Category Archives: Architecture

Portsmouth Paper #1 – Portchester Castle by Barry Cunliffe

Over 80 Portsmouth Papers have been published since their inception in 1967. Although the rate of publication has slowed somewhat, they remain an amazing resource for the local historian, and make Portsmouth one of the most written-about cities for its size in Britain. I know they came in handy when I writing my dissertation. Over the coming weeks I will be bringing you a summary of some of the best numbers in the series.

One of the most ironic things about the first ever Portsmouth Paper, is that its subject is not in Portsmouth at all. Yet Portchester Castle was one of the earliest and most important factors in human activity in the Portsmouth area, so the cross-boundary activity can surely be forgiven!

In 1967 Barry Cunliffe was already one of Britain’s most foremost Archaeologists. Now, 43 years later, Sir Barry Cunliffe is retired, after a career that culminated as Professor of International Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He has also served as the President of the British Council for Archaeology, a Governor of the Museum of London, the interim chair of English Heritage, and he is currently the Chair of the Friends of the British Museum. Professor Cunliffe is even one of the references on Mick Aston’s CV!

Excavations began at Portchester Castle in 1961. The first three years were spent excavating the Roman walls. Focus then shifted to the inner bailey of the Castle, with digging beginning in the South West quarter.

The first traces of occupation at Portchester date from the First Century AD, in the form of small amounts of pottery and a few post-holes. It is known that in AD 43 the Roman Fleet was stationed in Britain, and a system of Roman forts and fleets remained on the south and east coasts for several centuries. Coins found in the walls at Portchester date their construction to some time after AD 268. The walls were a significant feature, being 10 feet thick and up to 20 feet high. 24,000 cubic yards of flint and mortar were used. Cuniffe gives us a vivid picture of how the walls were built, and includes a fascinatng picture showing the join between the work of two Roman building gangs. Outside of this main wall projected a number of D-shaped Bastions.

Gates are always bound to be a weak point in any fortification. At Portchester the two gates are found on the ‘Land’ and ‘Water’ sides. Both of these sections of the castle have been heavily modified and rebuilt over the centuries, and detailed illustrations show the various stages of rebuiding. Aside from the gates, evidence of Roman buildings has been found in the inner bailey, such as latrines. The rubbish deposits found in the Castle give us a very full picture of Garrison life in the Castle – animal bones, for instance.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the site was not occupied militarily. However, it is likely that people used the Castle as shelter. Ancient Anglo-Saxon chronicles tell us that in AD 501 a man named Port landed at Portsmouth and killed a noble man. Excavations at Portchester have found evidence of Saxon activity at the Castle, however there is no link to the mysterious Port. However Portchester is extremely significant, as so few examples of Saxon settlement remain. From the 10th Century documentary sources relating to Portchester are much more common, and it is clear that parts of the Watergate in particular are of late-Saxon origin.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the Castle found a new lease of life. The Domesday Book tells us that the Castle had a hall, and excavations in 1965 and 1966 uncovered its location. It seems that the 11th Century Castle contained a manorial hall, and other associated buildings, possibly of pre-Norman origin. By the early part of the twelfth century the Castle was in Royal hands. A programme of military and domestic works took place, including the rebuilding of both gates. An inner bailey was constructed, as a residential area and an inner stronghold. According to Cunliffe, the Norman builders even robbed several feet from the thickness of the outer Roman walls. The large keep remains the most impressive building in the Castle complex.

The mid twelfth to mid thirteenth centuries saw numerous modifications. the Keep was increased in height, and a number of smaller buildings were built inside the inner bailey – halls, kitchens and living rooms. Kings frequently used the Castle while hunting game in the Forest of Bere, or as a stopping point before sailing to France. Although the Royal retinue would have inhabited the inner bailey, the outer bailey would have been occupied by many people. Shortly after 1133 an Augustinian Priory was built in the south-east quarter, however twenty years later the monks left for Southwick! The Priory buildings continued to be used as St Mary’s Church.

The importance of Portchester gradually receded, due to the growing importance of Portsmouth. However Richard II continued to use the Castle as a residential retreat, and the subsequent buildings can adequately be described as a Palace.

This is a masterful Paper indeed. Eloquently written by THE authority on archaeology, it is informative, well illustrated with graphics and photographs – including some great archaeological drawings. Perhaps it is not as well referenced as other Papers, but it is after all an archaeological report, and not a pure work of history. Over 40 years old, the first Portsmouth Paper also remains one of the best.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Local History, Medieval history, Roman, Uncategorized

Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.



