The "History of Portsmouth" - Introduction by Sir Walter Besant

On the 14th October 1899 the Hampshire Telegraph began the serialisation of a History of Portsmouth which was written by the then editor William Gates. The series ran from 1899 to 1901, comprising in the process over 80 chapters which were subsequently issued as a series of books under the heading of "The Illustrated History of Portsmouth". Both the newspaper series and the book were prefaced by an Introduction by Sir Walter Besant, the Portsmouth born novelist. That Introduction is transcribed below.

Introduced by Sir Walter Besant.
If we set ourselves to inquire into the early history and first beginnings of any town and into the forces which led to its rise and importance, it is necessary first to consider the map to ascertain the conformation of the ground, the situation as regards other towns, and the nature of its seaboard or riverside.
In the case of Portsmouth an examination of the map will be found to explain very clearly why this place became not only a Naval port, but also the principal port of the country. The requisites of such a port are :

Now refer to the map, You will observe, along the south coast of England, a succession of ports, creeks, and bays; these divide themselves naturally into two groups, those of the west, from which Plymouth has been selected as the more convenient for a Naval port and Dockyard; and those of the east, which, beginning with Weymouth, follow with Swanage Bay, Poole Harbour, Christchureh Harbour, Lymington Creek, Southampton Water, Portsmouth, Langstone, Chichester, and Pagham, after which there is no harbour or port of any kind until we reach Dover.
Apply to all these ports in successionthe requirements mentioned above. You will find that Portsmouth, and Portsmouth alone; satisfies the couditions. The harbour of Poole, for instance, is much larger at high tide; at low tide it is insignificant...Of the three harbours side by side, via., Portsmouth, Langston, and Chichester, Portsmouth is incomparably the best from every point of view; its harbour more commodious at low as well as high tide ; a safe roadstead outside; the position admirably adapted for defence; the entrance narrow ; a safe and secure site for a dockyard within the forts of the entrance; the communication with the Royal administration comparatively easy; and the place central for the command of the Channel as Plymouth is central for the command of the Bay of Biscay and the western coast of France.
Portsmouth, therefore, was from the beginning marked out by its position for the important duties it fulfils in the maintenance of the Imperial Navy. This place, however, was not fully recognised until the 18th century. That is to say, Portsmouth was always a place for the gathering of ships and a place for embarkation; but Portsmouth was not always the principal place of ships. At the time when every merchantman was a man-o'-war and every sailor armed against pirates, and there was no more peace in the Channel than there was, afterwards, on the waters of the Spanish Main, the real Naval stations were the principal ports of trade, viz., London and Bristol.
Portchester Castle, a Roman camp and a Norman fortress, standing at the head of the harbour, and one of the strongest of the surviving Roman forts, together with the Roman name of Portus Magnus, the "Great-Port," and the Roman road which connected Portchester with Winchester, the ancient Venta Belgarum, sufficiently show that the natural advantages of the place were known to, and recognised by, the Romans. It is possible that the upper part of the harbour was at that time less encumbered with mud banks, but even if these banks were as extensive then as now, the light draught of the Roman vessels would enable them to be brought up the channels at high tide to the water gate of the fortress. There has been preserved a tradition to the effect that the people exchanged the upper part of this port for the mouth in consequence of the, accumulations of mud. It is quite possible, though one fails to perceive how or why, since no river flows into the harbour, carrying with it the materials for a delta, the mudbanks should increase.
The earliest mention of Portsmouth speaks of invasion and battle. The place at the mouth, not the head of the Harbour, next assumes the character which it continued to hold for many centuries as a convenient place for the assembling of a fleet. Alfred sent out from Portsmouth the first fleet which engaged the Danes; here Harold gathered together the fleet which was intended to oppose the landing of William. In the succeeding centuries we find that the port was used by William on his departure for Normandy; by his son, Robert, Duke of Normandy; by the Empress Matilda, mother of Henry II; by Henry II; by Richard I; and by John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, Henry V, and Edward IV. All these Kings used Portsmouth as a place for the assembling of troops and of departure or of arrival, a fact which shows the recognition under the Normans and Plantagenets of Portsmouth as the most convenient of all the harbours on the south coast.
But, as yet, there was no Royal Navy, properly so called; the King called for ships on emergency ; the Cinque Ports, for instance, had to supply a certain number of ships and men, for a certain time only, on being called upon to do so. It is not recorded, to my knowledge, that the burgesses of Portsmouth were ever so called upon to supply ships. In fact, the town appears to have been as yet small and insignificant.
Henry I. is said to have granted to the "approved men of Portsmouth" their first Charter. This statement was made on a "Herald's Visitation" in 1686, and attested by the Mayor, but this Charter, if it ever existed, which is more than doubtful, is not mentioned in any of the later Charters of confirmation, or in any "inspeximus." The earliest Charter in possession of the Corporation is that of Richard I, dated May 2nd, 1194, three mouths after his return from captivity. It has been alleged that the town of Portsmouth obtained its Charter as a reward for contributing to the King's ransom. Unfortunately for this theory the whole of the country had been called upon to contribute towards this object before the King's release. It is, however, possible that the Charter was granted in return for a subsequent substantial contribution towards the Royal Treasury. It conferred very real and valuable privileges upon the people; it gave them a yearly fair; and a weekly market; and it relieved them of many oppressive burdens and fines, such as "blood wite," a fine for the shedding of blood; "fight wite" a fine for the disturbance of the peace; and others.
