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The Winchester Lido – Early Days


August 2007


I have just been sent an interesting account of how Rex Pragnell managed to take over the reins of the Lido. This inside information had been kept quiet for many decades but my source indicates that no harm could really come of out of sharing the alleged story, as most of the early management and staff are no longer with us after some 60 years!


A Mr Martin, just known as ‘Bob’ was a fairly well known businessman in the late 1940s and running a self drive car hire operation in St Thomas Street Winchester. He was also known as ‘Drive Yourself Martin’ and he took on the Lido complex, as just another business venture. Apart from the swimming pool he also promoted the popular lucrative dance nights in the ballroom, which packed the place out. He then recruited a manager - Mr Guy to run the whole place with a free unchecked hand as Bob was kept busy with his rental car side. A Mr Porter was also employed as the caretaker/cleaner and was more or less at the Lido 24/7 as we say these days, and was aware of everything that was going on. …. When the books were checked by Bob, he was rather disappointed with the low figures and accounts, despite the whole Lido complex being a fairly busy venue but apparently shrugged it off.

Rex Pragnell was a very successful business man having made a fortune before the war, then lost because of the war! At that time he owned several houses and several businesses. By late 1950 Rex  had a shoe repair business in town but was keen to move onto something more exciting and more financially rewarding, when he heard some whispers of possibly ‘discrepancies’ at the Lido. An associate told Rex that he often attended these dances and observed the comings and goings over a month before suggesting that Rex might wish to make inroads into the Lido. This ‘mole’ had a fairly good idea of how many people were coming through the box office and worked out a rough idea of the takings. However, he also noticed many of these tickets being collected by the door steward and then being discreetly handed back to the cashier who promptly sold them again! There was also talk that some of the old bar staff were buying their own soft drinks from Andrews Mineral Water factory in Culver Road and selling them in between the legitimate Lido stock. The buffet was run by Mr Porter’s wife but the accounts showed fairly low profits, despite the food counter being busy all night long! A case of ‘Oh Mrs Porter"!!

Armed with this inside information, Rex Pragnell arranged a meeting around November 1950, with a view to setting up a partnership but running the whole place himself. He was shown the ledgers and quietly noted that there was a staggering shortfall in the accounts, so then informed Bob that he was very confident that he could turn the whole enterprise around if given a free hand in every part of the setup. Rex immediately sprang into action and got rid of all the existing staff, some of whom had it coming! New trustworthy staff were screened and recruited as well as the Lido getting a good cleanup and redecoration where needed, with Rex keeping a very good eye on every aspect of the cash flow and general stocktaking etc. The first night of this new partnership saw a heavy snowfall in the area – maybe an omen of a ‘windfall’ that would come along for Rex…….. 

The deal was that Rex would run the Lido for two months and if he made a loss he would reimburse the owner but if he made a profit it was his to keep.

Within a very short period, the Lido proved to be a very good earner and even Rex was amazed by the turnover and offered further proof of the lax way in which the place had been run prior to his new partnership. A few months later, Rex was pleased to see some £8,000 in the bank account – quite a considerable sum in those days! He then wrote out a cheque for a half share of £4,000 and called round at Bob’s office to make a new offer around June 1951. Rex put it to Bob that the Lido was a reasonable business but having to split the profits after all the heavy running expenses was not really the best of deals. Rex also pointed out that the venue needed a new amplification system, a new bandstand and refreshment area and much more on a very long list. He then came out with an offer to ‘take it off your hands Bob’ with all assets and liabilities, before whipping out the cheque for £4,000 which was Rex's profits on the deal anyway so quite a good investment and amazing return on a fair deal.


Bob’s eyes popped out of his head at seeing such a large amount before him and was probably the only real reward/profit he had ever had from the Lido, without realising how many sticky fingers had been at the tills in the ‘old days’. Bob jumped at this chance and they shook hands on the deal, before getting the secretary to type out the agreements, then duly signed for posterity.   Rex then ran the Lido in a very efficient way for years to come and kept his eyes and ears alert in every single department and woe betide anybody who tried to cadge a drink or wangle ‘free’ tickets or any other practice that might lose a few shillings out of the Pragnell pockets!


Rex the entrepreneur later went into a housebuilding and property business in partnership with a George Walker in 1954 and they both made small fortunes in this new venture of ‘Walker and Partner’.  They both eventually built superb houses for themselves and their families as well as their commercial successes in the property boom of those years.  George was a perfectionist and built houses to exacting standards whilst Rex's business acumen made for a very good partnership until they went their separate ways. I understand that George is still alive and has done very well for himself over the years and originally met up with Rex who got chatting to his (George's) wife whilst she was playing Bingo at the Lido.  The Walkers were just an ordinary couple and watching the finances back in those austere days before this chance meeting developed into an amazing success story. I guess you could say that this was a lucky omen as they soon got together for some big jackpots on their own 'Housey Housey' !


Anyway – that’s just one of many stories surrounding one of Winchester’s most enterprising businessman and I am presuming that any hard feelings have long since disappeared over the passage of time. If there are any discrepancies in this story, then please get in touch with me as there are many sides to every story and I would not wish to cause any ill feelings by merely putting this interesting insight onto the web.  I have amended some of the original story following some new contact and other differing views of the various deals etc but this was a very long time ago and the mists of time have probably drawn a veil over much of the story surrounding the Winchester Lido.



©David St John 2007                                                                      BACK TO TOP


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