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.