19th Century Portsmouth

By Tim Lambert

The Growth of Portsmouth

In the 18th century Portsmouth was limited to the South West 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. 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 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 1870’s growth spread along Albert Road. The roads around Festing Road were built in the 1880s.

South of Southsea were two marshes. One of them, 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 military governor of Portsmouth.

Eastney became 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. n n n Stamshaw, which became built up in the late 19th century.

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. 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. It was demolished in 1977. 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 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.

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.

Life in 19th Century Portsmouth

Well off people lived in very comfortable houses in the 19th century. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time, furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately standards of design fell. To us, middle-class 19th century homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments, and knick-knacks.

However, only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle. Working-class homes usually had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room.

In the late 19th century workers houses greatly improved. After 1875 most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size and have windows of a certain size. By the 1880s most working-class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden.

At the end of the 19th century, some houses for skilled workers were built with the latest luxury – an indoor toilet. Most homes also had a scullery. In it was a ‘copper’, a metal container for heating water for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a mangle to dry them.

However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were ‘repaired’ with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.

Gaslight first became common in well-off people’s homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s.

In the early 19th century only rich people had bathrooms. People did take baths but only a few people had actual rooms for washing. In the 1870s and 1880s, many middle-class homes had bathrooms. The water was heated by gas. Working-class people had a tin bath and washed in front of the kitchen range. In the 1890s, for the well to do, a new style or art and decoration appeared called Art Nouveau. It involved swirling and flowing lines and stylised plant forms.

In the early 19th century most of the working class lived on a dreary diet of bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher’s meat was a luxury. However, things greatly improved in the late 19th century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain from North America so bread became cheaper. Refrigeration made it possible to import cheap meat from Argentina and Australia. The consumption of sugar also increased. By the end of the 19th century, most people (not all) had a reasonably varied diet.

The first fish and chip shops in Britain opened in the 1860s. By the late 19th century they were common in towns and cities. In the late 19th century the first convenience foods in tins and jars went on sale. Although the principle of canning was invented at the end of the 18th century tinned food first became widely available in the 1880s. Furthermore, in the 1870s margarine, a cheap substitute for butter was invented.

Several new biscuits were invented in the 19th century including the Garibaldi (1861), the cream cracker (1885) and the Digestive (1892). The first chocolate bar was made in 1847.

In the 19th century, apart from cotton shirts, men’s clothes consisted of three parts. In the 18th century, they wore knee-length breeches but in the 19th-century men wore trousers. They also wore waistcoats and coats.

In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s, women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s. 

From the 1840s onward it was fashionable for women to have very small waists so they wore corsets. About 1800 women started wearing underwear for the first time. They were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were actually two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In the late 19th century women’s drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.

In the 19th century people usually wore hats. Wealthy men wore top hats. Middle-class men wore bowler hats and working men wore cloth caps. Before the 19th-century children were always dressed like little adults. In Victorian times the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits.