A History of Portsmouth

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Vanessa Wood

Portsmouth in the Middle Ages

Portsmouth was founded about 1180 when a merchant called Jean De Gisors founded a little town in the South-West corner of Portsea Island. Jean De Gisors was a merchant who owned a fleet of ships. He was also a landowner who owned land on Portsea Island. In the Southwest of the island was a small inlet from the sea called the Camber. It was a sheltered place for ships to land and De Gisors decided it was an ideal place to start a town.

De Gisors divided up the land into plots for building houses and he started a market. Craftsmen and merchants came to live in the new settlement.

In 1188 a parish church was dedicated to St Thomas (in the 20th century it became Portsmouth Cathedral). In 1194 King Richard I gave Portsmouth a charter. (A document granting the townspeople certain rights).

By the early 13th century Portsmouth was described as ‘one of our most important ports’. However, the population of Portsmouth was probably only about 1,200 people. The main exports from Medieval Portsmouth were wool and grain. The main imports were wine, woad for dyeing, wax for candles, and iron.

In 1212 a building called the Domus Dei (house of God) was built at Portsmouth. It was a hospice for pilgrims. There was also a hostel for lepers outside the town.

Portsmouth was, at first, run by a man called a reeve assisted by bailiffs. By the 14th century, Portsmouth had a mayor elected by the merchants. There were also constables responsible for arresting wrongdoers.

In 1369 a military governor was appointed who was responsible for the defense of the town.

However, Portsmouth was burned down 4 times during the 14th century during a period of almost continuous warfare between England and France. The French burned Portsmouth in 1338, 1369, 1377, and 1380, (This was easy as most of the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand they could be easily rebuilt).

Portsmouth was not fortified till after the last attack in 1380. It was given wooden walls. Then about 1418, a tower was erected at the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour called the Round Tower. Cannons on it could fire at any enemy ship attempting to enter the harbour.

In the 16th century, a giant chain was stretched across the mouth of the harbour. The winch was by the Round Tower. The chain could be lowered to let in friendly ships but raised to prevent enemy ones from entering the harbour.

In 1450 the Bishop of Chichester was murdered in Portsmouth. Sailors in the town had not been paid for a long time. According to one account, the bishop brought some money but not enough to pay the sailors all they were owed. When the sailors found out they were enraged. The Bishop was in the Domus Dei (the ‘hospital’ for poor and sick people). A mob dragged him out and stabbed him to death.

For this crime, the whole town of Portsmouth was placed under an interdict. This meant that mass could not be heard in the town and no other sacraments could be performed. This lasted until 1508.

In 1494 Henry VII strengthened the town’s fortifications by building the square tower. Henry also changed the destiny of Portsmouth when he built a dockyard in 1495. The dockyard was a place where royal warships could be built or repaired. From then on Portsmouth became a naval port. The dockyard was built a short distance north of the town. At first, it consisted of a single dry dock.

Portsmouth in the 16th century

In 1527 Henry VIII enlarged the Portsmouth dockyard. In 1540 Henry closed the Domus Dei. It was turned into an armory. Later it became part of the military governor’s residence.

Henry also built a castle, east of Portsmouth, overlooking the sea. Southsea Castle, as it is called, was built in 1544. Then in 1545, Henry VIII watched as his warship Mary Rose sank in the Solent.

However, in the late 16th century, Portsmouth declined in importance. Other dockyards were opened on the Thames. They took business away from Portsmouth. In the late 16th century and early 17th century, ships were repaired at Portsmouth but none were actually built.

Portsmouth also suffered an outbreak of plague in 1563. About 300 people died, which was a significant number in a town of perhaps 2,000 people.

Nevertheless, the population of Tudor Portsmouth continued to grow and it might have reached about 2,500 by 1600. In the Elizabethan period, people began to build houses on the little peninsula called Point.

Old Portsmouth
Old Portsmouth

Portsmouth in the 17th century

Early in the 17th century, Portsmouth was described as a poor and beggarly town. In 1625 there was another outbreak of plague. But under Charles I (1625-49) Portsmouth began to regain some of its former importance.

