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Portsmouth as seen from Ryde - geograph.org.uk - 1406986.jpg
Portsmouth Skyline viewed from Ryde
Island: Portsea Island
Grid reference: SU628006
Location: 50°48’6"N, 1°6’37"W
Population: 442,252  (est.)
Postcode: PO
Dialling code: 023
Local Government
Council: Portsmouth

Portsmouth in Hampshire is the home of the Royal Navy, for which it is the greatest and most famous port. Portsmouth is also the largest city in the county after Southampton, 19 miles to the north-west.

The city stands on its own island, Portsea Island, on the south coast of Great Britain, facing the English Channel with a capacious, sheltered, natural harbour, which has been its foundation and fortune.

As a significant naval port for centuries, Portsmouth is home to the world's oldest dry dock still in use and also home to some famous ships, including the HMS Warrior and Lord Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory. Although smaller than in its heyday, the naval base remains a major dockyard and base for the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Commandos, whose Headquarters resides there. There is also a thriving commercial ferryport serving destinations on the continent for freight and passenger traffic.

The city's fond nickname is Pompey, which is also a nickname for Portsmouth Football Club. The nickname is thought to have derived from shipping entering Portsmouth harbour making an entry in their logs as Pom. P. in reference to Portsmouth Point. Navigational charts also use this abbreviation.

The Spinnaker Tower is a striking recent addition to the city's skyline. It can be found in the redeveloped former shore base, HMS Vernon, which is now an area of retail outlets, restaurants, clubs and bars now known as Gunwharf Quays.

Portsmouth is at the heart of a wider Urban Area which includes Fareham, Portchester, Gosport, Havant. Portsmouth combines with Southampton to form a single metropolitan area of some million and a half people.


There have been settlements in the area since before Roman times.[1] Portchester was a Roman base (Portus Adurni) and possibly the home of the Classis Britannica.[2]

Foundation and Middle Ages

Portsmouth was one of the early conquests of the Gewissae, the West Saxons who gave it its name, meaning "mouth of the Portus harbour".[3] In the late 9th century the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled, its earliest history from early traditions, and it states that in 501 "Portesmuða" was founded by a Saxon warrior called Port,[4] though historians do not accept that origin of the name.[5] The Chronicle states[6] that:

Her cwom Port on Bretene 7 his .ii. suna Bieda 7 Mægla mid .ii. scipum on þære stowe þe is gecueden Portesmuþa 7 ofslogon anne giongne brettiscmonnan, swiþe æþelne monnan. (Here Port and his 2 sons Bieda and Mægla came to Britain with 2 ships to the place which is called Portsmouth and slew a young British man, a very noble man.

The battle is attested in early Welsh sources as the Battle of Llongborth. The poem names the Chronicle's "young British man of nobility" as Geraint map Erbin. (The name Llongborth means "battleship-port"; as appropriate a name today as in the sub-Roman period.)

Most early records of Portsmouth are thought to have been destroyed by Norman invaders following the Norman Conquest.[7] The earliest detailed references to Portsmouth can be found in the Southwick Cartularies.[8]

The Cathedral Church of St Thomas
An aerial view of Old Portsmouth

The Domesday Book has no mention of Portsmouth,[9] though villages that were later to form part of Portsmouth are listed. At this time it is estimated the Portsmouth area had a population not greater than two or three hundred. Whereas Portsea had a small church before 1166, Portsmouth's first real church came into being in 1181 when a chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket was built by Augustinian monks[10] and run by the monks of Southwick Priory until the Reformation. The modern Portsmouth Cathedral is built on the original location of the chapel.[11]

Portsmouth is commonly regarded as having been refounded in 1180 by John of Gisors (Jean de Gisors).[12]

In 1194 King Richard I, The Lionheart, returned from being held captive in Austria, and set about summoning a fleet and an army to Portsmouth, which Richard had taken over from John of Gisors. On 2 May 1194 the King gave Portsmouth its first Royal Charter granting permission for the borough to hold a fifteen-day annual "Free Market Fair", weekly markets, to set up a local court to deal with minor matters, and exemption from paying the annual tax, with the money instead used for local matters. King Richard later went on to build a number of houses and a hall in Portsmouth. The hall is thought to have been at the current location of the Clarence Barracks (the area was previously known as Kingshall Green).

