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Memories of Whitstable  from The Fountain Inn....

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With thanks
John Butler

Life at The Fountain Inn

Thanks to my parents being publicans, I spent almost the first ten years of my life living in a pub. The last one we occupied, before returning to ordinary life, was the Fountain Inn in Sydenham Street. It was there I passed my ninth birthday.

We spent at least one summer at Whitstable and probably most of two winters. We were there during the East Coast floods, which occurred on the night of January 31st. 1953. However, later that same year, we had moved to Sheerness in time for the Queen's Coronation, so I imagine we moved sometime in the Spring.

The pub was a very tiny building, little larger than the adjoining terraced houses built at the same time. It was (and is) on a corner site with only a yard and small store at the rear, so I had no garden to play in. However, that suited me, as for the first time, I had a sea front and the beach over which I could roam at my leisure. 

The bar at the front was a so-called "Snug", next was a "Bottle and Jug" and finally the Public Bar which at best was only 12-14 ft. wide and 20-25 ft. long. A door at the end of the bar led to the first floor living accommodation, which comprised a small kitchen, perhaps a bathroom, a small living Room and two bedrooms. The photograph below was taken in 1994 and shows some form of attic room which, I don't recall, but I think it was part of the original layout.


The Fountain Inn in 1994


The Bottle and Jug was for Off-Sales and we had a number of customers who literally did bring a jug to be filled with beer. The public bar had a dartboard, a few tables where on the many quiet evenings Dad taught me to play cribbage and a couple of wall-mounted pinball machines which required ball bearings to be caught in fixed or moveable cups. If one won on these machines, then a token for tuppence, six pence or, best of all, half-a-crown would be issued which would be redeemed by Dad from a special tin of money kept for the purpose. Every fortnight or so, a representative of the company which owned the machines would visit to redeem all the tokens handed over. I soon discovered that if one knocked seven bells out of the cup control levers, the machine would often disgorge a token without having had to pay to play. When Mum and Dad weren't around, I was able to supplement my pocket money by this means but didn't abuse it as the rep. may well have noticed that the odds no longer seemed in favour of the machine.

It was still a time of some post-war austerity. Indeed, sweets only came off ration whilst we were there. It was wonderful to be able to buy whatever one wanted in sweet shops thereafter. I think that Mum and Dad had accumulated a reasonable amount of savings as a result of the business they'd done in previous pubs, elsewhere in the country, but the Fountain Inn took all their savings and resulted in the following years at Sheerness being relatively hard times. I remember many bleak winter evenings in the Fountain's bar when a blazing fire in the hearth plus several, popping and hissing gas convector fires were essential for warmth and to make the customers welcome. However, the latter were noticeable by their absence. Frequently, the lighting and heating costs considerably exceeded the bar takings.  


Beach Memories

Whitstable beach was a place where, for many years, clinker-built boats had been built, repaired or dismantled. Consequently, a careful eye and raking of the sand and shingle would result in a rich harvest of copper nails, an Oxo tin full of which was allegedly worth ten shillings at one of the local scrap merchants. I never got round to filling a whole tin. However,  I still have a few of the nails and my old Oxo tin!  The nails on the beach, scraps of beach-combed wood, string and cloth or plastic enabled one to build small sailing boats, usually with one or two outriggers for stability which when launched on a calm sea with an off-shore breeze would sail off until lost from view. Many probably ended up on the shore at Shellness at the far south-eastern tip of Sheppey. Rowland Hilder, the artist, had a cottage at Shellness and I wonder if he ever found one of my craft in his littoral wanderings?

Early Sunday morning, Dad would take me down to the beach for a "swim". However as I couldn't actually swim, it mainly comprised splashing around in the shallows and walking shrimp-like on my hands in the water. I recall it usually seemed perishing cold. Dad never actually ventured in. 


