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History of Portsmouth facts for kids

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Portsmouth is an island port city situated on Portsea Island in the county of Hampshire, England. Its history has been influenced by its association with the sea, and its proximity to London, and mainland Europe.


Portus Adurni which later became known as Portchester Castle, was one of the Saxon Shore Forts and was a major base of the Classis Britannica and possibly its Headquarters.


Although there have been settlements in the area since before Roman times, mostly being offshoots of Portchester, Portsmouth is commonly regarded as having been founded in 1180 by John of Gisors (Jean de Gisors). Most early records of Portsmouth are thought to have been destroyed by Norman invaders following the Norman Conquest. The earliest detailed references to Portsmouth can be found in the Southwick Cartularies.

However, the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names gives the Anglo-Saxon name "Portesmūða" as late as the 9th century, meaning "mouth [of the harbour called] Portus" (from Latin). In Anglo-Saxon times a folk etymology "[harbour] mouth belonging to a man called Port" arose, which caused a statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 501 AD "Port and his 2 sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with 2 ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth". It has been suggested that this is more likely to refer to the area around Portchester.



In the Domesday Book there is no mention of Portsmouth. However, settlements that later went on to form part of Portsmouth are listed. These are Buckland, Copnor, Fratton on Portsea Island and Cosham, Wymering and Drayton on the mainland. At this time it is estimated the Portsmouth area had a population not greater than two or three hundred.

While in the primary diocese of Portsea there was a small church prior to 1166 (now St Mary's in Fratton) Portsmouth's first real church came into being in 1181 when John of Gisors granted an acre (4,000 m²) of land to Augustinian monks at the Southwick Priory to build a chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket. This chapel continued to be run by the monks of Southwick Priory until the Reformation after which its possession was transferred to Winchester College. The modern Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral is built on the original location of the chapel. The original grant referred to the area as Sudewde however a later grant a few years later used the name Portsmouth.

Growth of the city

In 1194, after he returned from being held captive by Duke Leopold V of Austria, King Richard I (The Lionheart) set about summoning a fleet and an army to Portsmouth, which he had taken over from John of Gisors. On 2 May 1194 the king gave Portsmouth its first Royal Charter granting permission for the city to hold a fifteen-day annual fair (which became known as the Free Market Fair), weekly markets (on Thursdays), to set up a local court to deal with minor matters, and exemption from paying the annual tax ("farm") of £18 a year—instead the money would be used for local matters. The actual physical charter was handed over by the Bishop of Ely William de Longchamps. The present location of the charter is currently unknown but its text survives, as when later royal charters were granted to the city reaffirming and extending its privileges large parts of the original charter were quoted verbatim.

As a crescent and an eight-point star (as appear on the city's coat of arms) were to be found on both the seals of King Richard and William de Longchamps it is commonly thought that this may have been the source of them, although there is no known documentary evidence for this.

King Richard later went on to build a number of houses and a hall in Portsmouth. The hall is thought to have been at the current location of the Clarence Barracks (the area was previously known as Kingshall Green).

In 1200 King John issued another charter to Portsmouth reaffirming the rights and privileges awarded by King Richard. Acquiring this second charter cost Portsmouth ten marks and a type of riding horse known as a Palfrey. King John's desire to invade Normandy resulted in the establishment of Portsmouth as a permanent naval base.

In 1212 William of Wrotham (Archdeacon of Taunton, Keeper of the King's Ships) started constructing the first docks of Portsmouth. At about the same time Pierre des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, founded Domus Dei (Hospital of St Nicholas) which performed its duties as an almshouse and hospice until 1540 when like other religious buildings it was seized by King Henry VIII.

During the 13th century, Portsmouth was commonly used by King Henry III and Edward I as a base for attacks against France.

In 1265, the city was on the receiving end of a serious raid by the Barons of the Cinque Ports. After scattering the defenders, they seized various ships and cargo and burned the town.

By the 14th century, commercial interests had grown considerably, despite rivalry with the dockyard of nearby Southampton. Common imports included wool, grain, wheat, woad, wax and iron, however the ports largest trade was in wine from Bayonne and Bordeaux.

