The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Portland tales

‘Boy’ Male, who left school at fourteen to work in the quarries and later served in the Royal Navy, with some more memories of those days





A typical tramp


Of all the ‘dirty British coasters’ loaded at Castletown, Portland, in the 1920s and 1930s, the ss Weston was typical of the breed of vessel that tramped around the British Isles with whatever cargo needed transporting. She was owned by accompany called Overton, and to denote this she had a yellow funnel with a large ‘O’ featured on it.


Her crew numbered nine in all and, as was the custom, each man was responsible for buying all the food that he might need for the voyage, and for doing all his own cooking while he was at sea.


The Captain and Mate had separate cabins under the bridge, so just by mounting a companionway, they could get on watch warm and dry. The Chief Engineer also had a cabin, but this was right aft with his beloved engines. The remainder of the crew lived right for’ard in the fo’c’sle and in heavy weather this meant that to get on watch, they could be inundated by the sea before they even got to their watch station.


I use the word ‘lived’ loosely, for in this for’ard accommodation they seemed to be subjected to every conceivable misery in order to earn the pittance that was the lot of the seamen who crewed these tramp vessels. Right in the eyes of the ship, their accommodation was dark and dank and was subjected to all the buffeting that the sea could muster in its vilest moods. These quarters smelt of wet seaboots, over-ripe seaboot socks, mouldy oilskins and the condensation from which there was no escape, dripping on all their beds and all their belongings. A bunk to sleep in and a bare scrubbed table were all the furnishings. A man’s possessions were kept in a locker which acted as a seat.


Toilet arrangements were just the basic bucket, with the lavatory on the upper deck and mostly open to the elements. The galley was right aft, so to get a hot meal in heavy weather meant running the gauntlet of the length of the ship with angry seas swilling down the deck.


These were the general conditions to be found in British coastal vessels long after World War 2 had ended and never once, of all the ships we loaded, did one haul off the pier and go to anchor because of foul weather. Whatever the weather, they went to sea!


Fully loaded, these ships had a speed of ten knots and it was said that only the more generous companies permitted their ships to take shelter when they could not steam at four knots into a gale!


Only on one occasion that I can remember did we have to seek the Captain’s permission to delay loading due to the severity of the weather. In a force nine gale, despite all our efforts, we could not control the crane from taking charge and damaging the ship. The Captain of the ss Weston, whom we had grown to know having loaded his ship several times, agreed that it would be prudent to wait, hoping that later in the day the wind might drop.


He was a merry little man, about as round as he was high. He smoked a pipe and, of all things for a sea-going man, wore a bowler hat. While we waited for the weather to improve, he joined us as we sheltered in our hut. We had in the past shared many of his jokes and tall stories. While he agreed that the present strength of the wind posed a danger to the safety of his ship, he gently chided us by telling us that in his early days he had gone to sea ‘before the mast’ and in rounding Cape Horn had encountered winds the like of which we knew nothing. He said that on one occasion, ‘it had taken two trained barbers to hold a razor’s edge to the wind’!






Portland blacksmiths of the ’20s and ’30s


Quarry tool boys as small as I was at the age of fourteen were glad of the use of a ‘go cart’ with which to transport the blunted kivels and twibels from the quarry to the blacksmith’s shop for sharpening. As soon as possible, though, depending how long a journey it was to the blacksmith’s, this home-made vehicle was ditched. To be able to swagger through the streets, carrying on your shoulder as many of these tools as you could manage, was to have joined the elite! As we grew older and the work in the quarry develops us physically, each would boast of the number of these seven-pound tools that he could carry – the ultimate was as many as ten tools, stacked high on a by now much-toughened shoulder.


At the blacksmith’s shop, each quarry had its special place where blunted tools would be stacked. The next day, you would retrieve yesterday’s now sharpened tools and leave behind further blunted tools.


The process of sharpening was to place each blunted point into the roaring fire and, when it was brought to a plum-red colour, take it to the anvil and batter it to a new point. The steel tip was then plunged into a nearby water tank amid a cloud of hissing steam and a bubbling sizzle. The charge for this work was a penny per point.


Sometimes, especially if the smith was single-handed, we boys would be invited to work a spell on the bellows. Its long, sweeping arm’s up-and-down movement needed quite a bit of practice, as any irregular pumping merely blew all the coals out of the centre of the fire. As I remember, the ditty that helped produce the correct rhythm was: ‘Up high, down low, up quick, down slow’.