Sunday School

Swimming was my much preferred option in Summer when on Sunday afternoons for a period, I was required to attend Sunday School. Since neither Mum nor Dad ever went to church except for weddings, Christenings or funerals, I can only think it was to give them a little bit of piece and quiet for a brief while or merely to appease some zealot of a customer who thought it would be good for me. I don’t recall any personal enthusiasm for my attendance. The church hall was dry and musty and unlikely to be the setting for an early conversion. The best thing about going was having a small album in which, each week, one stuck a coloured picture with a tract underneath as a reward for or acknowledgement of one's attendance.


The Corner Pubs

Whitstable had no shortage of pubs. Another, the "New Inn", virtually backed on to ours on the corner of the next street. When we, or they, ran out of a particular bottled beer, we, or they would transfer a crate or two to tide each other over until the next brewery delivery. I don't know how it worked as we were an Ind Coope pub and they came under Shepherd Neame. Perhaps it only worked with branded beers like Mackeson or Guinness?

The development of pubs in Whitstable is described in "Ales and Tales", published by the Whitstable Improvement Trust in 1993. The area of grid-pattern streets around "The Fountain" was developed in the 1840's and 1850's as the "New Town" to cope with the expanding populace involved in the local oyster and shipbuilding industry. Each street virtually had its own corner pub, hence the proximity of the Fountain and the New Inn (originally known as the Bricklayers Arms). There is a line drawing in the book showing the houses under construction in Sydenham Street, including specifically, “The Fountain”  

The brokers who introduced Mum and Dad to the Fountain Inn and who actually arranged the take-over of the tenancy were from Chatham and I subsequently worked for them from 1961 after I left school, until 1973. It's a small world.


School Life

During my time in the town, I attended Whitstable Junior School at the end of the High Street. I have limited recall of my days there although many of the faces in the photograph I have submitted to the website archive are well remembered. I still have a miniature Archie Andrews head which I swapped with one of my fellow pupils for something of mine he coveted. Peter Brough and Archie Andrews were very popular on the radio then. 

One day during the summer whilst playing in the playground at lunchtime, one of the boys said someone was looking for me at the gate. It was my older sister and her husband, paying a surprise visit (they lived in Middlesex) and I was delighted with the ice cream they had thought to bring me. Strange that such small trifles (well actually a Wall's ice cream) are all the memory one has of some periods in life. 

Another less delightful experience was when something I ate at lunch violently disagreed with me and, during the afternoon, I had to use the school toilets which like most in those days were unspeakable.  As it was, I had reached the W.C. too late with the expected consequences! When the end of playtime bell rang, I stayed in the toilets until everybody had returned to class and then crept out of school and ran all the way home. Actually it was more of a legs tightly together shuffle. When I got home I opened one of the ground floor windows and climbed through. When Mum found me, I broke down in abject misery but with her tender, loving care, a hot scrub down and clean clothes I was soon feeling a lot better. Aren't Mums wonderful?


A Quiet Drink at the Bar    

When not in such dire straits, the afternoons at the Fountain were times for Dad especially and often Mum as well, to have a sleep ready for "opening time". I would often have to let myself in the same way, through the bar window. This gave me a chance for a surreptitious sampling of the beer from the beer pumps, properly known as beer engines. To have operated the pump would have resulted in too much noise, so I usually just wrapped my lips around the tap and sucked hard. Unhygienic but lovely.


The Local Bakery

On the way home some days, I would call in the town bakers and buy two plain bread rolls to eat on the way home. Two rolls then cost a penny (1d.). At home when I was sent to collect bread from the bakers, our more local bakers in Harbour Street (I think), I would surreptitiously peel a lovely strip of new bread from the side of the loaf and eat it on my way back. If noticed, I often paid for it with a clip round the ear from Mum. They also had a specialty of Chelsea buns, which they would re-cook by dropping them back in the boiling fat of the doughnut cooker. My mother loved them. No worries about cholesterol levels then!


