A History of Portsea, Portsmouth

By Tim Lambert

Early Portsea

The area of Portsmouth we call Portsea was once called Portsmouth Common. Its name was changed in 1792. Firstly where does the name Portsea come from? It comes from two words, the Latin word Portus, which means harbour, and the Saxon word eg (pronounced ‘ee’) which means island. Portsea Island was once called Portus eg. In time the word ‘eg’ lost its meaning and people began to call it Portuseg Island or Portsea Island.

Until the end of the 17th century, Portsea was just farmland. The town of Portsmouth consisted of just the area we call Old Portsmouth. North of it, on the area where the United Services Recreation Ground is now, was a large inlet from the sea. Across it was a dam. As the tide came in it was allowed through the dam. When the tide turned the dam was closed and the trapped water was only allowed out under a watermill. It turned to grind grain to flour for the townspeople. It was called a sea mill. It is recalled today by the street named Seamill Gardens.

In 1495 Henry VII started the dockyard. At first, it stood on its own, separated from Portsmouth by fields. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, the dockyard grew much larger. However, until 1663 the dockyard and the navy had to use the quay at the Camber. In that year a special wharf was built for the navy and the dockyard to use. It was called the Gunwharf.

The first houses in Portsea were built around St Georges Square at the end of the 17th century. One of these still stands. Number 90 was built around 1690 for a wealthy merchant.

By the start of the 18th century, workmen in the dockyard grew tired of walking from Old Portsmouth to work each day. They decided to build houses on the farmland outside the dockyard. However, the governor of the dockyard was afraid the houses would provide cover for enemy soldiers if they attacked. He threatened to turn his guns on any new houses.

However, Prince George, the husband of Queen Anne, was visiting Portsmouth. The dockyard workers appealed to him. He spoke to his wife and she permitted the workmen to build houses near their place of work. Prince George Street commemorates him. Queen Anne visited Portsmouth in 1711 and Queen Street was named after her.

Union Street was named after the Act of Union 1707, which joined England and Scotland. (In the 19th century Union Street was the street where most of the lawyers in Portsmouth lived). Hanover Street got its name because the Georges (George I, George II, and George III), were kings of Hanover in Germany as well as England. (George I could not speak English!). They are sometimes called the Hanoverian kings.

North Street was probably not given its name because it is in the north of Portsea. It was named after Lord North, who was prime minister in the 18th century. Hawke Street was named after an admiral. There used to be an Orange Street named after William of Orange. Marlborough Row (now in the dockyard) was named after the Duke of Marlborough who won several battles against the French at the beginning of the 18th century. Cumberland Street was probably named after the Duke of Cumberland.

Some streets in Portsea were named after inns. Clock Street and Sun Street were probably named after inns. So was Three Tuns Street. There used to be a Half Moon Street (its nameplate is still on the side of a pub). It was probably also named after an inn.

The Hard is believed to get its name after a slipway for boats. Men created a slipway by dumping clay in the sea at low tide and then rolling it till it was hard. It was called The Hard. In the 19th century, The Hard was named the Devil’s Acre! In 1900 there were 13 pubs along The Hard.

Bonfire Corner probably got its name because dockyard workers burned rubbish there. In the 19th century, there was an alley in Portsea called ‘Squeeze-Gut Alley’ because it was so narrow!.

The ‘suburb’ soon outgrew Old Portsmouth. In 1792 its name was changed from Portsmouth Common to Portsea. By 1801 Portsea had a population of about 25,000 while Old Portsmouth had only about 7,000. However, it was not until the 1770s that the walls around Old Portsmouth were extended around Portsea.

In 1764 a body of men called Improvement Commissioners was formed with powers to pave and clean the streets of Portsea. They also gave a contract to a man called a scavenger who came with a cart and rang a bell. He collected rubbish and was allowed to sell it. (Almost all rubbish was organic in those days so it could be sold as fertilizer).

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 George’s Church was built in 1754.

Two other Anglican churches were built in Portsea. St John’s was built in Prince George Street in 1789. It was destroyed by bombing in World War II. Holy Trinity was built in the early 19th century in North Street. It too was destroyed by bombing.

In 1755 The Beneficial Society was formed. It was a friendly society (it provided help in times of sickness and with funerals). The Beneficial Society also ran a school for poor children.

In the 18th century, and for long afterward, the dockyard was the main employer in Portsea. In the 1700s men worked from 6 am to 6 pm 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’!

In 1775 a writer said that from ‘a barren, desolate heath it (Portsea), is now a very populous, genteel town, exceeding Portsmouth itself in the number of its inhabitants and edifices.’

In 1820 the Improvement Commissioners decided to introduce gas street lighting. They were not very generous however, the streetlights were not lit if there was a full moon and they were not lit on the 2 nights before and after a full moon. The Commissioners felt that on those nights you didn’t need streetlights!

Treadgolds the Ironmongers opened about 1820. It is now a museum. Kent Street School opened in 1873. Portsmouth Harbour Station was built in 1876.

In the late 19th century there was a military hospital in Lion Terrace. It was closed at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908 a military hospital was built to replace it on the slopes of Portsdown Hill. It eventually became Queen Alexandra’s Hospital.

Modern Portsea

The first council houses in Portsmouth were built in Portsea. In 1911 a horrid slum called Whites Row was demolished. In 1912 council houses were built. The new street was named after Admiral Curzon Howe.

In 1923 a woman was murdered in Blossom Alley (on the site of Blossom Square). People were shocked not just by the murder but by the terrible conditions the woman was living in. She lived in a ‘house’ consisting of two tiny rooms, one above the other, joined by a ladder. There was no hall, the front door (the only door) opened onto a little courtyard. Five houses shared three outside toilets. Taps were also shared. In the 1920s and 1930s, dreadful slums in Portsea were demolished and some were replaced by council flats in Cumberland Street.

The Ship and Castle pub was built in 1902. The present Ship Anson pub building was designed in 1922.

During World War II Portsea was bombed heavily and many houses were destroyed. The whole area was redeveloped in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, and Queen Street was widened.

During the 20th century, a major employer in Portsea was Brickwoods Brewery. In 1974 it was sold to Whitbreads and the brewery closed completely in 1983.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Portsea is developing rapidly. In 2007 a complex of flats called Admiralty Quarter was built in Queen Street.

Spinnaker Tower

My Youtube video about the history of Portsea