Such is Poole Harbour’s great natural beauty, it is perhaps surprising that it has not featured more prominently as a location for film and television – some scenes for the 1965 war film, The Heroes of Telemark, were shot on Poole Quay and the opening of the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features Sandbanks, but today it is far more likely to appear as a backdrop for a routine glimpse at the lives of the peninsula’s rich and famous residents.
Things might have been different if Tubby the Tugboat, a little-known children’s book character created in 1955 by C Reginald Dalby, had proven anywhere near as popular as the author’s best-known work – the illustrations for Rev W Awdry’s Railway series starring Thomas the Tank Engine.
Tubby was the cheerful, hard-working main character in Tales of Flitterwick Harbour, a slim but charming volume of four stories about an area that looks a lot like Poole Harbour. It is dedicated to Dalby’s daughter, Kathryn, who remembers: ‘I suspect it all started following a holiday he and I had at the Haven Hotel. I may have been about seven; I can’t have been very old because it was there that he taught me to skip! Our room had a half-moon balcony in my recollection and I believe it is still there. We spent a lot of time up there watching the water and all the activity that was going on in the harbour. Brownsea Island was also a favourite, scouring the beach for cuttlefish and razor clam shells. We had a lovely time.
‘I don’t know quite how Sandbanks was in those days as I didn’t take it in at the age I was then. We may have been an unusual sight really, a seven-year-old daughter and her father holidaying without my mother. It will be very different now with all those houses and all that goes with it!’
Kathryn also recalls watching from the hotel balcony as the Sandbanks car ferry took passengers and their vehicles to and from the Isle of Purbeck. Later on, the family enjoyed a holiday in Poole, including an adventure on the Prudence, a small boat that brought supplies to the yachts moored in the harbour. ‘Poole is quite vivid in my mind,’ says Kathryn, ‘particularly being adrift and fast approaching a Sunderland flying boat. My father had met the owner of the Prudence, which was the boat that broke down. He may have been a fellow-officer during my father’s wartime service in the RAF, but I can’t be sure. He and his wife were a fun couple, though.’
Such incidents clearly inspired Tales of Flitterwick Harbour. In one story, the Harbour Master sends Tubby to rescue the paddle-steamer Percy Paddle, the Pride of Flitterwick, but in his haste he forgets the tow ropes so has to borrow them from his friend Flip, the ferry, who looks a lot like the old Sandbanks car ferry. When Percy is returned to the harbour, his grateful passengers have a whip-round so Tubby can be repainted.
‘It is many years since I read the book,’ says Kathryn, ‘ and I’m struggling a bit to remember the character details, although Tubby is a memory as I have always been fascinated by tugs and the work they do. I thought them very gutsy little boats and so hard-working.’
Flitterwick’s ever-watchful turret clock, Dinger, who claims to be Big Ben’s uncle and never sleeps, acts as the narrator in Tubby’s adventures with his nautical chums, Donald the dredger, Sandy the sand barge and two long lines of gossiping, chattering buoys. The Harbour Master heads the human cast with Mr Lordly, a wealthy but impatient man who dislikes queuing. In another story, ‘The Proud Gentleman, or Mr Lordly Goes Fishing’, Mr Lordly has a very bad day when he cuts himself shaving, is scalded drinking hot coffee and is made six minutes late by his dawdling daughter, Jane. It gets worse, though, when his car rolls off the ferry and into the sea. Happily, Flip and his passengers recover the car, complete with fish swimming inside.
More than 60 years since they were first published, the stories sparkle with the charm of a simpler time and place. There is plenty of technology, but it is mechanical, engineered to inspire readers to build things; and while the characters and storylines echo those of Awdry’s better-known Railway Series, they are simple tales well told that speak as readily to parents as to children.
Tantalisingly, Kathryn reveals that her father had planned a second volume of stories: ‘The second draft is incomplete, but I still have it and I can tell you that the text was typed on his battered Imperial Good Companion, cut up and stuck using cow gum into a bound empty book of the same dimensions as the printed one, and the drawings added later.’ But however much Kathryn prefers Tubby (‘Biased that I am!’) to the far better-known Thomas the Tank Engine, she doubts there is much room for him in today’s publishing world. ‘I have had an approach about re-publishing, but I turned it down. I don’t know about today’s children. I do know that the younger ones still love Thomas – particularly those with autism, I understand – but about Flitterwick I am not sure. It did badly on publication, being incredibly crudely printed with garish colours and very poor quality of printing. The refinement of my father’s style was lost and I think he was disappointed with the result.’
C Reginald Dalby’s place in cultural history is assured by his outstanding work on the Railway series, which he illustrated from the publication of James the Red Engine in 1948 up until Percy the Small Engine in 1956, when he resigned after arguing with Awdry. He died in 1983 aged 79. ‘It is flattering in many ways to know that my father’s work is still so appreciated,’ says Kathryn. ‘He would have been amazed and gratified. I just wish I could tell him – he would have loved the attention!’
• This article would not have been possible without the kind help of James Gratton and Ryan Healy from the excellent www.sodor-island.net website, dedicated to Awdry’s Railway series.
• First published in Dorset Life.