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 a 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’ and 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. Afterward, Portsmouth was one of the most heavily fortified towns in Europe.

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. 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. In the 1770s the town walls were extended to include Portsea.

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 of men 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 the 18th century, Portsmouth Cathedral was only a parish church. People who lived in Portsea were part of the parish of St Mary’s 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.

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’!