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Recollections of John Pounds: My Introduction to Portsmouth By Rev’d Henry Hawkes

The next morning, about ten o’clock, w were on our way to the old cobbler’s. It was a beautiful morning in May; the sun was shining bright, and the air was refreshing. Going out of High Street, by Golden Lion Lane, we entered St. Thomas’s Street, and turned to our right. “As you are new to Portsmouth,” Mr….. said, “it may perhaps be interesting to you if I point out some of the characteristics of this garrison town.”

John Pounds Blue Plaque

“I shall feel much obliged to you, “ I said, “for all such information”. “Those fine large elm trees, crossing the end of the street, and over topping the houses with their fresh green leafiness, grow on the walls. The walls are constructed partly of stone, but chiefly of earth, and large timber trees grow upon them in many places. You may see part of the wall below, and the parapet rising as high as the lower branches.

That is the extent of Portsmouth within the walls in that direction; the north east. Portsmouth has its own walls and fortifications; and Portsea has it own walls and fortifications. We are now in about the centre of Portsmouth within the walls.”

“It seems a short distance,” I said, “for twice that length to be the average diameter of the town”. “Portsmouth within the walls is not a large town; but outside, the buildign is extensive, and is fast spreading; chiefly in the Landport and Southsea directions.

“This street turned out of St. Thomas’s Street at a right angle to our left is St. Mary’s Street; the street in which the old cobbler lives.”

“ I should not have expected to find him living in so good a street.”

“You’ll see it different soon”.

When we had gone a short distance down St. Mary’s Street I was struck with the appearance of an apparently new building, with four handsome columns in front, and asked Mr….. wat is was. “The Philosophical Society,” he said “built in a few years ago for their meetings. It contains a good lecture room, a laboratory, an excellent museum, and a valuable, though not numerous, library of reference. The library is open daily as a reading room for members. A mass of rubbishy old houses stood at that corner; which was cleared away to make room for the present building.

“From this point, you see how completely the character and appearance of the street alter. All before us is now a scene bespeaking profligacy and its attendant vices and wretchedness.

“All looks deplorable”

“At the farther end of the street you see the walls again, crossing it. The trees rising above the houses, grow upon the wall; a continuation of the line of elms you saw crossing the end of St Thomas’s Street. The door way under them is a sally port, leading through the walls to Portsea.”

“What is the large brick building, bordering the narrow street between it and the Philosophical Society’s building; apparently bordering the street all its length ?”

“It does border the street all its length. It was used in war time as a Government stores, in connexion with the victualling department for the navy. It is now used as a bonding store. The street is called King Street; a short street, a leading Quay Gate; which you would see just beyond, but for that corner of the bonding store. Quay Gate leads through the walls to the Town Quay”.

“King Street seems a dull dismal street. I see nobody in it, but those dirty children, loitering about in rags. As if uncared for”. “The neighbourhood we are now going into swarms with such poor neglected little things.

“The bonding store borders another narrow street on the other side, called Crown Street; also going down to Quay Gate. Crown Street is much more frequented, but of low disreputable sort.

John Pounds Shop
John Pounds Shop

“Now turn to this other side of St. Mary’s Street. This broader street opening out of it on our right is Warblington Street. There is the wall again crossing it at the end, with the continuation of the same line of elms growing upon it, overshading the tops of the houses. Warblington Street runs nearly parallel with St. Thomas’s Street and High Street. It is another wretched street of the same disreputable sort; abouding in profligacy and loathsomeness. You see those poor, miserable, abandoned creatures; with no self respect: all this densely populated neighbourhood harbours crowds of such utterly wretched inhabitants.

Dirty children straggling about everywhere, as if nobody cared for them. That is the sort the old cobbler looks up. The more forelorn and cast away, ragged, starving; the more he seems bent on winning them into his little shop; and he has a way of doing it that never seems to fail. And when he once gets them into his shop, he makes them comfortable and happy.

Some poor dirty things are in rages and tatters, almost naked, when he brings them in; and he clothes them, with cast off things that friends give him for the purpose; and he keeps them in readiness. In the cold weather he keeps up a blazing fire. And we never hear him complaining, that his scholars play truant, or unwilling to com to school !

“Look at that miserable soldier; lounging about, as if with no object. He has probably broken leave, and been out all night; and will soon be picked up, and taken off to the guard house. But come, we’ll move forward”.

As we went along St Mary’s Street, it was thronged with revolting sights of intemperance and bloated degradation: – women of the grossest appearance, sitting on door steps, or lounging aobut, lazy and gossiping; their voices and language – heart rending to hear; and their loud laugh of utter self abandonment; men haggard, dark looking, wretched; smoking as if from desperation; children scattered all about in dirt and rages; some playing but their very sports implying the saddest neglect and degradation.