14th century

In 1313, the town received a charter from Edward II. This is the oldest of the city's charters that is known to have survived

In 1338, a French fleet led by Nicholas Béhuchet arrived at Portsmouth docks flying English flags before anyone realised that they were a hostile force. The French burned down most of the buildings in the town; only the local church and Domus Dei survived. The population was subjected to slaughter. As a result of this, King Edward III gave the remaining townsfolk exemption from national taxes so that they could afford to rebuild the town.

Only ten years after this devastation, the town for the first time was struck by the plague known as the Black Death. In order to prevent the regrowth of Portsmouth as a threat, the French again sacked the city in 1369, 1377 and 1380.

15th century

In 1418, King Henry V ordered a wooden Round Tower be built at the mouth of the harbour, which was completed in 1426.

Tudor period

Map of portsmouth a bit before 1540
Portsmouth in the early Tudor period

Through the Tudor period, Portsmouth's fortification's were subject to almost continuous reworking. Under King Henry VIII the Round Tower was rebuilt out of stone and a Square Tower was raised. It was at this time that Robert Brygandine and Sir Reginald Bray, with the support of the king, commenced the building in Portsmouth of the country's first dry dock. In 1527 with some of the money obtained from the dissolution of the monasteries Henry VIII built the fort which became known as Southsea Castle. In 1545, he saw his vice-flagship Mary Rose founder off Southsea Castle, with a loss of about 500 lives, while going into action against the French fleet. It was during the Tudor period that the town gained its first military governor. The role of managing military operations in Portsmouth had previously been the duty of the constable of Portchester Castle.

In 1563, the city was struck by a plague that killed around 300 people.

It was also in the Tudor period that two mills were established at the end of the creek just above the town. The creek later developed into the body of water known as the mill pond.

Stuart period

During the English civil war, the city was initially held by the royalist faction before falling to parliament after the Siege of Portsmouth.

In 1665, Charles II of England ordered Bernard de Gomme to begin the reconstruction of Portsmouth's fortifications a process which was to take many years.

Portsmouth's overland links to London started to be improved with an early turnpike trust being set up to improve the road where it passed Butser Hill.

In 1714, the crown purchase the two mills at the entrance to the millpond.

18th century

First Fleet Portsmouth Memorial
The First Fleet memorial in Portsmouth.

The first local newspaper in the city was the Portsmouth and Gosport Gazette. First published in 1745 it continued to publish until around 1790. There was then a 3-year gap before foundation of The Portsmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser. The final newspaper to begin publication in the 18th century was the Portsmouth Telegraph; or, Mottley's Naval and Military Journal which was first published in 1799.

In 1774, the two mills at the entrance to the millpond were rebuilt as one mill known as the Kings's mill.

On 13 May 1787 the First Fleet of ships left Portsmouth Harbour bound for Australia, taking the first British settlers there. They would arrive in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. A memorial, officially unveiled by HM The Queen on 11 July 1980, commemorates the First Fleet, with a similar memorial in Sydney, New South Wales.


19th century


Admiral Nelson left Portsmouth for the final time in 1805 to command the fleet that would defeat the larger Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. The Royal Navy's reliance on Portsmouth led to the city becoming the most fortified in Europe, with a network of forts circling the city.

From 1808, the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, who were tasked to stop the slave trade, operated out of Portsmouth.

The King's mill burned down in 1868 and over the next decade land was reclaimed from the millpond until it ceased to exist.


New transport links were constructed during this century. In 1823, the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal along with the Wey and Arun Canal provided an inland waterway route to london. This didn't last long with parts of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal being closed after just 4 years. Portsmouth gained its first railway link in 1847 with a direct route to London arriving in 1859.


In 1802, The Portsmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser was purchased by the Portsmouth Telegraph and ceased publication. The Portsmouth Telegraph then went through three rapid name changes before settling on the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle. In 1850 the Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette (often known simply as the Portsmouth Times) began publication. The Evening News began publication in 1877 and came under common ownership with the Hampshire Telegraph in 1883. In 1884 the Portsmouth Times gained a sister paper called the Evening Mail which was later renamed to the Southern Daily Mail.

Education and science

On 21 December 1872 a major scientific expedition, the Challenger Expedition, was launched from Portsmouth.

