Portsmouth Place Names and Dockyard ‘New Buildings’, Portsea
Even today, at high tide and courtesy of a large pipe, there is an island on which
stand Portsmouth and Southsea. This is Portsea Island. To the west and east are natural
The western harbour satisfied the criteria for a dockyard: it is a huge body of water
with a deep water channel; it has a narrow mouth that may be easily defended and
is relatively close to London. So, in the late twelfth century, a small settlement
was established at the south-west of the island which was named Portsmouth Town.
Among its early thoroughfares (which still exist) were High Street, St Thomas’ Street,
St Nicholas’ Street and Penny Street. In 1748, Portsmouth Town (protected by a wall)
consisted of 600 houses and 5,000 inhabitants. Today, it is known as Old Portsmouth.
Extending northwards from Portsmouth Town was a narrow shingle peninsular which created
a small natural harbour within a harbour. The spit was Portsmouth Point and the inlet
was The Camber. A depiction of Portsmouth Town dated 1545 shows no houses at Point
but some maritime trading activity – a crane and pulleys; men rolling barrels to
load a boat in the Camber. By 1663, dwellings at Point along Broad Street had been
built and the Camber was a small commercial port (as distinct from the naval dockyard).
To the north of Portsmouth Town was a large tidal mill pond which created a natural
barrier. North of the pond was a large tract of land called The Common (not to be
confused with Southsea Common and also described as West Docks Fields).
Beyond the Common, the Dockyard was built which was also protected by a wall. To
accommodate dockyard artisans, houses were built on The Common around St George’s
Square and Havant Street. This district (which was regarded as a suburb of Portsmouth
Town) was known as Portsmouth Common and, later, as Portsea Town. The settlement
rapidly expanded and in 1801, with a population of 24,327, it was more than thrice
the size of Portsmouth Town.
Above is section A from the first map.
Based on a sketch dated 1663 , it shows the south-west of Portsea Island circa
1700 before Gun Wharf and parts of the Dockyard had been reclaimed from the sea.
To understand life in the little township, one must sense not only its close proximity
to a rapidly-expanding Dockyard but also that the sea lapped its shoreline at high
tide – a landing stage and landing steps providing access to the township. When local
property was advertised for sale, it was noted as being ‘situate near to the Dockyard’,
‘close to the waterside’, ‘abuts high water mark’ or ‘contagious to water’.
The Dockyard provided background music for the community. New Buildings was dominated
by ‘the busy sound of the Yard. To strangers and visitors it was just a confused
and deafening noise. When you got to know it, you distinguished half a dozen distinct
sounds which made up that inharmonious and yet not unpleasing whole....you could
not see it, but you felt it, and knew it was there’.
Another sense, smell, would have been assailed at low tide as New Buildings looked
out over harbour mud. Nostrils were filled with the stench of sludge, decaying seaweed
and that double-act, flotsam and jetsam, which accumulated along the shore line.
This offensive effluvia was mixed with the nauseating odour of odure disgorged from
The streets of New Buildings
The buildings of New Buildings
New Buildings and the 1841 Census
A snapshot of New Buildings emerged on 6 June 1841, when the census was taken. Before
summarizing these figures, it should be noted that these relate to the streets which
were taken into the Dockyard from 1845 as shown in the map above. Not included are
the streets that run toward the area such as Frederick Street, Gloucester Street
and Marlborough Row. (It is uncertain whether these streets were included in the
district known as New Buildings.)
The area comprised of 148 dwellings and a further fifteen which were uninhabited
- a pointer to the dilapidated condition of some of the housing stock. There were
725 inhabitants on census night; on average there were five people to a house but
this figure is distorted by the small households of one or two people recorded at
Gravel Lane and Sandwich Street.
The adult population of the area was dominated by royal navy and merchant navy mariners
(39), their wives who remained at home when their men went to sea (36) and naval
pensioners (20). Thus, 41% of adults were connected to the royal and merchant navies.
Strongs Buildings ?