In 1628 one of the king’s advisers, the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in the town. He was stabbed to death by a sailor called John Felton in a house on High Street. Felton was hanged for the crime and his body was hanged in chains on land east of the town until it decomposed as a warning to others.

Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. Most of the people in Portsmouth, including the mayor supported parliament. But the military governor of the town, Colonel Goring supported the king and commanded the soldiers in Portsmouth.

The navy sided with parliament and Portsmouth was blockaded by sea. Parliament sent men to besiege Portsmouth by land. Southsea Castle was taken after only token resistance. The guns of Southsea Castle were then used to fire at the town of Portsmouth. On the other side of Portsmouth, the town of Gosport joined the parliamentary side. Here too, guns were set up and fired at Portsmouth.

Besieged by land and sea and with no support in the town, Goring realized the situation was hopeless. He decided to surrender but he obtained good terms. He threatened to explode a gunpowder magazine and wreck the town unless he was allowed to escape from Portsmouth unharmed. He was duly allowed to escape with his few supporters.

Then in 1662 King Charles II married a Portuguese woman named Catherine of Braganza in Portsmouth.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1646 Portsmouth prospered. In 1650 a ship called the Portsmouth was launched in the Dockyard. It was the first ship to be built in the town in over 100 years. Between 1650 and 1660 12 ships were built in Portsmouth and the town was very busy. Its population had probably grown to over 3,000.

In the late 17th century Portsmouth dockyard (and the town) continued to grow. In 1663 a new wharf was built for the exclusive use of the navy and the dockyard. In 1665 a mast pond was dug (masts were soaked in it for years to season them). As the dockyard lay north of the town surrounded by fields it was easy for it to expand.

In 1667-85 the fortifications around the town were rebuilt. New walls were built with many bastions (triangular towers). Two moats were dug outside the walls separated by a strip of land. Afterward, Portsmouth was one of the most heavily fortified towns in Europe.

Portsmouth in the 18th century

At the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, Portsmouth Dockyard continued to expand. New docks and warehouses were built. A church dedicated to St Anne was built in 1704. Rows of houses were built in the dockyard for senior officers who needed to be close to their work. A naval academy for training naval officers was opened in the dockyard in 1733.

Meanwhile, the town of Portsmouth had reached the bursting point by the end of the 17th century. So people began to build houses north of the town in the area known as the Common, near the dockyard. The first houses were built there in about 1690.

But the governor of the dockyard was alarmed by this new development. He feared that if houses were built near the dockyard they would provide cover for advancing enemy troops. In 1703 he threatened to fire his cannons at any new houses. (The dockyard had its own guns).

But the dockyard workers appealed to Prince George the husband of Queen Anne, who was visiting Portsmouth at the time. In 1704 royal permission was given for people to build houses 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 1770s 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 the 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 the power to light the streets with oil lamps and from 1783 they appointed night watchmen to patrol the streets.

In 1733 a rich man left land in his will. The land was to be rented and the money was used to provide a free school. Portsmouth Grammar School opened on Penny Street in 1750. Despite its founder’s intention it later became a fee-paying school.

Portsmouth in the 19th century

In 1811 Portsmouth gained its first piped water supply, but you had to pay to be connected and only the rich and middle class could afford it. In 1820 the Portsea Improvement Commissioners installed gas street lighting. Old Portsmouth followed in 1823.

In the 18th century, Portsmouth was limited to the southwest corner of Portsea Island. During the 19th century, it spread across the whole island. By the 1790s a new suburb was growing up around Commercial Road and Charlotte Street. It became known as Landport after the Landport gate.

As Portsmouth grew it reached the village of Buckland. By the 1860s this village had been ‘swallowed up’. By 1871 the population of Portsmouth had grown to 100,000. In the late 1870s and 1880s, Stamshaw was built up. At the same time, the village of Fratton was also ‘swallowed up’ by the growing city.

In 1809 a new suburb began to grow. It became known as Southsea after the castle. The first houses were built for skilled workers in the ‘mineral’ streets (Silver Street, Nickel Street, etc).

