NOSTALGIA: Portsea – ‘A population that bears the hallmark of poverty’

Hawk Street, Portsea, looking west towards Queen Street. PPP-160825-191930001

Earlier this week I reported here about the discovery John Hayes made behind a fireplace in his Cosham home – a time capsule of pictures and newspapers revealing the history of his house.

In the package was a 93-year-old copy of this newspaper from Wednesday, December 3, 1924.

The unveiling of a plaque in Curzon Howe Road marking the building of the first council houses in Portsea in 1912, the beginning of the slum clearance.

As ever, the entire paper made fascinating reading, but my eye was drawn to that day’s leader column, the one written by the editor on what he perceives to be the major issue of the day.

That Wednesday he devoted the entire column to the slums of Portsea. It was headed: A District that Requires Cleansing.

So, not far short of a century later, I’ve decided to reproduce it here.

‘When anyone speaks of Portsea, one thinks of the poorest and meanest part of the town. Imagination at once paints on the canvas of the mind a picture of narrow streets, squalid alleys, gloomy courts, decaying property, and a population that bears the hallmark of poverty.

Britain Street, Portsea, Portsmouth, 1929

That is how some people think of Portsea; others who have strayed off the main street and have seen the heart of the district know that this description has not a great margin of error.

Around the docks in every seaport town in England similar conditions prevail, it is argued.

Unfortunately that is so, and up to the present these cramped areas remain as a striking condemnation of the errors of the past.

Portsea is, perhaps, not so bad as some areas in the great commercial ports, but they are bad enough.

The time cannot be far distant when whole rows of dilapidated property will have to be swept away, although some folk, who have lived in wretched surroundings all their lives, have become so hardened and accustomed to such conditions that they make no protest and require no interference by the authorities.

But even this attitude is becoming less prevalent, and a better standard is being demanded.

There may be individuals who desire nothing better, but the community is demanding it in the interests of general health.

It is realised by most people that when a large urban population is crowded into a congested group of houses that number between 50 and 60 to the acre, a happy hunting ground has been provided for all kinds of sickness and disease.

The children born in such a district fail to get a proper start in life, human suffering is increased, the span of life is diminished, mental as well as physical development is dwarfed, and the foundation is laid for anything but an A1 nation.

These cramped areas of our town must go, and as progress is made, as we hope and believe it will be, with new housing schemes, the Town Council must ever keep before them this question of slum clearance.

As Councillor Blake hinted a week ago, it may happen within the next few years that Portsmouth will be in a favourable position to deal with its overcrowded and unhealthy areas and there can be little doubt that in any action the Council decide to take to cleanse the town of its black spots, they will have behind them the support of the whole of the thinking electorate.

We have found some sordid stories of life in Portsea among the letters we have received, and we have already given publicity to some of them.

They are told by fathers and mothers who would gladly quit the district tomorrow if other accommodation were available.

Curiously enough, however, there are on the list of houseless that we are preparing, fewer claims from Portsea than we expected, and Landport seems to lead the way as regards numbers.

In some of the small properties which are hardly large enough for one family there are found in possession two or three families, and through lack of proper conveniences all sorts of domestic troubles occur.

One woman complains that she has not a single cupboard in her two small rooms.

The copper is out in the yard, and it is also out in the yard that her coal has to be kept.

Two of the rooms in another house are not fit to live in, while the kitchen is damp, and rain comes through the roof in two places.

A number complain of the dampness in houses in various parts of Portsea, and in some cases illnesses of little children in the family are said to be due to this cause.’

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