Last year Andrew Neagus treated the History Society to an early and light-hearted history of Portsmouth and its Dockyard. This month’s meeting. His second instalment covered the period of 1780 – 1860. By this time the Dockyard had become the largest Industrial complex in the world. It supplied the Navy and the growth of trade to the ever-expanding colonies. Portsea, the residential area was growing rapidly, housing many Dockyard workers. The point, which was protected by fortresses became a bawdry area, with 44 pubs/ brothels servicing the community and the sailors who came ashore. It was an area of poverty, squalor and filth, even though people worked, the pay was paltry. Press gangs operated to provide recruitment for the Navy, they toured the pubs and whore houses Many pubs had secret rooms for people to hide in when the press gangs arrived.
After losing the American War of Independence, Portsmouth became the departure point for the ships to the new colony of Australia, carrying both convicts and emigrants, the first ships carried 800 men and 200 women as well as vast quantities of supplies. The journey was 15000 miles and took over 8 months. The women’s ships were manned by sailors, and although there were many deaths throughout the convoy, more people arrived in the new world than those that had left (work it out for yourselves!). Convicts prior to departure were held in Hulks moored in the Harbour. By 1805 the Dockyard was huge. The threat from Napoleon saw the departure of Nelson for Trafalgar, before boarding Victory, he took a short detour to Bembridge to say his farewells to Emma Hamilton. His eventual triumph saw the Navy assume unrivalled power for the next 100 years. During this period the Dockyard expanded rapidly with the creation of the new Gunwharf and the Royal Clarence victualling yard at Gosport, which was huge, creating work and consequently Gosport expanded rapidly.
Andrew spoke of many of the famous sons of Portsmouth including Henry Ayers, who discovered the large rock in Australia which was named Ayers Rock after him. John Pounds who founded Ragged schools, became the inspiration for the Barnardo’s homes for children. Isambard Brunel and Charles Dickens were also born here. One person of notoriety was Jack the Painter, who supported the American War of Independence and tried to blow up the Dockyard, ending up being hung from the highest ever point of anyone hung, being the yard-arm with his body displayed at the harbour entrance in a gibbet for years thereafter.
From the growth of the Dockyard we learnt about the expansion of Portsmouth itself including the growth of Landport, and Southsea. He covered the building of the Canal and the Railway, the construction of the massive defences around Portsmouth and in the Solent, now known as Palmerston’s Follies. The development of Southsea by the Victorian architect, Thomas Owen, the creation of Southsea Common, kept clear of buildings in order to allow an open field of fire for the military. Thomas Owen financed, designed and built St Jude’s church, the spire of which was extended to provide a navigation point for ships entering the harbour.
We look forward to Andrew’s third instalment with eager anticipation.