Since we were piece-workers, our bills were paid at the end of each month when each gang of quarrymen was ‘squared up’, as it was called. This was known as ‘gaffer pay’ and the perks of the quarry boy was to carry the money to pay the bills that had accrued. The blacksmith usually gave back a discount of sixpence, and if at the end of the same month an explosives bill had to be paid, then with a whole shilling pocketed, we were rich indeed. So rich, in fact, that on such occasions as ‘gaffer pay’, we boys would assemble at the back of the local fish and chip shop and at plain deal tables eat a plate of fish and chips with a bottle of Vimto to wash it down, all for seven pence! We sat there as if in the Ritz and the daring ones smoked a ‘fag’ or two!


At the time there were seven different blacksmiths’ shops, all needed to accommodate the needs of the quarrying industry. Now there are none. Nor are there any quarry boys to assemble at the fish and chip shop and sit as if at a banquet to enjoy the few pence that eight hours of laborious toil had brought us. Our successors ride to work on a £2000 motor bike and wear dandy clothes without a hob-nailed boot in sight. Compressed-air tools and hydraulic jacks are their hand-tools and a Chinese take-away is their haunt!






Marie Stopes and Portland


In 1929, while I was yet a schoolboy, the name of Dr Marie Stopes first came to my attention. There were dark murmurings, supposedly out of earshot of a schoolboy, about a female at Portland Bill who, if allowed to continue, would undoubtedly corrupt the existing puritan morals of our society. Not only did she bathe in the sea in the nude, but would also sunbathe stark naked on the rocks! On the island in those days, this was depravity itself. Until the 1939 war, at Church Ope the girls undressed on the right-hand side rocks, which were always referred to as ‘girls’ rocks’ and the boys on the left-hand side ‘boys’ rocks’ Never the twain did meet!


Much has been written of the great personality, especially about the benefits to our island and its people that her sojourn among us brought, in the form of the Portland Museum. But as I remember in my schoolboy way, her arrival to take up occasional residence in the old dilapidated Higher Lighthouse was that of an autocrat. She was not included to suffer fools gladly and at times it seemed that her avowed intention was to jolly us out of what she considered to be a peasant-like existence by the imposition of her despotic rule.


Many tales of her clashes with the ‘natives’ are told. Her interest in the creation of a museum from a derelict cottage was followed by a study of local fossils. Since the depth at which fossils are found is of great importance to the antiquarian, an order was issued to the quarrymen that if any fossils were found in their daily toil, they were to be left as found, pending the arrival of Dr Marie. As she lived mostly in London, this might take some days and meanwhile the quarrymen’s earnings would suffer as they were piece-workers. Not surprisingly, many of what might have been important discoveries were put into the waste tip, accompanied by derisory remarks.


Her preference for bathing in the nude led her to what the locals thought to be her most doctorial act. She chose a rocky cove to call her own beach and even produced her own ladder which, after descending to the beach, she would remove. Here, in what she believed to be complete privacy, she practised her nudity.


On the island, before the advent of gold watches, it was customary to present a chap on reaching his majority with a telescope, so that he could take part in the then favourite pastime of watching for and recognising the great fully-rigged sailing ships as they passed up the Channel. Many of the older men, already armed with a telescope, put aside their puritan upbringing and, whether the good Doctor knew it or not, her much-vaunted privacy was thus invaded.


In 1937 or 1938, we were seated in our newly erected hut at Portland Bill, having our Sunday lunch as a family, when a person suddenly appeared in the open doorway. Quite unannounced and without any introduction, she entered and immediately flew into a tirade of abuse which seemed to go on for minutes. We all sat there quite speechless at being lambasted by this woman who, as soon as her vituperations had ceased, left without introducing herself. This was of course Dr Marie Stopes who, quite unknown to us, had just begun her anti-litter campaign for the area around the Bill.


Our hut was a considerable distance from the Lighthouse, but most of the litter dropped in the area was blown along to a stone wall next to our hut. We were being blamed for the whole of the litter problem that originated some 500 yards away!