There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.



Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.



On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.



After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.


Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Local History, Medieval history, out and about, Uncategorized


People who don’t come from Britain won’t be familiar with this one. Nimbyism is a phenomenon that seems to affect England more than any other country. But why the stupid name, I hear you ask? Well, its simple…

‘Not In My Back Yard!’

Its the phenomenon of people thinking that nothing should happen anywhere near their home of where they live that they don’t like. Football Stadium? Not near my house? Where should it go? Oh I don’t mind, just not here! somewhere else!

Its a pretty unconstructive way to think. OK, it would be lovely if we all lived in nice bungalows, in the country, with rolling fields all around and birds singing in the morning. But we don’t, we live in a city, one of the most cramped in the world, and some things just have to go somewhere. Even if you argue against something, come up with a constructive alternative rather than just ‘not here!’

I remember well the debate about Pompey’s new football stadium, back in the 1990′s. The locals in Farlington didnt want it. In the end a public inquiry ruled it out due to Farlington being a breeding ground for Geese. I’m sure the people of Farlington were pretty pleased, but it just meant that someone else would eventually have to live next to it.

The plans for a dedicated bus route from Fareham to Gosport spring to mind too. The road from Fareham to Gosport is so congested, it risks turning Gosport into an unlivable town unless something drastic is done. All kinds of things have been proposed – trams, tunnels under the harbour… but for various reasons nothing gets done. Even when the Council propose to apply for Government funding to build a dedicated bus lane on an old disused train line. Perfect idea, surely? Not to the small handful of people who don’t want it. Apparently there are rare insects in the area. Now, I’m not advocating bulldozing over endangered animals, but… its something that would make a big difference to Gosport.

Remember when Status Quo were going to play Portchester Castle? Until the locals decided they didnt want hundreds of ‘denim and leather clad rockers’ turning up! It eventually got switched to Stansted House. But somehow no-one complained about the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing there… so its obviously not about the event itself, or the amount of people or the parking, its a class thing.

Architecture is another one. There are plenty of people out there who will oppose planning permission on a new building just becase they don’t like it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make sure that new buildings look good, but is it right for a very small part of the population to have such influence over the environment? And especially when often it holds up and delays important projects. There is something rather elitist about pushing your views on something, because you think they are more important than other people’s. Even when it affects them too.

There have been plenty of debates around Britain about whether wind farms look ugly. Unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re facing so many problems with fossil fuels running out and power stations creating greenhouse gases, that we can’t really afford to worry about whether they spoil Mrs. Davis-Jones’s views from her nice little bungalow! There are plenty of wind turbines in Europe, and they don’t look that bad.

In other countries – I think principally of Germany – things just get done. No one complains or moans, the greater good takes priority. I guess there is a greater heritage there of obeying authority, whereas here we are all entitled to have a good moan, no matter how crazy our grounds might be. I guess its a price we pay for democracy, it takes forever for anything to get done.

Look at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – whoever was in charge would have called the shots, and no complaining. Whereas for the 2012 opening ceremony, I bet we already have a plethora of committees, focus panels, advisory groups, hundreds of special advisers, consultants, all sorts. Who knows how it will end up…


Filed under Architecture, debate, Local History

Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.


Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

Fort Nelson revamp goes off with a bang

A £2 million revamp of Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth, got off to an explosive start yesterday.

The Fort, home of the Royal Armouries collection of Artilley and Cannons, is a nineteenth century Palmerston fort, on the crest of Portsdown Hill.

The first phase involved the demolition of a post-war cottage, in fitting fashion by a Sexton armoured vehicle.

The demolition is the first stage of a major revamp at the Royal Armouries Museum – home to the national collection of artillery and historic cannon – and will see enhanced visitor facilities, galleries and state-of-the-art education facilities.

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Time Team

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

Unless you’ve lived on a different planet for the past 15 years, you can’t fail but to have seen the hugely popular archaeology TV show, Time Team. It can be seen on Channel 4, and repeats on the Discovery Channel.

First broadcast in 1994, it showcases a team of archaeologists and associated experts as they go about investigating archaeological sites. The real crux of the programme is that they supposedly have only three days to carry out the dig. In fact much of the work is done before and after the three days. They have investigated everything from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Industrial Revolution through to second world war sites. They have also produced programmes on excavations in America and the Carribean.

