The ancient and inimitable port of Portsmouth, England was at one time the largest ship building and repairing harbor in the Western world. Teaming with people and outfitted with numerous wet and dry docks for ships of all shapes and sizes Portsmouth – or Pompey as she was known colloquially – was the prize of the Royal Navy. In other times, though, she was raided by Vikings, used by smugglers and merchants and a target for more than one enemy of Britannia.
Located on the English Channel southwest of London, Portsmouth by its very nature is a perfect natural harbor. Passing Spithead, one must go through a narrowing channel to arrive and the large, deep Portsmouth Harbor proper. Easily fortified both by land and sea, only the advent of airplanes made breeching Portsmouth’s defenses anything but laborious at the very least.
There have been people living in the area since Celtic times but the actual city of Portsmouth was granted its Royal Charter in 1194. By the second decade of the 13th century, the harbor and town had become an important mercantile port with goods going out including wool, grain and cheese and goods coming in almost too numerous to delineate. Portsmouth was a jumping off point for the rats that carried the Black Death and plague and other diseases, well, plagued the community for centuries.
During the same period, from 1335 to 1380, Portsmouth suffered heavily from the continuous wars between England and France. The city, built largely of wood, was burned down four times over the course of 40 plus years. Finally, as the 100 years war drew out to its anticlimactic end, Portsmouth was fortified. By 1420 the Round Tower with its cannons had been erected. Following this, an enormous chain was stretched across the mouth of the harbor. Through the use of a capstan the chain could be raised to keep out unwelcome ships.
With the defeat of the House of York in the War of the Roses, Henry VII turned his warrior attention to outside threats. In 1494 he ordered expansion of Portsmouth’s fortifications and had a dockyard built. Within a year, Portsmouth had official become a naval port. Henry VIII took up where his father left off, enlarging the dockyard, turning local monasteries into armories and naval barracks and opening four breweries to supply his privateer navy with good English beer.
Elizabeth I launched ships built at Portsmouth to defeat the Spanish Armada and the port was a favorite hangout for sea dogs like John Hawkins and Francis Drake. The Elizabethan peace and the internal turning of politics under King James saw a decline in the port. Ships were not as important as witches and Bibles to the Scottish king and Portsmouth languished. King Charles I began to reenergize ship building but the city, which was largely Parliamentarian in sympathy but held under a Royalist Governor, suffered again during the Commonwealth.
1650 saw the launch of the locally build ship HMS Portsmouth and the city came into its own. The vast wharfs, dockyards, storehouses and mast ponds that still exist today began to crop up. The population boomed with men and women who worked in and around seafaring hurrying to the city to take advantage of the jobs available (and the sailors’ money that sailed into the harbor almost daily). The Naval Academy was opened in 1733, establishing Portsmouth as second only to London in the eyes of the Admiralty. By this time to say one was “going down to Pompey” was synonymous with joining the Royal Navy.
Portsmouth in the early 19th century was amazing even to old salts who had seen their share of harbors. The grandfather of nautical fiction, Frederick Marryat, wrote in 1834 in his book Peter Simple:
When we arrived there, I was quite astonished at the piles of timber, the ranges of storehouses and the immense anchors which lay on the wharf. There was such a bustle, every body appeared to be so busy, that I wanted to look every way at once.
In 1814 the dockyard employed more than 4,200 individuals. There was also the Naval Academy, the Weevil Victualling Yard, the Gunwharf for ordinance and the Haslar Naval Hospital, not to mention countless inns, taverns and small businesses that catered to all this press of humanity. No wonder young Simple was overwhelmed.
Throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, Portsmouth continued to grow. She was important for ship repair in both World Wars and a target of Nazi bombing during the Blitz. The area was rebuilt but the dockyard as an employer began to wane in the 1960s with other industries taking its place.
Portsmouth Dockyard is still in use today and it is also a much loved historical site that preserves not only the history of the people and places that supported the seafaring industry but the ships themselves. Here you will find the Tudor man-of-war Mary Rose, a museum dedicated to the memory of D-Day, HMS Warrior, Britain’s first iron warship and, of course, HMS Victory, which left Portsmouth bearing Nelson to glory and death at Trafalgar.
And why, you may ask, is Portsmouth called Pompey? Unfortunately, no one knows for certain. This short article gives a few theories for you to consider. (Many thanks to Pompey Dockyard’s #askacurator feature for the link. Follow them on Twitter here.) Personally, I like the Roman connection of theory number three. It just feels right, somehow.
Header picture “Nelson Hoists His Flag Aboard Victory” by Bernard Finnegan Gribble.