Some believe that the crescent and eight-point star found on the thirteenth century common seal of the borough was derived from the arms of William de Longchamp, Lord Chancellor to Richard I at the time of the granting of the charter but it is actually the granting by Richard of the arms of the defeated Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus (Isaac had held Richard's fiancee and sister captive; and he conquered Cyprus as a result, in the Third Crusade. His awarding of the arms could possibly reflect a significant involvement of Portsmouth soldiers, sailors or vessels in that operation.).[13] The crescent and star, in gold on a blue shield, were subsequently recorded by the College of Arms as the arms of the borough.[14]

In 1200 King John reaffirmed the rights and privileges awarded by King Richard. King John's desire to invade Normandy resulted in the establishment of Portsmouth as a permanent naval base, and soon afterward construction began on the first docks, and the Hospital of St Nicholas, which performed its duties as an almshouse and hospice. During the thirteenth century Portsmouth was commonly used by Henry III and Edward I as a base for attacks against France.

By the fourteenth century commercial interests had grown considerably. Common imports included wool, grain, wheat, woad, wax and iron, however the port's largest trade was in wine from Bayonne and Bordeaux.[15]

The Round Tower, built in 1418 to defend the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour

In 1338 a French fleet led by Nicholas Béhuchet raided Portsmouth, destroying much of the town, with only the local church and hospital surviving. Edward III gave the town exemption from national taxes to aid reconstruction. Only ten years after this devastation the town for the first time was struck by the Black Death. In order to prevent the regrowth of Portsmouth as a threat, the French again sacked the city in 1369, 1377 and 1380. Henry V built the first permanent fortifications of Portsmouth. In 1418 he ordered a wooden Round Tower be built at the mouth of the harbour, which was completed in 1426.

Modern period

Henry VII rebuilt the fortifications with stone, raised a square tower, and assisted Robert Brygandine and Sir Reginald Bray in the construction of the world's first dry dock.[16] In 1527, with some of the money from the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII built Southsea Castle and decreed that Portsmouth be home of the Royal Navy he founded.[17] In 1545, he saw his vice-flagship Mary Rose founder off Southsea Castle, with a loss of about 500 lives, while going into action against the French fleet. Over the years, Portsmouth's fortifications were rebuilt and improved by successive monarchs.

In 1628 the unpopular favorite of Charles I, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death in an Old Portsmouth pub by a veteran of Villiers' most recent military folly, John Felton. The murder took place in the "Greyhound" Public House (popularly known as "The Spotted Dog"), High Street; this is now a private building called Buckingham House and it bears a commemorative plaque to mark the event.[18]

During the English Civil War the arsenal at the Square Tower was surrendered by its royalist commander in return for safe passage out of the city for himself and the garrison.[19] The City would become a major base for the Parliamentary Navy during the war. During the Commonwealth, the father of the Royal Navy, Robert Blake, would use Portsmouth as his main base, during both the Anglo-Dutch war and the Anglo-Spanish war. He died within sight of the city after his final cruise off Cadiz.[20]

On 13 May 1787 11 ships sailed from Portsmouth, to establish the first European colony in Australia; it also marked the beginning of prisoner transports to that continent. It is known today as the First Fleet in Australia.[21]

Nineteenth century

HMS Warrior, 1860
Portsmouth Harbour

Peace Portsmouth has a long history of supporting the Royal Navy logistically, leading to its importance in the development of the Industrial Revolution. Marc Isambard Brunel, the father of famed Portsmouth engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, established in 1802 the world's first mass production line at the Portsmouth Block Mills, to mass-produce pulley blocks for rigging on the Royal Navy's ships. At its height the Dockyard was the largest industrial site in the world.[22]

Admiral Nelson left Portsmouth for the final time in 1805 to command the fleet that would defeat the larger Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. Trafalgar marked the end of threats to British supremacy at sea, but the war on land and at sea dragged on for ten years more and Portsmouth was busy with warships, troop transports and merchantmen throughout.

Peace came at last in 1814, and after the Hundred Days, again in 1815, this time at settled peace and beginning of the Fleet's role in consolidating the Empire.

In 1818 John Pounds began teaching the working class children of Portsmouth this would become the country's first Ragged School. These schools and the resulting movement would aim to provide education to all children regardless of their ability to pay, and was keenly supported by Charles Dickens.

