Tag Archives: Local History

Portsmouth heroes update

Work has been progressing steadily on my Portsmouth Heroes project. At the moment I am researching a handful of some of the most interesting stories in detail, right down to when they were born, what kind of a background they came from, absolutely everything I can find out about them in order to try and understand what makes them tick.

I can remember reading Supreme Courage by Sir Peter de la Billiere, which is a fascinating profile of a number of Victoria Cross winners. DLB doesn’t just state the bare facts, he tries to get into the minds of the men in question, and explains how the came to show such inspiring bravery. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve here, only looking at Portsmouth men. Who stories, I hope, will be more accessible to local people.

Recently I have been researching:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth, a First World War veteran who served for years in submarines, transferred to B0mb Disposal and was killed defusing a Parachute Mine during the Blitz. He was awarded one of the first George Crosses posthumously.
  • Sergeant Sidney Cornell, a Paratrooper who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal in Normandy, fought in the Ardennes and the Rhine Crossing and was killed in the final battle for Germany in April 1945.
  • Lance Corporal Leslie Webb, a member of the 1st Hampshire Regiment who was mortally wounded landing in the first wave on D-Day, and was awarded a posthumous Military Medal.
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan, a Battle of Britain pilot who fought in the Battle of France, over Dunkirk and over southern England, claiming at least 6 downed enemy aircraft and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In August a Westland Lysander he was flying over northern France on a secret operation vanished.
  • Major Robert Easton, a pre-war Lancashire Fusilier who transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps, and won a Distinguished Service Order in the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. He was killed while second in command of his Regiment later that year.
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan, a Bomber pilot who flew early missions against Nazi Germany, then transferred to flying Beaufighters in North Africa and from Malta, where he commanded Squadrons. He was killed in the Mediterranean in 1944, after being awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar and a Belgian Croix de Guerre.
  • Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, a young Destroyer commander who saw action escorting convoys in the North Sea, Channel and Atlantic, took part in evacuating Dutch officials in 1940, and then saw service in the Mediterranean, escorting Convoys to Malta and attacking Axis shipping to North Africa. He was killed when his ship was sunk off Tobruk in May 1942. He was awarded the DSO, a DSC and was mentioned in despatches three times.

Its amazing how much you can find out. Navy, Army and Air Force lists are a godsend for tracing the careers of officers. Other ranks are slightly more tricky. Medal winners are easier too, as awards were announced in the London Gazette and you can obtain citations from the National Archives. The Portsmouth Evening News is very useful, but on microfilm it can take an age to trawl through! You can also get long-serving sailors and marines records from TNA too. A lengthy trip to the National Archives is in the offing, and probably the Imperial War Museum as well. And I can feel a few interlibrary loans in the offing too!

There are some other men I am keen to research too – such as Colour Sergeant Willie Bird of the Royal Marines,  Petty Officer Frank Collison and Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston of HM Submarine Triumph, Battery Quartermaster Sergeant Stanley Thayer and Major Maurice Budd. Then there are the interesting stories such as the Venables brothers who were killed in the same plane crash, Private Bobby Johns the underage Para, the massive losses on the Battleships Royal Oak, Hood and Barham, the POW’s in Europe and South East Asia, the brothers who died during the war, the Boy Seamen, the men who were killed on the SS Portsdown, the Merchant Seamen and NAAFI personnel, WAAFs, Wrens and ATS girls…

If there any stories that I have forgotten, or if anyone has any information about any of these men, or would like to chip in on anything about the whole project, I’m all ears. It’s hard knowing who to focus on, as with the best will in the world it would take me forever to research all 2,000+ men in such detail, and I’m hoping to take a representative sample of men and women who could have been anyone from Portsmouth.

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Filed under Army, Local History, Navy, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two

work starts on ‘Portsmouth’s heroes’

In the past week or so I have started researching the stories of some of Portsmouth’s fallen Sailors, Soldiers and airmen from the Second World War. To begin with I am focusing on a handful of men and their stories, and by finding out all I can about them I hope to try and give an impression of their sacrifice.

This week I have been researching Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC (RN Bomb Disposal), Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM (D-Day Para killed in Germany in 1945) and Lance Corporal Les Webb MM (1st Hants, seriously wounded on D-Day on Gold Beach and died of wounds a week later). I have a list of other names who I think will be very interesting to research and write about, and hopefully people will enjoy reading their stories too.

I have already had some successes early on – finding Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth’s service record on the National Archives online was a real bonus. The Evening News has given me some pretty useful death notices and thanks for sympathy messages, and announcements about medals. Personal notices in the local newspaper give a wonderful insight into the feelings that went with the loss of a loved one, as well as the names of family members, addresses, and other details that add so much depth and understanding to what is initially just a name, rank and a number. You cannot help but remember that these men were all someones husband, boyfriend, fiance, son, brother, father, grandson, nephew or uncle. The local Kelly’s directories and Electoral Registers also give a good idea of who was living where and when, and I have several certificates on order from the General Register Office.

