During the Second World War Southern Railways operated a steamship ferry service between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although on first impressions we might think that this was a relatively safe occupation, part of the Luftwaffe’s operations against Britan included dropping mines in coastal waters. An during wartime members of the Merchant Navy were liable to come under naval discipline, and the Merchant Navy was regarded as an arm of service in itself.
One of the Southern Railway steamers was the SS Portsdown. In service from 1928, she plied the route across the Solent. On 20 September 1941 the Portsdown blew up and sank off Southsea Beach. Eight of the crew and an unknown number of passengers were missing. It was believed she hit a mine.
Many of the crew were lost, and a lone civilian Passenger.
Eight crew members died when the Portsdown was sunk. Master Herbert Chandler, 57 and from Bognor Regis. Mate Seth Burgess, 33 and from Southsea. Purser Edward Cottrell, 34 and from Southsea. Ordinary Seaman Edwin Burnett, 19 and from Eastney. Fireman William Harrison, 47 and from North End. Fireman Bertram Rawlins, 25 and from Buckland. Deck Hand John Monk, 27 and from Southsea. And Deck Hand Alfred Farey, 61 and from Fratton. All are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, apart from Seth Burgess who is buried in Milton Cemetery. That they have no known grave suggests that the ship exploded and that only Burgess’ body was recovered.
Mecifully there seems to have been only one civilian casualty – Kenneth Spanner, 36 and from Sandown on the Isle of Wight. He seems to have no known grave.
How many passengers were onboard when she hit the mine? Did they manage to escape, or did the Portsdown only have one passenger onboard? It does seem strange for a ferry to have been travelling with just one passenger. She sank in around six feet of water, which taking a look at Admiralty chart, would place her around half a mile off Southsea Beach when she sank. Having fished the waters off Southea, I’m not awar of the wreck of a paddlesteamer off Southea. It would seem that the wreck was salvaged, or so destroyed by the explosion that nothing substantial remained.
There is a file on the SS Portsdown in the National Archives in London, so hopefully on my next visit I will be able to find out more. The local Newspaper might also tell me more. And knowing that the Portsdown was a Railway ship, and how enthusiastic Railway enthusiasts are, maybe I can find out more from that angle…