Strange smells and muddy roads: A glimpse at readers' letters in 19th century Portsmouth

Problems with the roads, teachers’ pay, gripes with the council, workers on strike and the demand for more bank holidays – sound familiar?

Friday, 14th June 2019, 4:10 pm
Updated Saturday, 22nd June 2019, 12:30 pm
Victoria Park during the Victorian period.

 These are just a few of the letters of complaint sent to The News and the now defunct Hampshire Times by residents of Portsmouth during the reign of Queen Victoria.

The letters have been compiled into a new book, Dear Sir: Letters from Victorian Portsmouth, which has been produced by Portsmouth author and historian, Paul Newell, from Cosham.

While letters headed ‘The Publican and the Policeman’, ‘The State of Male Lunatic Wards’, ‘Mixed Bathing’ and ‘A Noxious Smell’, give a tantalising glimpse into Victorian life, the gripes  remain timeless.

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Author Paul Newell from Cosham who has compiled a book about letters written to the editor of The News in the Victorian era. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (140619-1)

It’s this contrast of historical insight and contemporary grievance which captured the imagination of 47-year-old Paul.

‘While the content of the letters gives a revealing insight into the hardships of Victorian life the sentiment of public concern has many similarities to today.

‘One letter raised issue with the amount of mud on the roads and what the council should do about it. This dispute could easily translate to today’s pothole situation. While the specifics may have changed many of the areas of dispute are familiar,’ explains Paul.

One of the key features for Paul is the first-hand perspective of just what life was like on the streets and in the dockyards of the city.

Dear Sir, Letters from Victorian Portsmouth by Paul Newell

‘The letters provide a window into the social history of Portsmouth which is written by the people of the time,’ says Paul.

‘The correspondence depicts a very hard life which was class divided. For those with money life was generally good but for the poor it was extremely tough. Many of the letters were written by the gentry of Southsea, complaining about the vices of public concern in the Portsea area of the city. However, whatever a person’s social standing one thing which really came through was how defensive citizens were of their city in the face of outside criticism. This is something which I feel is still very apparent today,’ he adds.

The letters chronicle the period between 1840 to 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, and cover some of the key figures of Victorian history and developments which took place.

‘One letter sent by a Mr G Smith in 1872, two years after the death of Charles Dickens, questioned the proposal of a monument to be erected in honour of the “great man” as it was against his own wishes. It is a debate which rumbled on for over a century until a statue was finally unveiled in Guildhall Square in 2014,’ explains Paul.

Horse drawn cabs outside Portsmouth railway Station.

Other prominent aspects of Victorian history include letters regarding life in the workhouse, life for the city’s children in ragged schools, the Industrial Revolution and development of the railways.

One of the letters which really stood out for Paul was submitted to The News in 1901 by a Mr A.G Curtis, entitled Telephone Agitation.

‘The letter questions the council’s proposal to install telephones, describing the scheme as “a scandalous experiment with public money”,’says Paul

In the letter, Mr Curtis sarcastically questions the value of the telephone. ‘We are asked to picture a dockyard man, longing for the sound of his wife’s voice, rushing off to a kiosk to ask if his dinner is ready or to order a joint from his butcher’.

As well as providing a revealing insight into the gender-specific roles of the period it highlights how the passage of time can cloud the perception of how new developments would have been initially welcomed.

‘It’s ironic how many people were fearful of the introduction of new technology as obviously almost everyone today will carry a mobile phone. In the sequel I am currently putting together about Edwardian letters many people question the introduction of the car, the dangers it poses and demand a speed restriction of 10 miles per hour,’ smiles Paul.

In addition to providing a record of key events, Paul feels the letters also provide a revealing insight into people’s attitudes at the time.

‘The protection of children was very different to how it is today with children as young as 10 being sent to jail,’ says Paul.

‘There were a lot of street slaughter houses where animals would be killed in-front of watching children. It was pretty gruesome as the blood would be left to run into the streets’.

One of the most common social attitudes prevalent in the letters was the clear distinction of gender.

‘There were a number of letters about people swimming in public places, particularly women. Two letters sent to The News in 1900 examined the issue of mixed bathing and allowing men and women to ‘bathe on the same beach,’ says Paul.

A Mr C Sinden expressed concerns of ‘immorality and indecent behaviour’ which is to be ‘guarded against in a town like Portsmouth’. In a subsequent letter a Mr W Stevens sarcastically retorted: ’Let the prudish majority of the town council go to Sea View or Hayling Island and after witnessing the ‘disgraceful and dangerous scenes of aquatic debauchery’ return and insult the respectable bathers of this town’.

It is the tit-for-tat correspondence in questioning governing bodies which saturates today’s social media. While the medium may have changed the need for the public to vent their frustrations remains timeless.

Letters from Victorian Portsmouth retails at £15.99 and is available in most local bookshops and online through Amazon.

Compiling the book

The idea for Paul’s new book originated while producing his previous book, Shocking Tales from Victorian Portsmouth.

‘While looking through the British Newspaper Archive for my first book I began to notice a number of letters which caught my eye. I put them to one side but they were really interesting and it was always my intention to come back to them,’ says Paul.

Paul then faced the difficult process of selecting which letters to use.

‘Basically if the letter was of interest to me then I would include it. I also selected examples of letters where people had responded with follow-up correspondence,’ he adds.

Paul restricted the temptation to offer his own interpretation of the letters.

‘I thought about passing comment but I wanted the focus to be on Victorian Portsmouth, written by the people of the time and conveying their views. I consciously didn’t want to influence the reader with my opinion but to allow people to make their own judgements,’ he explains.

Despite compiling more than 200 letters there were a number which grabbed Paul’s attention.

A letter from 1858, entitled ‘A Gentle Hint to Cab Proprietors’, particularly caught his eye.

‘The letter was about speeding horse drawn cabs and the dangers posed to pedestrians. Similarly there was a letter of complaint sent in 1874 about an exploding paraffin lamp. They were both very much Victorian problems which represented life at the time,’ he explains.

Paul has already started work on the sequel – Letters from Edwardian Portsmouth.