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The Royal Garrison Church
“I didn’t know this was here!” It could be considered that The Royal Garrison Church in Penny Street holds Portsmouth’s best kept secret judging by the number of times visitors exclaim to the duty guide “I didn’t know this was here”. But a glance at the Visitors’ Book would soon dispel this myth as people from all over the world successfully manage to find us. It seems the comment is made mostly by local residents and it must be assumed that they are so used to seeing the Church with no roof that it gives the impression of being a total ruin. However, those prepared to penetrate a little further into the building are well rewarded. After walking the length of the roofless nave and passing through the unprepossessing porch at its east end, visitors entering the chancel are surprised by the glorious interior of this surviving section of the Church.
The nave roof was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the blitz on 10th January 1941 which left the chancel, although largely intact, exposed to the elements. All of the stained glass windows were damaged by the bombing and needed replacing and the west side of the chancel had no protection. Temporary repair work was quickly put in hand. This was later consolidated with a glazed screen to separate the ruined nave from the chancel and new stained glass windows were installed during the following years. Although the earliest of these windows are little more than fifty years old, they are the most important feature in creating the colourful and welcoming atmosphere of this part of the Church and are well worth a closer inspection for the stories they tell. The Guides are always very happy to describe to visitors the details of the windows which may not be obvious on first sight and also to provide information on any other features of the building and its history. This history goes back nearly 800 years and, in fact, plans are in hand to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the building in 2012. Those who watched the recent Time Team programme on Channel 4 will have become aware that the surviving structure is only part of the original hospital or hospice known as Domus Dei. There was an extensive range of buildings around it providing supporting facilities. The hospice was closed down in Henry VIII’s time along with other religious establishments but, with the development of the fortifications around (Old) Portsmouth, the buildings eventually were adopted as the Military Governor’s residence and subsequently a new house was built for him on the site. It was in this building that Charles II was married to Catherine of Braganza in 1662. It is a happy coincidence that the 800th anniversary of the Domus Dei is also the 350th anniversary of this marriage and it is intended to use the wedding date of 22nd May as the focus for marking both anniversaries. The Church was last restored between 1866 and 1868 and many of the features date from this period but the basic structure has been standing there since the year 1212 including the vaulting in the Chancel and Sanctuary. As is to be expected, after so many years the stonework has become eroded, especially being so close to the sea. The harsh environment has taken its toll and it will not have escaped the attention of passers-by that the building has recently been encapsulated in scaffolding to enable essential repairs to be carried out during the winter when it is closed to visitors. However, it will be business as usual in the spring when the work has been completed. It is difficult to envisage the Domus Dei as it was when first constructed but one of the sketches in the Time Team programme illustrated this very well showing its location at the top of the beach before there was any serious attempt to build fortifications around the town. At that stage, it would stand out as a welcoming beacon to pilgrims and travellers arriving by sea and would provide shelter and food to sustain them on their onward journeys to places such as Winchester, Chichester and Canterbury. Now, the view from the sea is partially obstructed by Long Curtain but, nevertheless, it is still a prominent feature which is often drawn to people’s attention when taking a trip around the harbour on the pleasure boats that run in the summer and many of our visitors comment that this is what first aroused their interest. For those who venture into the Chancel there is much to reinforce that interest, not only the colourful stained glass, but also the ornate organ pipes, the brass memorial plaques and other memorials, the carved oak pews, the splendid brass lectern, the carved font cover, the many standards which adorn the walls, etc and, above all, the history of the building and its environs which the Guides will be very happy to describe and to point out the many features to be seen. The Church is normally open to visitors from the 1st April (or Easter if earlier) to the end of September, Tues – Sat, from 11a.m. to 4p.m. and frequently during October. A visit may well encourage a wish to become more involved and, if this is the case, applications to become assistant guides are always welcomed – the volunteers on duty will willingly provide details if asked. Keith Feltham
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Old Portsmouth Fortifications
The Square Tower at the top of Broad Street was built in 1494. This served as the residence for the Governor of Portsmouth but also had provision for guns to be mounted on the roof. This building was subsequently used for the storage of gunpowder and, in 1779, was converted for use as a meat store. In 1827, the tower was refaced in stone.
Henry VIII’s break with Rome resulted in the threat of invasion from both France and Spain and so, as well as commissioning a series of castles to protect the south coast, of which Southsea Castle was one, the town’s fortifications were strengthened. However, the town’s defences were still considered inadequate and in 1665 Charles II appointed Bernard de Gomme, a Dutch engineer, to put in hand a major programme to improve the fortifications and this work resulted in the defences achieving the form they held until they became redundant. In the 19th century advances in ordnance with the introduction of rifled guns improved their range and accuracy and resulted in the Old Portsmouth defences becoming inadequate. A ring of forts along the crest of Portsdown Hill together with sea forts in the Solent were constructed and, in the 1870s and ’80s, the major part of the Old Portsmouth fortifications was demolished. However, the seaward defences were retained to protect the harbour entrance. Further changes in the way conflicts were conducted saw the Portsmouth Garrison being dissolved in 1960 and the remaining fortifications were acquired by Portsmouth City Council.
