Portsmouth by Colin Wintle
The narrow channel of salt water between Portsmouth and Gosport forms the entrance to what may metaphorically be described as the womb of England’s naval history.
The cynosure of Portsmouth and its renowned naval base, however, rightly belongs to Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in which he lost his life in the moment of triumph off the Spanish coast near Cadiz on October 21, 1805: Cape Trafalgar.
About half-a-million visitors go aboard Victory each year, without charge. The historic vessel is fully restored to the appearance she bore at the Battle of Trafalgar when Nelson commanded the fleet which finally established Britain’s sea supremacy by defeating a larger force of combined French and Spanish warships.
Standing ship-shape in towering dignity in dry dock — on the site of the oldest dry dock in the world — near the main gate of the Naval Base, the vessel is a Flagship still: that of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command.
Nelson, who was thirteen when he joined, had very early associations with the Royal Navy at Portsmouth. In 1776 he joined the Worcester as Fourth Lieutenant. His uncle, Captain Suckling, was Comptroller of the Navy, and that gave young Horatio a good local start — he was even invited to dine with the Mayor of Portsmouth. But after showing his mettle in the West Indies, due not to influence (at a period when nepotism was rife) but entirely to his dedication to duty and to flair, on returning to Portsmouth he was given his first command, the Albemarle.
This made him, at the early age of some twenty-four years, one of the youngest officers ever to serve as Captain.
The Victory, mounting one hundred guns on three decks and classed as a “first-rate ship of the line” was an old lady of forty in the year of Trafalgar, having been launched at Chatham in 1765. Several admirals flew their flag in her, then for six years up to 1803 she was back again at Chatham — languishing as a prison hulk!
Nelson spotted her there and caused her to be refitted. She returned to Portsmouth from her final sea voyage in 1812 – seven years after Trafalgar and three before Waterloo.
The move into dry dock and the enormous task of restoration was initiated in 1922 by the Society of Nautical Research.
There is much — very much — to see and to enthral in HMS Victory, but many other items which cannot be displayed on board can be seen nearby, in the Royal Naval Museum: not only relics of Nelson, of his officers and seamen and ship models, figureheads and other historical items, but also a huge panorama explaining the Battle of Trafalgar.
Before embarking on his last voyage, Nelson breakfasted at the George inn and acknowledged the plaudits of a crowd outside which was so vast that the innkeeper prudently ushered him to the back door and conducted him to Southsea Common for embarkation – and a huge, cheering crowd had gathered there, too.
Facing the beach where the great little Admiral was last to set foot in his native land were later placed some stone steps. On them are the touching words: “Here served Horatio Nelson. You who tread his footsteps remember his glory.”
Portsmouth’s importance succeeded that of ancient Portchester and by 1194 it was granted a Charter. The first docks were built by King John in the early 13th century, when it began to emerge as a naval base, with defences. (The present Dockyard, covering 300 acres, is the largest in the world.)
Then came the work of the shrewd Tudors. Henry VII enlarged the docks, which were expanded again in the next reign and Henry VIII, with his keen appreciation of the inportance to an island kingdom of sea power and the necessity of fortifying entrances to harbours against the incursions of French and Spanish invaders (from Cornwall to Kent) built Southsea Castle, also lesser but essential fortifications were erected at the port itself, among them the Round Tower and the Square Tower, which still remain.
Perhaps the most effective method of preventing enemy ships from entering the harbour and dockyard and destroying ships lying there was the simplest, and almost certainly the cheapest: a boom.
From the Round Tower, what the historian John Leland (librarian to Henry VIII) described as “a mightie chain of yron” was stretched across the narrow entrance-channel between Portsmouth and Gosport. It cost £40 and must have been worth every penny, knowing as we do the value of the marine boom defences of various types — mostly against submarines — in the two Great Wars of the present century.
Gosport is now a sizeable town, with a marked and refreshing “overspill flavour” of the Royal Navy. Its name is derived from God’s Port, so called by the grateful Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, when he found refuge there from a storm in 1150.
