds that there was not enough wind for two.
Getting priorities right The ego-centred Dicky Hoskins was very proud of his neat little cottage, at the top of Fortuneswell, on the site of the present Council offices. It was right opposite the very steep Verne Hill Road leading up to the citadel. One day the inevitable happened. A cart, overloaded with stable manure, ran away down the hill, smashing down Dicky's wall and depositing its load in Dicky's doorway. When Dicky struggled out, Dr. Howard was on his knees in the road, treating the severely injured driver. Dicky grabbed him by the shoulder. "Never mind him." he said, "What about my wall?"
Saying it right Captain Cont's wife was unquestionably from a higher social class. As a matter of fact that is how he got his name. Imitating her posh accent, the Captain told his workmates, "She says I cont do this and I cont do that." He is one of many who is credited with the saying, "I don't suppose that she'll be satisfied with the mansions the Lord is preparing for us." He struck back sometimes. His wife accused him of losing his watch and he assured her he knew exactly where it was. He did too! Where it was, was over the stern of his boat half a mile off Portland Bill. Captain Cont is famous on Portland for his mangling of the English language. Perhaps the simplest example was recounted by Mr. Trim who, as a boy, was working on retiling his roof. Captain Cont came out and yelled at him, "I want those tiles closer apart!" The Captain was not the best friend of Neddy Hard. They had an argument, with Neddy down in the quarry and Captain Cont standing on the cliff above him. He said to Neddy, "If I was down there and you were up here, I wouldn't half give you one!" Talking during a period of unsettled weather he said, "I can't make this weather out. B'aint one day alike." He told an astonished traction engine driver who had almost knocked him down, "Go faster slower." Work was an unpleasant necessity, but what Captain Cont loved the most was to go off fishing in his boat. Consequently he had frequent bouts of sickness. Returning to work from one of his sick days, he was asked how he was. "I be better than I be." said the Captain. His boss knew very well what he was up to and decided to catch him red-handed. Captain Cont looked up from his fishing boat to see him looking at him from the cliffs. "There I am." he said.
Characters Helping the Revenue Stone quarrying was Portland's main source of income until recent years but smuggling must have come a close second. Portland is riddled with smugglers' tunnels and hides and a Portland historian who traced 21 large sea-going boats working out of Portland in the 1830's found that 18 of them were confiscated for smuggling. In the 1930's spies, or Revenue men, used to try to infiltrate Portland pubs to find out information about the smuggling trade. Everybody knew who they were and any booty was swiftly passed through the back window. Sonny Saunders, the Portland hero approached one of these men, one day, and said in a conspiratorial tone, "Do you want to see a gold watch?" Of course the Revenue man would be delighted so Sonny took him outside. There, Sonny hawked and spat in the gutter. "There y'ar." he said, "Make me an offer for that." The Customs once had a purge on Castletown when Reg Gill's parents had a whole cask of brandy in their parlour. It was covered with a cloth with a cushion on top. The officer in charge came in and sat down on the cask while his men tore the place apart. When they reported that there was no contraband he got up, made his apologies and left.
Fops A Portland menswear shop in Easton reported the following transaction with Dodger. "I want a hat." "What sort of hat?" "Doesn't matter what sort of hat it is so long as 'tis a cap." "What colour?" "Doesn't matter what colour so long as 'tis black." "What size?" "Doesn't matter what size as long as it d'fit." A Fortuneswell outfitter had a visit from Dap. Dap was a great admirer of Doctor Howard who tore round the Island on his motor bike, with goggles and his cap reversed. The outfitter established that Dap wanted a cap but could not satisfy him. "Exactly what are you looking for?" he asked. "I want a cap like Doctor Howard's," said Dap, "with the peak at the back." The same outfitter had to deal with another request from Dap, this time for gloves. "I want the sort of gloves," said Dap, "where you wear one and carry the other." We were puzzled by this story until, years later, we had two observations which explained all. A Portlander told us of how he was walking up Chiswell when he heard music, from a gramophone or early radio, coming from one of the cottages. He was amazed to see Dap, at the side of the cottage, dancing a slow waltz by himself, ragged coat flapping and laceless boots tapping to the rhythm. He saw he was being observed and scuttled off. Another Portlander told us that, in his wallet, Dap carried a cut-out from a magazine showing a stately ball in progress, the women in crinolines the men in evening wear. We would like to bet that the men were wearing one immaculate white glove and carrying another.
