By: Gerard Martin
A Brief History of
The city of Portsmouth has its origins in the settlement, founded around 1180 by Jean De Gisors, a Norman merchant looking for sheltered moorings for his small fleet of ships. He chose a small inlet called the Camber in the South West of Portsea Island. Today this is Old Portsmouth. In 1185 a church was built on the site, which is now the Anglican Cathedral of St Thomas. In 1194 Portsmouth was granted a Royal Charter by King Richard the Lionheart. The city's coat of arms dates from this time and denotes a star and a crescent. Richard's brother King John ordered the first docks to be built.
By the early 13th Century, Portsmouth was described as "one of our most important ports", exporting wool and grain importing wine, wax and iron.
In the 14th Century during the Hundred Years War, the French repeatedly attacked Portsmouth. This lead to the fortification of the harbour, initially using earth and wood but later with stone. The Round Tower at the entrance to the harbour was built around 1418. Henry VII added the Square Tower in 1494.
Portsmouth's destiny was shaped, when in 1495 Henry created the naval dockyard where royal warships could be built and repaired. Since then Portsmouth has been a naval port.
Henry VIII did much to expand the importance of Portsmouth and turn it into the home of the Royal Navy. The dockyard was enlarged and fortifications increased. Southsea Castle was ready for war by 1544. A year later Henry watched from the battlements as the pride of his fleet, the warship Mary Rose, sank into the Solent. There she remained until 1982 when she was raised. The Mary Rose now resides in a special hall within the Royal Dockyard.
In 1587 Sir Walter Raleigh sent settlers from Portsmouth under the leadership of John White to found the first English colony in what was to become North Carolina. The colony is named after Charles II who married Catherine of Braganza in the old Garrison church.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the city continued to grow to accommodate the increasing demands of the Royal Navy. Although the dockyard was the main employer, other industries such as brewing and corset making became established in the area. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the Navy grew to defend the interests of the expanding British Empire. As the Navy grew, so did Portsmouth, spreading beyond the town walls into Portsea, the original town being renamed Old Portsmouth.
Renewed fears of French invasion lead in 1746 to the construction of Fort Cumberland, the last bastioned fort to be built in the UK. The fort, which is at Eastney overlooking Langstone Harbour and Hayling Island, was home to the Royal Marine Artillery until 1973. Captain James Cook returned to the port after his circumnavigation.
In 1787 Captain Arthur Phillip set sail from Portsmouth with the 11 ships that comprised the "First Fleet" of convicts bound for New South Wales, Australia.
The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was the most important naval battle of the Napoleonic wars. Admiral Horatio Nelson was victorious against the French fleet. Nelson lost his life, but his flagship, HMS Victory is preserved in the dockyard as the oldest commissioned warship of the Royal Navy and has become a symbol of the city.
During the 19th Century Portsmouth expanded to take up the whole of Portsea Island.
The suburb of Southsea has its origins in the early 1800's, initially as houses for skilled manual workers and then as a residential suburb for Naval Officers and the middle classes. It was further developed into a popular seaside resort.
The 1860's saw further threats of French invasion and a new chain of forts was built along Portsdown Hill overlooking the harbour. Defensive forts were also built in the Solent.
These defences became known as" Palmertston's Follies", as the invasion never came. Today Fort Nelson on the hill is part of the Royal Armouries Museum and houses an impressive collection of artillery. Spit Bank Fort in the Solent offers spectacular views and can be visited by boat from the dockyard.
In 1867 the Royal Marines barracks were built in Eastney. The barracks were converted into luxury flats in the 1990's. The old Officer's Mess is now the Royal Marines Museum.
The city continued to grow and by the 1930's the boundaries extended beyond Portsea Island to include the residential areas of Cosham, Drayton and Farlington. Portsmouth Airport was opened in 1932 in Hilsea, extending to the banks of Langstone Harbour, The intention being to offer facilities for flying boats. Airspeed Limited, the company founded by Nevil Shute Norway and Hessel Tiltman relocated to the new airport from York, to manufacture commercial aircraft on the site.
During the Second World War, Portsmouth suffered from extensive bombing which destroyed 10% of its housing. The Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 was planned in nearby Southwick and many of the troops left from the city. The main British glider, the spearhead of the airborne invasion, was the Airspeed Horsa built by Shute's old company at the airport. The events of D-Day are commemorated in the Overlord Embroidery, which forms the centrepiece of the D-Day Museum on Clarence Esplanade.
Much has changed in Portsmouth in the post war period. Portsea Island is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Extensive redevelopment has taken place, both on and off the island. Council housing estates were built at Paulsgrove and Leigh Park. With the downsizing of the Royal Navy, the dockyard, for centuries the principal source of employment is now a shadow of its former self.
The city is now an important Continental Ferry Port with services to France and Spain. IBM and Zurich Insurance have moved their UK headquarters here.
