Portsea Island at the turn of the century

Portsmouth Town and Portsea Town

Portsea Island at the beginning of the 19th century was centred on two principal areas - Portsmouth and Portsea. Hemmed in by strong fortifications, these two towns could only be developed so much before no space remained for any more buildings. This led to the development of areas outside the walls: Landport and Southsea were the key areas where expansion took place. In 1896, a Guide Book to Portsmouth identified the 'Four Towns' of Portsea Island as Portsmouth, Portsea, Landport, and Southsea. At the start of the century, however, Southsea consisted of little more than a few stray houses and an old inn. Although this was to rapidly change, Portsmouth and Portsea were at the centre of Portsea Island both socially and economically throughout the century.

The Dockyard and local trade

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Portsmouth and Portsea were particularly dominated by the presence of the Dockyard and the Navy. This military presence had lead to the fortification of Portsmouth town, with major works beginning in 1770 and concluding in 1809. Britain was at war with the French for much of this time, and there had been a long tradition of cross channel attacks.

This association was not always of benefit to the people of these towns - naval requirements for goods were normally met internally, with the Admiralty following a policy of self suffiency. Most metal and woodwork was carried out by naval employees; smiths and rope makers were employed up to as late as 1850. Even when dress became an important and leading industrial sector, it was probably focussed on the needs of Naval officers and their families rather than being more general.

Boom and Bust

Socially, the towns saw an influx of a great variety of people from differing classes and backgrounds as a result of the strong influence of the Navy on the town. Officers, sailors, merchants, entertainers, tradespeople: all were mixing in the confines of Portsmouth and Portsea. The local economy was strongly dependent on war for its success through much of this time - when the war against the French ended there was a lag before unemployment hit as ships needed repairing, but workforces did drop significantly.

Life in Portsmouth and Portsea

The two Portsmouths

Portsmouth and Portsea in the 19th century were places of mixed reputation and of varying social status. Officers and common sailors, gentlemen and petty thieves, respectable wives and fallen women: all were to be found in both towns. Portsmouth had its famous High Street, considered by some to be one of the best outside London, and nearby Point had brothels and beerhouses galore. These two aspects of the towns coexisted uneasily, with friction created by events like the annual Free Mart Fair. The fortifications of the two towns meant that buildings were crammed in, creating a geography of narrow streets, squalid dwellings and filth ridden allies behind the genteel main streets.

Living in Portsmouth

When Dr George Pinckard visited Portsmouth in 1795 he described it as "crowded with a class of low and abandoned beings, who seem to have declared open war against every habit of common decency and decorum." In 1805 an anonymous commentator described it as "low, and aguish." Portsmouth did have its growing middle class, but a large proportion of its inhabitants were extremely poor. Houses were badly built, with older houses allowing damp in through dilapidated cellars and newer buildings being quickly and shoddily made. For children, malnutrition and lack of clothing were persistent problems, an the annual death rate of children under five was well above the national average. Out in the harbour loomed convict hulks where prisoners languished. Life in Portsmouth for the lower classes must have been harrowing to say the least.

Press gangs and pickpockets

There were many other hazards and dangers for the people of this time. Portsmouth and Portsea attracted a fair deal of criminal activity, which is detailed in more depth in another section of this theme. Pickpocketing, for example, was particularly common at events like the annual Free Mart Fair, and there are many reports in the Hampshire Telegraph, the local newspaper, of this kind of theft occurring.

It was also not uncommon for press gangs to descend on revellers at the end of an evening, searching for those attempting to avoid their duty to become seamen. Such actions were supposed to only bring in eligible seamen but little distinction was made by the gangs. At best this could mean a night on a ship for release on the grounds of exemption - at worst a new career as a sailor.

Crime and Punishment


It is unsurprising, given the squalid living conditions and short lives faced by many of their inhabitants, that crime was a regular part of everyday life in Portsmouth and Portsea. An undermanned and underpaid police force that was regularly assaulted and was susceptible to drunkenness and bribery did not help matters very much. Drunk sailors, unemployed labourers, loose women and vagrant children all contributed to the situation in differing ways. Crime was punished harshly, with the pillory and transportation to Australia being two common sentences. Children were often treated in the same way as adults, receiving similarly harsh punishments.

