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Trackside: Portsmouth

Stories about people and places from across the South Western Railway network.

Portsmouth is the great waterfront city in the Solent – 65 miles south west of London.

From historic warships in the dockyard to the ultra-modern Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth is home to the past and future of waterfront wonders. Awash with maritime heritage, its famous dock is the heart of the city. It’s a perfect destination for a fantastic day out on the waves.

Portsmouth is one of the UK’s most prominent ports… not just for the Royal Navy but for the millions of passengers and vital cargo that arrives and departs from here. Did you know that all the Jersey potatoes and all the citrus fruit we get from Morocco comes through this port – not to mention over 50 per cent of the bananas we import?

Early Portsmouth

The Romans came here in the 3rd century and built a fort at nearby Portchester – which they called Portus Adurni. 

Later the Vikings also came to plunder the area… in fact, several times in the 8th and 9th centuries! Well, plundering was pretty much what Vikings did – in an effort to take control of the country. 

It was in the 9th century that the first known appearances of the name ‘Portsmouth’ appeared, in something called the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ which records that in the year 501, Port and his two sons Beida and Maegla arrived in Britain at a place called ‘Portes mutha’… and killed a young noble man!

Portsmouth also appears on the oldest surviving route map of Britain – the Gough Map which dates from around 1360 shows Portsmouth as ‘Portis Mouth’. 

A watery past…

Let’s dive in to more of Portsmouth’s watery past – we know that boats and rafts have sailed from here across the Solent to the Isle of Wight from ancient times. Quite a few famous voyages to further afield also started here – some successful… and some, well, less successful!  

In 1787, Captain Bligh commanded HMS Bounty as it set sail from Portsmouth for Tahiti. His mission was to pick up breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies. It all went horribly wrong when one of the sailors, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny leaving them adrift on the ocean!

When you look around Portsmouth, there’s plenty of reminders to the city’s rich maritime history all across the city. Two in particular to look out for are a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson on Grand Parade, which is close to the last place he stood on English soil before the Battle of Trafalgar and his death. The Vernon Monument in Gunwharf Quays which honours those involved in mine warfare and naval diving.

The Dockyard

You can’t come to Portsmouth without a visit to the Historic Dockyard – it really is a jewel in Portsmouth’s crown – and home to some world famous ships – HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. Don’t forget the remains of Henry VIII’s favourite ship – the Mary Rose

King Henry was on the battlements of Southsea Castle when it sank on her maiden voyage. It was recovered from the seabed in one of the most challenging archaeological excavations of all time. From the large bronze and iron guns to personal items like wooden bowls, tiny dice and nit combs, the Mary Rose really does recreate life on-board a 16th century warship.

If you’re interested in naval history, you could also take a ferry across the harbour to Gosport, home of HMS Alliance at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower.  

At the D-Day Museum you can explore the last surviving Landing Craft Tank which played a vital role in transporting men and supplies across the English Channel on D-Day. On board you’ll find Sherman and Churchill tanks, and even the kitchen that fed everyone on board!

This is what you told us about the Dockyards…

  • When I went to the historic dockyard I saw the Mary Rose and the Admiral Lord Nelson. What I liked about the Mary Rose is in different rooms there was different jobs for different people. The Mary Rose was launched in 1511 and served for 33 years and took part in several wars against France, Scotland and Brittany. The Mary Rose is known as a she because the ship is like a mother figure protecting the ship and her crew. I think there were carpenters and they would be scrubbing the decks and some of them would be doing the canons for war.

Southsea Castle

If you feel like being a king or queen for a day, a must see is Southsea Castle. It was built in 1544 as part of a series of fortifications along England’s coastline to protect the country from invaders. It had barely been completed when Henry VIII stood inside, only to watch the Mary Rose sink at the Battle of the Solent against the French in July 1545.

During the English Civil War, nearly a century later, the castle was captured for the only time in its history by parliamentarian forces who just clambered over the walls! The castle’s key position guarding the harbour meant that whenever danger threatened it was right in the front line.

Even when it was used as a military prison during Victorian times, its guns were still ready for action. It was only in 1960 when the castle was finally withdrawn from active service. Today, it’s a popular visitor attraction with great views out to sea.

Portsmouth Cathedral

Here’s some more fun trivia!

Did you know that there’s not just one but TWO cathedrals in Portsmouth? 

The Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, commonly known as Portsmouth Cathedral, is an Anglican cathedral church in the centre of Old Portsmouth; the other is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Evangelist.

Portsmouth Cathedral dates back to 1182 and is Romanesque in style. It has been a parish church since around 1320 and only became a Cathedral in 1927. 

It has many connections with the Royal Navy and Portsmouth’s seafaring community. Check out Lord Nelson’s flag from HMS Victory and the grave of an unknown member of the Mary Rose crew.

New Royal Theatre

Something that’s an architectural gem is Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal. It’s the work of renowned 19th century theatre architects Charles Phipps and Frank Matcham – and is one of the last remaining Phipps Matcham theatres in operation. 