Tourism has become a major source of revenue. The city boasts many excellent facilities with museums; a marina, sailing centres, swimming pools, golf courses and an athletics stadium. Portsmouth Football (Soccer) Club has just gained promotion to the Premiership. The club's Fratton Park Stadium site has been extensively redeveloped. The airport closed in the 1970's and the site is now an industrial estate and a retail park. Port Solent marina, estate and leisure complex was completed in the 1990's The latest feature is the Spinnaker Tower, still under construction at the new Gunwarf Quays shopping and entertainment centre by The Hard.
Many famous people have connections with Portsmouth. In the recent BBC poll of "Great Britons", two of the top ten (Nelson and Brunel) had a local association. There is a strong literary tradition. Charles Dickens was born in Old Commercial Road. The house is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. HG Wells worked in a drapers shop in Kings Road Southsea. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle practiced as a doctor in Elm Grove Southsea. Some of the early Sherlock Holmes stories were written here. Samuel Pepys and Rudyard Kipling both lived and worked in the city. The actor Peter Sellers and the former Prime Minister James (now Lord) Callaghan were both born in Portsmouth. In the 1970's an unknown Austrian body builder called Arnold Schwarzenegger used to work out in a gym in Albert Road Southsea.
The area has always been at the forefront of technology and engineering. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born here. Thomas Telford worked in the dockyard. The first "modern" battleship, HMS Dreadnaught, was launched here in 1906. The Airspeed Courier, the first British production aircraft with retractable undercarriage made its maiden flight from the airport in1933. Three years later and twenty miles away at Eastleigh, K5054, the prototype Supermarine Spitfire flew for the first time. In 1956 Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft on the Isle of Wight. The Southsea-Ryde crossing was the first commercial hovercraft service in the world. Since the retirement of the Channel hovercraft to France, it is now the only regular hovercraft service in Europe. Much of the Beagle 2 space probe currently on its way to Mars was built in Portsmouth.
Nevil Shute and
The Airspeed Company, Nevil Shute Norway had co founded was based at Portsmouth airport in Hilsea. Although the airport no longer exists, some of the Airspeed buildings survive on what is now an industrial estate. The City Council have named 4 roads in the area after the engineer (Norway Road), the author (Nevil Shute Road) and his work (Airspeed Road and Marazan Road).
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Shute moved his family to Hayling Island, first to the Old Mill in Langstone and then to Langstone Place. In 1940 Shute joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and evacuated his wife and daughters to Canada. Frances and the children returned to Hayling Island in 1941 and the family relocated to Pond Head House. Here they remained until embarking for Australia in 1950. Even after this date, many of the books continue to make references to the Portsmouth area. In total 17 of his 24 novels have some local connection.
Following his death in 1960, Shute's ashes were returned to England and scattered in the Solent.
Shute was very familiar with the area before he moved here. In 1919 and 1920 he spent the long summer vacation from Oxford University sailing in the Solent, from Hamble. This little yacht harbour would feature in many of his books. In 1923 his parents bought a house in Liss near Petersfield, twenty miles from Portsmouth. "Stephen Morris" and "Pilotage", the first two novels (both rejected but published posthumously in1961 as a single volume) feature the Solent and the Isle of Wight. Phillip Stenning, the narrator and hero of "Marazan", Shute's first published work, is the son of a Naval Officer and a Portsmouth chorus girl.
In "So Distained", Shute's second published work, the early action takes place in the area around Petersfield and the Sussex Downs. Lenden, a pilot down on his luck and working for the Russians, has been taking reconnaissance photographs of Portsmouth Harbour when he is intercepted by RAF fighters based at Gosport. In "What happened to the Corbetts", Portsmouth and Southampton are bombed by the unnamed enemy.
"Landfall" and "Requiem for a Wren" both make great use of many Portsmouth locations. These are discussed in more detail below.
In "A Town like Alice", Jean Paget's early life is spent around Southampton, "In Round the Bend", Tom Cutter follows Sir Alan Cobham's air circus from Southampton to Portsmouth and then on to Winchester. Later in the book, he and Beryl honeymoon in Southsea. Cutter takes off in his Fox Moth from Eastleigh airfield, which is now Southampton International Airport.
The Reverend Hargreaves, the narrator of "In The Wet", states that he was born in Portsmouth and educated at Portsmouth Grammar School. Mary Holmes in "On the Beach" is the daughter of a Royal Navy Officer born and brought up in Southsea.
In "Trustee from the Toolroom" (Shute's final work), Keith Stuart's sister Jo is in Pantomime in Portsmouth (probably at the Kings Theatre Southsea) when she meets Lieutenant John Dermott RN at a party at the Queen's Hotel. The next day he takes her to see HMS Victory. The book states that, after they marry, they have a flat in Cosham, Jo works, making aircraft parts in Havant and studies at night school classes at the Polytechnic (now Portsmouth University) The couple move to Southsea and depart on their ill fated transatlantic voyage from Hamble.