Transportation to Australia

The punishment of crime in the early 19th century was significantly different to the present day. There was a much greater emphasis on the importance of property than there is presently. It was not unusual for those guilty of stealing property to receive sentences of transportation to Australia while offences such as prostitution were far less harshly punished. The Hampshire Telegraph often featured reports on sentencing like the one adjacent, where William Stentford was sentenced to "seven years transportation for stealing ducks" and that Martha Chamberlain was sentenced for "twelve months and to stand in the pillory" for enticing servant girls into prostitution.

Problems with Prostitution

Prostitution was rife in the 19th century, and Portsmouth was certainly no exception to the general trend. Further into the century, Portsmouth saw the establishment of a Female Penitentiary in 1831 and a Rescue Society in the 1860s, but the early part of the century offered much less charity. Even when refuge was available, the regimes in such institutions were draconian. The introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 was equally harsh, in its simplest form allowing the police to jail any woman refusing to submit to medical examination. It is difficult to judge how many individuals were involved in prostitution in the early to mid 1800s as crime figures were not really existent till later in the century but it was certainly a part of life.

Portsmouth pleads for leniency

Despite the harsh sentences meted out for criminal acts, Portsmouth was in some respects quite progressive in its attitude to punishment. In 1819, for example, a petition requesting leniency and the revision of the penal code was signed by a number of individuals. The town council also petitioned Parliament in 1847, arguing that flogging members of the armed forces sometimes to death was degrading, and asking for leniency in this matter.

Entertainment in Portsmouth

Menageries, exhibitions and circuses

A variety of shows visited Portsmouth every year, usually at the same time as the annual Free Mart Fair took place, but also sporadically throughout the year.Menageries that exhibited all sorts of strange and odd animals such as elephants, lions, snakes and tigers were a great attraction, and were seen as educative.

Exhibitions of scientific experiments and conjuring tricks were also common. Circuses would also visit the town on a regular basis, but were very different to our current conception.Mostly they would be focussed on displays of horsemanship, with perhaps a drama incorporating horseback skills as well as a range of stunts and feats. Travelling oddities - giants, midgets, even the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng - were also visitors to the town.

Theatre and Music

Portsmouth Theatre was the main theatre at this time - it stood where the Portsmouth Grammar School is now located. There were other theatres, notably the Landport Theatre (opened in 1843), but Portsmouth Theatre was the principal venue. Smaller spaces such as the Green Row Rooms also existed. The theatre was a pastime only accessible to the financially well off - it was priced well outside the reaches of the lower classes. Plays such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello were staged, as were plays involving child actors and even dogs.

Similarly, music was an upper class interest in many respects - if one wanted to see performances of Haydn or Handel, one had to be able to afford the entrance fee. Officers, gentlemen and their wives would have attended such performances at venues like the Beneficial Society's Hall and the Portsmouth Theatre. Stephen Sibly (1765-1842) was a notable influence on the music of the city at this time. There would of course have been theatrical and musical attractions for the lower classes, but these are much less well documented.

Beerhouses and Public Houses

Much of the entertainment available in Portsmouth and Portsea centred around alcohol. The introduction of the Beerhouse Act of 1830 meant that almost any building could be used as a venue for selling drink. The new Beerhouses were in direct competition with the more well regarded public houses such as The George Inn and less savoury establishments in Point and Portsea. Drunkenness was a cause of much violence and crime as one would expect, but was habitual for many of the two towns' inhabitants. It was usual for children to imitate their parents and begin drinking at an early age.

Health in Portsmouth

Harbour of disease

Portsmouth and Portsea had long been a breeding ground for all manner of diseases, with cramped streets, poor living conditions and bad diet being responsible for much of this. There was no refuse collection as such, so rubbish was left lying in the streets. Drainage, if it existed at all, was inadequate. People - particularly poor people - lived surrounded by dirt and filth, The habit of keeping pigs, which would run loose and spread further muck, did not help at all. Illnesses such as smallpox and typhoid fever struck the people, but it was the epidemic of cholera that bloomed in the summer of 1849 that finally caused attention to focus on the state of the towns.

