By 1700, Portsmouth Town, with its constraining walls, was bursting at the seams. The pressing need for new homes was given impetus and direction by the distance that Dockyard artisans had to travel to their place of work.
The result was a new housing development at Portsmouth Common, despite the obstacle posed by the decree that 'no person can erect buildings or do anything to the prejudice of the Kings fortifications'. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century at 'New Buildings' (beside the Dockyard's wall to the north-east) there was the first organized attempt to build on Portsmouth Common - there, sixteen payments were recorded for the Poor Rate in 1700.
An obvious reason for this spot being selected initially was that there was a gate nearby that allowed workers access to the Dockyard.
The proximity of 'New Buildings' to the Dockyard resulted in an alarm being flagged-up by the Board of Ordinance in 1699: 'The new buildings lately erected on the north-east side of the docks are advanced within fifty feet of the design for fortifying the dock....'
One solution was proposed by T Seymour: The 'shutting up of the north-east gate at Portsmouth, whereby they are prejudiced in certain new buildings erected for the accommodation of the dock workmen...They represent that if the gate be kept shut, their tenants in the new buildings must desert their habitations'. (NB This gate was relocated in 1709)
The governor of the Board of Ordinance threatened to turn his guns on the newly-built houses of Portsea but in 1702 the visiting Prince George of Denmark intervened on the locals' behalf. As a result, Queen Anne (who was married to the Prince) allowed the building to continue and with this royal approval, Portsea Town grew rapidly.
Sights, sounds and smells of 'New Buildings'
To understand life in the little township, one must sense not only its close proximity to a rapidly-expanding Dockyard but also that the sea lapped its shoreline at high tide - a landing stage and landing steps providing access to the township. When local property was advertised for sale, it was noted as being 'situate near to the Dockyard', 'close to the waterside', 'abuts high water mark' or 'contagious to water'.
The Dockyard provided background music for the community. New Buildings was dominated by 'the busy sound of the Yard. To strangers and visitors it was just a confused and deafening noise. When you got to know it, you distinguished half a dozen distinct sounds which made up that inharmonious and yet not unpleasing whole....you could not see it, but you felt it, and knew it was there'.
Another sense, smell, would have been assailed at low tide as New Buildings looked out over harbour mud. Nostrils were filled with the stench of sludge, decaying seaweed and that double-act, flotsam and jetsam, which accumulated along the shore line. This offensive effluvia was mixed with the nauseating odour of odure disgorged from the township.
The Streets of 'New Buildings'
The street names of New Buildings changed as national heroes and local personalities emerged. Thus, Sandwich Street (which was known as Middle Street in 1777) referred to the First Sea Lord, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who attempted to root out corruption in the Dockyard. However, his investigation also uncovered abuses by the workers who lived in these streets! The name 'Seymour Street' first appears in 1796 and was a reference to Lord Hugh Seymour an Admiralty Commissioner (1795-98). Wolfe's Court was an echo of General James Wolfe who stayed at Portsmouth in 1758 whilst en route to Canada. Ironically, the General was critical of the Portsea populous which he castigated as 'diabolical'. He added in a letter to his mother, 'It is a doubt to me if there is another collection of demons upon the whole earth. Vice, however, wears so ugly a garb that it disgusts rather than tempts'. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the locals still named a street in his honour.
Jarman's Place, Sharpe's Buildings and Fisher Street were coined after owners and residents. Gravel Lane and Gravel Row were so called because they were close to the gravel pits of Portsmouth Common.
Brunswick Street was allocated funds for paving in 1770 - the implication being that the streets were of mud before this time.
'The Parade' was a place of assembly. Once a year, the inhabitants elected a mock 'mayor' who then sat in state at the Parade as a local company (the 'Royal Stiffs') marched past. The ceremony and festivities concluded with great bonfire at what became known as 'Bonfire Corner'.
Local Trades and Amenities
Because of its position, New Building people were mainly mariners and dockyard workers with their families.
