The Sally Port Hotel Opens Its Doors

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In the late 1940s Alberto Torino (Albert Terence) Pitassi bought Nos. 57 and 58 High Street. Pitassi’s father, Sabatino, an Italian confectioner, had come to England from Scapoli around 1881. He married Pasqua Gallone in Bristol in 1884 and they had their first child, Lucia, there. By 1891 they were living in Portsmouth; initially at 83 Charlotte Street running their own ice cream business. They were no doubt disappointed in 1897 when their permission for a stand at The Hard was turned down. In 1905, however, permission was granted for F. Corke, a local builder, to build them a shop at 3 Edinburgh Road. In 1908 this opened as an ice cream parlour. Sabatino and Pasqua had their faces carved on the façade and these are still there today. The Pitassis seem to have held onto the dream of a mobile ice cream business but in 1913 they put an ice cream barrow up for sale describing it as never been used. Their daughter was ill and she died the following year so they probably lacked the time and motivation to continue with the idea. Sabatino and Pasqua died in 1920 and 1928 respectively.

Alberto (b.1909) was the youngest of ten children born to Sabatino and Pasqua: five boys and five girls. Many of them worked in the family business so the demands of a food-related environment would have been familiar territory to him. Alberto married Filomena R Pittacio, a hairdresser’s daughter, in 1938, and four years later they had a son, Michael David.

The Sally Port Hotel was opened in 1951 with Albert Terence Pitassi as the proprietor. The hotel’s name probably reflected its close proximity to the “sally port”, an opening in the old fortifications through which mariners went, and from where garrison soldiers could "sally forth" to engage an enemy outside the town walls. Interestingly, it was also where the bride of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, disembarked in England on 14 May 1662 for her wedding at the nearby Domus Dei (Royal Garrison Church of Portsmouth).

An all-time great spy / mystery story

By 1954 Pitassi had left the Sally Port Hotel and Edward L J Richman had taken over. At first Richman lived there with his wife, Alice and another couple, Roy and Elizabeth Wellman. By 1956 the Wellmans had moved on though and Richman was listed as the proprietor in Kelly’s Directory for Portsmouth. That same year the hotel came briefly into the international news spotlight when the disappearance of one of the guests, Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, led to a huge political row and one of the all-time great spy / mystery stories. Unfortunately, the decision to extend the security classification for documents relating to Crabb’s disappearance to 2057 has ensured that the truth of the matter will remain hidden until long after all those involved have died. Despite this, John Bevan’s Commander Crabb. What really happened? published in 2014 contains the most up to date information about the affair based on information gleaned from published books, documents released by the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006 and a personal investigation. The following account is largely based on Bevan’s findings.

On 18 April 1956 Soviet leaders, Marshal Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, arrived in Portsmouth on a ten day state visit aboard the cruiser, Ordzhonikidze accompanied by two destroyers the Sovershenny and the Smotryashchie. At that time the Admiralty was very interested in several underwater facets of the cruiser and MI6 commissioned Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb to dive down and carry out a survey operation. Until it was too late, Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S) chiefs claimed not to see an order from the Prime Minster, sent on 17 April, forbidding any surveillance operations against the Russians.

On the face of it, the British Secret Service’s choice of Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb as a frogman to spy on the Ordzhonikidze was unusual. A heavy smoker and drinker, Crabb was in poor physical shape and working as a furniture salesman; having just been retired from the Navy due to his age. He was, however, an experienced and fearless diver and, as a civilian, he would have been easier to abandon if things went awry.

On 18 April Crabb spent the evening in Havant trying to find a diving partner. Failing to find one, he returned to the Sally Port Hotel where he had checked in the previous day. Before dawn on 19 April Crabb and Matthew (aka Bernard) Smith of MI6, left the Sally Port Hotel and walked to Portsmouth Dockyard. They were joined by Lieutenant Commander George Franklin, Senior Clearance Diver at the Diving School in HMS Vernon and escorted into the Dockyard by Chief Detective Superintendent Lamport, their police liaison officer. Smith and Lamport then left Crabb and Franklin on board the launch from HMS Maidstone moored at the South Camber about 70 metres from the Ordzhonikidze.

Buster Crabb's key fob for his room at the Sally Port Hotel
The key fob of the room occupied by Buster Crabb at the Sally Port Hotel.

Shortly before 7 am Crabb slipped into the water assisted by Franklin. His oxygen supply and carbon dioxide absorbent were capable of lasting a maximum of 2 hours. Twenty minutes later, Crabb returned cold and breathless complaining that the visibility was bad. Franklin checked the equipment and Crabb went into the water again. At that point he was cold, tired and had used up part of his oxygen supply. Given his age and low level of fitness his resistance to oxygen and carbon dioxide poisoning would have been reduced. Between 7.30 and 8.00 am three Soviet sailors on the Sovershenny briefly saw a diver face up on the surface between the sterns of the two destroyers. This was almost definitely Commander Crabb. That he surfaced at all meant he was probably in serious trouble and his position between the two destroyers suggests he had lost his bearings. Nobody ever saw him alive again.

