Sally Antiques finds its spiritual home on Portsmouth's historic High Street
|Author: Peter Hopkinson
|Published: 20th February 2021 15:34
In a city steeped in history, it feels right that a repository of over 10,000 antiques is now housed in High Street, in a building dating back to around 1800. Sally Antiques (formerly the Antique Storehouse in the Historic Dockyard) now shares this space with the Sally Port Inn; the building soon to be open to the public and about to write its own unique chapter in the history of a unique street.
Following the move from the Dockyard, I spoke with Sally Antiques’ Deputy Manager, Razvan Ionascu, and it’s no understatement to say that he is a man obsessed with history, his knowledge and passion for the subject hugely impressive and highly infectious.
We both agreed that the High Street felt like the spiritual home for the diverse and eclectic mix of antiques that are now displayed over four floors of numbers 57 & 58 - the former home to an oyster room, coffee and dining rooms, a commercial boarding house, a hotel, and a wine and spirit merchant. It is a street that has grown and evolved over time, and one that is able to help tell the story of this great and proud city. It is worth taking the time therefore, to do a whistle stop tour of High Street’s history before we learn more about Sally Antique’s own journey here.
If you walk down High Street from its northern end, you are immediately presented on its east side with the grand façade of Cambridge Barracks The Barracks housed soldiers until 1927, when it became home to its current occupants The Portsmouth Grammar School. The School itself is part of the fabric of the City, founded as it was by former philanthropic Mayor, Dr William Smith in 1732.
Prior to the construction of the Barracks the area had seen billeted soldiers in various residences, including a former brewery, and had also been home to Portsmouth Theatre, a venue purportedly visited by Portsmouth’s famous son Charles Dickens, when researching for his novel Nicholas Nickleby. Travelling further back in history, the site was also home to a royal residence built by Richard I.
Next door but one to Cambridge Barracks, we find No.11 High Street, a building with a famous and notorious past, witnessing as it did the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham in 1628. George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and a controversial figure, was stabbed to death at No.11, known at the time as the Greyhound Pub. His assassin, John Felton, was hailed as a hero for his murderous deed due to the unpopularity of the Duke, with poems written celebrating his actions. He was hanged for his crime, but that did not stop public support for him as his dead body became an object of veneration when it was displayed in the City.
Modern day Portmuthians may also consider No.12 High Street a place worthy of veneration, as on the 5th April 1898 it held a meeting to establish the founding of Portsmouth Football Club. At the time, the building was home to the solicitors of John Brickwood, the owner of Brickwood’s Brewery. Brickwood and five of his footballing enthusiast associates agreed on that day to join forces to buy a piece of land to build a football ground and the rest, as they say, is history.
Across the road from No.12 on the west side of the street is perhaps a more traditional place of worship in the form of John Pounds Unitarian Church. A place of worship since 1662, the site was acquired for unitarian worship by the early 1800’s. It was frequented by John Pounds, a cobbler by trade, but now famous for his desire to provide education, food and clothing to poor children. His work provided the foundations of the Ragged School Union, which saw the establishment of over 200 free schools across Britain.
One building that sadly no longer stands on High Street is the George Inn, one of many hostelries that would have quenched the thirst of residents, visitors, soldiers, and sailors. It is famous for the fact that one Lord Nelson had breakfast there on September 14th 1805, before he set sail for Trafalgar. The Inn was a popular place with Nelson and many other leading naval officers, and his room was preserved in his memory until, like so many of the buildings along High Street, it was destroyed by German bombs in 1941.
As we move into the lower southern section of High Street we see the beauty of the Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury. The site has been a place dedicated to worship since 1180, when a chapel was built in dedication to Thomas Beckett. It later became a parish church, and in 1927 a Cathedral. Its inevitable close relationship with the seafaring community has earned it the epithet Cathedral of the Sea. At one time it would have been only partly visible from the Street as buildings were erected in front of it, but as these were demolished or destroyed, the beauty of the building emerged for all to see.
We are almost at our destination of 57 & 58 High Street now, but it was worth noting that what is reputedly Portsmouth’s oldest inn is still in existence at No. 41. The Dolphin Inn, which miraculously survived WWII bombing raids unlike most of its neighbours, has been serving food and ale for around 250 years. Although currently working under Covid restrictions, it appears the building is made of strong stuff and will be part of High Street’s future for many years to come.
And so, we arrive at the Sally Port Inn, now appearing as one building although originally built as two, and home to Sally Antiques, the aforementioned treasure trove of historical artifacts. Occupancy of the building is shared between the Inn and Sally Antiques, a metaphor perhaps for how the figurative ‘High Street’ will need to reinvent itself post lockdown.
With over 10,000 items on display, it is a dizzying prospect, especially if a visit follows a G & T or two at the Sally Port Inn. However, Deputy Manager Razvan Ionascu is delighted that the move to the building has allowed the vast inventory to be better displayed and categorized.
I asked Razvan how he came to be involved in the running of Sally Antiques.
“I am originally from Romania, where I studied history, but because of the political situation I decided to move to the UK. I didn’t really know much about Portsmouth but had a friend who lived here so I made the move.
“At first I drove taxis and would often pick up the owner of the Antique Store from the Dockyard. We would talk about our shared love of history and he ended up offering me a job working there. We had been looking for a new home for some time and when we found out this building was available it was an easy decision.
“Portsmouth has so much history and I have loved finding out about it; In the future, I would like to help educate others about it and also about the antiques we have here.”
Razvan is a truly engaging and knowledgeable individual and I am very much looking forward to visiting Sally Antiques for a guided tour when Covid restrictions are eased. In the meantime, it is possible to browse and purchase items via their online store. I asked him what his favourite item in the store was.
“Hitler’s vase is definitely one of them.” explained Razvan, referring to a wedding gift given by Eva Braun to the Nazi führer. The art deco green glass vase, retrieved from Hitler’s bunker along with other items in 1945, is certainly a talking point, its simple beauty at odds with the horror that surrounded it.
“But if I had to choose my favourite, it would have to be an 18th century musket. It was used by the French Royal Liegios regiment who later became the French Foreign Legion.”
Razvan talks about the items and the building in which they are now housed with the authority and insight of someone who truly appreciates the significance of their value, not the monetary definition, but their place in history and their ability to help tell their own story. He is also determined and excited to share that story with future visitors to the Sally Port Inn when lockdown eventually loosens its grip.
He also speaks passionately about the potential of recording the rich history of Portsmouth as a city for future generations, in the form of a documentary that could be shown in schools, museums and other places of historic interest. An ambitious dream no doubt, but one that might just happen with the drive of Razvan Ionascu and the history of Portsmouth on his doorstep on High Street.