The Royal Navy's reliance on Portsmouth led to the city becoming the most fortified in Europe,[22] with a network of forts (a subset of "Palmerston's Follies") encircling the city. From 1808 the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, who were tasked to stop the slave trade, operated out of Portsmouth.[23] On 21 December 1872 a major scientific expedition, the Challenger Expedition, was launched from Portsmouth.

Twentieth century

In 1916 the town experienced its first aerial bombardment when a Zeppelin airship bombed it during the First World War.[24] During the Second World War, the city was bombed extensively destroying many houses and the Guildhall.[25] 930 people died in the air raids on Portsmouth and nearly 3,000 others were injured. There were also many injuries and deaths in the dockyard and naval and military establishments.[26]

In 1926 Portsmouth was granted city status,[27] following a long campaign by the borough council. The application was made on the grounds that Portsmouth was the "first naval port of the kingdom". Two years later the city received the further honour of a lord mayoralty.[28] In 1929 the city council added the motto "Heaven's Light Our Guide" to the mediæval coat of arms. Apart from referring to the celestial objects in the arms, the motto was that of the Order of the Star of India, which recalled that troopships bound for the colony left from the port.[14] Further changes were made to the arms in 1970, when the Portsmouth Museums Trust sponsored the grant of crest, supporters and heraldic badge. The crest and supporters are based on those of the royal arms, but altered to show the city's maritime connections: the lions and unicorn have been given fish tails, and a naval crown placed around the latter animal. Around the unicorn is wrapped a representation of "The Mighty Chain of Iron", a Tudor defensive boom across Portsmouth Harbour.[29]

Portsmouth's status as a major port drew the Luftwaffe's bombers in the Second World War, and the bombing was heavy and relentless. While most of the city has since been rebuilt, developers still occasionally find unexploded bombs around the area. Southsea beach and Portsmouth Harbour were vital military embarkation points for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. Southwick House, just to the north of Portsmouth, had been chosen as the headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower, during D-Day.[30]

After the war, much of the city's housing stock was damaged and more was cleared in an attempt to improve the quality of housing. Those people affected by this were moved out from the centre of the city to new developments such as Paulsgrove and Leigh Park.[31] Post-war redevelopment throughout the country was characterised by utilitarian and brutalist architecture, with Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre one of the most infamous examples. More recently, a new wave of redevelopment has seen Tricorn's demolition, the renewal of derelict industrial sites, and construction of the Spinnaker Tower.[32]


East facing aerial view of Portsmouth (with Gosport in the foreground)
View over Portsmouth from Portsdown Hill

Most of the city of Portsmouth lies on Portsea Island, overlooking Spithead, where the Solent joins the English Channel. This makes Portsmouth the United Kingdom's only city on its own island. It is also the most densely populated place in Britain after Inner London.[33] The island is separated from the mainland to the north by a narrow creek, bridged in places to make it a peninsula in appearance. The sheltered Portsmouth Harbour lies to the west of the island and the large tidal bay of Langstone Harbour is to the east.

Portsdown Hill dominates the skyline to the north, providing a magnificent panoramic view over the city, and to the south are the waters of the Solent with the Isle of Wight beyond.

Being a coastal city, it is low-lying: the majority of its surface area is only about ten feet above sea level. The highest natural point on Portsea Island is Kingston Cross at 21 feet.

The west of the city is mainly council estates such as Buckland, Landport and Portsea. These were built to replace Victorian terraces destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. After the war the massive estate of Leigh Park (one of the largest housing developments of its kind in Europe) was built to solve the chronic housing shortage during the post-war reconstruction.

Part of Old Portsmouth, the oldest part of the city, was known as Spice Island. Literally outside of the law once the city gates were closed, it was infamous for its pubs and other establishments, which attracted sailors on their "runs ashore".[34]

City centre

Portsmouth City Centre from Spinnaker Tower

The city centre is the main shopping area in Portsmouth, mainly sited around the shopping streets Commercial Road, Edinburgh Road, Arundel Street, Crasswell Street and Charlotte Street.[35] The City Centre is home to the Cascades Shopping Centre and major high street stores. To the north of the City Centre is the Victory Retail Park. Portsmouth and Southsea railway station (the city's central station) is located to the south of the city centre, close to the Guildhall and the Civic Offices. Just to the south of the Guildhall is Guildhall Walk, a street which is known for its bars and clubs, such as Walkabout, VBar, Pure, and Babylon (a club that only plays music from the 90s)

Located in Edinburgh Road are the Portsmouth Roman Catholic cathedral and Victoria Park, also to the west of the city centre is the home ground of Portsmouth's second football team United Services Portsmouth Football Club.

