I once had an article, entitled ‘An Unsung Hero of Poole’, published in one of those glossy county type magazines – Dorset or Dorset Life. I forget which but it’s rather remiss of me as in those days, as now, they were an unjustifiably closed shop and breaking in was something of a coup. The hero was H.P. Smith, a man whom I’d discovered whilst writing a thesis about old Poole. The fact that it was published, and that I won a prize for the thesis, did H.P. little good as, nearly twenty years on, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s ever heard of him.
H.P. Smith, a secondary school teacher lately of our town, was something of a man of discovery himself: Roman ruins and artefacts, an educator who took his students out of the classroom and encouraged them to take a look around, he was, by all accounts, something that some of us once aspired to: a teacher who made a difference. One day, just off the High Street, he discovered a whole building of huge importance – Scaplen’s Court. Looking at this photo, you might wonder how no-one else had previously noticed it. Well, you need to see what it used to look like, hidden as it was behind the façade of a bunch of tenement buildings. Look it up if you like – I’ve already accounted for it elsewhere.
I probably didn’t extol the many virtues sufficiently. The reasons why I’m mentioning him are twofold: today, I identified him in a picture and I also discovered another Poole resident of whom so little is apparently known, I can find nothing about him on the WWW. His name is Cecil Todd.
It’s not a day for walking. I meet a friend for coffee at an extraordinarily over-priced joint over at Branksome Chine. I’m guessing it’s a case of location, location, location as we take our refreshment overlooking the sea, which must be delightful on days when Hurricane Doris isn’t making an uninvited appearance. It’s so bloody expensive that we share a round of toast. The waitress must have mistaken us for ‘ladies who lunch’ as she’s so overly enthusiastic on arriving to take the order that I have to warn her of impending disappointment. All thoughts of a walk are banished and my partner in poverty says she’s off to Home Bargains where, rumour has it, Vanish is on sale for a mere two pounds. She has a nasty stain on a carpet.
I, meanwhile, decide to spend an hour in Poole Museum. They have two or three paintings within that I very much like but I initially venture into what was once the Town Cellars. These days, it’s the home of the Poole History Centre, a wonderful beamed ceiling secret inhabited by two or three folk that might well have been in situ throughout its various incarnations. Ancient tomes abound along with old filing cabinets that house documents of possible interest and a small model of seventeenth century Poole with a surprising windmill invitingly placed for query. It’s the sort of joint that one would visit only if you had a vague idea of what you were looking for.
I have no idea. I have a mantra, though, learned from my walking: ‘look back, look up’. And looking up, I spot the relics of the Muriel. Years ago, in another lifetime, Hilda Ogden, stalwart of Coronation Street, had a whole wall in the front room of her terraced house decorated with this glorious scene of which she ever after proudly referred to as her ‘muriel’.
So here is the Poole Mural. And peering out from the door of Scaplen’s Court, I think I espy an unknown hero. I rush up the rickety staircase, past two old codgers having a chat, then I rush back down to accost one of the ancients: ‘excuse me, is that H.P. Smith discovering Scaplen’s Court?’ Yes it is, and on questioning the provenance of the Muriel, I am presented with an old book by Andrew Hawkes entitled ‘A Pint of Good Poole Ale’ and I am hooked. Doris, you can blow your heart out for I am ensconced within these ancient walls learning about the London Hotel.
Here’s one of the paintings I came to see. It’s a view of Poole Quay from Hamworthy by Eustace Nash. It’s lovely but so is my discovery of the London Hotel, a former posting stage for no fewer than eleven omnibuses a day, which was refurbished in 1936. At this point, Mr Cecil Todd, along with students from the former Poole Art School, created all the glorious frames that comprise the Poole Mural, encapsulating a portrait of our town as it was then, to be housed on the four walls of the main lounge. I doubt they called it a lounge in those days but who cares – it must’ve been something to behold as this wonderful reflection of social history graced a room furnished by Harvey Nichols.
It didn’t last long: in 1940, the joint was hit by a German bomb. But, reader, you don’t want to know that, I know you’re waiting for the punchline – something quirky. Well, here it is. Whilst I was hunched over my unexpected research, one of the visiting old codgers passed by. ‘That’s a very good book’, says he, almost from the grave. ‘Are you the author?’ ‘Yes, I’m Andrew Hawkes’. Oh, serendipity. You never fail.