I’ve often thought the Women’s Institute is like the BBC in aiming to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ – and never more so than at Stokes Bay WI’s March meeting with guest speaker, historian, Andrew Negus.
Taking as his title Harlots Dung and Glory (part one), Andrew informed us about many fascinating aspects of Portsmouth’s past from the medieval ages to the end of the 18th century, educated us into the values and mores of these earlier times, and certainly entertained us with anecdotes, illustrations and asides.
Today, looking across from Gosport’s Hard to Gunwharf Quays, the Spinnaker and Ben Ainslie Racing Academy, it is difficult to imagine that much of an area that became essential to the defence of the realm and is now the most densely populated city in the UK, apart from London, was once boggy and inhospitable.
Gaining its royal charter from Richard the Lionheart in 1194, Portsmouth went on to become a royal dockyard under Henry VII, a position consolidated when Henry VIII, ‘Father of the English Navy’, commissioned several vessels, including the magnificent but ill-fated Mary Rose.
The erecting of towers, moats and walls that eventually encircled Portsmouth and Portsea, the location of Southsea Castle, the narrow harbour entrances, all provided excellent strategic potential – and influence.
We were left in no doubt as to the glorious part Portsmouth played in the development of the British Empire. But not all history is glorious, and Andrew took delight in sharing some of the less salubrious examples of life – and death – that accompanied the expansion of the city which by 1750 had a population of 24,000.
As the population grew, so did the markets, taverns and brothels. Internationally renowned ‘Portsmouth Pols’ were available to meet the needs of the sailors on shore (or off by paying the Wherryman a princely £5!) – and there was plenty of water all around this unique British island-city into which to dump the dung, especially the Camber – a fact Sir Ben might prefer to forget!
The rest of our meeting, with its raffles, refreshments and results of a flower arrangement in a cup competition, was all a very genteel contrast to the disorder, harlotry and ordure of Portsmouth’s early days – but then we are the ladies of Stokes Bay WI and this is the 21st century!
n Stokes Bay WI meets every third Tuesday 10am-midday at St Mary’s Parish Centre, Alverstoke.