“What a sad wretched scene we are in!”

“Yes; and you dont see the worst of it. St Mary’s Street, Crown Street, Warblington Street, all this crowded neighbourhood abound with dark alleys – leading them into back courts, filled with dissolute, abandoned occupants. And these back courts and dark alleys are feeders for the old man’s school.”

“I have been surprised to see so many well dressed, respectable people, ladies and gentlemen, passing along this street, in both directions”. “St Mary’s Street notwithstanding its loathsomeness and degradation, is one of the principal thoroughfares between Portsmouth and Portsea, for persons on food.

“Just glance into this bit of narrow paved road on our right, so crowded on both sides with small houses. This is Armoury Lane; an inlet into Colewart Barracks. The barracks are behind this mass of poor houses; with a burial ground intervening. They are occupied by Royal Artillery. A few doors further on you will come to the old cobbler’s shop.”

“On which side of the street is it ?”

“On this”

“Let us cross over to the other side; for I wish to have a good look at him, and his house, and his doings, before he knows we are coming”.

We crossed over. “There it is” Mr….. said; pointing to a little weather boarded thing, standing separately by itself, between higher houses. “And there’s the old man, sitting at his little open window, mending an old shoe; and his little shop full of scholars about him. You hear the cheerful buzz of their voices. Quite at their ease, you see. Look at those little things, lolling over the half door, with their heads and arms leaning out for a little fresh air. And there;s a row sitting outside in the street, just under the old man’s window. And look at his bird cages hung up outside. How merrily the birds are singing! As if they would out-vie one another”.

“The house,” I said, “does not look much more than two yards wide”. “And the height up to the eaves,” Mr…. Added, “is little more than twice the breadth. The shop is not quite five yards from front to back; and is only about two yards high from floor to ceiling.

“And in that little place the good old man gathers about him his thrity and forty children at a time; and makes them happy, and keeps them busy at their lessons!

“The house has only two rooms; the shop and chamber over it. You might see the opening of the little twist of a stair case leading up to it in that corner opposite the door, but for those children sitting on the steps”. “I see their heads rising one above another,”

“They have little else to sit on; only two or three old boxes, and a little form or two. Most, you see, are standing; some leaning against the wall, others crowded close together. No chairs to sit on; no room for luxuries here !” Mr….. said, with a good natured laugh. “Dont laugh so loud; he’ll here us.”

“The upper half door is almost always open all day long, whatever the weather. On this side of the house you may see the wall is of brick; but only as high as the chamber floor; so on the other side. All the rest is of wood; front, back, and sides, mere weather boarding. One wonders how it can have stood so long; forty or fifty years, or more; we dont know how long.”

“The shop looks very dark and dirty. And what a poor little window that is the old man is working at! With its little diamond panes, so thickly covered over with dust; at this end, so sunk down out of the level; the frame and leadings look very weather torn and crazy. The whole house seems covered with thick dust; and of long standing”. “Probably never disturbed,” Mr….. said, “since the house was built”. “So weather worn, there is no telling what colour it was when first painted; black, or blue, or what”.

Pounds surrounded by children
Pounds surrounded by children

“You observe the house stands separate from higher houses on both sides; except the low bit of wall on each side connecting them; each wall with a door in it. The doors lead into an open court at the back of the old man’s house, common to the neighbours”.

As I stood looking at the old man, through his little open window, at his work, cobbling; it was with mingled feelings. A tallish boy was standing beside him reading; while the old man went on mending his old shoe. He looked rough and self neglected. He had no hat or coat on. His shirt, very dingy, was open at the collar and chest; the sleeves were rolled back above the elbows. His face, neck, chest, arms, and hands; all were dark, as if seldom washed. There was a repulsive coarseness about his features. His voice was harsh and loud, as he spoke to the children. What he said and his manner of saying it; all would have given me the impression of coarse vulgarity; if I had not heard so much good of him.

But there was something about him, which, the more I looked at him, and observed his manner of doing things, impressed me – with something superior, through all. His head was large and manly. His features were strongly marked; and, with his deeply furrowed countenance, bespoke deep thought and feeling. A large pair of spectacles rested on his broad open forehead. His long arms, though somewhat spare, were muscular and sinewy; implying great strength. His hands were large and full of vigour.

“What’s y’at, ye rascal there in the corner ? I’se pay int’ ye, if you’s not mind, you wagabond!” The old man suddenly said this in a loud harsh voice, turning sharp round, with an eye full of fire; and he seized a stick, and shook it fiercely at the boy.

Mr….. smiled; and said, “Come, we’ll go over, and I’ll introduce you to him.”

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