Old Portsmouth by Carolyn L. Ross
Portsmouth belongs to my mother’s side of the family - the Ellises and their forbears, and also to my own youth, for I spent a lot of time there in my grandmother’s house. So far, it seems, on my mother’s side of the family virtually all of her ancestors lived in or around the place. It’s a large city - large enough to have several distinct and separate areas, which, doubtless were originally villages in their own right. My grandmother lived in Northend, and then there is Southsea - the seaside part of Portsmouth, Portsmouth itself which includes the docks and what is left of old Portsmouth, with Portsea next door. Gosport is across the water and the ferry is a fondly remembered excursion from my childhood. Then there is Landport, Fratton , Copnor, Kingston and Hillsea with Cosham, Havant and Hayling Island across the water on the mainland. For Portsmouth is an island city. An island city in an island nation - how fitting that it played such a prime role in England’s past conquests. The registration district was known as Portsea Island for a very long time.
Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust - a site that presents all sorts of information about the history of the dockyard.
Population and Society in Western European Port Cities c 1650-1939 edited by Richard Lawton and Robert Lee - a Google book with an extensive chapter on Portsmouth
History in Portsmouth - a site compiled by amateur local historians with pages on topics of interest to them. So doesn’t cover everything, but what it does is interesting.
Hantsphere - a similar kind of site
The Portsmouth that has Passed - A collection of scans from an old book about Portsmouth.
Vintage and Historical Portsmouth - a section of a blog, which has a few interesting articles on Portsmouth
A Tale of One City - very new, so not a lot there as yet - it seems to be a government initiative to encourage community participation - personal memories, stories, photos, etc. Mostly very brief comments, but you never know what you might find.
Portsmouth Records Office - the main depository of records for Portsmouth.
Portsmouth City Museum - very new, so not a lot there as yet - it seems to be a gove
BBC - Your Paintings - from the BBC’s project of collecting images of paintings, here is the selection you get if you feed in Portsmouth as what you are looking for.
The Mary Rose - now housed in a stunning new museum, this website has all the information about it.
The Artists’ Harbour - a commercial gallery site, that not only has a really interesting selection of paintings, but also gives information about the paintings and the subjects they depict.
Portsmouth was, and still is, primarily a navy town. As far as I know, although I am probably biased, it is England’s prime Royal Navy town and has been for many centuries. So much so that Daniel Defoe said of it, “when a war with France happens, or with Spain, then Portsmouth grows rich”, which partially explains why Portsmouth is not quite the prosperous town that it once was. But it does mean that there is therefore a huge amount of information about its history, particularly the ships and the battles, on the web which I shall not attempt to duplicate here - others have done it much better than I, and there are links on the left to most of the sites that I have discovered so far. If you think I have missed one do let me know via email.
It is situated more or less in the middle of the south coast of England, shelterd by the Isle of Wight and therefore easily defensible and fortified, which it was for many many centuries. Indeed right up to the second world war there were new fortifications being built.
It seems that the first settlement in the area was around Portchester Castle - one of my favourite English castles - mostly because there are a satisfying quantity of ruins to explore. As you can see from this aerial photograph it occupies a large site on the edge of the water - large enough to shelter the inhabitants of the town in case of attack. Below this is a drawing by Alan Sorrell imagining how it would have looked in the fifteenth century.
It seems that the Normans were the first to really settle the area, though the name, Portsmouth, seems to derive from Anglo Saxon meaning harbour mouth. But the Domesday Book doesn’t mention Portsmouth - just the settlements that today make up the town, Copnor, Fratton, etc.
King Richard - he of the Crusades - was the person who first developed the place as a port and harbour, although throughout the middle ages (and into the present) there was intense rivalry from nearby Southampton, although these days Southampton is commercial whilst Portsmouth is still naval. But the docks began to be developed and used as a base for attacks on France. However, it seems that in the fourteenth century the French sacked the town several times, resulting in the subsequent fortifications which continued through the next few centuries as the port grew in importance as a centre of naval power.
The Tudors, and in particular, Henry VIII were responsible for increasing the fortifications of the town - including the construction of Southsea Castle, and various other fortifications and walls. No protection against the plague however, which struck in this period, killing hundreds of people. Henry also funded the first dry dock in the country and many of the nation’s warships were built here, using oaks from the New Forest. Most famously his flagship the Mary Rose, sank in her first outing on the seas, in a battle with the French in the Solent - the stretch of water dividing Portsmouth from the Isle of Wight.
The beautiful contemporary painting by an unknown artist shows the battle and the last moments of the Mary Rose, in the centre of the picture - just the masts can be seen. And then miraculously in 1971 it was found in the water, and, after years of planning, was raised from the depths. It is now housed in its own museum where a lengthy process of conservation is now almost complete. Below are more pictures of the Mary Rose in its full glory, its sinking , its raising and how it is today. It’s one of those remarkable tales of triumph over disaster really.
Portsmouth’s other famous ship is, of course, The Victory, Nelson’s flagship, which now rests alongside The Mary Rose in the dockyard. It sailed from Portsmouth to the Battle of Trafalgar, and was moved to a dry dock in Portsmouth as a museum in 1922. It is a magnificent ship and well worth a visit if you are ever in Portsmouth.
And whilst we are on ships - for that is what Portsmouth is all about, let’s not forget the Hulks which housed convicts scheduled for transportation in old ships put out to pasture as it were as a holding station. There were several of them anchored offshore - one of them harboured our Dearman convict James.
I will not cover the history of the dockyard - you will get much more information from the dockyard’s own site. Suffice to say that it provided employment for a large part of the population. It also made it a target in World War Two when Portsmouth was very heavily bombed. My own grandmother was bombed out of her home twice, and large areas of the town were completely flattened. So much so that when I went on a recent visit to check out the ancestral haunts, not only were the houses no longer there, but even some of the streets had gone. Large tracts of Portsmouth have been rebuilt since the war, and ironically the pockets of ‘old Portsmouth’ that remain most intact, are those near the waterfront and the dockyard.
I suspect that since the war, Portsmouth has mostly struggled. But on my recent visit it seemed that life was coming back into the town. The harbourfront has been revitalised, old buildings restored, and there is now a university. Let us hope that in the future it will find a new reason for being - depending on war is not really a very happy way to justify your existence afer all. I shall finish with a few pictures of Portsmouth then and now. There are lots and lots.
Portsmouth today on the left, with its waterfront landmark the Spinnaker.