John Distin, My Dartmouth
Who are you? John Distin.
How long have you lived in Dartmouth? I was born here in 1926 in a house in Undercliff, behind where Marks and Spencer is now. In those days it would take a brave man to walk from one end of that district to the other. There were red lights, fights and crooks – it was a pretty hard area to live in. Luckily when I was a young lad my mother got a job at a big house in Townstal Road that came with accommodation and we moved up there. My father, Wilfred, was a jack-of-all-trades and an exceptional seaman. He came from Salcombe and was member of the lifeboat crew. In fact the day of the Salcombe lifeboat disaster, he should have been on board. The call sounded but at that time he was living with his new wife, Amy, my mother, on a houseboat. The lifeboat had just launched when he got there and he missed it. Being late saved his life. A ship brought him to Dartmouth. My father did self-diving and was trained in using explosives underwater. When the Broadmain was shipwrecked at Kingswear, it was bought by a syndicate which employed my Dad to break it up. They came to Dartmouth and never left.
Where do you work? Well the answer to that has to be on the river – and I’m still not retired even though I am in my 80s! I still have a licence and help out moving people around on the water. I’ve been a skipper since the age of 17. War broke out and I was called up, and I joined a ship called the Vic which was one of 18 water boats on the River Dart. It was a puffer and carried tanks of fresh water to the destroyers and landing craft. I took over as skipper when I was 17 because I’d grown up on the water – it was second nature to me. I used to skip school to help my Dad with his dives or see what was going on on the water – particularly if he had to recover a body or something interesting. The most enjoyable thing I did at school, up in Victoria Road, was in my last year when I helped to dig the air raid shelters out the back.
The water boats were essential because in those days there wasn’t water on the pontoons. I went to Portland and Southampton but when I was based in Dartmouth I remember the build up to D-Day very clearly. There were 600 landing craft in the port with thousands of troops and a huge demand for water. D-Day came and suddenly they were all gone. Silence.
I’d been a crabber briefly when I left school, and tried to go back to it when I left the water boats, but I hadn’t done enough service so I was called up by the Army. I joined the Royal Engineers and ended up at the evacuation of Palestine, then at the Suez Canal in Egypt. It was all a far cry from life in Dartmouth. At the time it was terrible but when I look back I realise it was an amazing experience.
I came back to the crabbing but we suffered a plague of octopus which killed off all the crabs and that business went to the wall. I bought a couple of water boats of my own and ran those, and I went contracting, managing moorings, moving materials about on the water and ferrying passengers. I ran a pilot boat and then became the second river pilot, back up to the main pilot who was Dave Griffiths. The ships that came up the river were much bigger and more frequent in those days and we were always on call. These days it’s mainly Tupperware yachts! Then we regularly had to deal with huge ships in what is a very narrow river – 1,500 tonnes of timber on a timber boat can be very dangerous and needs extremely careful handling. We moved all sorts of ships over the years. Very interesting work.
Can you tell us about your family? I was the youngest of four children. I had a brother who died, but grew up with my older brother and sister. I’m married to Di and we have four children – sons Peter and David and twin daughters Debbie and Kate.
Di is from London but came to Dartmouth during the war – she was one of only two girls evacuated here with the Acton Boys School in 1939. Both were sisters of boys at the school, whose mothers said they had to be kept together. We Dartmouth boys used to go to school in the morning, and the Acton boys went in the afternoon. They were wily kids – very good at football! Di was billeted with Mr and Mrs Porter, who became like grandparents to her. She only went back to London for a short time, then came back to Dartmouth to live with them once again. When I came back from the Army I first met Di. She was my friend’s girl – but we all went to the pictures and she ended up with me! We were married in 1953. We’re a close family and the children all live nearby. It was a big shock when Di had the twins – we had no idea she was expecting two babies until they were born!
What is your favourite walk? We’ve always had dogs – usually Labradors but now we have a Jack Russell called Sid – so we do like walks. The walk out to the castle is the one everybody loves and it is beautiful, but we own a bit of land down at Old Mill on the foreshore and I like it down there. Sid loves the woods!
What is your favourite view? The river – from every angle. Our house in Roseville Street is full of pictures of it so we can look at it even when we’re at home.
What is your favourite café? We always go over to the Res – the Resnova, out on the river. They’re such good hosts and the food’s good, and I still drive their water taxi for them if they need me to.
What is your favourite pub? Our shop was opposite the Dartmouth Arms so we like it there and have a long association with them. My son coxes for them in Regatta. It’s a friendly pub.
Why is Dartmouth special to you? It has always given me a very good way of life – I’ve never earned thousands of pounds but I have never been short of work and I’ve always been happy. To be born and brought up in a place as lovely as this is very lucky. I’ve had a fantastic life. I’ve seen some amazing things – a huge volume of river traffic much more than there is nowadays, huge convoys of merchant ships all lining up in the port, and when Hitler invaded Belgium the Belgians all jumped in their trawlers, filled them with people and came here. I’m not joking the river was so full of Belgian trawlers you could literally walk from one side to the other. I’ve seen so much change but Dartmouth stays special. I’ve never had a day off sick in my life – the trouble is I still feel as young now as I did when I was 25! It’s pretty good going to still be working on the river at my age. Must be something in all that fresh air! If I could bottle it I would be a rich man.
First Published March 2010 By The Dart