The Guinea

One good friend I had at school was Harry Gamble. His mother and grandmother were the licensees of the Guinea Inn along Island Wall, one of the very narrow streets containing mainly old weatherboard cottages close to the sea front. Harry always had a flushed appearance and was asthmatic. We never kept in touch after I left Whitstable but, whilst we were friends, I used to go round for tea and, in the evening, he and I would play act for the "entertainment" of his grandmother. I think Harry was her only grandchild and she always indulged us by offering enthusiastic applause and reward for our efforts. One frequent prop in our plays was the large collection Harry had of German bank-notes from the hyper-inflationary 1920's. Their denominations were in multiples of millions of Deutschmarks. 

My last memory of the Guinea Inn was of the 1953 flood-waters lapping the top of the door to their Kitchen. The pub was set below the level of the road and one went down a slope at the side to get to their yard and ground level accommodation. Consequently, the floods made the place uninhabitable and I don't know if they ever returned after it had been restored. It closed as a pub in 1981.


Flood Memories

As most readers will know, the 1953 floods were caused by a combination of a Spring tide, a severe storm, on-shore winds and very low pressure sweeping a tidal surge down the East Coast of England. Parts of the town were under nearly five feet of water and only the roofs of some parked cars were visible. Although we weren't living on a hill, the location of the Fountain was sufficiently elevated for us to escape flooding altogether. 

Within a hundred yards of us in most directions there was at least a foot of water in the streets and houses. Revisiting the town in recent years, it is apparent that a house that was opposite the pub has been demolished at some time since the 1950's. It is possible that the flood-waters had the effect of softening the sub-soil causing subsequent structural instability. Certainly in the 60's and 70's, there were still houses in Sheerness that I looked at, which had a "tidemark" up the walls left as a legacy of the flood waters. 

For the children of Whitstable, the floods provided an opportunity for wonderful adventures. School was off, of course, so we "helped" fire-crews manhandle their pumps along the narrow roads near the beach and they even let me and some friends hold on to the hose nozzle laid out across the beach to discharge the water they were pumping from peoples' houses. Of course, the crews knew in advance that the water pressure would make the hose thrash about like a demented python which even a gang of 8 or 9 year olds would have difficulty in controlling! We got fairly soaked in the process and on reflection it was probably quite dangerous but things were more relaxed then. I was very impressed that any bollards that got in the way of the pump crews, were removed without ceremony, with a sledgehammer. We also tried “rafting” old doors across the more shallowly flooded roads but never very successfully.

Another feature of the storm, which had caused the floods, was that many of the beach-front warehouses had had their beach-side elevations completely torn away. They were thus not only open to the elements, but also to marauding bands of adventurous children who saw only excitement and no danger in these semi-derelict and collapsing structures. One was full of sacks of grey, granular material which was probably chemical fertiliser and possibly dangerous to handle. We had enormous fun swinging from ropes hung round roof beams now exposed and dropping onto the soft heaps of sacks. Our parents would, no doubt, have had fits if they could have seen us. It's a miracle none of us got seriously hurt during those few weeks.


Harbour Recollections 

My beach-combing efforts often resulted in me dragging large lumps of timber through the streets to Mum's lukewarm approval when I got home. One Saturday evening, I was at the harbour, when one of the local fishing boats returned with a good catch of sprats. In shovelling them onto the conveyor into the harbour-side fish sheds, the fishermen dropped a lot on the quayside.  I gathered a carrier-bag full  with which, I staggered odourously home, to Mum's genuine delight. The harbour was another place of interest and fun and again, on reflection, immensely dangerous. There were many Thames spritsail barges still trading in and out of Whitstable mainly carrying grain, I think, from East Anglia. The harbour was a place smelling of a mixture of tar, creosote, fish, coal, oil and the sea. It seemed far less an industrial site then than it is now. It is now far less accessible than when I was small but smells much the same. 

At night, the oil lit navigation lights reflected green and red off the water accompanied by the lapping of the black oily water against the wooden barge hulls and the soft slap of the hemp rigging. For a very brief while, Dad went into partnership with some others and operated a small fishing boat, trawling for a particular type of seaweed which it was said had some industrial, cosmetic or food use. 