The cholera epidemic of 1849 resulted in a sizeable death toll - it is difficult to be certain, but some estimate that at least a thousand people died. Cholera began with giddiness and ringing in the ears. Next, there was a prickling of the arms, followed by a cold clammy sweat. Sickness and diarrhoea and difficult breathing led on to blackening of fingernails and the body generally shrivelling up. Finally there was a coma and death. Corpses of the victims were said to look more like monkeys than humans, so distorted were their features. The epidemic led to some attention being paid to public health - Dr Rawlinson compiled a report on the state of the towns that contained many first hand accounts from doctors

Rawlinson's report

Many of the doctors were scathing of the conditions that people had to live in. Dr Engledue described the island of Portsea as "one huge cesspool... 160000 cesspools daily permitting 30000 gallons of urine to penetrate the soil." Dr Martin described Point as "deficient in every requisite to health, comfort, and cleanliness." It was obvious that these conditions were implicated in the cholera epidemic, even if the doctors could not understand how this was so. Portsmouth did not suffer another great attack of cholera but it was not until 1863 that the council took any kind of charge of public health.

Nelson and the people of Portsmouth

Nelson and Portsmouth

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) is renowned for the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle Of Trafalgar, as well as many other great naval victories. Nelson has long had a strong association with Portsmouth. His ship, the naval flagship Victory, is now dry docked there as a tourist attraction, and a monument to Nelson was erected on Portsdown Hill some thirty years before Nelson's Column was raised in Trafalgar Square in London. In the early years of the 19th century, Nelson frequently visited Portsmouth, making him a familiar public face to the populace. This section of the theme will investigate Nelson's interactions with Portsmouth and its people.

News From Nelson

Nelson's progress in the time before the Battle Of Trafalgar was closely followed by the Hampshire Telegraph, with regular naval missives appearing in its pages. The level of local interest was demonstrated in a review of the local Free Mart Fair of 1805, which begins by asking "Is there any news from Lord Nelson?" before explaining that this common question has been replaced by people asking "Have you been to Saunders's Ampitheatre, on the Grand Parade?" Although Saunders' equestrian performance may have briefly eclipsed Nelson, this extract shows that the fate of the fleet and its admiral was of great importance and interest to the people of Portsmouth.

Nelson's final departure from Portsmouth

Nelson's final departure from Portsea Island is probably the most significant - it was his final port of call in Britain before departing to fight in the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was not necessarily always fond of Portsmouth as a destination - in a letter to Lady Hamilton on the 20th May 1805 he described it as "that horrid place" - but his opinion seemed much more positive on his last visit. The Hampshire Telegraph details how Lord Nelson arrived at the George Inn on Saturday, September 14, 1805. The report observes that "a number of people followed his Lordship and cheered him when he embarked." Other sources suggest that Nelson tried to leave the George Inn secretly by the back door into Penny Street but was soon surrounded by a crowd on Southsea Common. Apparently, Nelson's one hand was shaken so much by members of the crowd that he said "I wish I had two hands and then I could accommodate more of you." The reliability of this version of events is questionable, as the author does not give any sources, but Nelson was certainly held in high regard by the people of Portsmouth.

The Funeral Of Nelson

News of Nelson's victory and his death reached Portsmouth on November 7th 1805. There was a period of great celebration, with bells rung and ships firing volleys, but Nelson's sacrifice was also remembered, with bells ringing muffled peals the next day as a tribute. Nelson's body returned to Portsmouth aboard the Victory on December 2nd, but was taken up the Thames to London rather than being taken ashore there. The Hampshire Telegraph carried a long and in-depth report of the funeral. Within three years of the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson's Monument on Portsdown Hill was erected, paid for voluntarily by officers and men of the forces.


Edwards, F H. 1989. Crime and Law and Order in Mid-Victorian Portsmouth (Portsmouth Papers 55)

Gates, W. 1900. Illustrated History of Portsmouth

Hoad, M. 1973. Portsmouth - as others have seen it part II (Portsmouth Papers 20)

Nelson, H. 1949 Letters from Lord Nelson

Patterson, A.T. 1976. Portsmouth: a history

Riley, R.C. 1983. Public Houses and Beerhouses in Nineteenth Century Portsmouth (Portsmouth Papers 38)

Sargeant, H. 1971. A History Of Portsmouth Theatres (Portsmouth Papers 13)

Warren, F. 1998. Music in Portsmouth,1789-1842 (Portsmouth Papers 69)

Webb, J. 1982. Portsmouth Free Mart Fair: The last phase 1800-1847 (Portsmouth Papers 35).

Last amendment date: 02/07/2015

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