Slightly later middle-class houses were built in Kings Terrace and Hampshire Terrace. But the new suburb remained small until 1835. Then it surged eastwards. By the 1860s the suburb of Southsea had grown along Clarendon Road as far as Granada Road.

In 1857 Southsea gained its own Improvement Commissioners responsible for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets.

Meanwhile, another suburb was growing. This one was working class. About 1820 some houses were built west of Green Road on land belonging to Mr. Somers. The new suburb was named Somerstown. By the late 1880s growth had spread to Fawcett Road and Lawrence Road.

Meanwhile further south in the 1860s and 1870s growth spread along Albert Road. The roads around Festing Road were built in the 1880s.

South of Southsea were two marshes. One, the Little Morass stood near Old Portsmouth. It was drained in 1820-23. Another larger marsh, the Great Morass, existed south of Albert Road. It was not drained till the late 19th century.

Clarence Esplanade was built by convict labour in 1848. Clarence Pier opened in 1861. Both are named after Lord FitzClarence who was once the military governor of Portsmouth.

Milton was built up in the late 19th century and Eastney was built up between 1890-1905. North End began to grow after 1881 when a horse-drawn tram began to operate between Portsmouth and the village of Cosham, north of Portsea Island. By 1910 the area was built up.

By 1900 the population of Portsmouth was 190,000 about the same as it is today.

Like all cities in the 19th century, Portsmouth was dirty and unhealthy. In 1848-49 more than 800 people died in a cholera epidemic.

However, things improved later in the century. In 1865-70 the council built sewers. In 1875 a bylaw stated that any house within 100 feet of the main sewer must be connected to it. Portsmouth had a water supply as early as 1811. In 1858 the council purchased the company and improved the supply. Despite these improvements in public health, 514 people died in a smallpox epidemic in 1872.

There were other improvements in amenities in Portsmouth during the 19th century. In 1836 Portsmouth gained its first modern police force. In 1878 the first public park, Victoria Park, opened. In 1883 Portsmouth gained its first public library. In 1885 the first telephone exchange opened. In 1894-96 streetlights in Portsmouth were converted from gas to electricity.

In 1849 Portsmouth gained its first modern hospital, The Royal Portsmouth Hospital. (It closed in 1979). In 1879 St James Hospital, a lunatic asylum opened near the village of Milton in the South East of Portsea Island. In 1884 an infectious diseases hospital opened near the village. St Mary’s Hospital opened at Milton in 1898.

There were also improvements in transport in the 19th century. In 1840 the first horse-drawn buses began running in Portsmouth. They were followed, in 1865 by horse-drawn trams. In 1847 the railway reached Portsmouth.

In 1818-22 a canal was built across Portsea Island. The Portsmouth to Arundel Canal began just outside the town where Arundel Street is today (hence its name). It ran along the site of the railway between Portsmouth and Fratton. It then ran along the site of Goldsmith Avenue to Milton then ran south of Locksway Road to locks on the southeastern shore of Portsea Island. The barges were towed by steam tugs across the sea into Chichester Harbour where the canal began again. The canal closed in 1838.

The fortifications around Portsmouth were rebuilt. The old walls around the town were now obsolete. They were demolished in the 1860s. The millpond between Old Portsmouth and Portsea was filled in the year 1876.

In 1862-68 a chain of forts was built along Portsdown Hill, which overlooks the town. Since the 18th century, there had been an earth rampart across the north of Portsea Island manned by marines. This was rebuilt in the 1860s. In 1867 a Marine Barracks was built in the hamlet of Eastney.

Portsmouth in the 20th century

After 1900 Portsmouth continued to grow. By 1910 the village of Copnor had been engulfed by the expanding city. Growth also spread north to Hilsea.

In 1920 the boundaries of Portsmouth were extended to include the village of Cosham north of Portsea Island and in 1932 to include Drayton and Farlington to the northeast. This area was growing rapidly and soon all these villages became suburbs of the growing city. In 1934-36 Highbury estate was built south of Cosham.