The show is presented by Tony Robinson, of Blackadder fame. As well as an acomplished actor, he’s also got an enthusiasm for archaeology. The main expert is Professor Mick Aston, a nutty professor if ever there was one, with shocks of clown-like hair and day-glo stripey jumpers. Historian Robin Bush used to cover the research side of things, and proved to be unlike many archivists in that he actually had a personality. The show also uses some fascinating geophysical survey technology.

The real gem of the series has to be Phil Harding. Like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel and with the broad wessex accent to match, he is a dirt archaeologist and is always getting involved in the re-enactments and reconstructions. With long hair and short shorts, hes quite a character.

Time Team usually get involved with the local community. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, however, when earlier this summer they carried out an excavation in Portsmouth and cosied up with Portsmouth Grammar School. Why not invite some less privileged young people who might not normally get that kind of opportunity?

Time Team has made a lasting impact on British archaeology. The archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.

A lot of the establishment figures have never been to happy about Time Team, reasoning that it dumbs down archaeology, and no doubt they dont like anything that interests normal people. As someone who thinks that it is the right of anyone and everyone to be interested in history, this smacks of elitism. If these authority figures really loved their subject, then they would be glad that people find an interest in it.

If you dont like people being enthusiastic about history, go and work in a factory.


Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, debate, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Museums, On TV, social history

‘old’ Portsmouth

18th Century Portsmouth

18th Century Portsmouth

Stood up on Portsdown Hill looking down on Portsmouth, it is hard to imagine that up until around 200 years ago Portsmouth was a very small town, centred around what we know nowadays as Old Portsmouth.

The first settlement on Portsea Island grew up around the mouth of the harbour, apart from a few small farming settlements mentioned in the Domesday book. This protected the entrance to the Royal Dockyard and Portsmouth Harbour, and was surrounded by a fortified wall. Over the centuries these walls grew into considerable buildings. This is not suprising, given that we were constantly at war with someone or other, and Portsmouth was the nations most important Naval Base for much of its existence. You can walk round the site of most of them. The Kings Bastion and Long Curtain Moat can still be seen near Clarence Pier, and of course the Square Tower, Hot Walls and Round Tower are still there. Several of the town gates are still there, although the only one still in its present location is the Landport Gate on St Georges Road, near the United Services Recreation Ground. Walk from the Square Tower, all the way up the High Street, to the Landport Gate, and you realise just what a small area ‘old’ Portsmouth was.

This leads us onto something that often gets overlooked – given its importance, Portsmouth was for most of its history guarded by very large forces of the British Army. You might be forgiven for thinking that Portsmouth was completely dominated by the Royal Navy. In fact, at times Portsmouth would have been inhabited by more soldiers than sailors. The Governor, the military commander, was one of the most important figures in the town.

Portsmouth’s growth outside the town walls started in the 18th century, when Dockyard workers began to build a new township that came to be known as Portsea. In the early 19th Century a businessman, Thomas Croxton, started building what later came to be Southsea. Although Thomas Ellis Owen shaped modern Southsea, Croxton was the first person to build houses in the area. And of course Charles Dickens was born in Halfway Houses, in what we would nowadays call Mile End or Buckland.

Looking at the area, and thinking about how Portsmouth has grown, it makes you realise just what changes occured in such a short space of time.


Filed under Architecture, Local History

£13m for UK’s Heritage

The Heritage Lottery Fund today announced £13m worth of grants for four Heritage projects around the UK.

Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes is the historic site of secret British code breaking activities during World War Two and birthplace of the modern computer. It has been awarded HLF development funding of £460,500 towards a further potential application of £4.1million. Proposals include: repairing key buildings to highlight the crucial part the site played in the World War Two code breaking story; improving visitor facilities; and expanding the site’s educational programmes.

HLF’s £3.3million grant will fund the transformation of the redundant 19th-century All Souls Church in Bolton into a state-of-the-art facility providing training, education, youth activities, health and welfare services to the local community. Plans include taking out the existing pews and replacing them with a community centre, made up of two ‘pods’ that will sit within the church building.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich will also benefit. Thanks to HLF’s £5million grant, an elegant and inviting entrance will be created directly from Greenwich Park and much more of the collection and archive will be displayed in the new library, archive facilities and special exhibitions gallery.

The Vindolanda Trust has some of the most important collections of ‘real life’ from the Roman world. Their museums are situated on the extensive remains of two Roman forts and civilian settlements on Hadrian’s Wall – England’s largest World Heritage Site. The HLF’s £4million grant will link the two sites and the proposed new gallery space and education centre have been designed to inspire the next generation of young archaeologists. A significant element of Vindolanda’s collection currently in storage will be on show for the first time.

Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire was created by some of the 18th century’s leading architects, sculptors and gardeners, including Capability Brown, John Vanbrugh and William Kent. Thanks to a grant of £1.5million, the original entrance to the Garden will be reinstated. By transforming the visitor experience, people will enjoy a greater understanding of what it would have been like to visit Stowe in its heyday.

Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) sustains and transforms a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. HLF has supported more than 28,800 projects, allocating over £4.3billion across the UK.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, maritime history, Museums, News, social history, World War Two

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980′s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!


Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

Portsmouth Guildhall

Portsmouth Guildhall

Portsmouth Guildhall

Portsmouth’s original Town Hall was located in the heart of the old town, in the High Street. However, with the growth of the Town in importance and size, a new Town Hall was urgently required towards the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Land was acquired from the War Department, partly from demolished fortifications. Its official opening was in 1890. Prior to the second world war busses and trams ran along the road in front, and the immediate area was made up of shops, and cafes, such as the Verrechias Ice Cream Parlour.

Portsmouth’s Guildhall bears a stark resemblance to that of Bolton. This is probably down to the fact that the same architect designed both buildings: Bolton’s Town Hall looks remarkably like a proptotype for that of Portsmouth, with the same colonnaded frontage and passant Lions.

Initially known as the Town Hall, in 1926 when Portsmouth was given the status of a city it was renamed as the Guildhall. Unlike modern times, when the Guildhall is the civic showpiece and most departments are based in the civic offices opposite, a mnuch smaller council meant that most workers were based in the Guildhall.

In January 1941, during a particularly heavy air raid, an incendiary bomb found its way into a ventilation shaft and before firefighters could deal with it, the whole building was ablaze. Still on fire the next day, by the time the flames were dampened the Guildhall was a smouldering shell. Happily, The reinforced safe in the basement was found to have kept many historic and priceless items intact.

Reconstruction could not begin for many years, and the building stood empty. When it was finally rebuilt, the Guildhall was placed at the centre of a new, pedestrianised Square, with the civic offices creating an arena effect to the north and east, and Guildhall Walk and the Central Library to the south. A perfect location for big oustide events, the only dampener is probably that a City Museum was not located nearby when the opportunity existed. When being rebuilt one councillor pressed the Architect to rebuild the dome on top of the tower. The architect, thankfully, refused – the original dome does appear to have been ‘top-heavy’.

The main auditorium seats 2,200 people, and has seen all manner of acts, from Motorhead to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It is also the venue for the annual mayormaking ceremony, as well as the University of Portsmouth’s Graduation ceremonies. The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress both have grand parlours in the Guildhall for entertaining guests, as well as a Banqueting Room. There is a very nice restaurant on the Ground Floor, the Harlequin. In the Council Chambers the City Council meets to discuss and debate business. The walls of the Chamber are panelled with the names of previous Mayors and Lord Mayor’s of Portsmouth.

The first floor reception room – the Star Chamber – is a real hidden gem. With the theme “Heaven’s Light Our Guide”, the huge mural which covers the north wall depicts many historical scenes of Portsmouth’s past and is made of glass and mirrors. In the Crystal Constellations the 12 signs of the Zodiac can be seen.

Happily, earlier this year the Bells were restored after years of inactivity, and once again the famous Pompey Chimes can be heard all around the city centre.

As someone who has worked in an office in the Guildhall, it really is a unique building. It is definitely showing its age and in need of a serious overhaul. In addition, it would benefit from more positive management who might like to book bigger and more interesting acts, and make more use of the building and what it offers.

However, compare it to Southampton Guildhall, from inside and outside, and there really is no contest. From the grand steps, the lions, and Neptune atop the Columns, it encapsulates the spirit of Portsmouth.


Filed under Architecture, Local History, out and about

Book of the week # 8 – The Spirit of Portsmouth

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

A city like Portsmouth is always going to be a difficult one to write about. Its got to be nigh on impossible to ever try and write a book about one place, and to be able to say definitely that it is THE history of a town or a city. Let alone a city as momentous, pivotal and diverse and Portsmouth.

Among the plethora of books about Portsmouth, this is probably the closest to a definitive history that you will get at present. Rather than attempting to give a narrative view of Portsmouth, which would take forever and would be very disjointed, the authors take a more thematic approach, offering chapters on Portsmouths geography, the dockyard and Navy, Religion, Government, Leisure, and its future. It is an admirable collection of chapters, particular Ray Riley’s chapter on Wooden Walls and Ironclads, which draws on his wealth of expertise in this area. It also focusses particularly well on Portsmouth’s early development as a town. Another aspect that makes this book invaluable is its considerable bibliography and endnotes, which are a helpful guide to Local History sources.

