Portsmouth is on England’s southern coast and has long been the home of the Royal Navy. Known by the nickname Pompey, its special geography marked it out from the earliest times as an ideal location for shipping. The city is on an island, divided from the mainland by a saltwater creek, which gives it excellent natural defences. To the west of this island is a huge harbour capable of sheltering the largest of fleets. The entrance is only two hundred metres wide, which makes it both easy to defend and ensures that the pent up tide flooding through it keeps the channel free from obstruction. All of this within eighty miles of London. Few more suitable places to base a fleet could be conceived.
These natural benefits attracted the invading Romans to Portsmouth, and they established a fort close to today’s Portchester castle. Both Anglo-Saxon and Danish invaders settled in Portsmouth, once the Romans had departed, but it was in medieval times that the modern city began to become established. Richard the Lion Heart used the harbour to gather together the fleet that would take him on crusade. He gave Portsmouth both its royal charter in the 12th century, and its coat of arms with an Islamic star and crescent, symbols of its involvement with his expedition to the Holy Land.
By 1212 the town’s first permanent docks had been built, and during the Hundred Years War the port was a regular jumping off point for English armies. This also meant that it became a target for French retaliatory raids. Following a particularly large one, the settlement was burnt to the ground. Henry V responded by having the port properly fortified, and his original walls would be extensively added to in later years.
By the end of the 15th century, Spain and Portugal were leading the world in oceanic exploration. In response the Tudors choose Portsmouth to become the nation’s primary naval base. Further defences in stone where built, including batteries of artillery and a boom that could be stretched across the harbour entrance. Behind these formidable defences the country’s first Royal Dockyard was established and the world's first dry dock was built. The Sweepstake is the first recorded warship to be built in this dry dock in 1497. The story of Portsmouth as the home of the Royal Navy had begun.
Over the centuries that followed, Portsmouth and the Royal Navy would share in both triumphs and tragedies. The tragedies were many. It was off Portsmouth that Henry VIII first warship, the Mary Rose foundered with huge loss of life. The same fate would be suffered by the first-rate Royal George, when she was heeled over for routine maintenance, and sunk with the loss of over 900 lives in 1782. A Lord Admiral, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death in a Portsmouth tavern by a disgruntled officer in 1628, while Hitler’s Luftwaffe pounded the town remorselessly during the Second World War.
Portsmouth shared in the Royal Navy’s many triumphs too. Nelson left his homeland for the last time from Portsmouth, to embark on the Trafalgar campaign. He was following in the wake of many great admirals like St Vincent, Hawke, Rodney, Shovell, Blake and Rooke, all of whom left Portsmouth to fight battles and campaigns across the globe. Fleets great and small left from Portsmouth harbour, just as Richard’s crusaders had done before them. General Wolfe’s 1759 expedition to capture Quebec sailed from here, as did the eleven ships that established the first European colony in Australia. It was from Portsmouth that many of the vessels landing the allies in France for D-Day came, and it was to Portsmouth that the fleet returned in 1982 at the end of the Falklands war.
In the 18th and 19th century Portsmouth was one of the leading industrial sites in the world. Brunel’s father, Marc, established the world's first mass production line here in 1803, making over a hundred thousand standardised wooden blocks for the navy. The Dockyard expanded massively in the 18th century. It was connected to London by a line of 15 semaphore towers in 1796 that allowed messages to be sent from the top of the Admiralty building in central London to Portsmouth Dockyard in minutes (daylight and fog permitting). At its peak 22,000 workers were employed, building many iconic ships, like HMS Dreadnought, the first modern battleship, and HMS Iron Duke, the Royal Navy’s flagship at Jutland.
After the end of the First World War ship-building was moved steadily away from Portsmouth. First Zeppelin attacks and then Hitler’s bombers showed how vulnerable the south coast is to air attack from the continent. The last warship to be launched there was the Leander-class frigate HMS Andromeda in 1967, but Portsmouth continues to this day as the home base for much of the Royal Navy. The latest ships to be based there are the Royal Navy’s two new 65,000 ton aircraft carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. Richard the Lion Heart chose well – they can still comfortably fit through the harbour entrance.
I will be producing a blog each two weeks from now on rather than every week to give me more time to concentrate on my novels. Thank you for your understanding - Philip