A brief history of Southsea, a church and an awful lot of monuments

2 September 2018

The fast boys decided to go for a run in Southsea this morning and, as it was a beautiful sunny day, I thought I’d go along too. We parked up near the Pyramids, fed the parking machine and met up with Rob, Mark and Gil. Then the fast boys ran off and I was all alone to wander, just how I like it. 

Originally Southsea was mostly open grassland, marshes and a few small farms. Then, in the mid sixteenth century, Henry VIII had a fort built to defend the Portsmouth Naval base against a possible attack by the French. He named it Southsea Castle. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that a suburb began to grow on land owned by Thomas Croxton. The small community was known as Croxton Town. As it grew it began to become popular with Victorians who loved to take the sea air and soon it had been renamed Southsea, after the castle. Like the Victorian’s, I’m partial to a walk along the seafront myself but first I needed to satisfy my need for coffee. As the Costa on Palmerston Road was likely to be open, I set off across the Common towards it. On previous visits I’d seen a rather pretty flint and stone church nearby so I decided to make this my second port of call.

St Jude’s Church was built in 1851 by Thomas Ellis Owen as part of the development of the new suburb. The lines of the original building are somewhat spoiled by the addition of a modern entrance porch with engraved glass doors but at least the flint faced walls don’t look too out of place and the beautifully curved stone bench running alongside made a good place to sit and drink my coffee. Sadly, neither the modern doors or the original arched door with its fancy wrought iron hinges were open so sitting was all I could do.  There was still a chill in the air but the sun was shining and it was a pleasant place to rest so I wasn’t really complaining.

During World War II, the Church was very nearly destroyed. On 10 January 1941 bombs rained down, devastating much of the south of the city. Several incendiary bombs landed on the church roof. Thankfully the curate managed to dislodge them before they could do too much damage. If he hadn’t, I suppose I should have had nowhere to sit this morning and admire the large, cross shaped war memorial or the stained glass windows that would have been far more beautiful from inside the church.

Once my coffee was finished I began to head back towards the sea. I didn’t get very far. Kent Road, the street behind the church,  distracted me with its quirky looking houses, large and imposing with lots of interesting brick patterns. Of course I couldn’t resist walking along to have a look at them.  Later I discovered these houses, along with others in nearby roads, were also built by Thomas Ellis Owen.

Owen was born in 1805 in Middlesex, or possibly Dublin, depending on which website you believe. His father, Jacob, worked for the Royal Enguneers Ordnance Department and was posted to Portsmouth in 1820. Thomas trained as an architect and is often called the father of Southsea as he built so many of the buildings in the burgeoning suburb. Later he became a magistrate and was twice Mayor of Portsmouth, in 1847 and 1862, the year he died.  The unusual style of his creations appeals to me and I shall have to look for more of them when I get the chance.

Thankfully I didn’t get too lost on my architectural detour and soon enough I was back on Southsea Common. Under the shade of the trees I found an old, rather battered drinking fountain. This is not one of the new drinking fountains Portsmouth Council plan to instal along the seafront to help cut back on the use of plastic bottles. It is  actually a listed monument, installed in 1889 in memory of Charles McCheane who died in November 1888.  McCheane was the founder of the Royal Portsmouth Corinthian Yacht Club and the drinking fountain was erected by some of his friends.

A large, sprawling car boot sale was going on on the common so I stuck the the path along the perimeter and headed for Clarence Pier. It wasn’t long before I could taste the salt of the sea air and see the distinctive blue and yellow pier building and the giant Ferris wheel of the amusement park.

Clarence Pier always seems to be a pier in name only to me. Unlike most other piers, it doesn’t really jut out into the sea but sprawls along the coast instead. In 1861, when it was built, it had a regular ferry service for the Isle of Wight. The ferrys are now hovercraft and run from Southsea “Hoverport” next to the pier building.  These days the pier is an amusement park and, like most of Southsea, seems to hark back to another era with Pirate Pete’s Playground, a Wimpy bar and the Golden Horsehoe amusement arcade.

Once I’d crossed the road I was on Clarence Esplanade, built, it’s said, by convict labour in 1848. Both the pier and the Esplanade are named after Lord Frederic FitzClarence who was the military governor of Portsmouth at the time. Frederick and his siblings were also the illegitimate children of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, and Ranger of Bushy Park, who later became King William IV. William and his mistress, Dorothea Jordan, an Anglo Irish actress who reputedly had the most beautiful legs ever seen on stage, had ten children who all took the name FitzClarence. The couple stayed together from 1791 until 1811, when William decided it was time to marry and produce some legitimate heirs.

William never forgot his illegitimate family. He provided money for their care and retained custody of his sons. Dorothea was given a stipend to look after their daughters with a stipulation that she should not return to the stage. In 1814, she broke this to help pay off debts incurred by her son in law and William, true to his word, cut off her allowance. Dorothea fled to France to escape her debts and died there in 1816 in total poverty. William never expected to become king  but his two older brothers died without leaving legitimate issue and he inherited the throne in 1837 when he was sixty four. Ironically, despite his marriage to Adelaide of Saxe-Coburge, he died with no legitimate heirs and was succeeded by Queen Victoria.