Reading from a distance of 20 years, it does show its age, however. Modern local history would probably make far more use of ordinary people’s contributions, and would look further than the grand developments and big personalities. This is very much a ‘top-down’ approach, particularly the importance given to religion and Government. Neither is it definitive, and would probably serve more as an intriduction and signpost to other more detailed works, such as the various Portsmouth Papers. But is is a very important contribution to Portsmouth’s Historiography none the less, and hopefully provides a very useful model for a 21st Century version.

Click here to buy The Spirit of Portsmouth

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Book of the Week, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, Navy

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah really was one of life’s characters. Just an ordinary Northern bloke, by a strange quirk of fate he ended up a national treasure.

After finishing his national service in the Army in 1962, the native of Bolton became famous as a steeplejack. Although he became famous for demolishing buildings, usually factory chimneys, he also repaired them. The decline of Bolton’s cotton industry meant that there was a never-ending stream of chimneys needing felling. An admirer of the workmanship that had gone into their construction, Fred felled them the old-fashioned way. Eschewing dynamite, he cut into the chimney, propped it up with wood, and then burnt the wood away. He was also fascinated with all things Industrial, and not surprisingly his hero was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Fred also became famous for his steam engines. Over time he built up a full-scale steam driven workshop in his back garden to work on his engines, a steam roller and a traction engine. He was so devoted to his engines that his first two wives ended up leaving him! In 2002 Fred even went as far as to sink a mine shaft in his back garden, with full pit head gear and incline railway.

After the real-life documentaries following his life, Fred also presented a number of fascinating series covering his love for Industry, Architecture, and steam. Diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Fred refused to receive chemotherapy so he could tour Britain in his newly restored Aveling and Porter Traction Engine, and collect his MBE from Buckingham Palace in style. He died in 2004, and his funeral was a real Victorian affair, even down to the steam engine carrying his coffin! Theres a statue of Fred in Bolton City Centre, and his back yard workshop is reportedly going to be turned into a working Heritage Centre. Lets hope so!

The steam world purists might belittle him at times, but what he had that the vast majority of them will never have was worth its weight in gold – charisma. Whats the use of knowledge if you can’t pass it on? He wasnt perfect – as his first two wives would no doubt testify – but who is? How many people are interested in industry, architecture, heritage…. just from watching Fred? How many people out there would be interested in those things, but just dont know it?

I wish I had got to meet him. If everyone devoted themselves to a cause like Fred did, the world would be a much better place. Keep an eye on the Cable channels, his programmes are often repeated and are well worth a watch.


Filed under Architecture, Industrial Revolution, On TV

This week on TV – 31/08/09

I thought I would have a look through the TV schedules and pick out some nice interesting Historical type programmes that might be interesting to watch over the next 7 days.

In Streets in the Sky Architecture Critic Tom Dyckhoff visits one of the most controversial listed buildings in Britain, the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, Although it was once heralded as the most pioneering public housing scheme in Britain, decades of decline and neglect have transformed it into a grim sink estate. Now it’s protected by English Heritage and raises questions about what we should be saving for the nation (Monday 31 August, BBC2, 19:30).

In Warship, we get an insight into the crew of one of the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships, HMS Bulwark, as they head off the the Far East on a multinational exercise. New Series (Monday 31 August, Five, 21:00).

For Anyone who missed Martin Freeman’s who do you think you are?, its repeated this week. Well worth a watch if you havent already seen it (Tuesday 1 September, BBC2, 19:00).

Wednesday sees a pretty unique insight into the First World War, in World War One in Colour. Computer techniques are used to colourise vintage newsreel footage of the conflict (Wednesday 2 September, Five, 21:00).

ITV gives us a pretty rare History programme on Thursday, Outbreak. It promises recollections od the day World War Two began (Thursday 3 September, ITV, 22:35).

Friday includes one of the most controversial Period Drama’s of the moment, The Tudors on BBC2. This week Henry VIII, played by Jonathon Rhys Myers, mourns the death of Jane Seymour. 3 down, 3 to go! (Friday 4 September, BBC2, 21:00).

Theres some classic wartime comedy on Saturday, with Dad’s Army. Not sure what episode its gonna be, but to be fair they’re all classic. (Sat 5 September, BBC2, 20:30).


Filed under Architecture, Family History, Medieval history, Navy, News, On TV, World War One, World War Two