It would be all too easy to just write about the battles and medals, but I think its important to look at the social side of these inspirational people, to find out who they were and what made them tick. That way we can try to understand that they really did come from the same streets that we do, and were human beings the same as us. We should be careful not to put them on a pedestal so much that their stories are out of touch, especially as the passage of time makes them seem from a different world in any case.

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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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Records show profound decline in UK fish stocks

Bream

Me and a tiny Bream caught off Southsea last summer

I’ve just read a pretty interesting article on the BBC website about the decline in fish stocks in the seas around the Britsh isles.

The history of fishing combines two of my interests – history, and fishing (funnily enough!). I’ve did some research on fishing in Portsmouth in the Eighteenth Century for a presentation at Uni, and I have spent many an hour sat on the local beaches. And it doesnt take a genius to work out that there are a LOT less fish in British waters than years ago.

Apparently the researchers for this study looked at data from the late 19th Century onwards. FOUR times as many fish were being landed 100 hundred years ago as are today, with catches peaking in 1938. The Victorians were obsessive about setting up various inspectorates, committees and the like, and in the 1880’s the Government appointed fishery inspectors in large fishing ports to report on catches being landed. Not only did this give the Victorians a very accurate picture of their fishing industry, it also gives us some brilliant data to look back and compare with.

Stocks of fish such as Halibut, Turbot, Haddock and Plaice are severely depleted, largely caused by prolonged intensive trawling of the seabed. Aside from taking fish out of the sea, this also wrecks the seabed, and doesnt give it time to recover.

One of the major findings of the report, however, is that it takes seventeen times more effort to catch the same amount of fish that were being caught in the 1880’s. This really is ironic – technological changes and the move from sail to engine power meant that boats could fish in all weathers. As catches rose but then fell, boats could go further offshore. This in turn depleted offshore stocks too. And hence fishermen have to work that much harder to catch the fewer fish in the seas.

Reaction from the fishing industry has been predictably dismissive. The so-called expert in the BBC article who called the use of historical data ‘old news’ really is missing the point. Long term trends do not lie. Low fish stocks undoubtedly stem from poor fisheries management, whether it be from Europe, the UK Government or more locally.

Historically, the importance of fishing to Portsmouth has been overlooked. Granted, Portsmouth has never been anywhere near the same league as Hull or Grimsby, but all the same, throughout history fishing has ben an important part of Portsmouth’s economy. As early as 1710 local documents refer to turbot, brill, cod, whiting, bass, mullet, sole, plaice dab and flounder in local waters. Mackerel abounded off of Hayling Island. Records show that in 1725 an Emsworth fisherman sold 48lbs of bass and mullet to a Gosport sailor at 4d. per pound. Fish was sold in the High Street, where stone cooling slabs were fitted in the public market. And during the late Eighteenth there was a short-lived attempt to set up a local Fishery company, with a whole range of local people as shareholders – merchants, businessmen, councilors and aldermen, Admirals, Dockyard officials, and even the Governor (1).

It would not take a genius to work out that fish stocks have declined dramatically. In the twenty-first century, no-one could claim that the Solent is ‘teeming’ with fish, as they did in the Eighteenth Cetury. I can think of a few local examples. The Flounder fishing in Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours has been decimated by fishermen taking them for pot bait. But when theres no more Flounder left, what then? By the same token, the Bass Nursery areas have been a real success. Also the local Smoothound fishing has been brilliant, largely due to Anglers returning fish alive, and that the Smoothound is not a particuarly good eating fish.

These facts surely tell a story, much like the historical data.

(1) Information in this section is taken from James H. Thomas, The Seaborne Trade of Portsmouth 1650-1800, Portsmouth Paper 40, Published by Portsmouth City Council (1984).

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History around us

Where exactly IS History?

Interesting thought isnt it. Classrooms? Books? Films? Museums? Libraries? Stately homes? Maybe in times gone by History was something that was taught by teachers, written by authors, shown in films or stored in glass cases. Sadly, this meant that history became about castles, kings, battles, generals, paintings and the like. Whilst these are all pretty interesting, they are only a small part of the picture.

But the world is a different place. When was you house built? Where did the bricks come from? Take a walk out of your door. Whats the name of your road? Why is it called it that? Who decided to build a road there? Even think about the road itself – when did tarmac start getting used for roads? Whats the name of your local pub? Chances are heres something historic aout it.