Enjoying the sea air and sunshine I strolled along the Esplanade wondering what the world would have been like if William had married Dorothea and their eldest son, George Augustus Frederick had been king? Momentarily I paused to read the blue plaque dedicated to Sir Alec Rose, nursery owner, fruit merchant and sailor, who single handed lay sailed around the world on his yacht, Lively Lady in 1968. He ended his epic voyage on Southsea beach and was given the freedom of the city. Memories of the black and white news footage of his landing danced before my eyes as I walked on.

The Southsea seafront is bursting with monuments and memorials so my progress was slow. Close by the blue plaque is a memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar. The small plaque on a large stone plinth is made almost unreadable by the railings surrounding it and is dominated by a gigantic anchor. This anchor belongs to HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson’s warship, now in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. The anchor was originally placed on the spot where Nelson set sail on his final voyage on 14 September 1805, more or less where the car park behind Clarance pier is now. In 1883, H. Percy Boulnois, Borough Engineer of Portsmouth, had the anchor moved to its present position and the large plinth built.

Both sea and sky were a beautiful shade of blue and I walked on looking at the hazy shores of the Isle of Wight in the distance and the little boats sailing between it and the mainland. There are more of Henry’s defensive forts dotted  along the coast here, visible to me as strange humps in the calm sea. Maybe one day I’ll get to see them up close?

The next monument I came to was the Chesapeake Memorial. Beside the bronze tripod and naval crown at the top of the polished granite column the moon was still clearly visible in the sky. The memorial commemorates the lost men of the HMS Chesapeake, a Royal Naval frigate launched in 1855. The ship was the flagship of the British China Squadron during the Second Opium War in the 1850’s. Sadly, much of the inscription has worn away but there is a rather lovely brass relief of ships at sea.

Past the rather sweet and old fashioned beach shelter I came to the Shannon Memorial. The tapering granite monument, like a miniature obelisk with bronze flags at the top rather than a pyramid, sits on a stepped plinth with cannon bollards at each corner. The bronze flags, if that is what they actually are, are to high up to see properly, but they’re made from the metal of a gun captured at Lucknow. The monument remembers the seamen and marines of the Shannon Naval Brigade who died during the Indian rebellion in 1857. Like the previous memorial, the wording has been all but worn away by the salty sea air which is a shame.

On I walked, past the Southsea Rowing Club to Mozzarella Joe’s beach cafe. It was barely after nine o’clock and the pretty duck egg blue building with its outdoor eating area was empty. Half hidden behind it was the next memorial. This one actually is a miniature obelisk, in red granite complete with a pyramid at the top. It is dedicated to the forty four officers and men of the HMS Trident who died during an epidemic of yellow fever in Sierra Leone in 1859. As the lettering in inset with lead it has survived the elements and is still quite legible.

By the time I came to the Portsmouth Naval Memoiral, there were a few other people out and about in the promenade. Thiis memorial is another, much lager square column, flanked by four lions on plinths inscribed with all the names of the lost men from both World Wars and toppped with a beautiful verdigris globe. It is also on the opposite side of the road but, because of its size, crossing for a closer look would have been pointless as the best photographs are taken from a distance.

There are twenty four thousand five hundred and eighty eight names inscribed on the monument. Nine thousand six hundred and sixty six date from World War I, the rest from World War II. All were buried at sea or have no graves. The memorial was built and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Almost directly in front of the Naval Memorial is the Aboukir Memorial, yet another tall stone column with tapering sides on a square base. This was erected in memory of forty eight men and officers who died aboard the HMS Aboukir in Jamaica in  1873 and 1874. The outbreak was started by an infected marine returning from leave in Kingstown.

For a little while I turned my eyes seaward. The unbelievably blue sky had barely a cloud and the nearest of the sea forts looked close enough to walk to if I’d only been able to master walking on water. In fact, if I could, the Isle of Wight, gently swathed in low morning cloud behind it, would easily have been achievable too, as it was only about one and a half miles away as the crow flies.

The coast curves gently and, looking back the way I’d come, I had a fabulous view of the Naval Memorial, Clarence Pier and the city of Portsmouth with its Spinaker Tower and tall buildings. Ahead of me was the final memorial on this section of the promenade. Tall, obelisk style memorials seem to be quite in vogue in Southsea and the Crimean War memorial is no exception. It is fairly plain and bears no human names. Instead, each side is inscribed with the names of the battles and the places they fell, Sebastopol, Sweaborg, Alma, Balaclava, Kertch, and Inkermann.

Now I had a choice to make. If I stuck to the road I would pass the D Day Museum, a place I’d quite like to visit. Unfortunately, it was a little early for it to be open and I had no cash on me ven if it was. Sticking to the road would also mean saying goodbye to the sea for a little while and I wasn’t quite ready for that so I followed the footpath that runs along the edge of the shore. The waves were lapping at the land and ahead of me was Southsea Castle. It was nine twenty five. I had more than half an hour before I had to think about getting back to the Pyramids to meet the fast boys. Maybe I’d have another look a time the castle?

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

2 thoughts on “A brief history of Southsea, a church and an awful lot of monuments”

    1. It was the most beautiful morning. The sky was so blue it didn’t look real but, as it was very early in the morning, it wasn’t too hot. I really must go back and look for more of those quirky houses.

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