While an extensive number of subscription libraries were formed in Portsmouth in the early part of the 19th century Portsmouth was trailed many other cities in the provision of public libraries the first not being opened until 1884.

20th century

Portsmouth roadmap 1948
A partial roadmap of part of Portsmouth in 1948
Gosport 1960s
Gosport in 1960

The city in the form of Portsmouth Corporation Transport purchased the private horse-drawn tram lines in 1901.

In 1904, the boundaries of Portsmouth were extended to finally include the whole of Portsea Island. The boundaries were further extended in 1920 and 1932, taking in areas of the mainland.

In 1916, the city experience its first aerial bombardment when a Zeppelin airship bombed it during the First World War.

As a major Naval Base and Dockyard the city was bombed extensively during the Second World War. Nazi German Luftwaffe night-time air raids began on 24 August 1940 when 1,320 high explosive bombs and 38,000 incendiary devices were dropped on the city, damaging the Guildhall, 30 churches, 8 schools, 1 hospital and over 80,000 homes. 930 people were killed and 1,216 people were injured. While most of the city has since been rebuilt, to this day developers still occasionally find unexploded bombs.

Southsea beach and Portsmouth Harbour were military embarkation points for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. Southwick House, just to the north of Portsmouth, had been chosen as the headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, during D-Day.

After the war, much of the city's housing stock was damaged and more was cleared in an attempt to improve the quality of housing. Those people affected by this were moved out from the centre of the city to new developments such as Paulsgrove and Leigh Park. On 4 July 1968, an estimated 250,000 people witnessed the return of Alec Rose, a greengrocer in Osborne Road, after he completed his single-handed circumnavigation in Lively Lady; he was immediately knighted and made a Freeman of the city. 400 motor-boats, yachts, catamarans and canoes welcomed him into harbour.

The University of Portsmouth gained university status in 1992

21st century

In 2003 erection was started of a 552 feet high Spinnaker Tower sited at Portsmouth Harbour, and celebrating the city's maritime tradition. Completed in 2005, the tower has twin concrete legs meeting at half height to form a single column from which steel sails are mounted; an observation deck at the top provides a view of the city and harbour for tourists.

In late 2004, the Tricorn Centre, dubbed "The ugliest building in the UK" was finally demolished after years of delay and wrangling over the cost of doing so, and controversy as to whether it was worth preserving as an example of 1960s Brutalist architecture.

In 2005, Portsmouth was a focus for Sea Britain, a series of events to mark the 200th anniversary (bicentenary) of Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. In particular, in June, there was the massive Fleet Review, by HM Queen Elizabeth II and a mock battle (son et lumière) that evening, after dark.

Portsmouth Harbour
Portsmouth Harbour, taken from Gosport showing Portsdown Hill in the centre and the city of Portsmouth on the right including the home of the Royal Navy, HMNB Portsmouth.