One evening, I was on the quayside when they returned and, determined to show to all present that I was connected with these "men of the sea", I called to Dad to throw me their mooring line and I would tie them up. The rope was probably thicker than my arm and would have probably knocked me off my feet when thrown, anyway. Dad luckily had more sense than I did and denied me my brief moment of glory on that occasion.

Those were probably the dying months of the Canterbury to Whitstable railway line, which ran through the Tyler Hill tunnel on the outskirts of Canterbury. The low height of the tunnel required a special design of cut-down locomotive which by then, only operated goods trains to and from the harbour. In the harbour, the wagons were shunted by being hauled by ponies. At the corners of the harbour, the lines turned through 90 degrees by means of turntables which we kids would play on at weekends by releasing the locking mechanism and turn, by scooting them around from the edge. We thus had our own permanent merry-go-rounds.


Music of the Time 

Music didn't figure prominently in one's life in those days but popular music, especially American, was starting to be noticed. I recall being very fond of Guy Mitchell singing "She Wears Red Feathers And A Hooly Hooly Skirt" (perhaps “Hula hula?) when living at Whitstable and hearing it again instantly transports me back to those times in the pub. It’s strange how music can trigger so many, oft forgotten memories. Previously, when I was very young, the song "In A Monastery Garden" would for some unaccountable reason, have the effect of reducing the baby me to floods of tears. Consequently, when stuck for other amusements, my two older sisters would sing it to me, to see the effect.


The Smogs

In the November or December of 1952, we had the worst smogs ever experienced in Britain and Mum had to collect me from school for several consecutive days. The smog was so dense that people were bumping into each other on the pavements and vehicles could only proceed at a slow walking pace with somebody guiding them in front with a torch or flare. It was these conditions which gave Mum the chronic bronchitis from which she suffered the rest of her life.  


The Cinemas

Whitstable was the first place I recall going to the cinema. The cinema I remember best was "The Oxford”. Breakdowns were not unusual and once Dad and I were there when the film or projector broke irreparably and everybody was given their money back. 

I went to see "The Thing", a sci-fi film with Dad, which scared the daylights out of me and, on another occasion with Mum, I saw a Superman film which was about Martians landing on earth. They had large bazooka-like ray guns which dissolved rock and  hydrocephalic-like, large heads. Mum and I walked home through the cold town after the film and I very reluctantly had to go straight to bed, where I cowered under the sheets for a long while, convinced that the same Martians were going to land in Sydenham Street that night, and of all the possible victims, would choose me to abduct and take back to Mars! 

A film about submarine warfare also scared me and, in the end, Mum relented and we left before the end. She was a bit annoyed to say the least. I don't think I was particularly timid but, clearly, adults don't always realise the impact of films or other dramatic events upon children. It's a bit like my children, when young, hiding behind the settee in the early days of Dr. Who being broadcast on T.V.. Most of their generation confess to the same reaction. 

I think that it was at Whitstable that I first went to Saturday Matinee and Dad would sometimes give me money to go on my own at weekends to see the normal programme. I saw some of the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour "Road" pictures there and other regular favourites were Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello who were then at the peak of their popularity.  


Reading & The Old Library

Books became a feature of life at Whitstable leaving me with the passion for reading which remains to this day. On the way home from school, I would visit the library which was in the High Street, not far from the Junior School. The children's section was upstairs, an oasis of quiet, warmth and light with a wonderful treasure trove of volumes. The hallowed silence was broken only by the gentle hissing and occasional popping of the gas convector fire housed in its tall brown case with the flames dimly seen through the orange glass vents at the bottom. The wooden floor, furniture and shelving were highly polished and the whole place smelt of polish, books and warm gas - lovely! 

At home, I also was allowed to have both The Beano and Dandy regularly, which the newsagent always let me have two days in advance of the publication day, a rare privilege I thought. Many of the current comic heroes, Korky the Kat, Desperate Dan, Roger the Dodger were to be found then and there were many others who are no longer illustrated - The Tin Fish, Archie the Robot, The Pobble (who was from Mars but not frightening) and General Jumbo. 

