alan balfour
City Buildings Series, 1970

Studio Vista Limited, Blue Star House, Highgate Hill, London, N19

Introduction ::
Alan Balfour


This study, although centrally concerned with Portsmouth, covers the surrounding area, including the adjoining towns of Gosport, Fareham and Havant, whose development either past or present has been related to that of Portsmouth. Hayling Island, which is similar in form to Portsmouth, is also included but makes an interesting contrast. Its relationship to the sea has been developed from the early 19th century solely for leisure.

A review of the significant buildings and building works of the area is in essence a review of its history. In examining the buildings it is therefore important to relate them to the broader context of the development of the settlements. The major part of the city of Portsmouth is built on Portsea Island which is still separated from the mainland (though less and less noticeably) by a creek, running east-west across its north end. The growth of the area around this island is remarkably different from that of any other in Britain. Portsmouth Harbour lies to the west and from the 3rd century has had fortifications and villages on its shore. The shape and position of these fortifications has changed in response to the growth of the dockyard and to developments in the techniques of warfare. Each successive development, and until recently the extensive areas of land under War Department control, has shaped and distorted the growth pattern of these communities.

Portsea Island is roughly bell-shaped. From the clapper, as it were, on which Southsea Castle stands, the shoreline runs north-west to end in The Point, a narrow peninsula of land enclosing a small sea lake later known as the Camber. The Camber has been much diminished, but originally it was oval; its eastern shore ran almost due north towards a creek which penetrated further east into Portsea Island, to about where Portsmouth Guildhall now stands. After the Norman Conquest, it became an obvious place for a port of embarkation to France, and the town of Portsmouth grew up immediately to the east of it, clustered around the High Street, which ran for half a mile from the open seashore. A rectangle of smaller streets, a quarter of a mile deep, ran parallel to High Street and south-east of it, while to the north a further triangle of streets developed between High Street, The Camber and the creek.

However, a port conveniently placed for sailing to France was also vulnerable to French attack; there was a raid in 1338 at the start of The Hundred Years' War, so Portsmouth constructed defensive earthworks. Invasion again seemed imminent after the excommunication of Henry VIII. He found Portsmouth's defences inadequate and authorised new fortifications to protect the Solent, designing some of them himself. Castles were erected at Sandown, East and West Cowes on the Isle of Wight, at Calshot and Hurst on the Hampshire mainland and on Portsea Island. These were strengthened in turn by Edward VI in the 1560s. Portsmouth began to look in plan like half an irregular Palma Nova, surrounded by ramparts to landward, with bastions at the four salient points. Work went on throughout Elizabeth's reign and in the 1660s Charles II had further improvements designed by the foremost engineer of fortifications of the period, Sir Bernard de Gomme. These included new bastions, with an enormous one at the entrance to High Street. The Camber had its own system of fortifications facing the sea, running along towards The Point.

Gosport's fortifications developed on a parallel with Portsmouth, and included a rampart and moat to protect the town, forts to defend the harbour mouth, and a gun battery similar to the Point battery and sharing with it the defence of the harbour approach.

When Anne came to the throne in 1702, Britain was again engaged in war with France, a conflict which was to continue throughout the 18th century. The demands on the navy caused an expansion of the dockyard and a consequent increase in dockyard labour which the old walled town could no longer accommodate. Thus the new town of Portsea grew up to the east of the dockyard and in the 1770s it was enclosed by ramparts similar to those of Portsmouth. In 1801 the population of Old Portsmouth was approximately 8,000 while that of the Parish of Portsea (concentrated mainly in the walled town) was 24,000.

In the 18th century the need to defend the approaches to the island became apparent. Mobile artillery made it possible for an assailant to land at an undefended point and to move inland, thus attacking the island from the north. To anticipate such an attack, a continuous rampart and moat was constructed at the north end of the island, connecting Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours. Early in the 19th century fear of French invasion again led to a re-examination of coastal defences. A Royal Commission set up by Palmerston, recommended a most elaborate scheme; its most ambitious section related to the re-fortification of Portsmouth. The scheme took into account the increased range and improved accuracy of firearms; it consisted of a ring of forts in two lines at a considerable distance from the dockyard and harbour: a row of six along the crest of Portsdown Hill and a second row west of Gosport. Examples of these forts are discussed in the text. By the time they were completed, France was no longer a threat, but their cost had almost broken the National Exchequer.

