Focal point for spicy goings-on of old

With its charming cottages, narrow cobbled streets and fantastic harbour views, Spice Island is one of the most desirable areas in Portsmouth to live in and visit.

It's where people go to dine at waterside pubs and watch the activity in the busy harbour and where residents enjoy a 'village' quality of life on the edge of the bustling city.

This fascinating area has streets that scream history from every cobble but nestle in the shadow of the ultra-modern Spinnaker Tower just across the water.

Spice Island – or Point as it is also known – is one of Portsmouth's gems all right. It's also a far cry from the Point of old – a place renowned for boozing, gambling and general debauchery, where people lived and worked in filth and disease was rife.

Some say the area got its name from the smells of the spices being brought into the busy harbour from all over the world.

But many researchers believe it was a derogatory label. 'That's the romantic point of view but I think it was more of an insult than anything,' says local historian Ron Brown.

'The smell was awful. A lot of people kept pigs and they were roaming around in the streets, and then there were all the pubs. You had to be careful what you trod in.

'You also had to be careful when you walked down the street and keep looking up, because people used to empty their chamber pots and all sorts of things straight out the window.

'And as well as the smells and the chances of something being thrown over you, you had to worry about being mugged. They were pretty rough and tough times.'

In the 1700s and 1800s this was probably true of many areas, but Point was marked out for distinction by the huge amount of drinking establishments – or dens as they were more commonly and appropriately called.

It is thought that the area, separated by King James's Gate, wasn't subject to restrictions that existed within the city walls and pubs could stay open practically all day and night.

'The first house there was a drink shop which more or less set the precedent for hundreds of years,' says Ron.

At one point in the 18th century the number of public houses, brandy shops and coffee houses in Portsmouth was 90 – and 41 of those were at Point. Not surprisingly, the area became notorious for prostitution and rioting.

And as if life wasn't dramatic enough, the Spice Islanders had to contend with the menace of the press gangs.

These burly bullies from the ships would roam the area forcibly recruiting men for onboard labour.

'Your wife could tell you to go out for a loaf of bread and pint of milk and you might come back three years later,' says Ron.

But escape wasn't impossible. As ships sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour it was common for men to leap overboard and, if they were lucky, reach the beach area close to the Round Tower.

They were terrifying but exciting times at Spice Island, not least because of the mixture of clientele the pubs enjoyed. Alongside the rabble would be the famous seafaring people of the day – the captains and admirals brought in by stagecoach before being taken out by barge to the ships.

'I would love to have a time machine and go back. They were wonderful days, you can imagine it with all the stagecoaches and boats,' says Ron. 'I would love to see it all but I think I'd also like to leave pretty quickly!'

TODAY'S RESIDENTS

Where there are now potted flowers there once was a lot of potted people – and William Pounds can point out the evidence.

William – the great- great- nephew of educational reformer John Pounds – lives in the old Customs house and evidence of the Spice Island's past is right at his front door.

'My letter box is at shoulder height so people couldn't urinate in it. That's how it was down here. It was a government building next to a pub – you can imagine.'

Not surprisingly William is thankful to be living in the far more genteel 21st century Point.

'It wasn't at all bijou then,' he says. 'Because it was outside the town walls there was a lot of prostitution and alcohol, and they talk about the press gangs.'

But he has some sympathy and understanding for the former residents on the alcohol front.

'Everyone drank mild beer, even the children. And they did it because there were so many problems with the water, all kinds of diseases. Everyone thinks they were all alcoholics but it was normal to drink beer because of health concerns.'

Now, the residents have all the water they need, but they still have their concerns.

'One of the most important things people seem to miss about The Point is that there was a moat that joined the beach and Spice Island was actually an island.

'It's really a shingle spit and over the last 600 years, various buildings have been erected on the beach and joined together to become part of the town.

'Sometimes we do feel a bit fragile, sitting on a shingle spit that's been tarmaced over.'

The atmosphere of Point is now a far cry from the days of drunken debauchery a couple of centuries ago, but it's also changed immensely in the past 50 years.

Carol Harbeck, 71, grew up in the area and remembers playing in streets still strewn with rubble in the years after the Second World War.

A lot of the old cottages suffered bomb damage during the war and it was after that time that a lot of the old Spice Island families started moving out.

Gradually over the years, it has become more and more exclusive and turned into one of the most desirable residential areas of Portsmouth.

