40 fascinating facts about Portsmouth and its people
Can you name Portsmouth's most famous working girl? And do you know the price of one of the city's most sought-after addresses?
In 2012 Portsmouth historian John Sadden wrote Portsmouth – A Pocket Miscellany - a book crammed with curious historical facts.
Here are 40 of the city’s most interesting facts:
1 Portsmouth’s motto, Heaven’s Light Our Guide, was the slogan of the Order of the Star of India and appeared on troop ships. Rifles, revolvers, scimitars and daggers engraved with the message were distributed in India.
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled in the ninth century, states that in AD 501 ‘Port and his two sons Beida and Maegla came to Britain with two ships in the place which is called Portes mutha, and killed a young British man, a very noble man.’ It is the first known appearance of the name Portsmouth in a written source.
3 The total area of Portsmouth is 4,028 hectares, or 9,954 acres, or 15.5 square miles.
4 The area known as Milton is a corruption of Middleton, a common next to Welder (Velder) heath. It was a small village, but now has a population of 13,800 and average household income is £34,000.
5 Portsmouth appears on the oldest surviving route map of Great Britain, the Gough Map, which dates from about 1360 and shows 600 towns and cities. Portsmouth is labelled Portis Mouth and is represented by a single red-roofed building.
6 Squeeze Gut Alley was a popular name for Messum’s Court, which ran from Prospect Row to St Mary’s Street in what is now Old Portsmouth. The eastern end of it was very narrow.
7 It is 9,366 miles from Portsmouth to Uluru, the massive sandstone rock in central Australia that used to be known as Ayer’s Rock. It was named after Sir Henry Ayers who was born in Portsea in 1821, the son of a dockyard worker, and who was the premier of South Australia five times.
8 There are Portsmouths in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Portland (Oregon), Rhode Island, Virginia and Michigan. A fishing village in North Carolina with the name was abandoned in 1971.
9 Musician and composer Brian Eno played clarinet in the Portsmouth Sinfonia and produced their first two albums. He became a member of Roxy Music and a pioneer of ambient music.
10 The top floor penthouse at Gunwharf Quay’s ‘lipstick’ tower, which has an area of 4,000sq ft and enjoys 360-degree views, was valued at £4m in 2009. From the penthouse you can see the Charles Dickens ward where 56.6 per cent of children live in poverty.
11 The development of the IBM site on reclaimed land at North Harbour between 1967 and 1982 resulted in the largest office building in the UK at the time.
12 The first centrefold to display full-frontal nudity in a magazine is believed to have been of Portsmouth-born Marilyn Cole, who also has the distinction of becoming the only British model to be Playboy’s Playmate of the Year.
13 In 1917 Portsmouth was the first town in the country to open clinics for the free treatment of venereal disease.
14 HMS Bounty set sail from Portsmouth for Tahiti under the command of Captain Bligh on the first breadfruit voyage in 1787. His mission was to pick up breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies to become a cheap source of food for slaves. It all went horribly wrong.
15 Jonas Hanway was born in Portsmouth in 1712. He inherited a fortune and began a career as a philanthropist. He is also remembered for being the first person in England to use an umbrella.
16 The first co-operative society in Britain was set up in Portsmouth in 1796 by dockyard workers fed up with being ripped off by tradesmen. The aim was to offer an alternative by organising and controlling the production and distribution of goods and services under a system operated by and for the people.
17 Jack the Painter, one of several names given to an arsonist, has been described as the first modern terrorist. He planted an incendiary device in the dockyard rope house in 1776, 171 years after Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot. He was hanged from the highest gibbet in Britain, 65ft above the dockyard gates.
18 In 1846 a doctor, lamenting the lack of sewers, warned that ‘the island of Portsea is one large cesspool’. Two years later an outbreak of cholera killed 152 residents, many of them children, and the following year a further 800.
19 In high winds the Spinnaker Tower can flex six inches (150mm).
20 The Portsmouth ball-valve is the most common type of valve used in toilet cisterns.
21 ‘Seedy at times, grim in places, but colourful and tinted with the hues of history’ – cricket commentator and author John Arlott writing on Portsmouth in 1969.
22 ‘I appeared on a stage three times and died a bloody death. I could hear myself walk off the stage’ – Spike Milligan bemoaning Portsmouth on Room 101, 1999.
23 ‘If Portsmouth wasn’t there the south coast would fray around the edges. People in Southsea would just fall into the sea’ – Paul Merton defending Portsmouth against Spike Milligan on Room 101, 1999.
24 Approximately 6,000 trees were used in the construction of HMS Victory. The oak used in the underwater planking came from Poland and East Prussia and is two feet thick at the waterline.
25 The longest building in the world at the time was built in the dockyard in 1776. The Ropery was 1,095ft long.
26 Estimates of the number of prostitutes working in the port and garrison town at the end of the 18th century vary between 2,000 and 20,000.
27 Wild rabbits caught on Portsea Common – enclosed within the dockyard in 1864 – were permitted to be taken home by workers. Later, it also applied to any government material that was smuggled out. A ‘rabbit job’ was a piece of DIY carried out in work time.
28 TV dramas shot in Portsmouth include: Casualty – Give My Love to Esme (1997); Inspector Wexford – A Sleeping Life (1989); The Mouse in the Corner (1992); Kavanagh QC – The Burning Deck (1996); Silent Witness (2004); The Agatha Christie Hour – The Girl in the Train (1982); Rules of Engagement (1989); Going Out (1980)
29 George Meredith, the Victorian novelist and poet, was born at 73, High Street in 1828, the son of a tailor. He spent a miserable childhood in the town and later took to affecting vagueness about his origins.
30 Writer HG Wells was bored rigid during the two years he spent as an apprentice at Hide’s Drapery Store, King’s Road. He later recalled that the period 1881-1883 was ‘the most unhappy hopeless period of my life’.
31 The first league game to be played under floodlights took place on February 22, 1956, between Pompey and Newcastle. Pompey lost 2-0.
32 Pompey Lil was a well-known prostitute who worked in Portsea in the early to mid-20th century. She was said to have no teeth and a false eye, but was ‘ever so nice’ and ‘well spoken’.
33 In 2003 Tate art gallery experts discovered that two Turner paintings of Venice were actually of Portsmouth.
34 A fish was landed in Portsmouth in 1870 with a champagne bottle in its stomach. Throw in some chips and you’ve got all the ingredients of a good night in.
35 In 1860 a man got out of his bath and stood at his window in Penny Street, Old Portsmouth, ‘wearing only his spectacles’. Magistrates found him guilty of indecent exposure and sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
36 Former prime minister William Pitt the Elder was involved in a freak accident in Portsmouth in the 19th century. A gale blew in a window of the Queen’s Room, Portsea, and shards of glass sliced through his neck.
37 The Royal George was being repaired at Spithead on August 29, 1782 when a sudden breeze apparently forced her over, water poured in and she sank in an instant. About 1,000 members of the ship’s company died with up to 300 women and 60 children.
38 There was a popular belief in the city that if the bust of Charles I was removed from the wall of the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth, then grave misfortune would fall upon Portsmouth. In 1937 it was taken down and loaned for a Royal Academy exhibition. Within four years much of the city was in ruins.
39 On a visit in 1729, S Martin Leake described Portsmouth Point as Gomorrah, pairing it with the notorious Gallows Point in Jamaica, which had a reputation for being like Sodom.
40 The actress Helena Bonham Carter is the great-great-grandaughter of John Bonham Carter, MP for Portsmouth from 1816-1838.
Portsmouth – A Pocket Miscellany is available on Amazon. This article was first published in 2012.