Memories Of Growing Up On Wootton Creek In the 1950's
This article has been taken from a lecture given at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, Fishbourne, on March 14th, 2012 by Charles Betts CB, FREng.
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Some Reminiscences Of My Early Life Before Wootton Creek
For most of my early life I lived on boats. My mother was single, having divorced my step father Group Captain Eric Burton RAF in 1946. They had married after my natural father, Wing Cdr George Valentine DFC, a bomber pilot, was shot down over Berlin in 1941 and was killed together with all his crew, This was some four months before I was born, the result being that my mother’s name became Mary Burton and mine Charles Valentine Burton.
The first boat on which I lived with Group Captain Eric Burton and my mother, at the end of the Second World War was a houseboat called “Golden Seal”. The boat was a converted World War II auxiliary vessel moored in Chichester Harbour. The second in 1947 was “Veritia”, a Harrison Butler designed 28 foot Bermudan-rigged cutter in West Cowes, the boat was moored off a coal jetty along Arctic Road. The third was the 106 ton schooner “Freelance”.
My mother was the caterer onboard the “Freelance” and due to the boat being used as a crewed charter vessel it was away for extended periods. As a result I was sent to board at Solent House School in Cowes in 1948. This was mainly a girls’ school run by the formidable sisters Miss Margaret and Miss Cecil [sic] Cawes in 1948; I was there for two terms. My best friend at the school was Richard Cawes, a nephew of the Misses Cawes. Strangely, we boys were made to miss the long and, to us six year olds, boring Sunday church service at Holy Trinity Church. This was deemed to be a punishment if one was ‘naughty’ during the week: an invitation we did not decline! I enjoyed watching the great liners such as Queen Mary & Queen Elizabeth coming down the Solent, with their huge washes pounding the Cowes shore.
My fourth floating home was in Norway, on “Pampero”, an International Ten Metre class, 47 ft Bermudan cutter, built in 1912 on the Clyde, Scotland. We sailed with friends for one long summer down the Oslo Fjord to the Swedish West coast, and then stayed with Norwegian friends in Oslo for the winter.
Memories Of Living On Wootton Creek In 1953 Until 1956
My mother and I first arrived in Wootton Creek in March 1953, when I was aged 11, we came to buy “Chance”, a 36 foot [plus bowsprit] gaff cutter with a 13 foot beam and 12 ton displacement. The boat had been built in Anglesey, Wales, at Menia Bridge in 1929. She was now based in Wootton Creek and here we lived until 1956.
The boat had spent several years in Weymouth before coming to the Solent. Roy Walmisley, an ex-RAF yacht broker and family friend who lived in Ryde, sold her to my mother in March 1953 [for £650 - around £15,000 in 2012 money].
We sailed the boat over to Gosport for fitting out at a small yard near the Hardway Sailing Club [still a thriving yacht club], near where we had been living for the past year. In May 1953 with the refit complete, my mother and I, plus Joey our parrot [a green Amazon, in the family since 1918 and who now considered me his chick] returned to Wootton Creek to live aboard. We were based at Bert Please’s garage/boatyard [now houses], at the junction of today’s St Edmunds Walk and New Road and lying at the upper end of the creek. Bert, his wife Dorothy and son Keith, who was older than me, lived in a corrugated- roof bungalow next to the garage.
The first friend I made was John Sheen, whom I met whilst rowing on the Creek during our first few days. John lived in a house just down New Road from the Please boatyard. Then I met a keen dinghy sailor called Peter Fenton, who had a twin sister called Wendy, [now called Leal, living in Cowes]. Peter sadly died in his early 40’s. I met Wendy again after 50 years at a Royal Victoria Yacht Club rally in Cherbourg in May 2007. Through that event, my wife Pat and I joined the Royal Vic. later that year.
Peter and Wendy lived with their elder sister Wanda and their parents ‘Pop’ and Christine Fenton on a converted World War II Motor Torpedo Boat called “Lady Jane” moored off New Road near Creek Gardens. Wanda’s boy friend was John Flewitt, a disabled but highly skilled sailor undefeated by polio as a child, who later became Director of the Wolfson Marine Craft Unit at Southampton University. Pop’ Fenton was a Lieutenant Commander in the Air Accident Investigation Branch at HMS Daedelus, Lee on Solent. I was fortunate in that he took us sailing several times on ‘Seehex’, a ‘50 Square Metre’ class German ‘Windfall’ yacht belonging to Daedalus.
Another of my Wootton friends was Max Beddow who came to live on a houseboat which was moored on the Please pontoon. He and I were great fans of the Goon Show, then at its height of popularity, but his parents rather disapproved of the programme. So Max and I would borrow my mother’s radio [called a ‘wireless’ in the 1950s] and listen to the show in “Chance’s” forecastle, which was my cabin, accompanied by our parrot Joey who joined in the raucous noises and laughter.
