Charles Mumby & Co., Gosport and Portsmouth: Memories Evoked by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway

July 18th, 2013 by admin

A Mumby descendant at Wootton Station

To travel on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway is to step back in time. I love the waiting room at Havenstreet with the piles of leather suitcases. The redundant station at Wootton has been reconstructed and looks like a typical country terminus of a hundred years ago.

The station building itself is an authentic recreation of the pre-1920s one at Havenstreet, based on a photograph from 1905. The building is festooned with the same notices and advertisements as in the photograph, the most prominent being one for ‘Mumby’s Table Water and Home Brewed Ginger Beer, Portsmouth, as Supplied to the Queen’. I feel a flush of pride, as this was my grandmother’s family firm.

It was founded by Charles Mumby (1823-1895) from Chatteris in Cambridgeshire, a pharmaceutical chemist, who settled at Gosport in 1844. An ancient sea-port that juts into Portsmouth Harbour, Gosport was a ‘well-built, handsome town’ with flourishing, thrice-weekly markets and a railway terminus, contained by ramparts and a moat dating from the 1750s.

A remarkably personable and impressive young man, rather short, but muscular and very good-looking with his wavy blond hair, Charles went into business on his own in 1849, at 47 High Street. He was keen to diversify and, applying his skill with concoctions, soon set himself up as a manufacturer of mineral waters. To ensure the necessary supply of water, he sank a large bore-hole or artesian well in the large yard at the back of his shop, which had a rear access from North Street. At 384 feet, the well was deep enough to reach the aquifers in the chalk subsoil, for Gosport is almost surrounded by the sea, and penetrated by a number of salty creeks.

His next step was to instal elaborate machinery to increase the output of manufactured ice. The fame of Charles’s soda water, ginger beer and lemonade spread rapidly across the south of England and within a few years he was supplying large quantities to both the army and the navy, which were traditionally victualled from Gosport. His crowning glory was to receive a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria, Mumby’s being one of only four brands of mineral-water that were served at her table.

Charles Mumby was a classic Victorian entrepreneur, a Nonconformist, as many of them were, commended for his ‘marvellous activity and energy, admirable business talent, sterling honesty and genuineness of purpose’. By then a rich and influential man, he became in 1864 a member of the Board of Trustees that governed the town. He was to serve for thirteen years (from 1881 to 1894) as Chairman of the Board, overseeing a vast improvement in the borough. Streets were widened, the old fortifications removed. Areas of open ground were acquired for recreational purposes, and a Free Library was created.

Colonel Charles Mumby

Charles became a Poor Law Guardian, a magistrate, a County Councillor for Hampshire, and sat on innumerable public and social committees. The manufacture of mineral waters continued at his original premises in the High Street, and an office was opened up at Portsmouth, first at 71 St George’s Square, then, from the late 1870s, at 34 The Hard. Charles was a founder member of the National Liberal Club (where he rubbed shoulders with Gladstone) and Colonel of his local territorial unit, the Third Hampshires.

Charles Mumby retired from the active management of his business in 1885. The chemist’s shop, reduced by this time to a sideline, was given up. His eldest son, Everitt, was appointed managing-director of the mineral-water company, from which he derived a good living, though he had neither the capacity nor the inclination for a career in business. It was Everitt who oversaw the public flotation of the company in 1898, an event which greatly enriched the family, and further allowed him to indulge his penchant for travel.

Display of Mumby bottles in Gosport Library

Everitt Mumby died in 1906, leaving a third of his majority holding in the company to his only son, Cyril, although the young man would have preferred a career in the army and held the rank of Captain in a militia regiment. When Cyril Mumby was appointed managing-director in 1907, the firm employed about a hundred hands (manual and clerical) in its two factories and had capital of £45,000. He installed himself in the finest house in Gosport, Stanley House (later known as ‘The Hall), next to Holy Trinity Church, on the edge of Portsmouth Harbour, and was the owner of an expensive motor-car and a yacht.

Cyril’s good fortune ended in 1914. Serving with the First Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, he was severely wounded at the Nonne Bosschen. After the war, he was to make a new life on the Continent, resigning his directorship of the company in 1924. He died in 1938, by which time the company had been sold out of the family, though it continued until the 1960s to trade under the Mumby name. My mother recalls seeing its advertisements at the cinema in her youth.

The prosperous, elegant Gosport that the family had helped to create was destroyed by a combination of the Luftwaffe and post-war planners. Nothing remains of the firm’s headquarters at 47 High Street, nor of its offices on Portsmouth Hard. Stanley House, my grandmother’s childhood home, was demolished in 1965 by a philistine local authority, which had already razed most of the surrounding area to the ground. The site is now an open space, hedged by two hideous tower blocks that are familiar landmarks to anyone passing in or out of Portsmouth Harbour.

(See The Isle of Wight County Press, 25 May 2012. The full story of the Mumbys is in my forthcoming book, The Incredible Journey of Victor Hugo’s Dog.)