Bobby Tripe


Age and a lifetime spent out of doors in the quarries had somewhat bent the old oak that was Bobby Tripe. As we sat on his favourite seat at the top of Church Ope, I on leave from the navy, he made no attempt to hide his scorn of the modern sailor. ‘In my days at sea,’ he said, ‘the ships were built of oak and the men of iron; now the ships are of iron and the men wooden. You might be dressed as a sailor, but I’ve emptied more salt water out of my seaboots than you’ve seen! And another thing, the waves aren’t as big as they used to be – I remember being on one wave for three days. And the wind don’t blow like it used to.’


If this was not enough, he added, ‘The main of you are bloody good kids ashore with a pocket full of money, but oh my Christ, when she rolls!’


Having put me in my firmly in my place, he rose from his seat, leaning heavily on his stick and spitting tobacco juice accurately into a nearby blackberry bush. I was left wondering whether this minesweeping lark that I was engaged in was perhaps not a bit overrated.


As a young man Bobby had gone to sea for the one and only trip in a fleet support vessel called the Petronal. This one passage to Gibraltar and back had supplied him with a lifetime of salty sea yarns and his favourite and well-worn remark that he had been ’round the world, and many other places’! Now, however, Church Ope was his spiritual home and peering out from here over the Channel seemed to evoke endless stories of his seafaring past – the horizon did not limit his fertile imagination.


He was a bachelor and when well into his seventies was still earning his living in the quarries. He looked as indestructible as ever, weather-beaten as old leather and with the vestige of a twinkle in his eyes as he told his old yarns, which brought him many a pint at the ‘Mermaid’ just up the road.


A typical tramp


Of all the ‘dirty British coasters’ loaded at Castletown, Portland, in the 1920s and 1930s, the ss Weston was typical of the breed of vessel that tramped around the British Isles with whatever cargo needed transporting. She was owned by accompany called Overton, and to denote this she had a yellow funnel with a large ‘O’ featured on it.


Her crew numbered nine in all and, as was the custom, each man was responsible for buying all the food that he might need for the voyage, and for doing all his own cooking while he was at sea.


The Captain and Mate had separate cabins under the bridge, so just by mounting a companionway, they could get on watch warm and dry. The Chief Engineer also had a cabin, but this was right aft with his beloved engines. The remainder of the crew lived right for’ard in the fo’c’sle and in heavy weather this meant that to get on watch, they could be inundated by the sea before they even got to their watch station.


I use the word ‘lived’ loosely, for in this for’ard accommodation they seemed to be subjected to every conceivable misery in order to earn the pittance that was the lot of the seamen who crewed these tramp vessels. Right in the eyes of the ship, their accommodation was dark and dank and was subjected to all the buffeting that the sea could muster in its vilest moods. These quarters smelt of wet seaboots, over-ripe seaboot socks, mouldy oilskins and the condensation from which there was no escape, dripping on all their beds and all their belongings. A bunk to sleep in and a bare scrubbed table were all the furnishings. A man’s possessions were kept in a locker which acted as a seat.


Toilet arrangements were just the basic bucket, with the lavatory on the upper deck and mostly open to the elements. The galley was right aft, so to get a hot meal in heavy weather meant running the gauntlet of the length of the ship with angry seas swilling down the deck.


These were the general conditions to be found in British coastal vessels long after World War 2 had ended and never once, of all the ships we loaded, did one haul off the pier and go to anchor because of foul weather. Whatever the weather, they went to sea!


Fully loaded, these ships had a speed of ten knots and it was said that only the more generous companies permitted their ships to take shelter when they could not steam at four knots into a gale!


Only on one occasion that I can remember did we have to seek the Captain’s permission to delay loading due to the severity of the weather. In a force nine gale, despite all our efforts, we could not control the crane from taking charge and damaging the ship. The Captain of the ss Weston, whom we had grown to know having loaded his ship several times, agreed that it would be prudent to wait, hoping that later in the day the wind might drop.


He was a merry little man, about as round as he was high. He smoked a pipe and, of all things for a sea-going man, wore a bowler hat. While we waited for the weather to improve, he joined us as we sheltered in our hut. We had in the past shared many of his jokes and tall stories. While he agreed that the present strength of the wind posed a danger to the safety of his ship, he gently chided us by telling us that in his early days he had gone to sea ‘before the mast’ and in rounding Cape Horn had encountered winds the like of which we knew nothing. He said that on one occasion, ‘it had taken two trained barbers to hold a razor’s edge to the wind’!