When you go to work, how do you get there? How did people get to work 100 years ago? And I bet they didnt have nearly so much leave back then! Look at the countryside – ‘England’s pleasant land’ hasn’t always been like that: hundreds of years ago England was mainly woodland. Why was it cut down? What was it used for?

In fact, you could say that History isnt really a subject itself -its just the art of looking at absolutely anything over time. You can find history anywhere and anything. There is as much history to be found on a council estate as there is in any ancient town. Everywhere you go, and everything you do, there is history. And its not just in the bricks or the artefacts.. its in their stories.

In my mind, it is easier to say where History isn’t. The answer? Thin air*!

(* well, technically you could talk about the history of physics and molecular science…)

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Paulsgrove

After writing about so many high and mighty subjects – aircraft carriers, politicians and the like – I thought I would write about something much more humble… where I live.

Paulsgrove is a large estate in the suburbs of Portsmouth, on the north west mainland part of the city, bordering Portchester and on the slopes of Portsdown Hill. Until 1945 the area was very quiet – apart from Paulsgrove House, a few roads and houses, and a racecourse, it was mainly made up of Pig Farms, owned by George Cooper.

Why is it called Paulsgrove? It has been suggested that it might be because St Paul preached there, although its probably an urban myth. Old maps of the area show the settlements as ‘Pals Grave’, so its probably more likely that an old english chief called Pal was buried in the area.

After Portsmouth was heavily bombed during the blitz, however, the City Council realised that it would have to plan to resettle many of the city’s residents off of Portsea Island, to provide better living conditions. To do this they purchased the land at Paulsgrove. At the same time, a very similar development was started at Leigh Park in Havant. Both sets of my Grandparents were among the first people to move to the new area after the end of the war. It must have made a big change from the crowded conditions in the inner city. That so many people moved in together, at the same kind of age and from the same kind of background, probably accounts for the strong community spirit felt in the area.

Most of the early houses were prefabricated, not meant to last longer than 5 years. Incredibly many of them remain today, albeit heavily modified. The early shops on Allaway Avenue were built out of Nissen huts, as was the Library.

Paulsgrove has had its problems over the years, although many of them have been blown out of all proportion by the press. In particular, the paedophile inspired riots in 2000 probably didnt show the neighbourhood at its best. You’re always going to have problems if you try and transplant thousands of people into a whole new settlement overnight. Usually towns grow organically, from a village, to a town, to a city. Not overnight. In the same way, putting people in high rise flats just doesnt work.

The areas changed quite a lot in the past few years. Out of the many pubs, only the Cross Keys is left now.
But all the same its a great place to live, near to the city, but far enough away to have plenty of space, green areas, nice views and even front gardens!

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Family History #9 – Directories

an 1881 trade directory

an 1881 trade directory

One of the first real historical documents I used was the humble trade directory.

Before facebook, and before even phonebooks, the way to find out who lived where, and what businesses were in a town, you would get hold of the local directory. They were a kind of cross between the phonebook, yellow pages, and the tourist guide.

The early Directories were rather basic. Lets take the Portsmouth section of the Universal British Directory, 1792-98. It starts with a brief introduction to Portsmouth, covering the town’s history and a description of the area, including particular local customs and the overall character of the town. It also describes the local Mayor, the senior Aldermen and the Council. Market days are also covered. After this the directory then goes on to list local services, including Bankers, Post Offices, Stage coaches, Waggons and coastal shipping. The senior officers of the local naval and military establishments are listed, as well as the Dockyard and the Customs Officers. There then follows a list, in alphabetical order, of all of the local residents, together with their occupation. This includes mainly tradesmen and professionals. So if you found yourself in a strange town and needing to get a shoe repaired or to buy some provisions, you would know who to go to.

By the 1820’s things had progressed, as we see in the 1828 edition of Pigots Directory. The description of the town if far more detailed, and gives a really good impression of what the area was like. By 1828 the local traders were listed by occupation, from Academies to Wines and Spirits Merchants. But now we have their addresses too, so we canfind them easier!

Then by the turn of the century, Directories become really detailed. Practically every street and every person is listed, which means the directories contain the details of thousands of families. They now contain adverts, and an index at the back. If you want to get a contemporary idea about a town, directories are a great source of information.

By the 1950’s, however, when more and more people are routinely having telephones, the phone book replaced the directory. Most directories stopped printing in the 1970’s.

So if you’re looking for ancestors in the late 18th, 19th and early to mid 19th Centuries, directories can be very useful. They help you pin down a person or a family to an address, and can tell you about their job. They are especially useful if your ancestor ran a shop or some kind of business. They are also very useful for using alongside census returns and electoral registers. And by looking at each years edition, you can see when and where people move.

So where can you look at directories? many libraries with historical collections will have them, as well as local Records Offices. Alternatively, you can take a look at some directories on the Historical Directories website.

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