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History of Old Portsmouth
The war with France led to fortifications being built around the town of (Old) Portsmouth and these were strengthened and supplemented during the following centuries. The importance of Portsmouth Harbour as a naval base also became apparent, and in 1418 the Round Tower was built to protect the entrance to the harbour. Access to the town was via four gates at strategic locations through the fortifications, the Point being outside the town.
With improvements in gunnery giving greater range and accuracy, the fortifications duly became largely obsolete and the landward sections were demolished in the late 19th century. The seaward fortifications were still valuable, however, and remained in use until the Second World War and beyond. The fortifications required soldiers to man them and they in turn required accommodation in the form of barracks, but few of these old buildings remain. When the Garrison moved out in 1960, much of the land and facilities it occupied were acquired by the City Council which, in Old Portsmouth, enabled the fortifications to be accessible to the public and the large area on the seaward side of Broad Street (formerly the site of Point Barracks) to be opened up. In the 18th century, most of the houses were given new facades in the Georgian style and many were rebuilt. Up until the Second World War and, to some extent beyond, Old Portsmouth was a thriving commercial area with many shops and business premises. Vospers ship builders (later Vosper Thorneycroft) occupied a large site on the east side of the Camber and Fraser & White’s (coal merchants) brought colliers into the Camber and unloaded them by crane into large concrete bunkers built on the ‘Camber Island’. A power station was sited on the land between Gunwharf Road and St George’s Road, but after demolition in the 1980’s this land was developed for housing and known as ‘Gunwharf Gate’. Colliers for the power station docked in a dry dock which now contains the linkspan for the Isle of Wight car ferries, and the coal was transported into the power station by overhead conveyors spanning across Gunwharf Road. Much of the area was devastated by enemy bombing during the Second World War and only a few of the old buildings now remain. Development by the Central Electricity Generating Board resulted in more of the old houses being demolished in the Lombard Street/St Thomas’s Street area for the development of offices, stores etc. Their main office building has since been converted into flats known as ‘Lombard Court’. Old Portsmouth is now a largely residential area, the commerce and industry gradually moving to other parts of the City as they developed and required more space. However the road pattern has remained substantially unaltered over the centuries although road names have been changed in a number of instances.
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What to See
Round Tower & Saluting Platform Access to the Round Tower can be obtained across the open space about half way down Broad Street. Although the Tower is not generally open to the public, the adjacent steps lead to a good viewpoint at the top of the Tower. From the Round Tower the Millennium Walk proceeds along 18 Gun Battery (1680) to the Square Tower and then to 10 Gun Battery (1670) and the Saluting Platform (1568), the large area with seating above Grand Parade. Continuing along the Millennium Walk to the Spur Redoubt (1680), the moat (1680) and Long Curtain (the grass embankment, 1730) are on the left. 
Long Curtain & The Moat From Spur Redoubt, there is a tunnel which passes through Long Curtain and is reputed to be part of Nelson’s route when he embarked to board H.M.S. Victory prior the Battle of Trafalgar. Passing through the tunnel there is a ramp to the left leading to the top of Long Curtain and King’s Bastion or the path on the right runs through to Pembroke Road. By the end of this path, the cottage named Williamsgate was originally the guard house to King William’s Gate (1833) which stood at this point on the south-eastern side of the fortified town. In St George’s Road, opposite the end of Warblington Street stands the Landport Gate which was the main entrance to Portsmouth from London and is at the north-east limit of the old town. This gate was erected in 1760 and is the only gate remaining on its original site.
History of buildings and sites
  1. Landport Gate – originally giving access to the fortified town.
  2. 17th to 19th century houses in Lombard Street & St Thomas’s Street.
  3. Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral.
  4. Former boat-building workshop of G A Feltham & Sons.
  5. The Spice Island Inn & the Still & West Country House.
  6. Quebec House – originally a bathing house, built in 1754.
  7. Tower House, once the home of the famous marine artist W L Wyllie.
  8. The Round Tower, the first part of the fortifications started c.1418
  9. The Square Tower, part of the early defences built in 1494.
  10. Ten Gun Battery.
  11. The Saluting Platform
  12. The only surviving part of the moat (originally moats surrounded Portsmouth)
  13. Long Curtain, earthwork forming part of the fortifications.
  14. King’s Bastion (bastion at the end of Long Curtain)
  15. Spur Redoubt (fortified structure outside the moat).
  16. The Royal Garrison Church
  17. Williamsgate, the original guardhouse to King William’s Gate which stood here.
  18. Buckingham House where the Duke of Buckingham was murdered in 1628.
  19. A reconstruction of John Pounds workshop (behind the Unitarian Church )
  20. The City Museum & Records Office.
(Keith Feltham, 2005)
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