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Titchfield History Society will be getting a bit of a reputation.  Earlier this year we learnt about the medieval brothels in London and have now progressed to the Harlots of Portsmouth.  Andrew Negus gave a light-hearted presentation, something in the style of ‘Horrible Histories’, of the early history of Portsmouth from 1100 – 1800.  He was born in Portsmouth, the only island city in the UK and having the densest population.

The island of Portsmouth was known as Portsea after about 1150, prior to that it was populated by small Hamlets, Copnor, Fratton etc with agriculture and salt making the main occupations.

The Normans under Henry I recognised Portsmouth as a safe anchorage with the Camber being a small harbour.  He used the Roman fort at Portchester to build a castle which was also a prison. Under Henry II the area around the Camber was developed and Thomas a Becket church now the Cathedral was built.  Richard I granted Portsmouth its Charter in 1194 and the Portsmouth Coat of Arms, ‘the star and crescent’ maybe in recognition of this and the crusades.

King John in 1215 was the founder of the Royal Dockyard in the Gunwharf area.  The Monastery of Domus Dei was founded then, this is now the Garrison Church.

Gunwharf was also the location of a tidal mill known as the ‘town mill’.  Portsmouth had no sewerage system up until the 19thC and was known as the dirty town due to the dung and sewage on the streets, the camber was like an open cesspit.  There was an annual fair attracting traders from around Europe.  Due to the distance they travelled it was known as the ‘dusty feet fair’, later known as the ‘pie powder fair’ derived from the French interpretation of the original name.

The time of greatest chance was from 1338 onwards at the start of the 100 years war with France. Both Portsmouth and Southampton were attached by the French.  Henry Isaw the need to strengthen the Port’s defences and built the round tower and installed the defensive chain across the harbour entrance.

Henry Tudor in about 1500 further strengthened the defences and built the square tower, moving the dockyard to its present location, later Henry VIII built Southsea Castle.

Under Elizabeth I the dockyard saw a period of decline with the Queen favouring Chatham dockyard to its proximity to the Netherlands and its threat there from.

At the start of the 17thC Charles I made George Villiers the duke of Buckingham the head of the Navy, he was murdered on a visit to Portsmouth and there is a memorial in the Cathedral said to contain his bowels.

The middle of 17C saw the civil war, following this Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in the Governor’s residence. He made his favourite mistress Louise De Keroveoille the Duchess of Portsmouth and Countess of Fareham.

Samuel Pepys became administrative head of the Navy.

The 18C saw an expansion of the City with extensive new fortifications and a new town hall, this coincided with the growth of the Navy.  In the 1780s the dockyard was the largest factory complex in the world.

It was at this time ‘The Point’, the strip of land partly enclosing the Camber became infamous. It was outside the city walls, it had 44 inns, many of which were brothels.  The whores of Portsmouth known as ‘Portsmouth Pols’ plied their trade both onshore and aboard the warships.  From this grew Nelson’s Navy and the vast Naval Dockyard we see today.   ‘That is another story’.

Colin Wilton-Smith

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