LIFE IN PORTSMOUTH IN THE 18TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
If we visited 18th century Portsmouth what would we find? In the 18th century Portsmouth consisted of two towns, Old Portsmouth and Portsea. Of the two Portsea was much larger and it was dominated by the dockyard. Most of Portsea Island was farmland but what is now Southsea Common was marsh. Near the twin towns of Portsmouth and Portsea were the villages of Fratton, Milton, Copnor and Buckland. Southsea Castle stood on its own separated from Portsmouth by a marsh. In Eastney was Fort Cumberland.
There was also a village at the end of Kingston Crescent. It was called Kingston. In the 17th century houses were built north of the village. The new area was called 'the North End of Kingston'. Later it was called 'the North End' then just 'North End'.
From the mid-18th century well off people such as naval officers built houses at Kingston. It was a fashionable area because it was outside the noise and dirt of Portsmouth. On the other hand it was easy to travel to work in the town by horse and carriage.
The Blue Anchor and the Green Posts were inns where stagecoaches stopped on their way to and from Portsmouth to London.
Both towns were surrounded by walls and moats. In 1667-85 the fortifications around Portsmouth were rebuilt. New walls were built with many bastions (triangular towers). Two moats were dug outside the walls separated by a strip of land. Afterwards Portsmouth was one of the most heavily fortified towns in Europe.
The town of Portsmouth had reached bursting point by the end of the 17th century. So people began to build houses north of the town on the area known as the Common, near the dockyard. So a new suburb called Portsmouth Common grew. In 1792 it changed its name to Portsea.
This new suburb soon outgrew the original town, which became known as Old Portsmouth. In 1801 Portsea had a population of about 24,000 while Old Portsmouth had less than 8,000. Nevertheless it was not until the 1770's that the town walls were extended to include the new suburb.
In 1764 a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners was set up in Portsea. They had power to pave and clean the streets. They also appointed a man called a scavenger who collected rubbish, with a cart, once a week. In 1768 a similar body was set up in Old Portsmouth. In 1776 they were given power to light the streets with oil lamps and from 1783 they appointed night watchmen to patrol the streets. However if we visited Portsmouth in the 18th century it would seem dirty, smelly and very crowded. At night the streets were dark and dangerous (although they were lit with oil lamps they were much darker than modern streets). There was also a lot of horse dung as well as dung from other animals in the streets.
In the 18th century Portsmouth Cathedral was only a parish church. People who lived in Portsea were part of the parish of St Marys in Fratton. The dockyard workers got tired of walking to church and they decided to build their own. St Georges Church was built in 1754.
Everyday Life In Portsmouth in the 18th Century
In the 18th century, and for long afterwards, the dockyard was the main employer in Portsea. In the 1700s men worked from 6am to 6pm with half an hour for breakfast and one and a half hours for lunch. Men were not allowed to smoke or light fires in the dockyard. On the other hand they were allowed to take home 'chips' of wood. However some of these 'chips' were very large and carpenters ended up making furniture like beds from 'chips'!
At the 18th century wealthy people lived in grand town houses, often built on three floors. In the 18th century the wealthy owned comfortable upholstered furniture. They owned beautiful furniture, some of it veneered or inlaid. In the 18th century much fine furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), George Hepplewhite (?-1786) and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806). The famous clockmaker James Cox (1723-1800) made exquisite clocks for the rich. However craftsmen and labourers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.
Food for ordinary people was plain and monotonous. For them meat was a luxury. A poor person's food was mainly bread and potatoes. In the 18th century drinking tea was very common although sugar was expensive.
In the 18th century people played games such as chess, draughts and backgammon. They also played dominoes and tennis and a rough version of football. For the well off card games and gambling were popular. The theatre was also popular. Meanwhile the first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire about 1750.
In the 18th century men wore knee-length trouser like garments called breeches and stockings. They also wore waistcoats and frock coats. They wore linen shirts. Both men and women wore wigs and for men three-cornered hats were popular. Men wore buckled shoes.
Women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. However in the 18th century women did not wear knickers.
Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the wealthy but poor people's clothes hardly changed at all.
A History of Portsmouth