In the History of the Borough to follow this introduction the provisions of the various Charters will probably be set forth in full, with the intoning of the clauses and provisions. They constitute the landmarks illustrating the growth of the liberties of the town. For example, in 1256, Henry III granted by charter the 'creation of a Merchant Guild. This proves at last that Portsmouth was so far advancing in importance as to claim equal privileges with such places as York, Hereford, Beverley, Lincoln, and many other towns which had already received the grant of their Merchant Guild. The establishment of this body, which was endowed with large powers for the regulation of trade, proves that trade to a considerable extent already existed.
As regards the creation of the first Mayor, I have no information on the subject. The Charter of Elizabeth, indeed, says that the borough of Portsmouth is "an ancient town having within itself from the time wherein the memory of man is not to the contrary for the better Government and Rule of the same, one Mayor, two Bailiffs, two Constables, and other public officers. thereof...". Perhaps light will be thrown upon this and other matters connected with the early municipal history of the borough by search into the archives of the Corporation. The ancient document printed in Mr. Robert East's invaluable hook of "Extracts" is without a date, and is only tentatively assigned to the end of the 14th or the beginning of the lath century.
Without definite proof we may assume that the Mayoralty was instituted in the l3th century, when so many other towns received their incorporation. In the same book the entries of certain fines inflicted on persons for transgressing trade regulations, such us practising a trade in which the offender had not served his apprenticeship, shows that the functions and authority of the Merchant Guild had passed into the hands of the Mayor and Corporation.
It is impossible to restore the mediaeval town of Portsmouth. The historian will note the foundation or the building of churches : that of St. Mary, Portsea, in 1170, either newly-built or founded by Baldwin de Portesia; that of St. Thomas, newly-built or founded in 1180; the Domus Dei, built in 1212. He will also record the erection of a "good and strong wall" for the docks at Portsmouth in the same year; 1212. He will note the various occasions on which the French landed and burned the town - in 1265, 1337, 1369, 1377 and 1386 - the murder of Adam de Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, in 1449 ; the erection of forts and towers at the entrance of the port : and a few other scattered events will sum up the history of mediaeval Portsmouth.
It is with the accession of Henry VII that the Royal Navy begins and that Portsmouth enters upon its Modern history and assumes its modern importance. When a Royal Navy was once created, a Port in the Channel was absolutely necessary. Portsmouth, as we have seen, satisfied all the conditions required for such a port. Dockyard, docks, storehouses, victualling yards, shipwrights, rope makers, sailmakers, all the crafts and trades belonging to the making, the fitting, and the repairing of ships sprang into existence and began to flourish. The sleepy little town which had only been animated when a King passed through or a fleet assembled, now assumed the appearance of continued life and action. As map of 1600 - I refer again to Mr. East's book - shows that the town was then walled, amd that the "King's Store House," i.e., the Dockyard, was also walled. Southsea Castle protected the coast. Another map of the town, dated 1540, represents forts commanding 'both sides' of the entrance to the harbour, and a wall, apparently much too long for the town within, which seems to consist of little more than the High Street and St. Thomas's Street. Probably the principal streets only are figured on this map.
How the town expanded and spread beyond the limits of the old wall; how it covered the "Common" lying between the town and the Dockyard; how the greater Portsmouth of the last century was walled in; how the Dockyard itself grew and spread; how the old parish church of Baldwin de Portesia became the centre of a flourishing new town and the marshland beyond Southsea Common became the site of another flourishing town; how the old walls were removed; how modern improvements have been undertaken and modern buildings have been erected - these things, with the events which connect the history of the borough with the history of the country, will fitly occupy the chapters to follow.
In order, however, that the reader may realise the enormous advance made in the last hundred and fifty years I refer to a pamphlet lying before me, dated 1748, in which one Robert Wilkins gives an account - neither generous nor kindly - of his native place and its people. He says that the town contained 600 houses, which means about 5,000 inhabitants. It was so badly supplied with water that it cost every house for only a slender supply forty shillings a year. All the people, high and low, carried on a wholesale system of "secret traffic" with the shipping in other words, they lived by smuggling. They also turned an honest, penny by the entertainment of the ships' officers, the sailors, and the strangers who came to see the ships and the fortifications.
Mr. Wilkins, who is really a most ill-natured person, further says that the Aldermen elect to their own body and keep their number as small as they can on account of the secret profits and emoluments of the office; that the Mayor, for instance, puts all the fines into his own pocket; that the merchants buy up all the damaged ships' stores, and sell them up and down the country us best goods; that the dockyardmen "are much eased in their housekeeping," by the pork and beef they procure from the ships and by the firing they carry home every day in their pockets - in other words, they are privileged in the matter of salt junk as they were in the matter of "chips". We also learn from Mr. Wilkins that the Vicar of the parish was non-resident, his work being done by a curate, and that there was a large Nonconformist chapel in the town. There was an Assembly at a quarterly subscription of half a crown, but at the time of writing the character of the company had deteriorated.
As regards the ladies of the place, one hopes that they were able to visit Mr. Wilkins with their resentment for his remarks about them. He owns, however, that for beauty the girls of Portsmouth had no equals. That is something. The fortifications at the time consisted of two strong forts at the entrance; together with the Platform and the wall of the town, Cannon were planted round the walls, but there was no ammunition, and the garrison consisted of one aged gunner and four or five invalids who sold cakes and ale to visitors. And so we take leave of Mr. Robert Wilkins and of Portsmouth in 1748.