The Stuarts had many associations with Portsmouth: Civil War; the building of more fortifications; the murder of a favourite of Charles I; even a Royal wedding.
In the Civil War Sir George Goring held the town for the King but was beleaguered so severely that he had no option but to capitulate; but he held a strong card in his hand and it enabled him to do a deal.
Goring’s force occupied the Square Tower (near the end of the present Broad Street) in which was the powder magazine. He threatened to blow it up — an explosion which would have wrecked much of the town. So the dauntless Goring was able to surrender with the honours of war.
History takes curious turns between warfare and weddings. At the Sally Port adjacent to Goring’s powder magazine the Portuguese Princess Katharine of Braganza was to arrive in 1662 to marry Charles II.
The marriage was solemnised at the Governor’s House, originally a religious foundation and centuries later to become the Garrison Church. Although, as customary, it was a political union, the marriage proved tolerable despite the bridegroom’s celebrated amorous adventures elsewhere.
Charles II, like Henry VIII, did much to add to and improve Portsmouth’s all-round defences, employing a Dutch engineer, Sir Bernard Gomme. Later, this work so impressed the observant Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) that he wrote: “‘Tis evident that the greatest fleet of ships . . . would not pretend to force their entrance into the Harbour.”
Defoe was right, but even a man of his imagination could not dream that attack would one day come from the air.
Charles I loved and trusted George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, more than any man in his Realm, but the people hated him above all others, and for good reason. Known as “the princely Buckingham”, he was the epitome of cavalier splendour in handsome looks, the sumptuousness of his bejewelled dress, in both swordsmanship and dancing, also in the brilliance of his oratory. But as the King’s favourite he wielded, and abused, excessive power and this was bitterly resented alike by Parliament and the common people.
In a house in Portsmouth High Street he was assassinated on the morning of 23 August, 1628.
It was the home of Captain John Mason, a former Governor of Newfoundland and is now marked by a plaque and known as Buckingham House. Buckingham was staying at Mason’s while the army was mobilised and awaiting embarkation for an expedition against the French. It was a thoroughly unpopular and unnecessary enterprise, entered upon at Buckingham’s behest — largely because France had personally offended him!
In a parlour crowded with notabilities the Duke was mortally stabbed by Lieutenant John Felton, who had bought a tenpenny knife in London and travelled with it to Portsmouth to do the deed. Felton was tried and executed. He left a paper giving reasons for his act. “Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves for the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he [Buckingham] would not have gone so long unpunished.”
A Londoner visiting Portsmouth recorded that “the vast multitude in the town drink health to Felton and there are infinitely more cheerful than sad faces”. He concluded that “the stone of offence now having been moved by the hand of God” it was hoped that the King and his People “would now come to perfect amity”.
A forlorn hope, alas, for the Civil War was looming.
Dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury, and the parish church of the Old Town, Portsmouth Cathedral is in many respects unique. It became a Cathedral as recently as 1927, when the See of Portsmouth was formed from part of the diocese of Winchester.
It has a long and fascinating architectural history, still in process of continuance. The original church dates from the 12th century and was administered by the Priory of Southwick, some miles to the north, and after the Reformation it was transferred to Winchester College. It underwent many changes in successive centuries and the ravages of bombardment brought it near to destruction in the Civil War, but later in the 17th century restoration was undertaken and the tower was built in 1691.
On becoming a Cathedral church ambitious plans were made to make it worthy of its new function. Within twelve years it was expanded to possess a north aisle, trancepts and vestries, and a “Navy” aisle on the south, commemorating naval history, and the nave was given three eastern bays. The style was Gothic, designed by Sir Charles Nicholson.
The war of 1939-45 brought things to a halt; but it is now intended to add lustre and history to this remarkable building from the entirely modern design of Professor Pier Luigi Nervi — as a memorial to the thousands of servicemen of many nationalities who embarked from Portsmouth and the area around to fight for the liberation of Europe.
Southwick House, an elegant colonnaded mansion lying close to the course of a Roman road a few miles north of the city, was the scene of an event which brings one of the great moments of world history right up to living memory — with four simple words: All right — we’ll go”.
