Portsmouth and Southampton: the Geography of Commerce and Defence

Aerial view of Portsmouth

Image via Wikipedia

One of the interesting things about living in South Hampshire, as I did until recently, is noticing that actually, Portsmouth and Southampton are pretty different. And nowhere do you notice this more than sat in the restaurant in IKEA at Southampton! Looking out across Southampton Water you can see some pretty gargantuan container ships and cruise liners. Yet at Portsmouth, naval vessels and passenger ferries dominate. What does history tell us about how this came about?


Since Medieval times Portsmouth Harbour has been a key strategic port for the nation – first for the Romans and early Medieval kings at Portchester, and then Portsmouth itself at the mouth of the harbour. The basing of the kings ships there led to a growth in docking facilities, employment, supportive infrastructures, and had an impact on the local economy and demography as a whole. Knock on effects went even further – for example, the need to garrison and fortify the town, something that is often overlooked.

Obviously, with such a vested interest in the town, much of what happened in Portsmouth was controlled by the Crown, through the Government, and particularly the Admiralty and the War Office. This affected, in particular, land usage, and indeed ‘sea usage’. For example, Southsea Common was kept clear of development for so long as the War Office wanted to keep clear lines of fire between Southsea Castle and the old town fortifications. The Navy continues to maintain a vast sports complex in Portsmouth, on what would otherwise be prime development land.

This control of activity transgressed onto the sea too. The Admiralty was extremely unwilling to allow anything other than small scale use of the seas around Portsmouth – in particular the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour. There has long been a fear over allowing any activity that might impinge upon naval movements. This covered not only ships coming and going, but also facilities. Apart from the very small harbour at the Camber, the Navy controlled practically all of the shoreline in Portsmouth Harbour that could have been used for docks. Only in the 1970’s, with the decline of the Navy, did the Government relinquish land for Portsmouth’s Commercial Ferry Port.

That is not to say that there was no commercial shipping activity in Portsmouth at all – far from it. There was much small-scale trading taking place, but most of it seems to have been in the shape of goods and materials for use in the Dockyard – such as timber, pitch, hemp and tar from regions such as the Baltic. Coal was shipped in to heat buildings such as barracks. Food, in particular fish, was also landed. But it is noticeable that most of the commercial shipping was either directly connected to armed forces activity, or at least not very far removed from it. By and large, strict governmental controls on local industries rarely provide opportunities for private commerce.

One attempt to diversify Portsmouth’s industry came with the advent of the Airport, shortly after the First World War. Not only did it accomadate flying clubs and passenger services, but it also encouraged associated industries, such as the aircraft manufacturers Airspeed, famous for their Horsa Glider of World War Two fame. Yet the Airport had an ill-fated existence. From early in its lifetime the Admiralty opposed expansions to its activity, not wanting aircraft to overfly the Dockyard. A planned seaplane base in Langstone Harbour never came to fruition, and a planned airport on Farlington Marshes did not happen, thankfully. The final nail in the coffin for the Airport was when two planes crashed off the end of the runway on the same day in the early 1970’s. It was clear that the grass runways were too small, and there was no room for development on such a small site.

Fortunately,  as the Airport was declining, opportunities came up to develop commercial shipping. The draw down of the Royal Navy after the Second World War, hastened by the withdrawl from Empire and successive Defence cuts, losened the Admiralty’s grip on the Harbour area. Land became available near Stamshaw to develop a commercial port, which now handles both freight and passengers. It has become the second busiest passenger port after Dover, and imports a substantial amount of the countries fruit. The loss of the airport was more than offset by the development of commercial seaborne trade, which provides a good example of a local authority being on the ball and switching resources from a faltering investment to a growing one.


Southampton, by contrast, had always been free from the controls of the state, and this encouraged more merchant activity than in Portsmouth. The ability to move shipping without interference from naval authorities provided much more freedom than Portsmouth. But, oddly enough, commercial activity in Southampton did not really start to take off until the early Nineteenth Century. Joseph Rankin Stebbing, an instrument maker from Portsmouth, moved to Southampton in the 1820’s. Interestingly, his father George was a very succesful businessman, but his customers were almost solely state bodies and naval and military officers.

Joseph Stebbing was a prominent Freemason and a leading member of the Chamber of Commerce, and it showed in his rapid attempts to pull the people of Southampton together and regenerate the city. The docks were extended, the railway companies were lobbied to make Southampton a key hub, and a succession of shipping companies were attracted to the city. Stebbing was very conscious that the city was stealing a march on cities such as Liverpool and Bristol by luring companies that never could definitely not have operated in Nineteenth Century Portsmouth. Business boomed, with cargo shipping and commercial passengers producing a knock on effect for the whole city. And as the state had no say in what happened in the town, entrepeneurs were free to seize on opportunities much more than their counterparts in Portsmouth.


