Portsmouth: A breeding ground for tough sailors, so the French invaded | Bob Hind

The Norman conquest of the 11th century is one of the best-known events in English history, but the French attempts to invade England 300 years later are largely ignored and even misunderstood.

Wednesday, 25th December 2019, 8:00 pm
092053-5251_D-DAY UK (MP) MRW 6/6/2009 //all pix taken on Southsea seafront at the 65th anniversary of D-Day - MRW // John Jenkins MBE (89) who was in the Pioneer Corps in WW11 PICTURE: MALCOLM WELLS (092053-5251)

French invaders landed on English soil more than 50 times during the 14th century. One of their allies who helped was Scotland.

Some of the attempts were especially violent and Duncan Cameron’s new book Invasion, The Forgotten French Bid to Conquer England is well researched and gives an insight about why Portsmouth was a target for the invasion troops. I was somewhat shocked when I read that the people of the town ran away.

Portsmouth had been attacked in 1335 and many townsfolk killed, and again in 1339 when an elite force armed with the new-fangled gunpowder wrecked much of the town.

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The cover of Invasion which tells of the many attacks on Portsmouth and Portchester.

Again in 1369 Portsmouth was burnt.

A writer of the time recorded: ‘Although Portsmouth was not a base for attacks on the French coast, it was a breeding ground for tough sailors and its dockyards produced many ships. It was however badly defended. By destroying the town and its storehouses huge damage was done to England’s naval power that was hard to repair.

It’s published by Amberley with 266 pages and is available from New To You Bookshop, Cosham and other outlets.

n If I may add my own tribute to the late John Jenkins.

The last day of the Hayling Billy and the wrecked Langstone crossing gates. Picture: Stuart Hales

I first met him some six weeks ago. I had written a review on the super-liner RMS Mauretania 1907 and John contacted me to say he had been a bellboy on the ship when he was just 14.

I visited him at his flat on Eastern Road where he had lived since the day they were built in 1953.

He treated me like a son and told of his time on the ship, his great love for Portsmouth and, of course, its football club where he was a boardroom steward for so long.

He also told me of the time his troop entered a concentration camp and the horrific sights that met their eyes.

Private no longer. The remains of the crossing keeper's hut at Langstone and one of the gates. Picture: Stuart Hales.

He said: “It was then I realised why the Nazis had to be destroyed. No one had ever seen anything like it.’

The second time I visited him I took him an apple crumble and a pot of cream made by my wife Audrey. He was overjoyed with such a simple gift.

A truly remarkable gentleman.


On Sunday, November 3, 1963, there was a farewell tour of the Hayling Billy line and many people saw the Langstone crossing keeper’s hut dislodged on its foundations and wondered what had happened.

The Saturday before, a Standard Vanguard car had come off Hayling Island at speed and failed to negotiate the bend before the level crossing. The driver crashed the heavy car into the gates pushing them across the tracks with the car ending up against the hut.


Here are the remains of the crossing keeper’s hut and one of the wrecked gates. The car must have been shifting as the gates were made to withstand the heaviest of collisions. I wonder what would have happened if a train had been on the crossing at the time.

As the next day was the last day of running, with one train either way, I assume there must have been a hand signalman to get traffic over the crossing.