Portland blacksmiths of the ’20s and ’30s


Quarry tool boys as small as I was at the age of fourteen were glad of the use of a ‘go cart’ with which to transport the blunted kivels and twibels from the quarry to the blacksmith’s shop for sharpening. As soon as possible, though, depending how long a journey it was to the blacksmith’s, this home-made vehicle was ditched. To be able to swagger through the streets, carrying on your shoulder as many of these tools as you could manage, was to have joined the elite! As we grew older and the work in the quarry develops us physically, each would boast of the number of these seven-pound tools that he could carry – the ultimate was as many as ten tools, stacked high on a by now much-toughened shoulder.


At the blacksmith’s shop, each quarry had its special place where blunted tools would be stacked. The next day, you would retrieve yesterday’s now sharpened tools and leave behind further blunted tools.


The process of sharpening was to place each blunted point into the roaring fire and, when it was brought to a plum-red colour, take it to the anvil and batter it to a new point. The steel tip was then plunged into a nearby water tank amid a cloud of hissing steam and a bubbling sizzle. The charge for this work was a penny per point.


Sometimes, especially if the smith was single-handed, we boys would be invited to work a spell on the bellows. Its long, sweeping arm’s up-and-down movement needed quite a bit of practice, as any irregular pumping merely blew all the coals out of the centre of the fire. As I remember, the ditty that helped produce the correct rhythm was: ‘Up high, down low, up quick, down slow’.


Since we were piece-workers, our bills were paid at the end of each month when each gang of quarrymen was ‘squared up’, as it was called. This was known as ‘gaffer pay’ and the perks of the quarry boy was to carry the money to pay the bills that had accrued. The blacksmith usually gave back a discount of sixpence, and if at the end of the same month an explosives bill had to be paid, then with a whole shilling pocketed, we were rich indeed. So rich, in fact, that on such occasions as ‘gaffer pay’, we boys would assemble at the back of the local fish and chip shop and at plain deal tables eat a plate of fish and chips with a bottle of Vimto to wash it down, all for seven pence! We sat there as if in the Ritz and the daring ones smoked a ‘fag’ or two!


At the time there were seven different blacksmiths’ shops, all needed to accommodate the needs of the quarrying industry. Now there are none. Nor are there any quarry boys to assemble at the fish and chip shop and sit as if at a banquet to enjoy the few pence that eight hours of laborious toil had brought us. Our successors ride to work on a £2000 motor bike and wear dandy clothes without a hob-nailed boot in sight. Compressed-air tools and hydraulic jacks are their hand-tools and a Chinese take-away is their haunt!






Marie Stopes and Portland


In 1929, while I was yet a schoolboy, the name of Dr Marie Stopes first came to my attention. There were dark murmurings, supposedly out of earshot of a schoolboy, about a female at Portland Bill who, if allowed to continue, would undoubtedly corrupt the existing puritan morals of our society. Not only did she bathe in the sea in the nude, but would also sunbathe stark naked on the rocks! On the island in those days, this was depravity itself. Until the 1939 war, at Church Ope the girls undressed on the right-hand side rocks, which were always referred to as ‘girls’ rocks’ and the boys on the left-hand side ‘boys’ rocks’ Never the twain did meet!


Much has been written of the great personality, especially about the benefits to our island and its people that her sojourn among us brought, in the form of the Portland Museum. But as I remember in my schoolboy way, her arrival to take up occasional residence in the old dilapidated Higher Lighthouse was that of an autocrat. She was not included to suffer fools gladly and at times it seemed that her avowed intention was to jolly us out of what she considered to be a peasant-like existence by the imposition of her despotic rule.


Many tales of her clashes with the ‘natives’ are told. Her interest in the creation of a museum from a derelict cottage was followed by a study of local fossils. Since the depth at which fossils are found is of great importance to the antiquarian, an order was issued to the quarrymen that if any fossils were found in their daily toil, they were to be left as found, pending the arrival of Dr Marie. As she lived mostly in London, this might take some days and meanwhile the quarrymen’s earnings would suffer as they were piece-workers. Not surprisingly, many of what might have been important discoveries were put into the waste tip, accompanied by derisory remarks.