The right man We have always been bemused by the ability of Portlanders to pick the wrong man for the job; it seems to be an inbuilt eccentricity. We were talking to a lady who was a relative of one of the Rocket Crew, who were responsible for many famous rescues. She pointed out that there were three important positions in the crew, the lookout who was the one-eyed Harry Gould, the caller, Jimmy H, who stuttered and the aimer, Copper Copperthwaite, who was wall-eyed. Portland only had two Town Criers, one stuttered badly, the other mixed his sentences up. The name of the latter was Bum Island and we have a description of a crowd gathering round him arguing about what he was trying to say. Underhill had a knocker-up who regularly slept in. According to the locals he used to wake everybody an hour early on the following morning, in compensation. Portland had a number of joyous carnivals and fetes, early in the century and one of the organisers was an intensely religious man who insisted on walking in the procession carrying a banner which said, "Prepare to meet your doom." The Portlanders would not have thought it the slightest bit odd. We have already heard about the stone deaf chairman of an important meeting but the strangest story came from a lady who told us that her father served with the Portland branch of the Observer Corps during the second world war. He was registered blind!
Characters Chuggernaut Portland's cab drivers competed with each other, not least by updating their cars, but Joey Norman stuck faithfully to his old Model T Ford, which was known on the Island as the 'Chuggernaut'. He got teased about it but Joey told the following yarn to justify keeping it. Joey claimed that he was driving up New Road, a steep climb even for modern cars, when he came upon a friend whose steam-roller had broken down. Although he already had a full load of passengers, Joey hitched up the steam-roller and towed it up to New Ground, passing several other cabs on the way. The driver of the steam-roller told Joey that he wanted to thank him and apologise at the same time. The thank you was for the tow, the apology was for having his brakes on all the time.
Wrong tune The organist for Easton Methodist Church was sick and, at the last minute, a substitute was found, from Weymouth. He brought his own music with him. When he struck up the first hymn there was a terrible cacophony. He stopped and tried again, with the same result. He then realised that he was playing the hymn to one tune and the congregation was singing it to another. He had run into the Portland streak of stubbornness. They were quite capable of following the organ but they were not going to allow somebody from Weymouth to dictate what tunes they should sing to their well-loved hymns.
Counterweight Dicky Hoskins was nothing, if not ingenious. A good deal of the trap drivers' trade was to pick up parties at Portland Station and transport them to The Grove. Here they used to pay to go into the top rooms of houses where they could peer over the wall and watch the prisoners working or parading. They all wanted to see 'the man they couldn't hang' and, as all prisoners look the same, Portlanders were quite happy to point him out. Dicky's problem was that the parties at the station seemed to be getting bigger and he lost a lot of business to bigger conveyances. He therefore approached a local carpenter and had him fit an extra row of seats, which were actually behind the back wheels. The first time he was fully loaded his horse's legs were off the ground. The story is not surprising because Dicky always had the skinniest horses on the Island. He was sitting in the drivers' shelter, one day, when a boy rushed in and told him that one of his horses had fallen down. Dicky was angry. He grabbed the boy by the lapels and said, "Admit it! You pushed him over!"
The plank No collection of Portland yarns would be complete without reference to Dap and General and the plank. It is a simple story, which can be told in a few words, but it is known by every Portlander, and Portland exiles have carried it to the far corners of the world. A reader heard it told in Flemish, as if it was a Belgian folk tale. Although it is simple, readers of Free Portland News have converted it into a tale of labyrinthine complexity by examining the motives, the psychology and even the mathematics of the subject. We even had to invent two words to classify the varied contributions we have had over the years; 'Dapology' and 'Plankematics'. Nevertheless, it remains a simple story and goes as follows: Dap and General found a large plank on the rocks. They decided it was too heavy for the pair of them to carry, so they went home for a saw, sawed it in half, and carried half each.
Postscript This has been only a small selection of the Portland yarns we have collected during the past twenty years. We know at least half a dozen Portlanders who could tell more stories in a single sitting than we have ever collected. It seems to be a bottomless pit. Page 18
Nowhere else in the country can have such a collection of characters and eccentrics as the Island and Royal Manor of Portland. Most people's...
Published on May 14, 2013
Nowhere else in the country can have such a collection of characters and eccentrics as the Island and Royal Manor of Portland. Most people's...