SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

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…



Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

10 responses to “SS Portsdown

  1. John McConkey

    Hello, I was interested to read your writeup on the Portsdown disaster. If you look at this website: you will note that it indicates that 12 of 29 service passengers and 3 of 8 civilians died in addition to the crew members you mention. My interest is that according to some notes of an aunt of mine, 2 relatives of ours died on the ship. These were Stanley William Butcher (age 17 yrs) and George Herbert Griffin (age 33 yrs). If you check the death records on you will see both names recorded for Gosport with the same page reference. Please let me know if you have found any more information on this incident. Thanks.

  2. James Daly

    Hi John, many thanks for your comment. And thank you for shedding more light on the story of the Portsdown.

    I have searched the CWGC database, and found a Private Stanley William Butcher, 18 years old, of the 70th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He was killed on 20 September 1941, and is buried in Sandown, Isle of Wight.

    Private George Herbert Griffin, 33, of the Royal Army Pay Corps. Killed on 20 September 1941, buried in Ryde Cemetery.

    I will try and search the rest of the database to find the other casualties, as it would be good to ensure that they are remembered. I suspect from what you say that many of them will have been servicemen from the IOW on leave.


  3. James avey-Hebditch

    Hi John,
    My GrandFather, Reginald Buxton, was onboard the Portsdown whilst returning to his RAF posting on the IOW.
    Thankfully he was not harmed in the explosion and was able to get overboard, to the relative safety of some floating debris.

    Apparently he rescued one of the Directors of the Ferry service from the water. The understandably grateful director thanked him by giving him a lifelong pass for the Ferry service.
    However my Grandfather, being an extremely private man, never used the ticket preferring to pay his way and not attract any attention !

    Good luck in your investigations


  4. Andrew Trend

    I was age 7 and living over the bank at 35 Union St. Ryde when the P.S.Portsdown sank. The event was memorable not only because of the casualties but because she was on the 4 a.m. mail service: this meant that the Bank’s incoming cheques were lost and these “clearings” had to be reconstructed. The event did not hamper our occasioal shopping expeditions to Southsea. The ferry took the same route as the Portsdown and the latter’s rails could be seen above the water at low tide. She lay in the swashway that constituted a short-cut across Spit Sand: only on the more adverse tides did the paddlers go further out and round the fort. If there had been an air raid that night, it might have been wiser to stay in the main channel which would presumably be swept, whereas the swashway might have had low priority. Perhaps there are logs to confirm this point.

    • James Daly

      Hi Andrew, thanks for sharing your recollections! I wrote a substantial section in my last book about the Portsdown.

      Best wishes


  5. Ken Weston

    Deck hand Alfred James Farey was a naval pensioner with long and loyal service in the Royal Navy, having served through both the Boer and Great Wars.

  6. Mr Neil Groundsell

    hi I read with interest and hope maybe you could help me with my research in to this tragedy. My father Graham Groundsell was on board the ports down on the fateful night. My late mother told me of the events as my dad passed away when I was four years old so I was far to young to understand. She told me that on arrival to the ship he was redirected to the 1st class saloon as the rest of the ship was full of servicemen my dad was in the army and agreed with the staff to go to the saloon. What a good choice that was as most of the victims were from where my dad should of been.he survived the blast and so my mum told me helped a young women in the water who was panicking. There seems to be very little information regarding this and could this be that maybe it was a British mine that it hit? Anyway it would be great if you could contact me on my email address or call me on 01983293725 and ask for Neil

  7. This may seem a strange question but can anyone through light on why the wooden handrails from SS Portsdown are in St.Bartholomews Church?
    Sorry I can’t be more specific.

  8. John McConkey

    September 20 2016 will be the 75th anniversary of the Portsdown sinking and the loss of 23 lives (8 crew, 12 service, 3 civilians). I’m interested in exploring the possibility of a memorial plaque being erected – maybe near where the Portsdown left Portsmouth Harbour. Just wondered if there’s some support for this project here?

  9. I’m writing an article for the Isle of Wight Family History Society on the Portsdown sinking. Apart from the 8 crew members I’ve been able to identify 12 others who died. These are servicemen Butcher, Dyer, Griffin, Mills, Reynolds, Salero, Savage, Scovell, Smart and Topp and civilians Barker and Spanner. This leaves 3 from the published number of victims unaccounted for. Can anyone add more names and/or confirm the ones I have?

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