Her preference for bathing in the nude led her to what the locals thought to be her most doctorial act. She chose a rocky cove to call her own beach and even produced her own ladder which, after descending to the beach, she would remove. Here, in what she believed to be complete privacy, she practised her nudity.


On the island, before the advent of gold watches, it was customary to present a chap on reaching his majority with a telescope, so that he could take part in the then favourite pastime of watching for and recognising the great fully-rigged sailing ships as they passed up the Channel. Many of the older men, already armed with a telescope, put aside their puritan upbringing and, whether the good Doctor knew it or not, her much-vaunted privacy was thus invaded.


In 1937 or 1938, we were seated in our newly erected hut at Portland Bill, having our Sunday lunch as a family, when a person suddenly appeared in the open doorway. Quite unannounced and without any introduction, she entered and immediately flew into a tirade of abuse which seemed to go on for minutes. We all sat there quite speechless at being lambasted by this woman who, as soon as her vituperations had ceased, left without introducing herself. This was of course Dr Marie Stopes who, quite unknown to us, had just begun her anti-litter campaign for the area around the Bill.


Our hut was a considerable distance from the Lighthouse, but most of the litter dropped in the area was blown along to a stone wall next to our hut. We were being blamed for the whole of the litter problem that originated some 500 yards away!






Bobby Tripe


Age and a lifetime spent out of doors in the quarries had somewhat bent the old oak that was Bobby Tripe. As we sat on his favourite seat at the top of Church Ope, I on leave from the navy, he made no attempt to hide his scorn of the modern sailor. ‘In my days at sea,’ he said, ‘the ships were built of oak and the men of iron; now the ships are of iron and the men wooden. You might be dressed as a sailor, but I’ve emptied more salt water out of my seaboots than you’ve seen! And another thing, the waves aren’t as big as they used to be – I remember being on one wave for three days. And the wind don’t blow like it used to.’


If this was not enough, he added, ‘The main of you are bloody good kids ashore with a pocket full of money, but oh my Christ, when she rolls!’


Having put me in my firmly in my place, he rose from his seat, leaning heavily on his stick and spitting tobacco juice accurately into a nearby blackberry bush. I was left wondering whether this minesweeping lark that I was engaged in was perhaps not a bit overrated.


As a young man Bobby had gone to sea for the one and only trip in a fleet support vessel called the Petronal. This one passage to Gibraltar and back had supplied him with a lifetime of salty sea yarns and his favourite and well-worn remark that he had been ’round the world, and many other places’! Now, however, Church Ope was his spiritual home and peering out from here over the Channel seemed to evoke endless stories of his seafaring past – the horizon did not limit his fertile imagination.


He was a bachelor and when well into his seventies was still earning his living in the quarries. He looked as indestructible as ever, weather-beaten as old leather and with the vestige of a twinkle in his eyes as he told his old yarns, which brought him many a pint at the ‘Mermaid’ just up the road.


A typical tramp


Of all the ‘dirty British coasters’ loaded at Castletown, Portland, in the 1920s and 1930s, the ss Weston was typical of the breed of vessel that tramped around the British Isles with whatever cargo needed transporting. She was owned by accompany called Overton, and to denote this she had a yellow funnel with a large ‘O’ featured on it.


Her crew numbered nine in all and, as was the custom, each man was responsible for buying all the food that he might need for the voyage, and for doing all his own cooking while he was at sea.


The Captain and Mate had separate cabins under the bridge, so just by mounting a companionway, they could get on watch warm and dry. The Chief Engineer also had a cabin, but this was right aft with his beloved engines. The remainder of the crew lived right for’ard in the fo’c’sle and in heavy weather this meant that to get on watch, they could be inundated by the sea before they even got to their watch station.


I use the word ‘lived’ loosely, for in this for’ard accommodation they seemed to be subjected to every conceivable misery in order to earn the pittance that was the lot of the seamen who crewed these tramp vessels. Right in the eyes of the ship, their accommodation was dark and dank and was subjected to all the buffeting that the sea could muster in its vilest moods. These quarters smelt of wet seaboots, over-ripe seaboot socks, mouldy oilskins and the condensation from which there was no escape, dripping on all their beds and all their belongings. A bunk to sleep in and a bare scrubbed table were all the furnishings. A man’s possessions were kept in a locker which acted as a seat.