The most significant project is at the Northern Quarter, centred on the former Tricorn site, which will form a new regional shopping destination.[36] The development will provide new shops, cafés and restaurants.


A tenth of the city's workforce works at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, which is directly linked to the city's biggest industry, defence, with the headquarters of BAE Systems Surface Ships located in the city. BAE's Portsmouth Shipyard has been awarded a share of the construction work on the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.[37][38] This will create 3000 new jobs in the city.[39] There is also a major ferry port which deals with both passengers and cargo. The city is also host to the European headquarters of IBM, and the UK headquarters of Zurich Financial Services, and of Northrop Grumman.

HMS Calliope in port (1884)

In the last decade the number of shops in Portsmouth has grown dramatically due to both the buoyancy of the local economy and improved transport links. In the city centre, shopping is centred around Commercial Road and the 1980s Cascades Shopping Centre, with over 100 high street shops between them. Recent redevelopment has created new shopping areas, including the upmarket Gunwharf Quays, containing fashion stores, restaurants, and a cinema; and the Historic Dockyard, which aims at the tourist sector and holds regular French markets, and an annual Christmas market. Large shopping areas include Ocean Retail Park, on the north-eastern side of Portsea Island, comprising shops requiring large floor space for selling consumer goods; and the Bridge Centre, a shopping centre built in 1988. There are many smaller shopping areas throughout the city.

Tourism is a growing sector of the economy, with the harbour and the Spinnaker Tower being amongst the largest attractions.

There is also a small fishing fleet based in the city.[40]

The housing boom has also spurned economic growth with prices rising at a speed second only to London.[41]


Portsmouth is among only a few British cities that have two cathedrals; the Church of England's Portsmouth Cathedral of St Thomas in Old Portsmouth and the Roman Catholic cathedral of St John the Evangelist, in Edinburgh Road, Portsea.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth was founded in 1882 by Pope Leo XIII. Vatican policy in England at the time was to found sees in locations other than those used for Anglican cathedrals and the Ecclesiastical Titles Act forbade a Roman Catholic bishop from bearing the same title as one in the established church. Accordingly, Portsmouth was chosen in preference to Winchester.[42]

In 1927 the Diocese of Winchester in the Church of England was divided and St Thomas's Church became the cathedral for the newly created Diocese of Portsmouth.[43] When St Mary's Church, Portsea, was rebuilt in Victorian times, it had been envisaged that it might be the cathedral if Portsmouth became the seat of a bishop, but St Thomas's was given the honour because of its historic status.

Another historic old Portsmouth church, the Garrison Church, was bombed during the Second World War with the nave kept roofless as a memorial. Of more modern buildings, St Philip's Cosham is cited as a fine example of Ninian Comper's work. There are numerous other active churches and places of worship throughout the city. There are some mosques, a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery in the city.

The city also has three Salvation Army churches: Portsmouth Citadel, Portsmouth North and Southsea.


Gunwharf Quays Shopping District
Fratton Park, home to Portsmouth FC

The city has two theatres – both designed by the Victorian/Edwardian architect and entrepreneur Frank Matcham. The New Theatre Royal in Guildhall Walk near to the City Centre, specialises in classical, modern and avant-garde drama and the newly restored Kings Theatre in Southsea's Albert Road has many amateur musicals as well an increasing number of national tours.[44] Other venues include the Third Floor Arts Venue in the Central Library and the South Parade Pier, as well as the Portsmouth Guildhall itself, which hosts numerous musical events and an extensive annual programme of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and is on the national touring circuit of well known singers and groups [see below].

The city has three established music venues: The Wedgewood Rooms, The Pyramids and The Guildhall, an imposing neoclassical building designed by William Hill and based on an earlier design used for the town hall in Bolton, Lancashire.