Other friends included Michael Whitehead, who - if memory serves - may have introduced me and others, to the joys, excitement and danger of carbide bombs [calcium carbide mixed with water in a glass bottle and run for your life!]. I also made friends with the son [younger than me] of The Sloop Inn’s publicans Arthur & Peggy Golding. He had a vast and wonderful Hornby electric train set-up in the pub loft.
I moved to Ryde School, in May 1953, this was my 6th school in my scholastic career. The headmaster at the time was Mr McIsaac; he was the son of the school’s founder. I enjoyed school and this was a happy time. Peter Fenton was already there, and I made other good friends, in particular Ivor Rawlinson, who later went on to Oxford University and became a diplomat, eventually becoming Ambassador to Tunisia in 2002. We met up again by chance, in Canada in 1995 when I was on naval business and he was the British Consul in Montreal.
Living on a boat on Wootton Creek was idyllic for a young lad. I loved the Creek and the ever changing tides; even the mud and the many swans, including a pair that were said to have been together since long before the war. I watched a black-back gull at low tide swallow with great difficulty a huge chunk of Christmas pudding: he stayed quietly in the same place for a long time! The very cold winter of 1953/54 caused thick ice on the creek. There was even sea-ice reaching out from Woodside into the Solent. Fortunately, it was warm below on Chance, as the volume to heat on a boat is relatively small and we had a coal stove with a chimney in the winter - though it did catch fire once!
I should mention that living on a boat, particularly a sea-going yacht means there are fewer facilities available than one takes for granted when living in a house, or on a well-found houseboat. Our water was obtained from a stand pipe on shore via a hose pipe; the boat had a 100 gallon tank fresh water tank which we filled weekly. Cooking was by calor gas from a 15kg cylinder which was housed on board. Coal for the stove had to be bought and stored. Our post was addressed to “Care of” Please’s garage, and we collected it daily from the garage. Refuse sacks had to be carried ashore and placed in bins. Domestic waste water and sewage was invariably run or pumped directly to sea [common in those days with no thought for public health] even when boats were moored in a harbour. My friends and I occasionally swam in the creek; thanks, presumably, to the mild anti-septic properties of seawater, none of us seemed to be any the worse for it.
Peter and Wendy Fenton had a tree house in an oak tree near their boat in which Peter and I played an old gramophone. We loved to surprise young couples passing along New Road beneath us from the nearby Little Canada holiday village. We would suddenly turn the volume to full and play the pipes and drums of the Scots Guards and, laughing as they quickly retreated, in season we would throw crab apples after them. We swam at the Lakeside swimming pool, and walked inland to the steam railway and round to Haven Street, or swam at Woodside. We also crept to the perimeter of the Woodside nudist colony to climb trees and peer over the high fence. We were not the only ones; helicopters from HMS Daedalus often came over on exercise and hovered in the vicinity of the camp with binoculars.
We also went scrumping [collecting] in some of the large gardens in New Road. I fear that one may have been that of Mr Southern, an (understandably) rather fierce gentleman who lived in the last Creek-side house going downstream, another was that of Cdr. Adrian Scadding, whose son David I knew. Cdr. Scadding, after war service in the Royal Navy, had bought a pretty sloop called “Onward”, which I think was moored below his house. I later learned that he became the Commodore of the Wootton Creek Sailing Club at the time of its amalgamation with the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. He was made an Honorary Member of the club until his death, at the age of 93, in 2004.
The Fenton’s owned or had access to various sailing dinghies on the creek, which I helped to crew. Peter and I occasionally raced with the Wootton Creek and Fishbourne sailing clubs. We mainly sailed in an International 14, called “Huff”. I have very recently learned from Andrew Porteous that his father Dr Alistair Porteous [who was our doctor when we lived on the creek] told him years ago how surprised he was to see his father's 14 in the creek after so many years. Andrew’s grandfather [another Doctor] had had her built by Uffa Fox in about 1933/34. We also sailed in a new Albacore, No.3, a Jolly boat [also Uffa Fox design] and later even a very new and exciting 505 with its trapeze for leaning out for stability. There was also a Cat-rigged day boat that a group of us would day sail to Ryde for a picnic and swim.
I was given a bare hull of a sailing dinghy of my own to complete. It was a 1946 Uffa Fox early prototype of the hot-moulded plywood shell used for his new Firefly class. I eventually completed her, with help in making the centre board box, rudder and mast in Please’s garage. Much of the kit, including the sails, came off “Chance” so I named the completed dinghy “Offchance”, a name that stuck with three of my own family’s subsequent boats.
