Inside Southsea Castle

Scrubs up nicely! The castle wall before 'renovation, left wall, and after, right wall
Scrubs up nicely! The castle wall before 'renovation, left wall, and after, right wall
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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It’s survived fire, explosions, the threat of demolition and a civil war.

For centuries Southsea Castle has guarded the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour, prepared to defend the city and the nation.

Seafront Manager David Evans

Seafront Manager David Evans

And while it has gone through periods of deterioration and major development, the castle has held firm in its important defensive position.

Even after its life as a military stronghold, it has been an important part of the city’s history and tourism scene.

So after all that hard work, it deserves a bit of care and attention.

After 467 years, Southsea Castle is being given a good wash, and passers-by may already have noticed the difference.

If they haven’t spotted specialist cleaners hanging on ropes with harnesses and blasting the stonework with steam, they might have noticed some of the historic walls are a different colour.

Where one is light and bright, an adjacent wall still stands dark under centuries of grime.

‘This is the first time it’s been cleaned, there’s hundreds of years’ worth of dirt,’ laughs Seafront Manager David Evans. ‘They wouldn’t have done it in those days, but we now have the means to do the job without damaging the stone and without putting up lots of scaffolding.’

Drayton cleaning company 1st Choice is giving the castle its facial, with special muck-busting methods.

Workers are treating the walls with low-pressure steam, which shifts the dirt but doesn’t damage the sections of Victorian and Tudor stone.

‘We use a hot pressure washer, applying low pressure steam at a high temperature,’ says 1st Choice director Paul Coupland. ‘Our special training allows us to assess the type of stone and apply the right cleaning method and temperature. In this case it’s about 105 degrees centigrade – very hot, but low pressure so we’re not doing any damage.’

Work began last month as it was too cold before that. ‘If we’d started then, it would have damaged the walls as it would have turned to ice crystals and eroded the stone,’ says David.

Another new aspect of the historical attraction, which is closed for the winter season and re-opens in May, is a cafe.

In the western bailey, once an area for stores and barracks, there will be refreshments for visitors.

The cafe is being operated by Yellow Kite – a social enterprise born out of the Healthy Pompey initiative. The community cafe business has invested £250,000 in the castle project and a further £50,000 for a marquee in the eastern bailey.

The investment means that, as well as on-site refreshments, there will be the facilities for more weddings at the castle. Income from the cafe and business generated by the project means that general admission to the castle will now be free.

Yellow Kite director Gambol Parker says: ‘I’m very excited about this, it’s a fantastic site that sits so much in the hearts of the people of Portsmouth, but is a little overlooked. This is a great project at a site that has a lot of meaning and I hope people will really benefit.’

Another plan is to light up the castle around the walls. David says this will be fitted in such a way that it won’t create light pollution. ‘If you look down Avenue de Caen at night, you’ll see it sparkle. But it won’t spoil things for star-gazers,’ he says.

The budget for cleaning and lighting at the council-run castle is £50,000 and David says it’s an important investment.

‘It’s a Henrician castle (one of Henry VIII’s fortifications) and there aren’t many of those open to the public. And like any building, it will deteriorate if you leave it alone and don’t do any maintenance.

‘This will allow us to look better at the condition of the stonework, which seems okay at the moment.’

The castle’s rich history makes it an important city landmark, a place where schoolchildren can learn about its capture in the English Civil War and the accidental explosion of 1759 (see the history and facts panel).

Here historians and archaeologists can study the original layout and the redevelopments after fires and years of neglect.

And that’s why it’s important that the cleaning and maintenance continues, so that the Purbeck and Portland stone of Victorian redevelopment and original Tudor sections of the walls can be preserved.

Restoration work to the stone has been ongoing. Last year it allowed the sea side of the keep to be opened for the first time in more than a decade. David hopes that all the work will allow visitors to explore the castle’s tunnels and enjoy the views out to sea from the keep for many years to come.

‘It’s an important part of our military history, showing Portsmouth wasn’t just a Naval town. A hundred years ago, Southsea Common on a Sunday morning would have been full of soldiers parading.

‘We want everyone in Portsmouth to be proud of their castle and we’d like it to become the jewel in the seafront crown. And in another 500 years, we’d like it still to be here.’


From major military developments to a drunk Civil War captain who asked enemy forces to return when he was sober, there has been a long and lively history at Southsea Castle.

It was shortly after the building work was completed in 1545 that Henry VIII stood nearby and watched as Mary Rose sank.

The horror unfolded in the Solent a year after the king ordered the construction of a series of fortifications around England’s coasts. It was one of the most ambitious schemes of coastal defence since Roman times and the work on Southsea Castle began in great haste, prompted by Henry’s fears of an attack on Portsmouth.

The castle was thought to have been designed by the king himself and used the latest continental ideas of fort design.

After Henry’s reign, though, it was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and then suffered a serious fire to the keep in 1627. It was eventually repaired under orders from Charles I in 1635.

During the English Civil War, the castle was initially held by Royalist forces under the command of a Captain Chaloner. When Parliamentary forces were poised to attack, they first called upon the garrison to surrender. But the inebriated captain asked them to come back in the morning. The assaulting Parliamentarians responded by scaling the walls and the garrison surrendered with no loss of life.

Southsea Castle lasted as a major military base for more than 400 years and was developed during that time to adapt to new weapons and methods of warfare.

A major modernisation programme was carried out in the 19th century, and in the 1860s massive new gun batteries were constructed of earth on either side of the castle as part of Lord Palmerston’s fortification of Portsmouth.

It was finally withdrawn from active service in 1960 and seven years later was opened as a museum.


· Southsea Castle was first known as Chaderton Castle, named after the keeper and captain of the new fort.

· Charles II made improvements and modifications to the castle from 1660 but for the next 130 years it was allowed to deteriorate.

· In 1759 disaster struck when an accidental explosion blew up part of the castle. Seventeen men, women and children died.

· In the 18th century, the castle became so dilapidated that it was almost demolished but luckily the proposals weren’t carried out.

· An exciting 19th century addition was the underground tunnel around the moat. This would allow the garrison to move weapons around safely and provided additional firing positions.

· In 1844 the barrack rooms were converted to house 150 military prisoners. The convicts were moved to a new military prison in Gosport in 1850.

· During the Second World War, it was manned by a number of units, including coastal artillery and the Home Guard.

· The castle is thought to be haunted by several spirits, including a young girl who is believed to have lived at the castle and been struck by a childhood disease.


· In 2011 Southsea Castle will be open from May 1 until October 31, 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time.

· For further information visit