The first council houses were built in 1911 in Portsea in Curzon Howe Road. In the 1920s more council houses were built at Wymering, west of Cosham. Other council houses were built at Hilsea Crescent Hilsea and at Henderson Road Eastney. In the 1930’s many more council houses were built at Wymering. They were needed as slum clearance was taking place in Portsea. By 1939 the population of Portsmouth reached 260,000.

The old horse-drawn trams were replaced by electric ones in 1901-03. But the electric trams were replaced closed in 1935-36. The first motor buses in Portsmouth began running in 1919. Other facilities continued to improve. Queen Alexandra Hospital opened on the slopes of Portsdown Hill in 1908.

Six cinemas opened in 1910. By 1939 there were more than 30 cinemas in Portsmouth. A golf course opened at Great Salterns on the northeast of Portsea Island in 1926. In 1928, Cumberland House, Eastney was opened as a museum and art gallery. In 1922 the council purchased Southsea Common, a stretch of land by the sea, and laid it out with gardens, bowling greens, and tennis courts.

During the Second World War Portsmouth was an obvious target for German bombing because it was a major naval base. Altogether 930 people were killed in Portsmouth by bombing. There were 67 air raids on Portsmouth between July 1940 and May 1944. The worst was on 24 August 1940 when 125 people were killed, on 10 January 1941 when 171 people were killed, and on 27 April 1941 when 102 people were killed. Furthermore, on 15 July 1944, a V1 flying bomb hit Newcomen Road in Stamshaw, killing 15 people. Also, 6,625 houses were destroyed and a further 6,549 were severely damaged.

After the war, the most pressing need was for new housing. At first Portsmouth council erected prefabs (houses made in sections in factories that could be fitted together in a few days). Some were erected on bomb sites. Others were erected on Portsdown Hill above Cosham. More than 700 prefab houses were built in 1945-47.

In February 1946 the council began to build more permanent houses, most of them off Portsea Island. A new estate was built at Paulsgrove, northwest of the city. The first houses were built there in 1946. The estate was completed by 1953. The population of Paulsgrove now stands at 15,000.

Another estate was built at Leigh Park about 10 miles Northeast of Portsmouth. The first houses were ready in 1949 but the building went on till 1974. By then the population of Leigh Park had risen to 40,000. n Apart from wartime bombing another reason for building new houses was slum clearance. In 1955 a survey showed that 7,000 houses in Portsmouth were unfit for human habitation.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a whole section of central Portsmouth was rebuilt including Landport, Somerstown, and Buckland. As well as demolishing slums the council gave people grants to improve their homes.

Several new council estates were built in the early 1970s. Portsdown Park was a mixture of flats and houses built on Portsdown Hill above Cosham. But Portsdown Park soon began to suffer dampness. Efforts to cure the damp failed and in 1987 the estate was demolished. It was replaced by private housing.

Other council houses were built some miles north of Portsmouth at Crookhorn and Wecock Farm.

From the late 1970s, many new private houses were built in Portsmouth. In the late 1970s, an estate was built at Gatcombe Park in Hilsea. In the 1980s another estate was built at Anchorage Park on the North East corner of Portsea Island. In the 1990s a new estate and marina were built at Port Solent North West of Portsea Island.

In the 1980s shopping malls were built, the Bridge Centre in Fratton and the Cascades in Commercial Road.

In the early 20th century the main employer in Portsmouth was the dockyard. It employed 8,000 men in 1900. During the First World War, the number rose to 23,000 but it fell to 9,000 when the war ended. In the 1930s the threat of another war led to an expansion of the dockyard workforce.

Meanwhile, other industries like brewing and corset-making prospered. A new employer was the Airspeed factory, which made parts for aircraft. It opened in the North East of Portsea Island.

After World War II the city council tried to diversify industry in Portsmouth. An industrial estate was built in Fratton in 1946-48. Other industrial estates were built in the 1950s at Paulsgrove and Farlington. In the 1960s a new industrial estate began at Hilsea north of Burrfields Road. In the 1980s new industrial estates were built at Cosham and at Hilsea.