But Carol says the 'community' feel to the place is just the same. 'People often didn't own the houses in those days so it was a very different kind of area, but we had a close-knit community. The lovely thing is that as people have moved on or died, other people who are just as nice have come in and we still have that. It's very villagey.'

Carol remembers heading to her school in Alverstoke on the floating bridge and spending most of her time at Point playing in the streets.

'We all did. We regarded the whole thing – the beach, Round Tower, Square Tower, the Camber, like it was home, it was just home. It was all our playground really.'

And Carol, who later set up and ran the Fortitude B &B, adds: 'It's changed a lot but I still love it, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It feels like home – not just my house but the area in its entirety.'

Maggie and Mike Hall run Fortitude Cottage bed and breakfast, which has links with the past.

The guesthouse in Broad Street is built on the site of a 16th century cottage, destroyed during the Second World War, and is named after an 18th century warship.

The couple have been running the B&B for ten years – not long in Spice Island terms – but they're aware of the history all around them.

'Apparently it was a real den of iniquity and full of pubs and brothels. I love the fact that it's steeped in history and such a lot has gone on here,' says Maggie.

She also likes the fact that there is still a close-knit community. And obviously these days it's an attractive enough area for people to want to stay at the B&B – although they are often drawn to Portsmouth by the past too.

'People come from all over the world for various reasons but the main attraction is the Historic Dockyard. Yet when they stay here they become fascinated by this too.'

HISTORICAL SITES

Bath Square was one of the earliest known sites for the recreational use of salt water, which took place in what is now Quebec House.

The bathing house was built in 1754, with the baths connected to the harbour by pipes.

The name Quebec House comes from the 19th century when the bathing house became part of the Quebec Hotel – so called because its weatherboarding was used chiefly in the North American colonies.

The building was saved from falling into the sea by John Henry Pounds.

The nearby Customs house belongs to one of John Henry's descendants, William.

It was built because officials realised the harbour entrance couldn't be seen from the Customs House at Gunwharf and the activities of smugglers couldn't be easily monitored.

The building at Point became a watch house with a slipway, from which rowing boats could be launched.

King James's Gate by Sally Port was opened in 1687 when King James II came to open the gate himself.

It became the entrance to Spice Island – an area outside the jurisdiction of Portsmouth and, therefore, not subject to the same licensing laws.

Alongside the gate, there were dungeons in which Sir John Gibson, Queen Anne's governor, kept his hungry prisoners in cold and dark conditions.

King James's Gate was taken down in 1864.

The Round Tower is the oldest building on Spice Island. Building began in the 15th century to guard the harbour entrance.

The tower served as a defence through several centuries. From a lower chamber in the tower, an iron chain boom connected with Gosport's Fort Blockhouse, closing the harbour to enemy shipping.

Tower House is where marine artist WL Wyllie once lived and painted and etched the harbour scenes visible from Point. There is now a plaque on the building bearing his name.

One of the area's most famous pubs was the Star And Garter in Broad Street which was visited by many famous people during its time. Lord Nelson, Lord Howe, Earl St Vincent and Sir John Franklin all stayed there. Other notable visitors included Louis Philippe, Charles Dickens and WM Thackeray.

The historic inn closed in 1926.

There were as many as 24 pubs in Broad Street over the years, including the famous coaching inn Blue Posts Hotel.

SPICE ISLAND'S HORRIBLE HISTORY

In 1845, the Quebec Hotel became the place where the victim of the last English duel died.

This was the pistol duel between Lt Hawkey and Captain Seton, which took place at Browndown on the Gosport side of the harbour.

Seton received a fatal wound and was taken to the Quebec where he died a few days later.

Publicans provided refuge for men trying to escape the press gangs. The pubs often had sliding panels with concealed rooms behind them.

But it's unclear if some of them ever came out again because when some of the old pubs were demolished it wasn't unknown to find the occasional skeleton in there.

Near the end of the 18th century, a regiment had stacked a store of gunpowder in Bath Square. An old crone sat on the barrels and lit her pipe with explosive results.

The story goes that there were 'fragments of humanity even on the roofs of neighbouring houses' although, ironically, the woman was unhurt.

Cockfighting often took place in the area and there was bull-baiting in Broad Street every Shrove Tuesday.

Another favourite pastime was to soak a rat in turpentine, set fire to it and then watch the poor creature run.

The practice was banned in 1704 because it was considered a fire hazard for houses and ammunition stores.