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Portsmouth, Hampshire

Historical Description

Portsmouth, including the outlying districts of Southsea, Portsea, Fratton, and Northsea, forms a large and populous county borough, situated on the island of Portsea, south of Hampshire. It is 74 miles by rail SW of London, 18 SE of Southampton, and 44 W of Brighton. The population of the town in 1801 was 30,000; in 1831, 42,306; in 1851, 72,096; in 1871,113;569, in 1881,127,989; and in 1891, 159,255. It returns two members to Parliament, has a borough council consisting of fourteen aldermen and forty-two councillors, and is the seat of a county court. The town is provided with four railway stations, of which that situated in Commercial Road is the principal. The others are found at Fratton, Southsea E, and Portsmouth harbour, the latter being provided to suit the convenience of passengers travelling to the Isle of Wight. The arrangements are in the hands of the London, Brighton, and South Coast, and London and South-Western Companies, between which a mutual understanding has been arrived at, and rivalry in external communication is thus unknown. Internally, accommodation for travelling is supplied by means of tram and 'bus, under the management of the Provincial Tramways Company. The outlying districts are thus closely connected, and by the same means holiday-seekers are enabled within a very short time to enjoy the breezy heights of Portsdown Hill and the adjacent villages.

History.-Much dispute has arisen concerning the origin of the name. It is supposed that it was formerly called Llongporth. Some authorities assert that Portsmouth was so called on account of its close proximity to Porchester, the Roman fort, being situated at the mouth of the harbour or port. Others agree that the name began with Forth, a Saxon who burned the town in 481. But whether these opinions are correct or not, it is certain that at the time of the Domesday survey there was an influential family living here of the name of Port, while Hugh de Port, who was recognized as the greatest Hampshire baron, held the manors of Applestede and Buckland-the latter of which names is in use to the present day. It is a curious fact that although the actual name of the town is not mentioned in Domesday, the manors of Copnor, Fratton, and Buckland, districts now included within it, are found there.

History is somewhat silent concerning the early days of the town, but since the times of the Saxons it has been known as an important seaport, until to-day it is recognized as being the greatest naval arsenal in the world. Many are the deeds of daring with which the name of Portsmouth is associated, and so closely are its interests allied with the records of the sea that to write its history would in a large measure retell the story of England's navy. In 1066, during the time that William the Conqueror was arranging his descent on the shores of England, Harold II. was here fitting out a fleet with which to meet him; and twenty years later William himself raised a fleet at the same port, and set sail for Normandy. Here Robert, Duke of Normandy, landed in 1101 to dispute the crown with his brother Henry I., who himself wore the crown here in 1123 instead of at Gloucester. The first oranges ever seen in England were brought to Portsmouth by a Spanish vessel in 1290.

The first charter was granted to the town by Richard I. in 1194, and since that time many others have been granted by various monarchs. Under Elizabeth the corporate body was first styled the mayor and burgesses, while Charles I. further extended the title to that of mayor, aldermen, and burgesses. The earliest charter to be found among the corporation records is that bearing date 1384, although a copy of that dated 1194 is still preserved.

Portsmouth has been burned several times by a foreign invader. In 1336 it was destroyed by the French, and again in 1377, although on the latter occasion they were driven back to their ships with great slaughter. Edward III. seemed to anticipate the naval reviews of modern times by ordering all the seaport towns in 1372 to fit out vessels to be assembled at Portsmouth. In 1416 Henry V., intent on invading France, was here blockaded by a French fleet, and from here afterwards embarked for Normandy, fa 1445 Adam de Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, and keeper of the king's privy seal, after paying sailors at the port, was dragged from the Domus Dei by a party of ruffians and cruelly murdered. One hundred years later the town was in imminent danger of being invaded by the French, whose fleet gathered at Spithead under the command of D'Anne-bault. The action, which lasted for two days, and was witnessed by Henry VIII., proved very indecisive at first, but ultimately the invading fleet was driven back to its native shore with great loss. During the action the Mary Rose, the largest of the English ships, was lost. The French have claimed the honour of sinking her, but from evidence adduced it is generally agreed that she heeled over by the weight of her own ordnance, and, her port-holes being open, sank with about 600 souls, including her commander, Sir George Crew. A graphic account of the action is given by the historian Fronde, who has suggested that the watchword of the English fleet at night was perhaps the origin of the national anthem. The challenge was, "God save the king!" the answer, " Long to reign over us'"