They were uttered at H-Hour on D-Day, June 6, 1944, by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Supreme Allied Commander, to start the assault on “Fortress Europe” by the greatest invading army the world had ever known.
It was from Southwick House that “Ike” Eisenhower – subsequently to become President of the United States – conducted the final run-up to D-Day, and exactly as it appeared on that day in 1944 is preserved the huge Invasion Map (it measures 20 x 14ft) showing the position of the vast mobilisation of warships, assault craft and other vessels as they set out for Normandy. It is in the Allied Naval War Room.
It was the wish of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, that the Map be preserved for posterity. In its original setting, it has been a national treasure since 1946. Southwick House and estate is still used by the Royal Navy, so the Map’s availability for public inspection is limited to weekends and to organised parties. Intending visitors to this shore establishment should apply to The Captain, HMS Dryad, Southwick.
A fascinating quirk of history is that after the Normans had reconstructed the Roman fort at Portchester, a Priory was founded there in 1133; but the Canons disliked the hurly-burly and evacuated to Southwick, now occupied by the “Silent Service”, because they found the garrison at Portchester was too noisy!
The vast, majestic Guildhall is rightly Portsmouth’s civic pride and reflects the undaunted spirit of its citizens.
It was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) in 1890. Less than thirty years later, in the reign of George V, the town became a city, with a Lord Mayor. When war came in 1939 the administrative departments were transferred elsewhere and — except for the Lord Mayor and his staff — the Guildhall became headquarters for the air-raid precautions service —”A.R.P.”.
Understandably, Portsmouth was a prime target for enemy air attack, and on January 10, 1941, it suffered an immense raid. High explosive bombs destroyed water mains, and shower after shower of incendiaries set the Guildhall ablaze and gutted it. That night three hundred enemy aircraft were engaged in the attack and, apart from high explosives, some 25,000 incendiary bombs descended on the city.
The rebuilt Guildhall which we see today has arisen proudly from war’s inferno to become not only a splendid civic centre but also a hub for the cultural and social life of the citizens; their facilities for events both small- and large-scale, include a magnificent main concert hall (adaptable for big conferences) which seats more than 2,000 people and bears comparison with any in the realm.
Queen Elizabeth II, great-grand-daughter of Edward VII who, when Prince of Wales, had opened the “new” Guildhall sixty-nine years before, performed the re-opening ceremony in 1959. Portsmouth has a genius for continuity — and a determination to “carry on”.
A mile to the east of Portsmouth is Southsea Castle, much altered since it was built by Henry VIII. It was restored by the Corporation in 1960 to the form of its last function as a complete fortress in the mid-19th century, though in the 1914-18 war the Royal Garrison Artillery manned it, and in that of 1939-45 it was garrisoned by a Hampshire Territorial artillery regiment. It is now a museum illustrating local military history.
We have seen that Portsmouth abounds in naval and military history; but what of the celebrated civilians who have made the city notable, showing that “peace hath her victories no less renowned than war”?
Charles Dickens has already been mentioned, but the city was also the birth-place in 1828 of the writer George Meredith, and in 1836 of Sir Walter Besant, founder of the Society of Authors. The great railway engineer and steamship builder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was Portsmouth-born in 1806. Soon after qualifying as a doctor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle practised there for a time, starting his authorship career while waiting for patients to come along! And a thrilling maritime adventure was achieved by a former Southsea greengrocer, Alec Rose. At the age of sixty he sailed alone round the world in his little vessel Lively Lady, for which, on his return in 1968, he received the accolade of knighthood.
Few but social historians will know of John Pounds, born in 1776 and Jonas Hanway, in 1712. Pounds, a crippled cobbler taught poor boys, in his humble premises, to read the Bible and to write: he became an inspirer of the Ragged Schools movement. Hanway founded a society for helping street urchins to become seamen, among his other campaigns of social benefit. But his claim to lasting fame rests upon a back-room activity, for which at the time he attracted ridicule.
He invented the umbrella.