For many years a series of symphony concerts has been presented at the Guildhall by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. In 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988 and 1991 the city was host to a major international string quartet competition. Later the competition moved to London.

Portsmouth also runs its own series of concerts encompassing a range of music at the Bandstand in Southsea Common.

The City hosts yearly remembrances of the D-Day landings to which veterans from the Allied nations travel to attend.[45] The City played a major part in the 50th D-Day anniversary with then US President Bill Clinton visiting the city[46]

Portsmouth in popular culture

In the vast canon of naval adventures, Portsmouth features frequently, thinking most prominently of Forster's Hornblower books and Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series; in the latter Portsmouth is most often the port from which Captain Jack Aubrey's ships sail, and Portsmouth is mentioned at least once in each of the twenty books of the series.

In Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, Portsmouth is the hometown of the main character Fanny Price,[47] and is the setting of most of the closing chapters of the book.

In Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, the hero and Smike make their way to Portsmouth and get involved in a theatrical troupe.[48]

Portsmouth Point is an overture for orchestra by the English composer William Walton. The work was inspired by Rowlandson's print depicting Portsmouth Point. It was used as an opening for a Proms Concert in the 2007 season.

H.M.S. Pinafore, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, which is set in Portsmouth Harbour. Using the operetta music of Sullivan (arranged by Charles Mackerras) and The Bumboat Woman's Story by Gilbert, John Cranko's 1951 ballet Pineapple Poll is set at the quayside in Portsmouth.

Graham Hurley's D.I. Faraday/D.C. Winter novels are all located in the city and surrounding area.[49]

Portsmouth is the chief location for Jonathan Meades' novel Pompey, in which it is inhabited largely by vile, corrupt, flawed freaks. He has subsequently admitted that he had never actually visited the city at that time. Since then he has sought to make amends by presenting a television programme about the Victorian architecture in Portsmouth Dockyard.[50]

Tourist attractions

Spinnaker Tower, Harbourfront
HMS Victory in dry dock

Most of Portsmouth's tourist attractions are related to its naval history. In the last decade Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard has been given a much needed face-lift. Among the attractions are the D-Day museum (which holds the Overlord embroidery)[51] and, in the historic dockyard, HMS Victory, the remains of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose (raised from the seabed in 1982), HMS Warrior (Britain's first iron-clad warship) and the Royal Naval Museum. The last weekend of November each year the Historic Dockyard host the Victorian Festival of Christmas, which is the largest event of its kind in the UK.

Many of the city's former defences now host museums or events. Several of the Victorian era forts on Portsdown Hill are now tourist attractions. Fort Nelson is now home to the Royal Armouries museum, Fort Purbrook and Fort Widley are activity centres.[52] The Tudor era Southsea Castle has a small museum, and much of the seafront defences up to the Round Tower are open to the public. The southern part of the once large Royal Marines Eastney Barracks is now the Royal Marines Museum.[53] There are also many buildings in the city that occasionally host open days particularly those on the D-Day walk which are seen on signs around the city which note sites of particular importance in the city to Operation Overlord.

Portsmouth's long association with the armed forces means it has a large number of war memorials around the city, including several at the Royal Marines Museum, at the dockyards and in Victoria Park. In the city centre, the Guildhall Square Cenotaph displays the names of the fallen, and is guarded by stone sculptures of machine gunners carved by the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger.[54] The memorial is inscribed:


—West face

The millennium project to build the Spinnaker Tower at Gunwharf Quays was completed in 2005. The tower is 552 ft tall and features viewing decks at sea level, 325 ft, 341 ft and 357 ft.

Other tourist attractions include the birthplace of Charles Dickens, the Blue Reef Aquarium (formerly the Sea Life Centre), Cumberland House (a natural history museum), The Royal Marines Museum and Southsea Castle. Southsea's seafront is also home to Clarence Pier Amusement Park.

Portsmouth is also home to the Genesis Expo, the UK's first (and to date only) creationist museum.

English Heritage and the Ministry of Defence are in the process of turning the Portsmouth Block Mills into a museum.[55]

Outside links


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  47. Fanny Price Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Portsmouth
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  55. "Portsmouth Block Mills". Historicdockyard.co.uk. http://www.historicdockyard.co.uk/dockyard/historiclandmarks.php. Retrieved 8 March 2011. 
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