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Portland (St. George)

PORTLAND (St. George), a parish, constituting the liberty of the Isle of Portland, in the union of Weymouth, Dorchester division of Dorset, 3 miles (S. S. W.) from Weymouth; containing 2852 inhabitants. The name of this place, thought by some writers to have originated in its situation opposite to the port of Weymouth, is with greater probability derived from its occupation by Porth, a Saxon pirate, who, with his sons Bieda and Maegla, landed at Portsmouth at the commencement of the sixth century. A party of Danish marauders, supposed to have been the first that visited England, landed here in 787, and having killed the præpositus, or governor, obtained possession of the district. In the reign of Edward the Confessor, it was among the manors given by that monarch to the church at Winchester, on the deliverance of his mother, Queen Emma, from the fiery ordeal through which she had passed, in vindication of her innocence on a charge of incontinency: during the same reign it was attacked and plundered by Earl Godwin, in his rebellion against his sovereign. William Rufus erected a castle here, which in the reign of Stephen was taken by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and held for the Empress Matilda. The manor, which in the reign of the Conqueror had been alienated from the see of Winchester, was regranted to it by Henry I., and after various changes, again reverting to the crown, was bestowed successively on his queens Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, by Henry VIII. That monarch, after the suppression of the monasteries, apprehending an invasion from the Papal powers, visited the coast in person, and among other fortresses for the defence of those parts which were most liable to be surprised by the enemy, ordered the present castle of Portland to be built. In the beginning of the civil war of the seventeenth century, the castle was seized and garrisoned by the parliamentarians; but the inhabitants being well affected to the royal cause, it was soon recovered for the king, and after proving a powerful check to the garrison at Weymouth, was one of the last fortresses which surrendered to the parliament.

Portland, though called an island, is in fact a peninsula, connected with the main land by the Chesil Bank, an isthmus varying in breadth from fifty yards to a quarter of a mile, and more than 100 feet above the level of low-water mark. The isthmus is composed of very hard pebbles, decreasing gradually in size towards the west, and extends from Portland to the Burton Cliffs, near Bridport, a distance of sixteen miles. The island is situated in 2° 35' (W. L.) and 50° 38' (N. L.), and is of an elliptical form, five miles and a half in length, about two in breadth, and nearly twelve in circumference. It is bounded on the east, south, and west by the English Channel; and on the north by the Portland Roads and Smallmouth, leading into the waters called the Fleet, between Chesil Bank and the main land, which flow up to Abbotsbury, and across which, about a mile from Portland, is a bridge of unusual length. The shore is steep and rugged, and on the north side, the land called the Verne rises majestically to the height of 490 feet, declining gradually towards the south, where the cliff is not more than ten feet above the level of the sea. Off the southern extremity is Portland Race, the passage of which, even in the calmest weather, is rendered extremely dangerous by the agitation of the sea, arising from the projection of the land of Portland into the Channel. During the dreadful storm in November, 1824, more than 100 houses were destroyed, and sixty-three persons drowned, in the hamlet of Chesil, in the north. At the southern point of the island, called Portland Beale, are a signal station and the upper and lower lighthouses, the former lighthouse erected in 1716, and the latter in 1789; and near them is a remarkable cavern, called Caves Hole, in the form of a perforated dome, from the orifice of which the sea in heavy gales rises as from a fountain. On the eastern side of the island is Pennsylvania Castle, the private residence of the late Governor Penn, erected by Mr. Wyatt, in 1794; in the grounds are the ruins of the castle built by William Rufus, and of the old church, which, with the parsonage-house, was destroyed during the parliamentary war. On the Verne is also a signal station; and at the extremity of a very fine common below it, and commanding the Portland Roads, is the castle built by Henry VIII., mounting at present only twelve guns in the lower tier, the higher having been taken down some years since. In 1816, the late Duke of York, commander-in-chief, with the concurrence of the mastergeneral of the ordnance and the governor, granted the castle to the Manning family, as a marine residence; and considerable sums have been expended in its improvement.

The parish comprises about 3000 acres, and contains seven villages; the summit of the island is smooth, and the soil produces wheat, peas, oats, and barley. The whole district is composed of various strata of stone, differing materially in substance and quality. The Portland stone, in such repute for buildings of magnificence, is found at the depth of 40 feet from the surface; the upper stratum, called Roach or Capstone, is only used for foundations, being so full of fossil productions as to render it unfit for works in which a smooth surface is required. The quarries, which were first worked in the reign of James I., are situated in the western part of the island, and have proved a source of immense wealth to the proprietors. A railroad for the conveyance of the stone to the shipping-place has been constructed, and not less than from 30,000 to 40,000 tons are annually exported, the procuring of which affords employment to the principal part of the population. A new feature of interest is about to be added to Portland, the Commissioners appointed by the crown to inquire into the expediency of establishing harbours of refuge having recommended, that of four harbours to be constructed, Portland should be the site of one. It is intended to form an immense breakwater, above two miles long, extending north-eastward from the isle, and inclosing the Portland and Weymouth "roads," between Portland and the coast north of the town of Weymouth; and as the Capstone already mentioned, now of little value, is admirably adapted to the purpose of a breakwater, the expense is estimated not to exceed £500,000. The inhabitants of the island are a hardy and robust race, who intermarry among themselves, and preserve a peculiarity of customs and character by which they are distinguished from strangers, with whom they avoid all intercourse. This being a royal demesne, the queen's steward holds courts for the manor at Lady-day and Michaelmas. The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £18. 2. 1., and in the gift of the Bishop of Winchester: the tithes have been commuted for £320, and there are 20 acres of glebe. The church, erected in the year 1776, is in the modern style. A second church was built in 1840, at an expense of £2315, at Fortune's Well, it is dedicated to St. John, and is a neat structure in the later English style. Her Majesty gave £300 towards the fund, and an endowment of £1500 has been contributed. The living is in the gift of Hyndman's Trustees. There are places of worship for Independents and Wesleyans. Portland gives the title of Duke to the family of Bentinck.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.