It’s history chronicles more than 150 years of social life in Portsmouth and illustrates the way that theatres have evolved over the years – it’s even mentioned in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. 

The theatre survived WWII carpet bombing of the city, fire and vandalism, and emerged in 2015 like a phoenix from the ashes to be a cultural champion.

What you like

We caught up with some children to find out their favourite places to visit in and around Portsmouth…

  • “Blue Reef Aquarium is amazing – you can see sharks, seahorses, and rays.”
  • “I really like fossils and dinosaurs so I like to go to Cumberland House Natural History Museum – there’s a butterfly house there too which is cool.”
  • “There’s a great Amusement Park on Clarence pier with loads of rides and arcade games.”
  • “Staunton Country Park is my favourite place to go – we usually take a picnic or go on the walking trail.”
  • “We got the ferry from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight to go to Amazon World Zoo Park – my favourite animals were the ant eaters and the monkeys.”
  • The Spinnaker Tower is 170 metres tall and it has a glass flooring, which I once walked across. I went to the top and I could see for 23 miles. I could see the ocean and the hovercraft going out to sea. Portsmouth has some of the last hovercrafts in the world and me and my brother have gone on it before.

Famous people

Jonas Hanway was born in Portsmouth in 1712. Having inherited a fortune, he began a career as a philanthropist. He’s also remembered for being the first person in England to use an umbrella.

Did you know that 9,366 miles from Portsmouth is Uluru, the massive sandstone rock in central Australia that used to be known as Ayer’s Rock?  It was named after Sir Henry Ayers who was born in Portsea in 1821. He was the son of a dockyard worker who went on to be premier of South Australia five times.

Now, while it seems almost unbelievable… Arnold Schwarzenegger once lived in Portsmouth and was even a member of Southsea gym.

Another movie star, Helena Bonham Carter is the great-great-granddaughter of John Bonham Carter who was MP for Portsmouth between 1816 and 1838.

John the Painter

James Aitken, also known as John the Painter, has been described as the first modern terrorist, committing various acts of sabotage in the naval dockyards during the American Revolutionary War. 

He was hung from the mizzenmast of HMS Arethusa after he was caught for setting the rope house at Portsmouth on fire in 1776. They moved the mast to the dockyard entrance so as many people as possible could watch!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Portsmouth has links with a famous fictional detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes stories here after he arrived in 1882 to set up a doctor’s practice at 1 Bush Villas in Southsea. It wasn’t long before he found himself more successful as a writer than as a doctor.

Doyle threw himself into town life. He joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, he played for the local cricket and bowls teams and was the first goalkeeper for the team that became Portsmouth Football Club.

During his time in Portsmouth, Doyle fell in love with Louise Hawkins. They married at St Oswald’s church in August 1885 and their daughter Mary was born in Portsmouth in 1889. 

You can find out more about this great literary figure at the Conan Doyle Collection at Portsmouth Museum, which was bequeathed to the city by Richard Lancelyn Green. With over 40,000 items, it’s the largest public collection of Doyle material in the world – well, as far as we know!

This is what you had to tell us…

  • I’ve been researching Sherlock Holmes. The author of Sherlock Holmes lived here in Portsmouth. His name was Arthur Conan Doyle. When he came here as a doctor, he started to write the stories and became so famous that by the time that he left, eight years later, he was no longer a doctor. Sherlock Holmes is an inspiration and viewed by many as a real detective. When the first stories were published, many were convinced that he was not make-believe and sent him letters asking for his help. They were very detailed stories and this is what made them very believable. Lots of people became very knowledgeable about Holmes, like some people are with Harry Potter.

Charles Dickens

He was born in Mile End Terrace, today Old Commercial Road, on 7th February 1812.  

His family came to Portsmouth from London when my father was hired as a desk clerk in the Navy Post Office in the Dockyard. He might have earned good money but unfortunately he was rather good at spending it too. 

It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars which kept the dockyard busy and there was plenty of work but they had to move twice – first to Hawke Street and then Wish Street, before leaving altogether in 1814. When he was writing the semi-autobiographical Nicholas Nickleby – he included a father who amassed sizeable debts.

He would return to Portsmouth for research and set about finding the home where he father was born. Would you believe it… that house is now a museum! The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum is the perfect place to start exploring and experiencing the work of one of England’s most famous and best-loved writers. It’s been maintained to reflect how it would have looked when he was born. 

The furniture, ceramics, household objects and decorations reflect the regency style that his parents would have favoured, although their actual possessions have long since been dispersed. The museum does though have the couch on which Dickens died in Kent, as well as his snuff box, inkwell and paper knife. Poignant reminders of an author celebrated for his prodigious talents and creative output.

Getting to Portsmouth

Hop on a South Western Railway train to Portsmouth station to explore!



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Stories about people and places from across the railway network

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