Toilet arrangements were just the basic bucket, with the lavatory on the upper deck and mostly open to the elements. The galley was right aft, so to get a hot meal in heavy weather meant running the gauntlet of the length of the ship with angry seas swilling down the deck.


These were the general conditions to be found in British coastal vessels long after World War 2 had ended and never once, of all the ships we loaded, did one haul off the pier and go to anchor because of foul weather. Whatever the weather, they went to sea!


Fully loaded, these ships had a speed of ten knots and it was said that only the more generous companies permitted their ships to take shelter when they could not steam at four knots into a gale!


Only on one occasion that I can remember did we have to seek the Captain’s permission to delay loading due to the severity of the weather. In a force nine gale, despite all our efforts, we could not control the crane from taking charge and damaging the ship. The Captain of the ss Weston, whom we had grown to know having loaded his ship several times, agreed that it would be prudent to wait, hoping that later in the day the wind might drop.


He was a merry little man, about as round as he was high. He smoked a pipe and, of all things for a sea-going man, wore a bowler hat. While we waited for the weather to improve, he joined us as we sheltered in our hut. We had in the past shared many of his jokes and tall stories. While he agreed that the present strength of the wind posed a danger to the safety of his ship, he gently chided us by telling us that in his early days he had gone to sea ‘before the mast’ and in rounding Cape Horn had encountered winds the like of which we knew nothing. He said that on one occasion, ‘it had taken two trained barbers to hold a razor’s edge to the wind’!






Portland blacksmiths of the ’20s and ’30s


Quarry tool boys as small as I was at the age of fourteen were glad of the use of a ‘go cart’ with which to transport the blunted kivels and twibels from the quarry to the blacksmith’s shop for sharpening. As soon as possible, though, depending how long a journey it was to the blacksmith’s, this home-made vehicle was ditched. To be able to swagger through the streets, carrying on your shoulder as many of these tools as you could manage, was to have joined the elite! As we grew older and the work in the quarry develops us physically, each would boast of the number of these seven-pound tools that he could carry – the ultimate was as many as ten tools, stacked high on a by now much-toughened shoulder.


At the blacksmith’s shop, each quarry had its special place where blunted tools would be stacked. The next day, you would retrieve yesterday’s now sharpened tools and leave behind further blunted tools.


The process of sharpening was to place each blunted point into the roaring fire and, when it was brought to a plum-red colour, take it to the anvil and batter it to a new point. The steel tip was then plunged into a nearby water tank amid a cloud of hissing steam and a bubbling sizzle. The charge for this work was a penny per point.


Sometimes, especially if the smith was single-handed, we boys would be invited to work a spell on the bellows. Its long, sweeping arm’s up-and-down movement needed quite a bit of practice, as any irregular pumping merely blew all the coals out of the centre of the fire. As I remember, the ditty that helped produce the correct rhythm was: ‘Up high, down low, up quick, down slow’.


Since we were piece-workers, our bills were paid at the end of each month when each gang of quarrymen was ‘squared up’, as it was called. This was known as ‘gaffer pay’ and the perks of the quarry boy was to carry the money to pay the bills that had accrued. The blacksmith usually gave back a discount of sixpence, and if at the end of the same month an explosives bill had to be paid, then with a whole shilling pocketed, we were rich indeed. So rich, in fact, that on such occasions as ‘gaffer pay’, we boys would assemble at the back of the local fish and chip shop and at plain deal tables eat a plate of fish and chips with a bottle of Vimto to wash it down, all for seven pence! We sat there as if in the Ritz and the daring ones smoked a ‘fag’ or two!


At the time there were seven different blacksmiths’ shops, all needed to accommodate the needs of the quarrying industry. Now there are none. Nor are there any quarry boys to assemble at the fish and chip shop and sit as if at a banquet to enjoy the few pence that eight hours of laborious toil had brought us. Our successors ride to work on a £2000 motor bike and wear dandy clothes without a hob-nailed boot in sight. Compressed-air tools and hydraulic jacks are their hand-tools and a Chinese take-away is their haunt!