The pattern of employment in Portsmouth changed rapidly. The dockyard workforce was drastically reduced.

Traditional industries like brewing and corset making vanished but electrical and electronic engineering became a major employer. There was also a large increase in the number of jobs in service industries. In 1968 Zurich Insurance moved its headquarters to Portsmouth. In 1979 IBM UK moved its headquarters to the city.

Tourism also became a major industry in Portsmouth. Mary Rose, the Tudor warship was raised from the seabed in 1982 and became a museum. The D-Day Story opened in 1984 and in 1987 HMS Warrior, Britain’s first iron warship was moved to Portsmouth.

Meanwhile, The Cascades shopping mall opened in 1989.

Portsmouth in the 21st century

In the early 21st century Portsmouth is still a thriving city. Tourism is flourishing. In 2001 a new shopping centre opened at Gunwharf Quays. Also in 2001, the Millennium Promenade opened. The Pompey Centre was built in 2003. The Spinnaker Tower opened in 2005.

In 2023 the population of Portsmouth was 208,000.

A Timeline of Portsmouth


Jean de Gisors founds a town at Portsmouth


A parish church is built


The king grants Portsmouth a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights)


The Domus Dei (House of God) is built


The French burn Portsmouth


The French burn Portsmouth again


The French attack Portsmouth again


The French burn Portsmouth for the last time. Afterward, a wooden wall is built around the town.

c. 1418

The Round Tower is built


The Bishop of Chichester is murdered in Portsmouth


The Square Tower is built


Henry VII founds Portsmouth Dockyard


A great chain of iron is built across Portsmouth Harbour


Henry VIII extends the Dockyard


Henry closes the Domus Dei


Southsea Castle is built


Portsmouth has a population of maybe 2,000 but 300 are killed by an outbreak of plague


Plague strikes Portsmouth again


The Duke of Buckingham is assassinated by John Felton in Portsmouth


Parliamentary soldiers capture Southsea Castle then Portsmouth


A new wharf, the Gun Wharf is built for the navy and Dockyard


The fortifications around Portsmouth are rebuilt


The population of Portsmouth is about 3,500


St Anne’s Church is built in the Dockyard. Dockyard workers are given permission to build houses on the Common by the Dockyard and a new suburb (Portsea) grows.


A man leaves money in his will to found Portsmouth Grammar School


A body of men is formed in Portsea with the power to pave and clean the streets


A similar body is formed in Old Portsmouth


Isambard Kingdom Brunel is born in Portsmouth


Charles Dickens is born in Portsmouth


A new suburb begins at Southsea


Gas street lights are installed in Portsea. Old Portsmouth follows in 1823.


The first modern police force is formed in Portsmouth


Horse drawn buses start to run in Portsmouth


The railway reaches Portsmouth


The first modern hospital in Portsmouth opens


The streets of Southsea are paved, lit and cleaned for the first time


Clarence Pier is built


Horse drawn trams begin running in Portsmouth


Portsmouth council builds sewers


St James Hospital opens


The first public library in Portsmouth opens


A Telephone Exchange opens


St Mary’s Hospital opens


Trams are converted to electricity


The first council houses in Portsmouth are built in Curzon Howe Road


The first motor buses begin running


The boundaries of Portsmouth are extended to include Cosham


The corporation purchases Southsea Common


The Cumberland House opens as a museum and art gallery


The boundaries of Portsmouth are extended to include Drayton and Farlington


Highbury estate is built


The last tram runs in Portsmouth

World War II

930 people are killed by bombs


The council begins building a new estate at Paulsgrove


A survey shows that 7,000 houses in Portsmouth are unfit for human habitation. In the 1960s and early 1970s, large areas of the city are rebuilt


The Mary Rose is raised


The D Day Museum opens


HMS Warrior comes to Portsmouth


The Cascades Shopping Centre opens in Portsmouth


A new shopping centre opens at Gunwharf


The Spinnaker Tower opens