Coach-house and stable
Monkey and Grapes Tavern
Above is a map of New Buildings (section B from the second map) when they were taken
into the Dockyard
in 1847. This area was approximately 200 metres wide by 100 metres.
I am particularly interested in this area as some of my family lived here. The papers
of HMS Sapphire record that my greatx2 grandfather, James Mills, was born at Sharps
Buildings in 1819. They had moved to Strongs Buildings by 1824. A branch of my ancestral
Hambley family was living at Gravel Lane also in 1824. However, by 1841, the Mills’
had moved to East Street at Portsmouth Point.
By 1700, Portsmouth Town, with its constraining walls, was bursting at the seams.
The pressing need for new homes was given impetus and direction by the distance that
Dockyard artisans had to travel to their place of work.
The result was a new housing development at Portsmouth Common, despite the obstacle
posed by the decree that ‘no person can erect buildings or do anything to the prejudice
of the Kings fortifications’. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century at
New Buildings (beside the Dockyard’s wall to the north-east) there was the first
organized attempt to build on Portsmouth Common – there, sixteen payments were recorded
for the Poor Rate in 1700.
An obvious reason for this spot being selected initially was that there was a gate
nearby that allowed workers access to the Dockyard .
Sights, sounds and smells of Portsea, New Buildings
The street names of New Buildings changed as national heroes and local personalities
emerged. Thus, Sandwich Street (which was known as Middle Street in 1777) referred
to the First Sea Lord, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who attempted to root out corruption
in the Dockyard. However, his investigation also uncovered abuses by the workers
who lived in these streets! The name, Seymour Street, first appears in 1796 and
was a reference to Lord Hugh Seymour an Admiralty Commissioner (1795-98). Wolfe’s
Court was an echo of General James Wolfe who stayed at Portsmouth in 1758 whilst
en route to Canada. Ironically, the General was critical of the Portsea populous
which he castigated as ‘diabolical’. He added in a letter to his mother, ‘It is a
doubt to me if there is another collection of demons upon the whole earth. Vice,
however, wears so ugly a garb that it disgusts rather than tempts’. Despite this,
or maybe because of it, the locals still named a street in his honour.
Jarman’s Place, Sharpe’s Buildings and Fisher Street were coined after owners and
residents. Gravel Lane and Gravel Row were so called because they were close to the
gravel pits of Portsmouth Common.
Brunswick Street was allocated funds for paving in 1770 - the implication being that
the streets were of mud before this time.
The Parade was a place of assembly. Once a year, the inhabitants elected a mock ‘mayor’
who then sat in state at the Parade as a local company (the ‘Royal Stiffs’) marched
past. The ceremony and festivities concluded with great bonfire at what became known
as ‘Bonfire Corner’.
The proximity of New Buildings to the Dockyard resulted in an alarm being flagged-up
by the Board of Ordinance in 1699: ‘The new buildings lately erected on the north-east
side of the docks are advanced within fifty feet of the design for fortifying the
One solution was proposed by T Seymour: The ‘shutting up of the north-east gate at
Portsmouth, whereby they are prejudiced in certain new buildings erected for the
accommodation of the dock workmen...They represent that if the gate be kept shut,
their tenants in the new buildings must desert their habitations’. (NB This gate
was relocated in 1709)
The governor of the Board of Ordinance threatened to turn his guns on the newly-built
houses of Portsea but in 1702 the visiting Prince George of Denmark intervened on
the locals’ behalf. As a result, Queen Anne (who was married to the Prince) allowed
the building to continue and with this royal approval, Portsea Town grew rapidly.
Because of its position, New Building people were mainly mariners and dockyard workers
with their families.
The township’s proximity to the sea brought in its wake specialized trades. Watermen
plied their services at the water’s edge and ferried customers in their wherries
around harbour, to moored ships and also across to Gosport. Wooden ships, temporarily
anchored in Porchester Lake or nearby Fountain Lake, were broken up and their timbers
sold by firms such as Clarke and Carter. Cargoes of coal, house slates and ‘weevil
grains’ were landed and sold from stores and yards.
