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Portsmouth's Dockyard

The area we now know as Portsmouth was in ancient times recognised by mariners for its shallow natural harbour, which was formed by the rise in sea levels after the last Ice Age around 8000 to 5500 BC. The harbour is a natural inlet with five miles of coastline and its southern entrance is protected by the Isle of Wight. Portsea Island on which the City of Portsmouth grew is to the east of the harbour, with a narrow creek separating it from the mainland. Less then a mile inland is a long east to west chalk ridge called Portsdown hill. Standing over 400ft high along its length it can produce a profound effect upon the weather, inducing a beneficial micro-climate over the harbour and island.

During the dark and unrecorded period of prehistory, we only have a few rare artefacts to illustrate that Bronze Age man once inhabited the island within the ward now called Milton, however who these people were is now lost to time.

Legend has it that a small community existed on the island when St. Paul landed at the top of the harbour, in the area now known as Paulsgrove. Where for a time he preached Christianity and taught fishing before moving on towards Glastonbury. However St. Paul’s travels were well documented in the Bible and so maybe it was another missionary who preached here. A more plausible story is that the name derives from “Paul’s Graves”, because many holes have been found dug into the sand and chalk along Portsdown hill.

Portchester Castle in the distance

Early evidence of Roman fortifications built in 286 AD, known collectively as the Saxon shore forts, remain visible to this day in the curtain walls of Portchester Castle, which was reused by the Norman’s when they built a mote and bailey within the walls of the original fort, along with a Church.

Written within the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ is an account in 501 AD of a group of Saxons being led by Port and his two sons, Bieda & Maegla, who arrived in two large galleys at a place called “Portes Mutha”, and killed a young British nobleman and took possession of the surrounding land. This is the earliest reference to a port mouth, and the romantically minded could easily believe that this is the origin of the name “Portsmouth”.

The Saxons continued to inhabit the land for the next 500 years, with archaeological evidence being found in Kingston Crescent and at Portchester castle.

In 897 AD King Alfred the Great defeated a group of Danes who were attempting to invade the island. During this time he is said to have designed his own fleet and founded the first navy.

After the Norman conquest of Britain, we see the construction of Portchester castle and the completion of the Doomsday book, in which are listed three villages on the island of Portsea. These are Frodintone (Fratton) in the center of the island; Copenore (Copnor) towards to north-east, and Bocheland (Buckland) to the north-west. It is estimated that about 140 people lived and worked on the island at this time.

In 1140 AD the Bishop of Winchester Henry de Bois, who was brother to King Stephen, is driven ashore by a fierce storm and finds safe haven in a small fishing village to the west of the harbour, and declares it “God’s Port” (Gosport).

Map clearly showing St. Thomas Street and The Kings HouseIn the decade between 1170 and 1180 a rich Norman land owner and merchant by the name of Jean de Gisors purchased the manor of Buckland from the ‘de Porte’ family. Generally acknowledged as the founder of what was to become Portsmouth in the proper sense, it was with his authority and ambition that drove the construction of the early town. Old Portsmouth is clearly a planned town and much of what has survived was probably designed by Gisors himself using the standard medieval grid pattern, which can also be seen in towns such as Salisbury.

One of the first constructions ordered by de Gisors was the Chapel of St. Thomas, which he had dedicated to Sir Thomas Beckett who had spent much of his life in their families home town of Gisors in Normandy.

However the patronage of Jean de Gisors was not to last, as after his support for an unsuccessful rebellion in Normandy he paid the price by forfeiting all his lands, including Portsmouth, to King Richard I (the Lionhearted) of England.

The King was to build a Royal House in Portsmouth, which stood at the top of Penny Street, an area now occupied by Portsmouth City Grammer School. He also leased sites to new settlers to encourage expansion.

During early May 1194, in his brief stay in Portsmouth before sailing to wage war in Normandy, King Richard commissioned the city to construct a dockyard. At the same time he also granted the city its first Charter. This charter confirmed to the town certain rights enjoyed by ‘free-boroughs’ (liber burgus), but without actually granting the town complete autonomy. It did allow for a 15 day annual, a weekly market, the right to trade throughout his realm and some basic criminal jurisdiction. The Charter had the effect of putting Portsmouth on the national trading map.

Little is known of what happened after the Charter was granted. We know that Richard spent the majority of his time abroad fighting wars, and so Portsmouth was free to develop without too much interference from the crown. We can assume a system of local government was established, and although crude by today’s standards, it would have the power to invest in reeves and bailiffs. Indeed the first mention of court officials appears in the Southwick Cartularies between 1200 and 1210. Reeves and bailiffs were officials who had jurisdiction to execute writs, etc.

Eighteen years after Richard’s commissioning of the dockyard, in 1212, his brother King John instructed that the dockyard be enclosed and defended “by a good and strong wall”.

The earliest record of a common seal is that of Ralph de la Lygthe in 1245 – 60, and the common seal of Portsmouth. The earliest mention of an official seal of the bailiffs appears on a deed in the Southwick Cartularies in 1282. This seal, a star over a crescent moon is almost identical to the seal of William de Longchamp, the chancellor of King Richard I, under whose hand the first Charter was made. It is assumed that the early town officials adopted his seal for their own use, adding his authority to their own. This same symbol is still in use to this day.

A period of continued expansion would then follow. In 1495 King Henry VII ordered the construction of the world’s first dry dock, to be designed and built within Portsmouth dockyard by Sir Reginald Bray, who was also the architect of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Coat of Arms above the gates of Southsea CastleIn 1509 the Mary Rose was built, but it wasn’t until the reign of King Henry VIII that he made the dockyard his fleet construction centre, and had Southsea Castle built to his design in 1544 to defend against the continued threat of Spanish or French invasion. The castle was built halfway along the south side of Portsea Island, it has a dry moat, with tunnels below allowing attackers to be shot at from the centre, and at any that got into the moat could then be shot through ‘murder holes’ from the encircling gallery. It was a year later in 1545 and from the roof of this castle that Henry VIII witnessed the loss of his prized flagship, the Mary Rose, which sank during a successful repulse of the French fleet in the Solent.