I also bought The Topper and Beezer, which were first published when we lived in Whitstable. The first edition of the former had a free gift comprising a gun shaped paper clapper, which had to be flicked downwards rapidly for it to make a loud crack. The latter included, as its initial gift, a cardboard boomerang which sometimes worked. If only I had kept all those now valuable delights. Some of the first characters to be featured in the Topper or Beezer included Mickey the Monkey and Beryl the Peril who are still to be found I think. 

The comics went on our paper bill. Just as well, as at twopence each for the Beano and Dandy and threepence or fourpence each for the others, my sixpence-a-week pocket money (unless supplemented by the pinball machines) wouldn't have gone far. 


Earning Pocket Money

I had to earn my money by helping Mum and Dad, which included filling shelves with bottled beer and going to get the copper coin and other change from the bank for the pub tills on Saturday mornings. For protection, I usually wore my cowboy outfit and swaggered down the High Street with six-gun on hip. When I got back, I had to help polish the brasswork and copperwork in the pub and usually took the opportunity to polish my pocket money as well. 

The beer was drawn from the barrels in the cellar by pumps properly known as beer engines. These had a lot of brass ornament on the handles, which always looked good after polishing. However the polish gave the beer a funny taste when, as narrated before, getting home from school in the afternoon, I would sometimes creep behind the bar and surreptitiously suck some beer from the pump spigot. I didn't dare pull the pump handle in case I couldn't stop the flow or some spilt and I was found out. That would have resulted in a good hiding from Mum. 

It was always she who administered punishment and I never recall Dad laying a hand on me once. I used to run like mad to avoid Mum's retribution until the day at Sheerness when I was about 13 and Mum, attempting  to reach up to hit the now much taller me, just resulted in me standing there in tears of laughter. The more I laughed the harder she hit me and the less it seemed to hurt until she, exhausted, started to laugh too. I never loved her more than at that moment and 27 years after her death, I still miss her every day.  


The Local Grocer

On the opposite corner of Sydenham Street was a small grocers where Mum would get most of her daily shopping. It was all polished counters inside with a bentwood chair or two for customers to sit upon whilst they gave their orders. Biscuit tins with glass topped lids were arrayed in a tempting row in front of the counter and their contents were weighed by the half or whole pound. Dried fruits would be scooped from barrels and packed in grey or blue paper bags and all tea was sold as 2oz. or 4 oz. packets of tea leaves or in presentation tins. The "Mazawattee Tea" tin I still have is a tin originally filled with tea, that I bought Mum as a Christmas or birthday gift. One of the shop chairs was normally occupied by an enormous, sleeping, marmalade cat who would rarely move unless pushed.  



Bearing in mind that we were only at Whitstable for some 18 months, it is surprising how many fond memories I have of the place. I thought of it then as a bleak little town of narrow back streets and me being left very much to my own devices. Certainly in winter, the wind used to whistle bleakly up the High Street as one walked past the Bear and Key Hotel. However, one had a wonderful freedom which sadly few 8 or 9 year olds can now experience. Would one now dare to let them go to the cinema on their own?  

The summer was one of the occasional delight of a rowing boat on the boating lake, swimming on the beach either in the town or along at Seasalter and the occasional treat of an ice cream on a Sunday up on Marine Parade at Tankerton. Returning now reveals that many of the town-centre buildings are delightful, weather-boarded places of  considerable charm and attraction  which, thankfully, escaped the wholesale destruction wrought in the 1960’s in the cause of “progress” in so many other Kent resorts. 

My time in Whitstable didn’t coincide with that of Peter Cushing’s residency but I imagine he frequented many of my old haunts and I enjoy nothing more, on one of my frequent visits back to the town, than to sit in his place in the tea rooms and wonder whether his ghost and I share similar memories of a delightful place.


John Butler, 
April 2007   


© John Butler


Footnote: On behalf of all Simply Whitstable readers, I would like to thank John for taking the time to record his memories and for allowing us to publish them on the web site.

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