The old defences, the walls and bastions around Portsmouth and Portsea ceased to have any useful function and in 1870 they were demolished, with the exception of the seaward defences from Kings' Bastion to The Point, which provided sites for gun emplacements covering the harbour approach; these remained in use during the Second World War. The Victorian forts themselves are now redundant, apart from a few which have been converted to new uses, and the Portsmouth Garrison was closed in 1960, leaving the town with a legacy of extraordinary buildings. These fortified areas, with imaginative redevelopment, could become a considerable asset.

The pre-eminence of Portsmouth Dockyard, particularly during the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the rapid developments in naval technology, both in the construction of ships and in the land-based facilities serving them, brought many distinguished engineers to the area. Thomas Telford, as an Admiralty Clerk of Works, supervised the construction of Admiralty House (architect, Samuel Wyatt) and designed Short Row - officers' houses in the Yard. Marc Isambard Brunel, born in France and Chief Engineer to the City of New York at the age of 28, arrived in England in 1799. He brought with him designs for a wholly mechanised process of block-making, a problem of concern to the navy at the time. It took him 10 years to establish a block-making factory in the Yard, but once completed it was an outstanding success, continuing in operation for over a hundred years, with only the source of power changing. Brunel's machinery was significant, not only in terms of mass production, but also as one of the first major developments in the new technology of the machine age, which was to influence building technology directly. Brunel's son, Isambard Kingdom, born at Portsea in 1806, was to become one of the most inventive and versatile of 19th-century engineers.

Many architects of national repute have worked in the area, from Samuel Wyatt to Gollins, Melvin, Ward and Partners and Owen Luder. The most surprising discovery is the extensive and little known work by a succession of 19th- and 20th-century church architects and restorers, beginning with G.E. Street who worked on many local churches including the now naveless 'Domus Dei' and the delightful St. Andrew's, Farlington. Sir Charles Blomfield was also involved in many restorations, but of greatest interest is his St. Mary's, Fratton Road, which must surely have been seen as the future Cathedral Church of the island. Lastly Sir Charles Nicholson, who restored St. Peter and St. Paul, Fareham (in a perhaps oversimplified manner), and began an abortive scheme for extending the Cathedral of St. Thomas, Portsmouth; however, he fully compensates for these lesser achievements with his marvelously successful and almost totally unknown Holy Spirit, Fawcett Road.

Two local architects are worthy of special mention: Thomas Ellis Owen and G.E. Smith. Owen, a builder, speculator and architect, was responsible for the major development of Southsea. The first phase consisted of charming late Regency terraces, c. 1835-50. In later phases he showed remarkable foresight in the development of a large area of Italianate villas, set in what was visually a continuous tree-covered landscape, interrupted by curving paths enclosed by walls. The fragments which remain have some of the qualities of the garden suburb developments at Bedford Park and Hampstead of some thirty years later. G.E. Smith is typical of many architects who, because they were content with building in a provincial situation limited by relatively narrow values and needs, go unrecognised although they produce work of considerable quality. A great deal more is happening in any flourishing cultural period that can be demonstrated by the few self-publicists who claim to be the motivators. Smith was not a prolific designer, but his work is fascinating for its consistent inventiveness and his joy in the abstract and sensual qualities of architecture. Of particular interest are St. Patrick's Church, Eastney, and South Parade Pier.

Portsmouth, like all cities, is more than the sum of its significant buildings. It has many other qualities - which should be recognised in any redevelopment - that define its personality and its social and cultural structures which have been developed and refined over several centuries. Such structures cannot be changed overnight by utopian gestures. Large areas, especially to the north and west of the dockyard, were destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1941. The greatest damage occurred in Portsea and Old Portsmouth. Rebuilding has been uneven, uncoordinated and often disastrous.

One area which still retains the character of the old sea town is The Point. The mixture of dense, narrow-fronted houses, dating from the 17th century, with pubs and boat-yards is particularly complete in Bath Square. Here the heavy traffic serving British Rail's quay contrasts strangely with the now fashionable but quaint housing. Rowlandson's drawing of The Point was made from Broad Street, but the present view from Bath Square to the harbour mouth recreates it almost exactly.