On 5 Oct., 1623, Charles I. arrived at Portsmouth from, his travels through France and Spain. This event is commemorated by a bust of that monarch let into a niche in the town wall at the end of the High Street. Beneath the bust is the following inscription :-" King Charles the First, after his travels through all France into Spain, and having passed very many dangers both by sea and land, he arrived here 5th day of October, 1623." General the Lord-Viscount Wimbledon, military governor of the town, subsequently ordered that no signboards of the neighbouring inns should. be allowed to obscure his majesty's statue, and intimated that he had given orders to all officers and soldiers to remove their hats in passing. On 23 Aug., 1628, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was murdered at a house then known as the " Spotted Dog," situated in the High Street, by Felton, who. was arrested in the house and subsequently hanged at Tybum, his body being hung in chains on Southsea Beach. During the early part of the Civil War the town was a Royalist stronghold, Colonel Goring having declared openly for the king on 2 August, 1642. The town was besieged by the Parliamentary forces from 12 Aug. to 7 Sept., when a surrender was made, and the Royalist leader took ship for Holland. In 1740 Admiral Lord Anson left Portsmouth to-inflict whatever injury he could upon Spanish commerce, and returned to Spithead in 1744, having circumnavigated the globe in three years and nine months. On 14 March, 1757, a tragedy was enacted on board the Monarque in Portsmouth harbour which will long remain as a stain upon the British sense of justice. Admiral Byng, having been convicted by court-martial of what was probably only an error of judgment, was shot before his fellows by six marines in order to satisfy political feeling. The Royal George was sunk at Spithead through carelessness on 29 Aug., 1782, when about 900 souls were lost, including her commander, Admiral Kempenfelt. Many of the bodies recovered were interred in St Mary's Churchyard. From the harbour Lord Nelson sailed in 1803, and to it his corpse was brought on board. The Victory in December, 1805, after the memorable battle of Trafalgar. Queen Victoria first visited the town in 1842,, from which she has since many times sailed on her annual journeys to Osborne and the Continent. Recent events need no recording. The naval reviews at Spithead have been of national interest, and the amity shown to the French in 1891 was one of those graceful acts which tend so much to-strengthen the bonds of international peace.

Beach, Esplanade, &c.-Protected on the N by Portsdown Hill and on the S by the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth can boast of many natural advantages. Lapped by the sea, but never lashed by the fury of its storms, this southern port is the resort of many health-seekers, who, with the villages of Eastney, Milton, and Copnor on the E, and Hilsea and Cosham on the N, may readily alternate country scenery with the natural beauty of the seashore. It is only during recent years that Sonthsea has gained favour as a fashionable watering-place, and now, as a result of its fortunate situation and the enterprise of its people, it ranks with the foremost in the kingdom. The Clarence Esplanade, crowning the magnificent pebble-beach, is one of the finest marine promenades on our southern coast; and the Isle of Wight, viewed across the water, presents a scene of pleasing beauty. Constant communication with the island is maintained by means of a splendid service of steamboats calling at the piers at regular intervals. A tour round it is considered one of the favourite sea-trips of the summer time. Along the esplanade are many monoliths commemorating events on sea and land, and mounted on a granite base-is the original anchor of the Victory, now moored in Portsmouth harbour. An obelisk at the extreme end-formerly one of the boundary-marks of the borough-is said to contain the gibbet on which Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, was hanged. Southsea Common, a large tract of land (the property of the military authorities) skirting the beach, besides serving the purpose of a recreation ground, is used for military parade. Since Edward IV. encamped on this spot in 1475 with 30,000 men, many scenes of martial glory and prowess have been displayed. The reviews, several of which are held during the year, provide Southsea with an attraction wanting in other watering-places.

Streets, Thoroughfares, &c.-The streets of the town, covering over 120 miles, present great diversity, those of the ancient part of the borough having a dismal and depressing appearance, whilst the newer portion is conspicuous for its wide thoroughfares, well-kept streets, and commodious residences. Passing through the heart of the town is Commercial Road, the centre of its business life and activity. The buildings are irregular, and in many respects unattractive. At 387 Charles Dickens was born on 15 Feb., 1812. At that time the neighbouring land was mostly under cultivation, whereas at the present day the house is situated in a thickly-populated district. Notwithstanding the growth of the neighbourhood, the house itself, unpretentious in appearance, remains unchanged. By a paragraph in his will, admirers of Dickens are precluded from raising any monument to his genius, and thus the only indication of his birthplace is a stone let into the pavement bearing his name and date of birth.

Situated in Commercial Road are the town railway station, town-hall, general post office, offices of the gas and water companies, &c. On three days of the week an agricultural market is held in the roadway, there being no large market-hall in the town. The continuation of the road at the northern end is known as London Road, the district around which is fast gaining favour as a residential quarter.