In 1557 a great fire swept through Portsmouth and Queen Elizabeth I, ever conscious of popular opinion, ordered a special collection be made to help the inhabitants of the city to be rebuilt.

Throughout the centuries many famous sailors and navigators have walked the cobbled streets of Portsmouth and her dockyard, and perhaps one of the most famous returned to Portsmouth after colonising Virginia in 1586. Sir Walter Raleigh was never one to return alone, and with his latest return he also brought with him the very first shipments of tobacco, oranges and potatoes to be seen in England.

But Portsmouth’s dockyard hasn’t always been a friendly and safe harbour for the ruling monarchy. During a dispute in 1628 over sailors’ pay, led to the murder of the Duke of Buckingham, who had been sent to mediate in Old Portsmouth. It was this murder that would be later fictionalised in the tale of the three musketeers.

Southsea Castle with the Lighthouse that was added 18th c.This instability increased to revolutionary levels during the reign of King Charles I, when in 1642 the Parliamentarians in both Gosport and Southsea lay siege to Royalist positions in Old Portsmouth. Southsea Castle surrendered to Parliament forces after they lay in wait for the commander to return from drunken night in town. Seeing that his forces were surrounded and heavily outnumbered, he agreed on the condition that he could fire a single flare to alert the Gosport garrison of their fall. In return the Gosport garrison fired a single shot which hit Southsea Castle’s gates, killing and maiming many in what would otherwise have been a peaceful and humane surrender.

Tea arrived for the very first time in 1662, when Catherine of Braganza arrived in Old Portsmouth from Portugal. Shipments of tea would become a feature of many dockyards for years to come.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1665, King Charles II instructed Bernard de Gomme to fortify Gosport with ramparts and moat. At the same time soldiers, townsfolk and Dutch prisoners of war were employed in excavating the mast pond which can be found between boathouse six and seven. This pond is linked to the harbour by a tunnel under the road.

Another five years would pass before King Charles II created the Royal Navy in 1670, and grant Portsmouth the status of Royal Dockyard. With this came new slips, wharfs, storehouses and the first stone docks. The Great Ship Basin and six surrounding dry docks - one now occupied by HMS Victory and another by Mary Rose - are one of the surviving legacies of this great age of sail.

The Royal Dockyard was owned by the Crown and commissioned to contain all the materials and resources, manpower and skills necessary to build and maintain a Royal Navy. By contrast a civilian dockyard would rarely be able to build more then the hull and rigging, and once the vessel was completed it wouldn’t necessarily be able to return for repairs.

Portsmouth dockyard has a vast network of wharfs, dry docks, basins, caissons and warehouses. In addition it was also outfitted with many workshops and factories that employed an army of carpenters, joiners, fitters and riggers, rope-makers, block-makers, caulkers and painters, blacksmiths and shipwrights.

A village of fine houses were made available for the officers and dockyard officials, complete with stables, coach-houses, a church, offices, public houses and bars, mortuary, shops, surgeries, cookhouses and a fire-station. The gate into the historic dockyard, “Victory Gate” was completed in 1711, and remains the entrance to the dockyard to this day.

Another little known fact is that the very first appearance of the umbrella occurred in Portsmouth in 1712, when Jonas Hanway developed the prototype from an idea he had after returning from Asia.

In 1756 the Admiralty decided to construct a Royal Navy Hospital on the site of Haslar farm in Gosport. Known as Haslar Hospital, is was the largest brick building in Europe and capable of housing 1,800 patients. On a lighter note, but none the less just as beneficial to the sailors and workers at Portsmouth dockyard was the commendation in 1767 from the Admiralty on the quality of its beer and other readily available alcoholic beverages.


The Navy’s powder magazine was relocated to Priddy’s Hard in Portsmouth upon the recommendation of the Board of Ordinance in 1760. In 1771 the Grand Magazine and a camber basin for the loading of lighters was completed. It remained the Navy’s principle armaments depot until 1988, and at its height employed 3,000 women as munitions workers during WWII.

A disaster was averted in 1776 when a painter by the name of James Hill tried to set fire to the whole dockyard. Also known by his alias, ‘Jack the painter’, he had become disillusioned while living in America, and convinced himself that he could help the republican cause by burning Portsmouth’s dockyard. He was hung the following year in the dockyard he attempted to destroy.

Another famous name to enter the dockyard in 1782 were the shipbuilders ‘Camber & Nicholsons’, whose boatyards became famous in the 1920’s for the construction of their J-class yachts.

But it’s not just the famous that passed through these gates. The infamous were also to feature in the history of the dockyard. In 1787 the first batch of convicts sailed from Spitbank destined for Botany Bay in Australia.

Perhaps in honour of the famous quality beer, but in 1800 the pubs in Portsmouth’s Spice Island remained open 24 hours a day, frequented by drunken sailors, gamblers, pickpockets, women of the night and press gangs. The occasional artist could also be seen painting the many famous scenes that have since become immortalised in the many museums and private collections around the world.

Another first occurred in Portsmouth with the official census of 1801. The results indicated an unusually high proportion of women in the population. In the old town there were 3,148 men and 4,691 women inhabiting the area. A possible reason for the difference in population could be that fact that many men worked onboard ship, and were away for months if not years at a time. The many press-gangs made sure of this fact.

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