A Shutist's Tour of
The Queen's Hotel, Clarence Parade: Mentioned in "Trustee", the Queen's is Southsea' s oldest hotel. It the 1980's it was featured in two episodes of Rowan Atkinson's "Mr Bean".
Over the common to Clarence Parade Pier. Ferries used to sail from here. Stephen Morris takes one on his way to the Isle of Wight. Nowadays the crossing is by hovercraft from the pier. A ten-minute flight takes you across the Solent to Ryde. The Island is the setting for early parts of "Stephen Morris" and "Pilotage" and is well worth a visit.
The Pavilion dance hall where "Jerry" and Mona meet in "Landfall" was here but like much of the area, bombing during the Second World War destroyed it. The Royal Clarence public house where Mona works as a barmaid would also have been around here.
You will note kiosks selling Minghella ice cream. This is produced on the Isle of Wight by the parents of Anthony Minghella, the director of "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr Ripley" who attended school in Southsea.
The Funfair to your left was also used in "Mr Bean" and in the Ken Russell film of the Who rock opera "Tommy".
Walking to the left will take you to Old Portsmouth (See below).
Walk to the right along Clarence Esplanade. On your left is Southsea Common. Stephen Morris gave a flying display here. At the start of "Landfall " Jerry Chambers pretends his car has broken down in one of the tree-lined roads off the common. Along the wall on your right are a number of monuments and memorials. At the edge of the Common is the impressive Royal Navy War Memorial.
Passing the Sea Life Centre, you will shortly come to The D-Day Museum: Outside there are Sherman ("Requiem") and Churchill tanks, an anti aircraft gun and statues of Field Marshall Montgomery and a World War 2 British soldier. Inside the museum there is the Overlord Embroidery and displays of uniforms, models medals and vehicles including a Jeep and a Landing craft ("Requiem"). There is also a tableau depicting the landing of an Airspeed Horsa glider.
Leaving the museum, take the path up Castle Field to Southsea Castle. The museum here looks at various aspects of the castle's history. Castle Esplanade has superb views over the Solent.
Carry on along the esplanade past the Rock Gardens. The Tourist Information Centre and the Pyramids indoor water park to South Parade Pier. Here you can buy a stick of Southsea Rock ("Landfall") and look over Southsea beach Tom and Beryl Cutter had their honeymoon here in "Round the Bend". Come back onto the main promenade and cross over to St Helens Parade, noting the simple D-Day Memorial, in the middle of the road. Continue along St Helens Parade you will see Canoe Lake to your right. The Rose Garden, commemorates the Royal Marine Commandos Cockleshell Heroes, whose HQ was here. Shortly, on your left, you will come to Craneswater Park, Nevil Shute's first Southsea residence. . If you continue along Eastern Parade, Helena Road is on your left. The blue plaque on the wall of number 14 shows that this was Nevil Shute Norway's home from 1936 to 1940 (actually late 1939). Retracing your steps to Eastern Parade, you will see the Cumberland House Natural History Museum.
Follow Eastern Parade, past the tennis courts and miniature golf course to its junction with Southsea Esplanade.
At Southsea Esplanade you have a choice to make. If you turn right you can walk back to the hotel along the Seafront (or you can catch a bus, but be warned public transport is quite expensive). If you turn left along Eastney Esplanade You will eventually arrive at Eastney Barracks, the former home of the Royal Marines. Alan Duncan interviews his dead brother's colleagues here in "Requiem". Further along the esplanade is the Royal Marines Museum with its statue "the Yomper" which commemorates the Falklands Campaign of 1982. The beach at this point is now Eastney Beach which was the site of the gunnery trials in "Requiem". I now suggest you catch the bus back to the hotel and have a beer (which contrary to popular belief can be served cold if desired). You've earned it.
For masochists with time on their hands (or more realistically, if you have a car handy), you could carry on all the way along Eastney Esplanade, past Eastney Swimming Baths following the signs for the Hayling Ferry. You will pass Fort Cumberland. You can then look out over Langstone Harbour to Hayling Island. Now you must go back to the hotel and have that beer.
Other Parts of Portsmouth
with Nevil Shute Connections
Also in Guildhall Square is the Central Library, which boasts an extensive local history section. Commercial Road is the main shopping area with most national and international stores having branches here. The Cascades shopping Mall was built in the 1980's.
At the far end of Commercial road is Old Commercial Road. Nevil Shute's father died in the old Portsmouth District Hospital, which is now the site of Sainsbury's Supermarket. Further along the road is the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum.
The Hard, Naval Dockyard
and Historic Ships.
Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
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