Chronicles: Recollections of a Ventnor Childhood 1: The Late 1930s

In the early days of the Ventnor & District Local History Society a number of people (both residents and former residents) came forward with written memories of their lives in the town. For this week and next, we profile the account provided by Colin Brown which remains in our archive.

Colin was around five years old when his family came to Ventnor, to No. 7 Southgrove Terrace, where his mother and father had set upon opening a boarding house. Located at the eastern end of the terrace, it had nine bedrooms and so was ideal for the purpose. However, it was not seen as a very welcome development among some other occupiers of the Terrace, since it brought ‘trade’ to an elegant residential block built in 1868, for a long time let to well-off visitors and well-off retirees. One of these was a Captain Andrews who Colin described as an ‘awesome man who had, [so Colin believed] commanded sailing vessels’. He was renowned for using a lot nautical terms in conversation. Other residents were a retired Major and Mrs Raeburn who Colin recalled as being very friendly towards him. Then there was the Urry family who were connected to the Post Office and the Scotts who were Ventnor ironmongers (the forerunners of Hurst’s).

Life in a boarding house in summer was predictably busy. Colin recalled the excitement on a summer Saturday when trains would pull in and hundreds would be walking down the hill to find their accommodations. He was intrigued to find out who would be staying in the house for the next week or fortnight. Not until 1946 did a guest arrive in a car (it caused quite a stir, apparently) and so holidaymakers spent their time on the beach, going on walks, or taking bus or coach rides. Each morning around breakfast time, a man from Crinages, one of the coach operators in the town, would call and take bookings for that day. As for the most popular walk, that was to go over the Downs to Shanklin and return via the Landslip, taking tea at Dunnose Cottage in Luccombe.

With so many mouths to feed, Colin’s mother was helped by the man from March’s Bakery calling each day to deliver what were called ‘double loaves’, twice as long as the usual ones. The milkman was Mr. Newman from Wroxall and he called twice.

In the holidays, many youngsters of Colin’s age would get to know the passenger ships or ‘Liners’ that passed Ventnor and he remembered that ‘it was a point of honour to be able to tell visitors the names of the vessels’, particularly when observed from the western cliffs where the name ‘VENTNOR’ was picked out with rocks and flowers in such a way that it could be read a long way out to sea. Nearby, Colin recalled the old boat house on the beach that was home to so-called ‘Nell Gwyn’, also known as ‘Britannia’. This, of course, was Olivia Parkes, an eccentric old lady who, at the time, sold oranges on the beach in summer, the nickname an echo of Charles II’s famous mistress who sold oranges at the theatre.

In Autumn, on Guy Fawkes night, Colin recalls that there was always a procession and then a bonfire on the beach east of the pier. The fire brigade took part in their shining helmets and many participants carried torches.

Colin initially attended Mrs Kenny’s school in Belgrave Road, taught by a Miss Pirrot. He then went to St. Wilfrid’s (though the family were not catholic) and was taught by Sister Michael, Sister Alphonsus and a Miss Birch. Colin remembered Sister Michael as vindictive, but the other teachers were fine.

Next week, we hear of Colin’s memories of Ventnor in wartime.

Michael Freeman, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2o16.