There were other distractions. The Saunders Roe Flying boats based in East Cowes, especially the huge 10-engined Princess class, the world’s largest passenger flying boats, built in 1952. In addition to the deafening noise, the sky seemed to darken completely when one flew overhead. They made enormously steep washes in the Solent when taking off or landing, which were exciting to experience in a sailing boat. Two of the Princesses were cocooned ashore, in West Cowes and Calshot, until quite recently.
My mother redesigned “Chance’s” rig in 1953 to a hermaphrodite ketch [gaff mainsail with Bermudan mizzen]. She was helped in the modifications by Bert Please, and a skilled old rigger from Cowes called Harry Cole. We sailed to Shalfleet Quay later that year to collect the ‘new’ main mast which previously belonged to “Marionette”, a 1900 racing yacht. A mizzen mast was then added; this was bought from Bembridge Mill, and this layout has been her rig ever since.
My mother Mary knew many people on the Isle of Wight. As well as sailing, she played badminton and socialised at the Sloop Inn, Mill Square; also, having formally trained as an artist in Leeds and London, she sketched and painted a lot, sometimes for a commission.
She knew Uffa Fox and his then wife Cherry, this was before he remarried in 1956, to a French woman who spoke no English while he spoke no French!. Also the wonderful and very funny Clark Brothers [twins Bob and Wally] who owned the East Cowes boatyard in Clarence Road. They looked after the Royal Family’s Dragon class boat ‘Bluebottle’ and the Flying Fifteen ‘Cowslip’ [wedding presents to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip]. We often sailed “Chance” round to Cowes to their yard, or anchored off Cowes to become a sort of mid-water pontoon that various racing classes used as a base between races. The young Royal sailing master Clive Smith used to let me help him de-rig and clean “Bluebottle” and “Cowslip” after racing. Very sadly, a few years later, Clive Smith resigned from the post, and shot himself during his divorce.
For Cowes Week fireworks night, “Chance” was anchored off Cowes as a viewing platform for many of our friends, including the Clark brothers who led lusty singing of shanties, and worse, as the booze flowed, and the fireworks rose and fell. On one such occasion after an enjoyable evening’s display and celebrations one of the twins went to get back in their boat forgetting that the tide had changed; the boats had reversed their heading and he stepped overboard into the sea!!!.
Nearly all our sailing friends and my mother and I, went on a coach to the first London boat show in Olympia in 1954 - it was quite a small affair then and, with a large number of Solent firms exhibiting and local people present, everyone seemed to know everyone else.
In August 1954, we were joined on “Chance” by my mother’s brother and friends for a cruise. We sailed along the coast to Dover and then across to Calais and Boulogne - only 9 years after the end of the war, both places still badly damaged by war time bombing. Customs procedures in those days were very formal. On return to England at Rye and customs at Newhaven we met a problem. A ‘Parrots and Miscellaneous Birds (Prohibition of Importation) Order’ had, unknown to us, come into force in 1953. It apparently arose from a rare fatal case of a human catching psittacosis from a recently imported parrot. The customs told us that they were sorry but Joey had to be put down immediately. I screamed and burst into tears. My mother was incandescent, told the customs that this was outrageous and threatened to ring the Prime Minister [Winston Churchill] immediately. The customs backed off and promised to obtain further guidance. After a day or two, we were told that Joey was spared but could not be landed. We then received customs forms ordering that Joey should not be removed from “Chance” without formal permission. That was in fact given soon after our return to Wootton Creek, but not before visits up the creek from the Cowes customs in their launch. They obviously enjoyed their day out and came again for a cup of tea and checks on Joey.
Some Other Boats In The Creek That I Remember
It was not at all unusual to live on a boat in the 1950s when housing was scarce and expensive after the war. There were a considerable number of people living on yachts or houseboats in Wootton Creek, and indeed all along the South Coast. It was said that a Lord someone-or-other was living on a motor yacht at the Fishbourne end of the creek.
There were six or seven ‘live-aboard’ boats on the Please’s shore-connected mud-berth pontoon. I remember three and there was also a motor-sailor called “Fellah” [I think] on which a young couple called Bill and Olive Greenwood lived.
The large but dilapidated old racing yacht by the name of “Chinkara” was owned by Dr Brydon, an old man who was said to have once been a royal physician to King George V. He was fond of my mother and kind to me, when sober. His great saying was ‘Drink rum by gum” and he kept bottles of rum in the bilges. He had various pretty ‘nieces’ who would go off on weekend sails with him. The boom was no longer evident and the mainsail was never fully hoisted when sailing, with the foot of the sail lying on the deck and tied up loosely to make a crude loose-footed main. Dr Brydon gained a reputation for crashing into other vessels and was eventually banned from entering harbour by most of the harbour masters in the Solent.