Marie Stopes and Portland


In 1929, while I was yet a schoolboy, the name of Dr Marie Stopes first came to my attention. There were dark murmurings, supposedly out of earshot of a schoolboy, about a female at Portland Bill who, if allowed to continue, would undoubtedly corrupt the existing puritan morals of our society. Not only did she bathe in the sea in the nude, but would also sunbathe stark naked on the rocks! On the island in those days, this was depravity itself. Until the 1939 war, at Church Ope the girls undressed on the right-hand side rocks, which were always referred to as ‘girls’ rocks’ and the boys on the left-hand side ‘boys’ rocks’ Never the twain did meet!


Much has been written of the great personality, especially about the benefits to our island and its people that her sojourn among us brought, in the form of the Portland Museum. But as I remember in my schoolboy way, her arrival to take up occasional residence in the old dilapidated Higher Lighthouse was that of an autocrat. She was not included to suffer fools gladly and at times it seemed that her avowed intention was to jolly us out of what she considered to be a peasant-like existence by the imposition of her despotic rule.


Many tales of her clashes with the ‘natives’ are told. Her interest in the creation of a museum from a derelict cottage was followed by a study of local fossils. Since the depth at which fossils are found is of great importance to the antiquarian, an order was issued to the quarrymen that if any fossils were found in their daily toil, they were to be left as found, pending the arrival of Dr Marie. As she lived mostly in London, this might take some days and meanwhile the quarrymen’s earnings would suffer as they were piece-workers. Not surprisingly, many of what might have been important discoveries were put into the waste tip, accompanied by derisory remarks.


Her preference for bathing in the nude led her to what the locals thought to be her most doctorial act. She chose a rocky cove to call her own beach and even produced her own ladder which, after descending to the beach, she would remove. Here, in what she believed to be complete privacy, she practised her nudity.


On the island, before the advent of gold watches, it was customary to present a chap on reaching his majority with a telescope, so that he could take part in the then favourite pastime of watching for and recognising the great fully-rigged sailing ships as they passed up the Channel. Many of the older men, already armed with a telescope, put aside their puritan upbringing and, whether the good Doctor knew it or not, her much-vaunted privacy was thus invaded.


In 1937 or 1938, we were seated in our newly erected hut at Portland Bill, having our Sunday lunch as a family, when a person suddenly appeared in the open doorway. Quite unannounced and without any introduction, she entered and immediately flew into a tirade of abuse which seemed to go on for minutes. We all sat there quite speechless at being lambasted by this woman who, as soon as her vituperations had ceased, left without introducing herself. This was of course Dr Marie Stopes who, quite unknown to us, had just begun her anti-litter campaign for the area around the Bill.


Our hut was a considerable distance from the Lighthouse, but most of the litter dropped in the area was blown along to a stone wall next to our hut. We were being blamed for the whole of the litter problem that originated some 500 yards away!






Bobby Tripe


Age and a lifetime spent out of doors in the quarries had somewhat bent the old oak that was Bobby Tripe. As we sat on his favourite seat at the top of Church Ope, I on leave from the navy, he made no attempt to hide his scorn of the modern sailor. ‘In my days at sea,’ he said, ‘the ships were built of oak and the men of iron; now the ships are of iron and the men wooden. You might be dressed as a sailor, but I’ve emptied more salt water out of my seaboots than you’ve seen! And another thing, the waves aren’t as big as they used to be – I remember being on one wave for three days. And the wind don’t blow like it used to.’


If this was not enough, he added, ‘The main of you are bloody good kids ashore with a pocket full of money, but oh my Christ, when she rolls!’


Having put me in my firmly in my place, he rose from his seat, leaning heavily on his stick and spitting tobacco juice accurately into a nearby blackberry bush. I was left wondering whether this minesweeping lark that I was engaged in was perhaps not a bit overrated.


As a young man Bobby had gone to sea for the one and only trip in a fleet support vessel called the Petronal. This one passage to Gibraltar and back had supplied him with a lifetime of salty sea yarns and his favourite and well-worn remark that he had been ’round the world, and many other places’! Now, however, Church Ope was his spiritual home and peering out from here over the Channel seemed to evoke endless stories of his seafaring past – the horizon did not limit his fertile imagination.


He was a bachelor and when well into his seventies was still earning his living in the quarries. He looked as indestructible as ever, weather-beaten as old leather and with the vestige of a twinkle in his eyes as he told his old yarns, which brought him many a pint at the ‘Mermaid’ just up the road.



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