Scattered among residents were the support tradesmen who supplied the community’s
basic needs. New Buildings had two breweries (Prince of Wales and Pink and Collins),
at least two taverns (The Magpie and The Monkey and Grapes), a ship breakers yard,
a bake-house, coal stores, a grocery store (at 19 Sandwich Street) and a coach-house
Social amenities included a bowling alley, a chapel and a brave attempt of an infant’s
school at Seymour Street which opened in April 1827 and, being funded by public contributions
and needing £100 to survive each year, ran into immediate financial difficulties.
According to the 1775 Rate Book, the numbering of houses at New Buildings ended at
112, which may indicate the size of the neighbourhood. The homes were well over a
century old and, like the rest of Portsea, in an insanitary state.
The plans of New Buildings show that most homes were terraced with a small yard.
In the early 1820s when properties were sold, sometimes descriptions and rents were
· 1805. 19 and 20 Gravel Lane. Annual rent – six guineas each.
· 1829. Three tenements at Seymour Street with cellar, parlour, kitchen, three bedrooms
and a yard. Frontage: 30 feet; depth 28 feet. Total annual rent - £90
· 1832. Seven homes at Wolfe’s Court. Total annual rent - £30.
· 1838. 40 and 41 Sandwich Street. Each with two cellars, front and back sitting
rooms, four bedrooms and an attic.
One sale prospectus helpfully added some details about the water supply to some houses.
It detailed five newly-built homes at 35-39 Sandwich Street (total annual rent -
£80) which were ‘plentifully supplied with excellent spring water and pump’. Indeed
the 1846 map of New Buildings shows a well-house in the vicinity.
Many Dockyard artisans were still living at New Buildings. They included shipwrights
(9), rope-makers (4), sawyers (3), joiners (2), blacksmiths (5), stonemasons (2),
a painter , a sail-maker , a messenger to the Port Admiral and a female oakum picker.
So, 16% of working adults were employed in the Dockyard. In addition to these there
were nineteen labourers who may or may not have been in the Yard.
The remainder of workers were the infrastructure of the community: watermen (12),
cordwainers/shoemakers (9), tailors (4), bakers (3), fishermen (2), coal merchant
(2), grocers (2), uncategorized merchants/shopkeepers (5), a miller, a fruiterer,
a fishmonger, a draper, a lighter-keeper, a nurse, a male hair-dresser, a basket-maker,
a bricklayer, a cook/pastry cook and a policeman.
Included in this list were those supplying beer and liquor. There were two brewers.
Also, three publicans (two of whom also worked: one as a painter, the other as a
tailor) and three licensed victuallers. One publican was at Wolf’s Court, but the
rest were clustered along Sandwich Street.
In the 1830s, the days of New Buildings were numbered. The Dockyard leviathan was
again on the crawl. A sea-change in the construction of vessels from wood to steel
and from sail to steam demanded that the sprawling yard should sprawl some more.
On 26 December 1836, a possible expansion project was reported in the Hampshire Telegraph:
‘...a plan has been shewn us of taking such increase out of the part of Portsea called
New Buildings – a portion of the town very valueless (italics mine)...’
Sure enough, the death knell of New Buildings sounded in 1844 with the serving of
notice of the Admiralty’s intention to purchase land for its enlargement. The Hampshire
Telegraph of 12 July 1845 trumpeted: ‘New Steam Basin’. It reported that ‘the business
of removing about 130 occupants from their various localities has been most ably
managed...with one or two exceptions the properties were of small value’. Yet a few
words later, it was stated that ‘many objections at first arose and threats were
held out...’. It concluded that the Admiralty has shown much consideration in ejecting
the tenants and in the cases of three old widows who were merely tenants but who
had lived in their respective holdings for perhaps all their lives, they have been
given £8 or £10 a year for the future’.
It might be thought that this report is a perhaps rose-tinted view of the eviction/evacuation.
It may refer to one stage (of several) of the removals; or the ‘130 occupants’ may
relate to the adults and not the children who were wrenched from their homes.
By 1848, New Buildings had become Demolished Buildings.