At 9.15 am Franklin carried out a fruitless search for Crabb in Maidstone’s launch. Then, after Smith reported Crabb missing to Portsmouth’s Chief Constable and a local representative of the Naval Intelligence Division, a further unproductive search took place. At 11.30 am Smith paid his and Crabb’s bills at the Sally Port Hotel, collected their bags and returned to London. Crabb's room was cleared of all his belongings, including his well-known sword-stick with large silver knob engraved with a golden crab.

Relevant steps were taken to uphold the decision of the Admiralty that the top priority was to prevent the story breaking while the Russians were still in England. On 27 April Jack Lamport went to the Sally Port Hotel, removed two pages bearing the details of Cdr Crabb and Smith from the hotel register and later destroyed them.

Under pressure from press speculation, the Admiralty finally announced Crabb’s disappearance on 29 April:

…as a result of trials with certain underwater apparatus. The location of the trials was in Stokes Bay and it is nine days since the accident.

On 30 April speculative stories appeared in the press and, by nightfall, the Sally Port Hotel was full of journalists many of whom were in the bar asking lots of questions. Then, when Daily Mail reporters discovered that pages were missing from the hotel register, an all-out press campaign was launched.

A furious Prime Minister Anthony Eden was finally informed about what had happened after reading of it in the press. Questioned vigorously in the Commons on 10 May, he commented:

It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death.

This sentiment was taken on board and remains to this day. On 14 May the Chief Constable of the crime office in Chichester wrote to all police authorities in Portsmouth instructing them not to inform the press if Commander Crabb’s body was found. It thus seems to be a strange coincidence that on 9 June 1957 a badly decomposed body of a middle-aged man in a black rubber suit was found floating in Chichester harbour. The head, upper torso and arms were missing. At the inquest the Coroner found the body was that of Commander Crabb but he was unable to determine the cause of death.

This should have been the end of the matter but things didn’t ring true and (following in the footsteps of many others) Bevan, using the most up to date evidence, has drawn some conclusions. He believes that, following Crabb’s death, his body was caught up in the assortment of debris that is known to have accumulated under the South Railway Jetty. It (the body) was later recovered by naval divers who were then instructed by top brass in the security agencies to store it in a secure sea water location. When the time was right, its re-appearance in Chichester Harbour was orchestrated a respectable time after the Soviet warships had departed and press interest had dissipated. However, the top brass clearly didn’t foresee the continuing interest of the likes Bevan who is currently pressing for the 100-year embargo on disclosure of the truth to be lifted.

The Clapham family

In 1961 the Rickmans sold the Sally Port Hotel to Mr and Mrs Tom Dixon Clapham who lived there with their two children until the early 1970s. In those days Old Portsmouth was quite industrial in nature and the hotel catered for commercial travellers, the dockyard, Vospers and other companies. There were a couple of famous characters who stayed with them though. Cliff Michelmore, television presenter and Kenneth Connor, best known for his appearances in the Carry On films. The Clapham’s son, Jonathan, recalls regular visits from film crews during the 1960s who came in to do documentaries about the disappearance of Commander Crabb, went out into the harbour in Butcher boats (suppliers of tugs and support boats in Portsmouth Harbour from 1809) and ended up being arrested for filming a naval establishment.

When the Claphams took over the Sally Port Hotel there was a big brass porthole behind the bar for ventilation. The back wall was directly behind the bar in those days. Since then the premises have been extended and that same back wall would go through the wooden counter of the bar if it was still there. Jonathan also recalls a waiter, called George who would panic and need assistance from Mrs Dixon if he had to cope with more than two tables. This probably wasn’t helped by their pet rabbit, Thumper. He lived in the kitchen but he went everywhere (health and safety clearly wasn’t an issue back then)! Jonathan remembers people drinking in the bar when he’d come hopping through and they’d look surprised and then he’d go hopping back again.

Jonathan Clapham with his sister and pet rabbit
A young Jonathan Clapham with his sister and Thumper their pet rabbit on the bar of the Sally Port Hotel in the 1960s.

During the 1960s Tom Clapham found a hoard of old pottery and glassware when trenches were being dug on land he owned for the foundations of 1 Grand Parade. The land lay partially at the end of the Sally Port Hotel’s garden and could feasibly have been part of it at one time. Interestingly, one of the pieces in the hoard was a German bellarmine jar. The face on it was meant to represent Cardinal Bellarmine, a Roman Catholic leader of the counter-reformation, who was opposed to alcohol and seen by many as a kind of bogeyman in protestant England. During the 17th century, when some people blamed witches for any misfortune they suffered, these jars were often used as witch bottles. The jar would be filled with urine to represent the witch’s bladder, then nail clippings, bent pins, bird bones and/or clumps of hair were added; indeed anything to make it extremely uncomfortable for the witch when she needed to pass water. Once everything was in, the bottle would be stoppered up, buried in the back garden or under the floorboards and it was hoped that this would avert evil because the witch would take back her spell.

The Portsmouth News picked up on the story of the hoard and came up with a story that the pots had probably belonged to a victualler working for the Admiralty who had once lived in at 57 or 58 High Street. A search in the Dockyard Library revealed no such victualler though so the origins of the hoard remain a mystery. There seem to be many mysteries attached to the building housing the Sally Port Hotel and the people who are connected to it. Perhaps that will always be part of its charm.

Tom Clapham holding the Bellarmine jar
Tom Clapham holding the Bellarmine jar