Quality of a different kind has survived in The Hard, Portsea. No single building has any special merit, but this street running east of the main dockyard gate retains the atmosphere of the 19th-century town dominated by the naval yard. Best seen from the Gosport ferry, it consists of mainly 19th-century shops, pubs and hotels overlooking the harbour entrance. Many of the shops exist wholly to serve the officer-class; an expensive wine shop and Gieves the tailor are juxtaposed with sailors' pubs. The scale of the street has been awkwardly changed in recent times by the construction of high-rise offices. At the west end of The Hard the Harbour Station serves as an interchange between trains, cars, ships and hovercraft, but the buildings hardly reflect this new organisational situation as yet.

Terrace housing is an essential part of the fabric of Portsmouth. Individually, much of it is of little consequence, but the manner in which style varied and was elaborated with each succeeding town expansion can be seen as a record of developing social awareness. There are several early Victorian terraces of artisans houses, elegantly proportioned, such as those in Sussex Road or Stanley Street and Princes Street off Commercial Road. Just north of the latter, some of the most basic housing of the Industrial Revolution survives - a startling contrast. Developments from this basic form can be seen to change almost from street to street west of Commercial Road, east of Fratton Road and continuing east towards Eastney; plain windows on the ground floor give way to arch windows with contrasting brick, developing later into Venetian windows with linked arches and central stone columns. At the outer edges towards Eastney the terraces become almost bourgeois, with elaborate bays and cast iron porches. Planning for the most part is haphazard; the old Southsea railway line for example has left an area of cul-de-sacs and odd distortions to the street patterns. It is depressing to find that much development from the 1920s onwards seems to be regressive, apart from the occasional planting of trees.

These large areas of housing are relieved at almost predictable intervals, within the rough grid, by pubs and churches. Later 19th century pubs, such as The Northcote Hotel and The Eastfield Hotel, are almost over-pretentious in contrast to their surroundings. This pretentiousness goes deeper than the street elevations - it confirms the separate identities of the two major brewers in the area at the end of the 19th century, Brickwoods and Portsmouth United Ales. There are charming and simple pubs from the mid-19th century, often in converted houses, such as The British Flag at Eastney, and The Royal Standard in Edinburgh Road. The brewers' house styles emerged towards the end of the century, United pubs being clad in a deep green tile on the ground floor, with arched opening, and light green glazed bricks above. Pubs such as The Barrack Cellar, Eastney, and The Tangier have delicate interwoven lettering; the latter, in Tangier Road, also has Eastern scenes painted on glazed tile panels. Brickwoods developed an extravagant 'Tudorbethan' style, with endless variations in the pseudo-timber framing and decoration. There are many examples, including The Borough Arms and The White Swan at the south end of Commercial Road and The Air Balloon further up the same road. Their lettering is more solid than United's and they are clad in red tile, which is marvelously used in The Hearts of Oak, also in Commercial Road.

From the late 'nineties onwards, A.E. Cogswell was responsible for the majority of pubs for all the brewers. According to his grandson, the country chosen for his annual holiday determined the pub style for the coming year. The impetus given by late 19th-century pub building has carried on unevenly through this century, with the typical large roadhouse type of pub from the mid-1930s. The younger Cogswell produced a tough example in The Coach and Horses at Hilsea, with its massive brick walls, castellations and painted tile panel. Owen Luder set a new standard in the Tricorn with The New Bell and The Casbah. They have been altered lately, but The New Bell is especially exciting, with its bright tiles, exposed concrete columns, a variety of spaces and complex manipulation of plan and section.

Portsmouth's future development will be determined by new economic structures, less dependent on the military and the dockyard. The extensive military establishments have frozen large areas of land and distorted the city's development (Southsea Common was owned by the War Department until 1923), although it is interesting that the majority of buildings for the services have more opulence, grandeur and urbanity than most of the civic buildings in the town. The economic shift is towards attracting light industry and developing the tourist potential, particularly on the east side of the island. With extensive areas of military owned land, such as Hilsea Barracks, becoming available, there will be ample opportunity to provide housing for varied income groups and greatly increase the amount of developing leisure facilities, such as a marina to serve the increasing interest in 'messing about in boats'.

Alan Balfour

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