Population change
Year Dwellings Population Source
1560 1000 (est)
1801 5310 32,160 1801 census
1811 6852 40,567 1811 census
1821 8627 45,048 1821 census
1831 9410 50,389 1831 census
1841 9886 53,032 1841 census
1851 12,825 72,096 1851 census
1861 15,819 94,799 1861 census
1871 19,013 112,954 1871 census
1881 22,701 127,989 1881 census
1891 29,353 159,251 1891 census
1901 36,368 188,133 1901 census
1911 231,165 1911 census
1921 247,343 1921 census
1931 249,300 1931 census
1951 233,545 1951 census
1961 68,618 215,077 1961 census
1971 197,431 1971 census
1981 175,382 1981 census
1991 177,142 1991 census
2001 186,700 2001 census (prel)
  • 1181 - Establishment of a chapel by Southwick Priory on the site of the current Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral.
  • 1194 - Portsmouth awarded its Royal Charter
  • 1212 - Establishment of docks.
  • 1212 - Domus Dei the first hospital of the city built.
  • 1256 - Portsmouth given permission to form a local guild of merchants.
  • 1265 - Town sacked and burnt during the Second Barons' War.
  • 1338 - French invaders burn down most of the town.
  • 1348 - The Black Death strikes Portsmouth for the first time.
  • 1426 - Portsmouth's first permanent defensive works (the Round Tower) completed.
  • 1449 - Portsmouth placed under Greater Excommunication as a result of the murder of Adam Moleyns the Bishop of Chichester.
  • 1495 - Britain's first dry dock built at Portsmouth.
  • 1510 - Mary Rose built in Portsmouth dock yard.
  • 1527 - Southsea Castle built.
  • 1545 - Henry VIII sees the Mary Rose sink in the Solent from Southsea Castle
  • 1561 - Britain's first state lottery funds further fortifications.
  • 1563 - 300 locals die of the plague.
  • 1625 - The Plague strikes Portsmouth.
  • 1729 - Establishment of the Royal Naval Academy.
  • 1732 - Establishment of Portsmouth Grammar School.
  • 1747 - Fort Cumberland built at Eastney.
  • 1760 - The modern Landport Gate built.
  • 1787 - Departure of the First Fleet of ships from Portsmouth bound for Australia.
  • 1805 - Nelson's fleet sails from Portsmouth for the Battle of Trafalgar
  • 1806 - Birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Portsmouth.
  • 1809 - The town of Southsea established.
  • 1811 - Introduction of piped water into Portsmouth.
  • 1812 - Birth of Charles Dickens in Portsmouth.
  • 1834 - Portsmouth hit by earthquake.
  • 1835 - The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 abolishes Southampton's jurisdiction of the port.
  • 1861 - Clarence Pier built
  • 1872 - Challenger Expedition launched from Portsmouth
  • 1879 - Opening of the Borough Asylum (St James' Hospital)
  • 1887 - Arthur Conan Doyle writes A Study In Scarlet in which Sherlock Holmes makes his first appearance at 1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, Southsea, Portsmouth.
  • 1890 - Portsmouth Town Hall built.
  • 1898 - Portsmouth F.C., the city's principal football club was founded.
  • 1925 - Peter Sellers born in Castle Road, Southsea, Portsmouth
  • 1926 - Portsmouth elevated to city status.
  • 1929 - Portsmouth F.C. play their first FA Cup Final but lose 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers
  • 1932 - Portsmouth Airport opens.
  • 1939 - Portsmouth F.C. win FA Cup for the first time
  • 1941 - Large areas of the city destroyed in air raids.
  • 1944 - Southsea Beach and Portsmouth Harbour used as embarkation points for the D-Day landings invasion force.
  • 1949 - Portsmouth F.C. crowned Champions of England for the first time.
  • 1950 - Portsmouth F.C. crowned Champions of England for the second time.
  • 1966 - The Tricorn Centre opened.
  • 1966 - HMS Andromeda is the last warship launched at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard.
  • 1968 - Alec Rose completes his single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in Portsmouth Harbour
  • 1971 - Portsmouth Airport closes after a series of accidents.
  • 1974 - Portsmouth becomes a local government district within the county of Hampshire.
  • 1976 - The M275 motorway linking southern Portsmouth with the M27 and A27 opens
  • 1991 - The nave of Portsmouth's Anglican cathedral completed.
  • 1992 - The University of Portsmouth gained university status.
  • 1994 - Portsmouth was the start and end point for a stage of the Tour de France.
  • 1997 - City of Portsmouth becomes a unitary authority.
  • 1998 - Portsmouth hosts the second International Festival of the Sea.
  • 1999 - Milan Mandarić saves Portsmouth F.C. from administration
  • 2000 - Portsmouth suffers flooding due to failure of the emergency water drainage system during heavy rainfall.
  • 2001 - MyTV (later renamed PortsmouthTV) launched.
  • 2001 - Gunwharf Quays opened.
  • 2001 - Portsmouth hosts the third International Festival of the Sea
  • 2003 - The Spinnaker Tower, construction begins.
  • 2003 - Portsmouth F.C. enters the Premier League for the first time.
  • 2004 - The Tricorn Centre demolished, with its last shops closed in 2002.
  • 2005 - Portsmouth hosts the International Fleet Review and fifth International Festival of the Sea
  • 2005 - The Spinnaker Tower opened on 18 October.
  • 2006 - The launch of HMS Clyde (P257) marks the return of shipbuilding to the city.
  • 2008 - Portsmouth F.C. win FA Cup for the second time.
  • 2010 - Portsmouth F.C. enters administration due to mounting debts.
Published in the 19th century
Published in the 20th century


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