It’s interesting how while the Navy and Army presence in Portsmouth has given the city its raison detre, much employment and a boost for the local industries. But it also provided something of a stranglehold on any development beyond that point. Whereas a city like Southampton has been almost completely free to go its own way. Having said that, Portsmouth has been relatively good at seizing opportunities that have come its way since the declined of the Royal Navy since the end of the Second World War. Compare the developments and diversification with the stagnation in Plymouth. Whenever naval base closures are mooted, there are howls of protest in Plymouth about the effect it will have on jobs. Pertinent, as there are few other significant industries there. In fact, one wonders what exactly Plymouth City Council has done since 1945. Whereas the city fathers in Portsmouth have at least developed the Ferry Port, developed land, and attracted new industries so the city is no longer reliant on the Dockyard to the extent that it was.

Often you will see or hear of people boasting about the liners that use Southampton. All very nice, but full of wealthy passengers, and profiting large shipping lines. Whereas Portsmouth is home to run of the mill passenger ferries, fruit carriers, and a sizeable proportion of the Royal Navy. I think it’s a good metaphor. Liners are all very nice, but warships, ferries and fruit cargo ships are a whole lot more useful.



Filed under Local History, Uncategorized

33 responses to “Portsmouth and Southampton: the Geography of Commerce and Defence

  1. I’d be interested in seeing what changes happened in Portsmouth as the fleet went from coal to oil. (Granted, I’m probably the ONLY person on Earth who would want to! 😀 ) As I study the shifts in technology in the early 1900s, the shift to oil from coal (along with the shift from VTEs to turbines) is especially intriguing, seeing how the processing of fuel and its’ supply to the fleet drove much of RN policy and design.
    By the way (obviously) I am back on a new computer. Unfortunately, all my bookmarks are on the old (dead) laptop. The next few days will be … interesting.

    • James Daly

      There were some changes. Prior to oil, the Dockyard had a coaling point – basically a coal dump in a prominent place, where ships would pull up and load up on coal prior to deployment. Once oil came to the fore the Admiralty built a fuel jetty over at Gosport on the other side of the harbour, supplied by fuel pipelines that run under the Harbour, all the way up from Portsdown Hill (as an aside, there are some interesting stories about these fuel bunkers, and theres a very interesting website about them, called portsdown tunnels, its in my links to the right). Even to this day the ships of the fleet are fuelled from Gosport, but it is actually cheaper to employ small tankers to collect the fuel then take it to them in the naval base than it is to move the ships over the Gosport. So essentially, the move to oil took refuelling out of Portsmouth Dockyard, but left us with some huge, mysterious pipelines under the Harbour!

  2. x

    Southampton to me never feels like a port town.

    Ships Monthly’s forth coming issue will have a feature on Red Funnel.

    • James Daly

      Portsmouth and Southampton are very much like chalk and cheese. It’s striking how you can identify a city’s roots from what it’s like nowadays. You could quite easily interchange large parts of Portsmouth and Plymouth. Southampton, on the other hand, is much more mercantile and retail – reminds of Bristol and Liverpool, except their maritime wealth came much earlier, and Southampton only really grew in the 19th Century.

      • x

        Yes I would agree with you about Pompey and Guzz. And I echo what you have said previously here that Plymouth has in a way squandered its naval heritage. I wonder what Chatham is like?

        Southampton reminds me of Stoke too. Eeeek!

  3. x

    Talk of commerce is it true Joanna’s has gone up in smoke? That place was a legend. The tree. And the carpet so soaked with drink that if you didn’t keep moving when walking on it it sucked you back.

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  5. x

    No I haven’t. Being tea total pubs aren’t my thing. When I first started visiting Portsmouth in the early 1990s I was struck by how many derelict pubs there seemed to be in Portsmouth.

    • James Daly

      If you look at the website Portsmouth Pubs in my links, you will see a list of old Portsmouth pubs – there used to be literally hundreds. Which is quite something for a small island city of less than 200,000 people. I guess its not surprising though, with thousands of thirsty tars and dockies. Apparently Portsmouth had more pubs per square mile than any other city, which I can quite believe.

      The draw-down in Portsmouth pubs closely mirrors that of the Navy and the Dockyard. The final nail in the coffin was the change in people’s drinking habits, with people prefering to go to a trendy bar called ‘random bollox’ or something similar than go to a good old boozer. Then theres Wetherspoons and their price fixing cartel…

      Actually, I’ve long thought a social history of naval Portsmouth would be enlightening. One of my ex-colleagues is working on a PhD based on Dockyard workers leisure pursuits.

      • johncerickson

        I envy you guys your pubs. I don’t drink anymore, but Chicago had a lot of great “watering holes”. The few bars around here look like where all the failed medical testees go after their trials. You know, when the latest limp willy drug might cause side effects? These guys ARE the side effects…..

        • James Daly

          I go through phases of not drinking – at the moment not – but I do like spending time in good old fashioned pubs. Points are awarded for:

          originality (ie, how much is old)
          range of beers (particularly good ales)
          atmosphere and ambience
          and the history factor (artefacts, paintings, etc)

  6. Pingback: Depressing Goings on in Portsmouth Naval Base « Daly History Blog

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