Michael Portillo visits Basingstoke to film TV show

Basingstoke Gazette: Michael Portillo Michael Portillo

FORMER Conservative politician Michael Portillo paid a visit to Basingstoke as part of his tour of the country by train.

The broadcaster stopped off in the town on a journey from Southampton to Wolverhampton, for his BBC2 programme Great British Railway Journeys.

For the series, Mr Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guidebook, travelling up and down the country to see how the railways changed Britain.

He visited Basingstoke during series five of the programme, which was shown on January 20.

On the first leg, he learned how to set a table aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth, before heading to Netley where he discovered the remains of a military hospital, and from there he travelled to Basingstoke to learn about the Salvation Army riots.

Reading from Bradshaw’s guide, he said: “In the middle ages, the small market town of Basingstoke grew prosperous on wool and textiles.

“And by the 18th century, its location made it an important watering hole for the many stagecoaches heading south and west from London.

“Breweries sprang up to quench the thirst of travellers. Although the railway’s arrival in 1839 saw the trade decline, in the 1880s there were four breweries and almost 80 pubs in a town of less than 7,000 inhabitants. It was a boozy place.”

Mr Portillo, above, met with local historian Bob Clarke at The Queens Arms which is located next to Basingstoke railway station.

Here, Mr Clarke described the Salvation Army riots in the town, and said: “Can you imagine? We’re just sitting here enjoying our beer quietly, when all of a sudden a group of uniformed invaders come along, dressed in army uniform banging a big bass drum shouting ‘come out of the devil’s house, you’re going to hell, you will not be saved if you carry on drinking this foul liquid’.”

The Salvation Army wanted to ban all drink, but those dependent on alcohol for their livelihood in the town felt under threat, and a war began between the two sides.

Mr Portillo went to Church Square where Mr Clarke explained that matters came to a head in March 1881 in an incident that became known nationally as the Battle of Church Square.

The Massagainians, a mob wanting to disrupt William Booth’s campaign against beer and drinking, fought against the Salvation Army.

Mr Clarke said: “People were tumbling over, and one poor soul went through the window of a shop. A poor chap, who had his arm broken in the morning, had his head broken in the afternoon when someone hit him over the head. Somebody else had his jaw broken.

“Apparently, lots of people lost lots of teeth.”

Mr Portillo described the event as an “extraordinary and completely unknown story” – the consequences of which were that Basingstoke, which many people had not heard of before, made headlines in the national press, with one journalist describing the town as being ‘populated by a set of barbarians’.

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