The streets of Portsea are mostly of early date, and are in great measure inhabited by the poorer classes. The chief thoroughfare, known as Queen Street, leading to the Dockyard and Common Hard, has been of far more importance in the past than at present. Lined on either side by business houses, &c.,its commercial activity was formerly second to none in the town, while to-day it is a centre of considerable importance. Portsmouth proper is worthy of note in consequence of the important part that the district has played in the early life of the town. Bounded at the extreme end by a remnant of one of the town walls, by which the garrison was formerly surrounded, the High Street is a broad roadway rich in historic associations. The George Hotel, "originally a thatched house of small size called the "Waggon and Lamb," gave hospitality to Nelson previous to his departure for Trafalgar, and a few years later sheltered beneath its roof the hero of Waterloo. In the graveyard adjoining the Unitarian chapel lies buried John Pounds, the founder of ragged schools, and in St Mary Street near by may be seen the house in which he lived and taught. Southsea, the most fashionable part of the town, is conspicuous for the cleanliness of its thoroughfares and the neat appearance of its houses. The people residing in this quarter are mainly of the well-to-do class, which in summer time is largely augmented by visitors from all parts. The two piers-the Clarence Esplanade and South Parade-are continual sources of attraction, the military bands, by rendering daily concerts, contributing towards their popularity.

Lighting.-The whole of the town's lighting was in the hands of the Portsea Island Gas Light Company, incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1821, up till 1894, when the corporation lighted the most important streets of the borough by electricity, at the same time providing light for private consumption. The water is supplied to the town by the Borough of Portsmouth Waterworks Company, established 1857, the works situated at Farlington, near Havant. The daily consumption averages 5,000,000 gallons, and according to Sir Robert Eawlinson " the waters are beyond the reach of contamination either now or in the future." To the purity of its water in a large measure may be attributed the high place Portsmouth occupies on the health list of the country.

Harbour, Dockyard, &c.-Portsmouth owes its importance entirely to its natural advantages as a naval port. Possessing the most extensive and land-locked harbour in the world, and situated near one of the finest roadsteads, the naval supremacy of the place must ever be its most prominent feature. At Spithead, not far distant from the mouth of the harbour, the whole of the English fleet might ride safely at anchor. Here have been gathered ships of many-nationalities-huge fleets having during recent years assembled-with our own in friendly conclave. Amid the attractions of Southsea as a watering-place, few prettier sights are seen than the illumination of these ships at night. This anchor-ground "takes its name from a sandbank which extends from the right side of the harbour running towards Southsea. Castle and ending in a point which is called the head of the Spit or Spithead." The Isle of Wight, acting as a natural breakwater, defends it from all winds blowing from the W to the SE, while the mainland of Hampshire protects it from the opposite quarter. After the foundering of the Roy at George in 1782 the wreckage remained for many years an impediment to maritime progress. The harbour, narrow at, the entrance-only 400 yards in width-has sufficient depth of water to allow the largest ship in the navy to enter afc any state of the tide. In the 18th century a huge iron chain (" a mighty chaine of yron"), capable of being tightly stretched across the harbour's mouth, was used to prevent the entry of any foreign vessel unawares. Here the past and present of England's " first line of defence" are brought vividly to one's mind. Having noticed the massive ironclads used for guarding our shores and colonies, the thoughts instinctively turn to the representatives of olden days lying here in well-earned retirement. What memories the name of the Victory conjures up to the minds of all loyal Englishmen! Immediately there returns the thought of that signal which has become as a watchword to our people-" England expects every man will do his duty." Aboard the ship visitors are shown the cock-pit in which the hero Nelson died, and on the 21 October of every year the memory of the event is revived by the spot being brightly decorated. Besides the Victory many other types of the "wooden walls of England" are seen, among which are the 8t Vincent, Duke of Wellington, &c. The 8t Vincent is used as a training ship for boys, and many are the lads from our workhouses who have been thus enabled to begin mounting the ladder of promotion in England's navy.

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 CountyHampshire 
Ecclesiastical parishPortsmouth St. Thomas à Becket 
Poor Law unionPortsea Island 

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

Civil Registration

For general information about Civil Registration (births, marriages and deaths) see the Civil Registration page.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Portsmouth from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Hampshire (County Southampton) is available to browse.


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Newspapers and Periodicals

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Villages, Hamlets, &c


Visitations Heraldic

The Visitations of Hampshire, 1530, 1575, & 1622-34 is available to view on the Heraldry page.

CountyCity of Portsmouth
RegionSouth East
Postal districtPO1
Post TownPortsmouth