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Portland, Dorset

Historical Description

Portland or Isle of Portland, a parish in Dorsetshire, with stations on the G.W.R. and L. & S.W.R., 146 miles from London, and from 3 to 4 S by E of Weymouth. It connects with the mainland shore on the NW by the Chesil bank; but is severed from the mainland beyond by the belt of water lying along the inner side of that bank; and is approached by a viaduct of the Weymouth and Portland railway, opened in 1865. A timber bridge 600 feet in length, erected in 1838, has been demolished, and a new iron bridge was erected in 1895 by the county council in its place. The island is brought into direct communication with the whole systems of the G.W.R. and L. & S.W.R. through their station at Chesil. The island projects, in the manner of a peninsular headland, south by westward, right into the sea; measures. nearly 4 miles in length, fully 1½ mile in extreme breadth, and about 9¼ miles in circuit; rises in the N to a height of 495-feet; slopes thence gradually to within 30 feet of the sea; commands from its higher grounds an extensive panoramic view; presents an evenly and bleak appearance; terminates in the form of a tongue or beak in the S, so as to be there called the Bill or Beale of Portland; is naturally exposed all round to the lash of storms; has protection on the NE, in common with Weymouth, by a stupendous artificial breakwater nearly 1½ mile long, 300 feet thick at the base, and nearly 100 feet high, mostly all under water, and constructed in 1849-62 at a cost of £1,000,000. The island consists of oolitic limestone; is famous for the working of that stone in about 100' quarries, and for the exportation of it to the amount of about 70,000 tons a year. It is famous also for a breed of small sheep, well known for their superior flavour as Portland mutton; contains the villages of Fortunes Well, Chiswell, Grove, Easton, Reforn, Wakeham, Weston, Southwell, and Castletown; and has a post, money order, and telegraph office (built in 1895), a wharf for the export of its stone and a pier for steam vessels at Castletown, and hotels at Castletown, Fortunes Well, and Chesil. The area is 2897 acres; population, 9443. It was known to the Saxons as Port; was. ravaged by the Danes in 787, 837, and 982, and by Earl Godwin in 1052; was attempted by the French in 1404; witnessed the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and of the Dutch fleet in 1653; and gives the title of Duke to the family of Bentinck. The manor was held under the Crown by the Bishops of Winchester, by three of the queens of Henry VIII., and by Anne of Denmark, and passed to the Stewards and the Mannings. A ruined pentagonal tower, called the Bow and Arrow Castle, stands on the middle of the E side, on an isolated site about 300 feet high; was connected with the mainland by a bridge; is commonly said to have been built by William Rufus; and was taken in 1142, by the Earl of Gloucester, for the Empress Maud. Portland Castle stands in the extreme N; was built in 1520 by Henry VIII. to protect the coast against a surprise by the French; was garrisoned in 1588 to make resistance to the Spanish Armada; was several times besieged and taken by the contending parties in the Civil Wars of Charles I.; became the residence, after 1816, of the Manning family; and contains some interesting portraits and curiosities. Pennsylvania Castle, situated in a rough dell near the Bow and Arrow Castle, was built at a cost of £20,000 by Mr John Penn, who died in 1834. A great convict prison stands in the NE; was erected in 1848; contains apartments for a governor and other officers, and accommodation for about 1500 convicts. Two lighthouses stand 503 yards apart on the SE, close to a curious cavern called Cave's Hole, 1½ mile NNE of the Bill; were erected in 1716 and 1789; and show fixed white lights 198 and 131 feet high. These were rebuilt in 1869, with lights of 400 candle power and improved reflectors giving a light of 9800 candle power, visible at a distance of 30 miles. There is also-a Lloyd's signal station. A reef called the Shambles lies off the Bill, was the place of The shipwreck of the Abergavenny in 1805, and sends off toward the Bill a rocky shelf which causes a dangerous surf well known to sailors as the Race of Portland. An ancient camp, either Roman or Danish, was on the summit ground in the N; two landslips occurred on the coast in 1734 and 1792; and petrified trees, shelly chert, and fossil shells are found among the rocks. The parish church of St George was erected in 1764. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Salisbury; gross value, £370 with residence. Patron, the Bishop of Oxford. There is also the church of St John, built in 1839, and in the patronage of Hyndman's Trustees; gross value, £361 with residence. The church of St Peter is a modern stone building, chiefly for the use of the prison officials. St Andrew's Church was erected in 1879, and is a stone building in the Early English style. There are also Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Bible Christian chapels, a soldiers' and seamen's institute, and a dispensary.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyDorsetshire 
DioceseBristol1542 - 1836
DioceseSalisbury1836 -
Ecclesiastical parishPortland St. George 
LibertyIsle of Portland 
Poor Law unionWeymouth1836 -
Registration districtWeymouth 
Registration sub-districtPortland 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

The parish register dates from the year 1766. The register of St. Peter's dates from 1872. The original register books are now deposited with the Dorset Archives Service, but have been digitised by and made available on their site (subscription required).


Church of England

St. Andrew

St. Andrew's church, SOUTHWELL, opened July 3rd, 1879, as a chapel of ease to the parish church of All Saints, was erected to commemorate the loss of the "Avalanche," with all hands, off this island, Sept. 11th, 1877, by collision with the "Forest;" it is built of stone in the Early English style, and consists of chancel, nave, baptistery, north porch and a western turret containing 2 bells: there are several stained windows: the church affords 250 sittings.

St. Peter, Grove

The church of St. Peter's, in the GROVE, is a building of Portland stone in the Byzantine style, and erected at a cost of £8,000 ; the church, which was built entirely by convict labour, is cruciform in shape, and consists of apsidal chancel, nave, transepts, vestry and turret containing one bell: there is a porch at the west end, and another doorway in the north transept for the troops of the garrison to enter: there are 9 stained windows in the chancel, including one in memory of the first vicar, the Rev. Arthur Hill D.D.: there are over 600 sittings. The living was united with that of All Saints, Portland, by Order in Council, 1933.

Roman Catholic

Our Lady and St. Andrew, Grove

The Roman Catholic church, in the Grove, dedicated to Our Lady and St. Andrew, was built in 1868

Civil Registration

Portland was in Weymouth Registration District from 1837 to 1974

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Portland from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Dorset is available to browse.


Online maps of Portland are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the Dorset County Chronicle and the Sherborne Mercury online.

Villages, Hamlets, &c

Weston (Portland)

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of Dorset, 1623 is available on the Heraldry page.



Wyke Regis