What the Sandbanks milkman saw: Tony O’Hara
Tony O’Hara helped his milkman step-father deliver around Sandbanks from the age of eleven in 1968. Nick Churchill tells his story
Published in August ’12
Long before the proliferation of expensive homes and exorbitant land prices, Dorset’s ‘Platinum Peninsula’ was little more than a windswept sand spit, largely uninhabited save for a few fishermen. Towards the end of the 19th century Sandbanks was part of Lord Wimborne’s Canford estate and was home to two hotels, a coastguard station and a few private residences. Worried about the potential cost of sea defences, in 1894 Wimborne signed it over to Poole Corporation, which divided the peninsula into parcels of land for auction. It’s said the entire area could have been bought for £200.
The Edwardian era brought holidaymakers and a shanty town of sheds, shacks and even old railway carriages sprang up before being cleared to make way for a building programme of mainly white, pebble-dashed brick bungalows. Before long, Sandbanks had a small working population and a coterie of well-heeled resident families such as Lyle (Tate & Lyle), Wills (tobacco), Clark (shoes) and Grant (whisky), as well as bandleader Bill Cotton. While the social events at the Royal Motor Yacht Club, established in 1936, and the annual influx of summer season show stars to Bournemouth’s theatres created a demand for rented holiday homes, arguably sowing the seeds of the modern Millionaires’ Row.
This stellar connection was firmly established by the time Tony O’Hara got his first taste of working life as an 11-year-old in 1968, helping his milkman stepfather on the distinctive green and beige vans of the Malmesbury & Parsons Dairy Co. The Sandbanks he knew was a curious place inhabited by celebrities and eccentrics, the rich and the reclusive, as well as local business people and their employees. As readily as he recalls encountering the likes of Mike and Bernie Winters, Lionel Blair, Ronnie Barker and Dick Emery, he also remembers the Sandbanks shopkeepers, boat owners and beach workers.
‘Mike and Bernie Winters were sharing a house with their families at 41 Panorama Road while they were playing Bournemouth in the summer of 1971. We used to see this boxer dog taking itself for a walk along Panorama Road every morning. It turned out to belong to Bernie and had been given to him by Roy Hudd whose dog had a litter of eight pups. We never actually saw the brothers, one of the wives always came to pay the bill, but the two families were also sharing with Lionel Blair whose son was born that summer.
‘Although we were very respectful of people’s privacy we’d pick up little snippets of information and make time for a chat if people wanted. Ronnie Barker stopped me one day on the round – he wanted directions to an address. He seemed a very ordinary man in a very ordinary car, nothing flashy about him at all.
‘Dick Emery was on my Poole Park round in the summer of 1973 while he was appearing in Bournemouth. He rented a house at the end of Orchard Avenue near Poole Park and I saw him one day when he came down and stopped to say hello to me, he was very suntanned. Usually though he would send a woman down to pay the bill – a different one each week. I think he was a bit of a ladies’ man!’
By the time he was 13 the dairy had been taken over by the ubiquitous Unigate and Tony was working regular rounds at weekends and during school holidays. ‘Sandbanks was known as the worst round,’ says Tony. ‘You had 300 customers in winter then in summer it went up to 900, plus you had all the hotels as well. You had to get round before all the people appeared and the queues started for the ferry. I worked with a chap called Bill Brown and we’d start at Evening Hill at six in the morning and it was always a race to finish at Banks Road by eight or nine. But it felt like a real community in those days, very much a village atmosphere. The Sandbanks Store was next to the Royal Motor Yacht Club on Panorama Road where the watersports shop is now. I remember having a New Year’s drink out the back with the family there one year; then there was Davis’ Boats run by the brothers Jim and Tom Davis who retired soon after I left in the mid-1970s.’
Although Tony’s round wasn’t short on characters, few could match the redoubtable Mrs Dingwall. The former Miss Louie Foott had arrived in Sandbanks in the 1920s and established Miss Foott’s Motor Services from a garage on Panorama Road, now the Panorama Bay Motor Company, running a converted Model T Ford as a taxi and later adding bus services from Sandbanks to Newtown.
‘She was an incredible old lady. She lived in a bungalow with a stable yard next door opposite the Royal Motor Yacht Club. When she lost her husband she started keeping racehorses and used to ride them out along the beach every morning – these days you couldn’t take a dog down there!’
Barely a kilometre square, Sandbanks today is defined by the price tags on its properties – famously only parts of London, Tokyo and Hong Kong are more expensive – yet just a century ago developers were reluctant to build on its sandy foundations. Even when such fears were conquered in the 1920s and 1930s they would only commit to modest bungalows, although by the 1970s more ambitious properties were beginning to take shape.
Tony remembers: ‘There was a big stir when they built what became known as The Glass House, next to Sandbanks Hotel. People came from miles around to look at it, but it looks very tame compared to what has been built there in recent times. Even then though the locals were complaining all the old cottages were being pulled down and replaced by blocks of flats – when they built Dune Crest on Banks Road you could buy a flat for £20,000 and have the beach at the bottom of the garden.
‘Even so, Sandbanks is a very different place now to how it was in the early 1970s. In winter it was very bleak down there and the wind used to whip across the peninsula. You’d be lucky if you saw a single person on bad days, most people stayed in their houses to keep out of the weather. Of course, these days they make a virtue of the wind with all the offshore watersports.’
Tony left the milk round in 1976 to join the Royal Hampshire Regiment. ‘I realised I didn’t want to be a milkman for the rest of my life and knew I had to get away.’ He met and married his wife while serving in Germany, but in classic Hardyean fashion returned to Dorset in 1994, first to Colehill then Sixpenny Handley. And there’s a part of him that still longs to be delivering the early morning milk to some of Britain’s most sought-after homes.
‘We worked hard, but it was a gentle time and even now when I’m daydreaming in a world of my own I can hear the weird noises made by the wetland birds on calm mornings. I used to cycle to work and those early morning bike rides from our home in Broadstone down to Sandbanks were quite special. I look back at those times and they seem idyllic.’
Most fondly remembered of all Tony’s customers, Mary Smith was better known to the wider world as John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi who had brought him up from the age of five. In 1965, at the height of Beatlemania, Lennon spent £25,000 on Harbour’s Edge, a fairly modern bungalow at 126 Panorama Road, so that Mimi could escape the attentions of Beatles fans in Liverpool and live by the sea where she stayed until her death in 1991.
‘I first got to know Mrs Smith at the age of 13 in 1971,’ says Tony, ‘around the time John went off to New York. She was a very dignified and friendly lady, not at all snobby but there was nothing low about her either. She was very talkative and always took an interest, very polite and charming. She used to leave the door open and you’d have to go in unless she had been keeping an ear out and heard your footsteps. I could see the gold discs on the wall through the window but didn’t know whose they were until I looked one day. That’s when they told me she was John Lennon’s auntie, but I didn’t think too much about it – after all, everyone had an auntie – I didn’t realise anything about the close connection.
‘She was a wonderful lady and I was a typical spotty teenager with shoulder length hair and she would sometimes make a wise crack – when I was 17 I wore glasses similar to her nephew, all coincidentally of course, and she asked me if I was growing my hair long now. When I replied I was she said: ‘You’ll soon look like John Lennon!’ and walked back indoors, laughing.’