“Lalla Rookh” was a 40 foot Morecombe Bay Prawner (or Nobby): her retired owner ‘Skipper’ Roberton lived aboard and occasionally went out for a sail in the summer. He was said to be related to the Robertson Jam family.
“Myrtle” was a 26 foot Itchen Ferry. She wintered at Please’s yard but had a summer mooring off Fishbourne. She was owned by Harold (Hal) Betts - to whom I will come back shortly.
There were other yachts I dimly remember: a 1912, 44 foot Dutch Boeier called “Marieke”, an old Pilot Cutter called “Kindly Light”, a classic yacht called “Marionette” (presumably the one that previously owned “Chance’s” new mast), and two or three Hillyard designs. In addition, there were several large and once-famous old racing yachts laid up as houseboats in the creek.” Zoraida” was built in 1888.
She won the Britannia Cup in 1952 when owned by Captain Ratsey (of Ratsey and Lapthorn, the famous Cowes sailmakers), but was then badly damaged and laid up as a houseboat in Wootton Creek. I understand that she has been undergoing restoration in Cowes recently. “Veronica” was a similar size or larger (there was a1931 International 12-metre of that name, but I believe the ‘Wootton Creek’ “Veronica” was much older). She was then the home of a friend of my mother called, I think, McBrean, and later owned by Jack Whitehead, father of my friend Michael. We stayed aboard briefly in 1955 while “Chance” was having a new deckhouse and raked bow made and fitted by Jack Whitehead.
Jack Whitehead had had a workshop on “Veronica” when he and his family first came to Wootton in 1953. He then moved to a larger workshop near the Sloop Inn. He was a gifted wood carver who designed and carved figureheads and puppets for BBC Television and ITV advertisements, as well as being involved with Muffin the Mule. His sons helped with the carving and his wife Doris with the painting.
He was also assisted by the sculptor, Norman Gaches. They began carving figureheads and, when photographs were published in the magazine Yachts and Yachting, inquiries poured in from people who had assumed that figurehead carving was a lost art. They made figureheads for a number of square riggers including the sail training ships “Sir Winston Churchill”, “Malcolm Miller” and “Royalist” and also the totem pole in Wootton’s Little Canada Holiday Village. One of their last commissions was for Warrior, the first ever iron-clad warship, now in Portsmouth. Jack Whitehead died in his late 80’s in 2002. Michael Whitehead still lives locally and is a member of RVYC.
Some other random memories: people not born on the Island were called Overners; some residents of the Island had never been to the mainland; houses and cars were very rarely locked, even if they had a lock.
Back to “Myrtle”, owned by Harold (Hal) Betts. He was a civil engineer, born in Canada, who as a young engineer had built some of the huge Mulberry Harbour Phoenix caissons used for the D-Day landings. He had recently returned from laying oil pipelines across the Middle East and now worked in London but spent his weekends on “Myrtle”. In his holidays, he sailed her to the West Country or across the Channel, sometimes with a friend otherwise single-handed. He was a good friend of Frank Young, the Fishbourne harbour master and one of the great characters of the area. My mother and Hal became close friends and they were eventually married in October 1955.
Leaving Wootton Creek
In November 1955, Hal was appointed to oversee contracts in Kent and Lincolnshire on US Air Force airfields. My mother and I accompanied him and I left Ryde School before the end of the autumn term. “Chance” remained in Wootton Creek and “Myrtle” was sold. In spring 1956 Hal was given a longer contract to build a large chemical factory in Widnes, Lancashire. We sailed “Chance” up to Liverpool in the summer of 1956. Hal formally adopted me so my surname changed to Betts in 1957. I remained in Liverpool until the end of my schooling in 1960. My parents and “Chance” moved back South in 1958, and they lived on “Chance” in Littlehampton and then the Solent. My parents bought their first house, near Emsworth, a few weeks before my 21st birthday in 1963. They continued sailing “Chance” until my mother died in 1990. I was sorry not to be aboard when “Chance” won the Solent Old Gaffers Race in 1966.
In 1959 I met my future wife Pat, in Liverpool, and we were married in 1965. Initially we sailed my old dinghy “Offchance”, with occasional trips on “Chance”. Later, with a young family, we bought a 14 foot Shetlander gunter-rigged cruising dinghy which we sailed in the Solent before moving up sequentially to a Leisure 23, then a Moody 27 (both still named “Offchance”) and then to our current boat, a Moody 35 called “Silver Dawn”. All our yachts have been based in Poole while we have lived in Bath for many years. We met up with “Chance” many times, and we have often sailed to Wootton Creek in our various boats, a place that both Pat and I still love.
Source: A lecture given at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, Fishbourne, on 14th March 2012 by Charles Betts CB, FREng.This page was last edited on: 4th March, 2015 06:16:50