The township's proximity to the sea brought in its wake specialized trades. Watermen plied their services at the water's edge and ferried customers in their wherries around harbour, to moored ships and also across to Gosport. Wooden ships, temporarily anchored in 'Porchester Lake' or nearby 'Fountain Lake', were broken up and their timbers sold by firms such as Clarke and Carter. Cargoes of coal, house slates and 'weevil grains' were landed and sold from stores and yards.
Scattered among residents were the support tradesmen who supplied the community's basic needs. New Buildings had two breweries (Prince of Wales and Pink and Collins), at least two taverns (The Magpie and The Monkey and Grapes), a ship breakers yard, a bake-house, coal stores, a grocery store (at 19 Sandwich Street) and a coach-house and stables.
Social amenities included a bowling alley, a chapel and a brave attempt of an infants school at Seymour Street which opened in April 1827 and, being funded by public contributions and needing £100 to survive each year, ran into immediate financial difficulties.
The Buildings of 'New Buildings'
According to the 1775 Rate Book, the numbering of houses at New Buildings ended at 112, which may indicate the size of the neighbourhood. The homes were well over a century old and, like the rest of Portsea, in an insanitary state.
The plans of New Buildings show that most homes were terraced with a small yard. In the early 1820s when properties were sold, sometimes descriptions and rents were included:
One sale prospectus helpfully added some details about the water supply to some houses. It detailed five newly-built homes at 35-39 Sandwich Street (total annual rent - £80) which were 'plentifully supplied with excellent spring water and pump'. Indeed the 1846 map of New Buildings shows a well-house in the vicinity.
'New Buildings' and the 1841 Census A snapshot of New buildings emerged on 6 June 1841, when the census was taken. Before summarizing these figures, it should be noted that these relate to the streets which were taken into the Dockyard from 1845 as shown in the map above. Not included are the streets that run toward the area such as Frederick Street, Gloucester Street and Marlborough Row. (It is uncertain whether these streets were included in the district known as 'New Buildings'.)
The area comprised of 148 dwellings and a further fifteen which were uninhabited - a pointer to the dilapidated condition of some of the housing stock. There were 725 inhabitants on census night; on average there were five people to a house but this figure is distorted by the small households of one or two people recorded at Gravel Lane and Sandwich Street.
The adult population of the area was dominated by royal navy and merchant navy mariners (39), their wives who remained at home when their men went to sea (36) and naval pensioners (20). Thus, 41% of adults were connected to the royal and merchant navies.
Many Dockyard artisans were still living at New Buildings. They included shipwrights (9), rope-makers (4), sawyers (3), joiners (2), blacksmiths (5), stonemasons (2), a painter , a sail-maker , a messenger to the Port Admiral and a female oakum picker. So, 16% of working adults were employed in the Dockyard. In addition to these there were nineteen labourers who may or may not have been in the Yard.
The remainder of workers were the infrastructure of the community: watermen (12), cordwainers/shoemakers (9), tailors (4), bakers (3), fishermen (2), coal merchant (2), grocers (2), uncategorized merchants/shopkeepers (5), a miller, a fruiterer, a fishmonger, a draper, a lighter-keeper, a nurse, a male hair-dresser, a basket-maker, a bricklayer, a cook/pastry cook and a policeman.
Included in this list were those supplying beer and liquor. There were two brewers. Also, three publicans (two of whom also worked: one as a painter, the other as a tailor) and three licensed victuallers. One publican was at Wolf's Court, but the rest were clustered along Sandwich Street.
The last days of 'New Buildings'
In the 1830s, the days of New Buildings were numbered. The Dockyard leviathan was again on the crawl. A sea-change in the construction of vessels from wood to steel and from sail to steam demanded that the sprawling yard should sprawl some more. On 26 December 1836, a possible expansion project was reported in the Hampshire Telegraph: '...a plan has been shewn us of taking such increase out of the part of Portsea called New Buildings - a portion of the town very valueless...'
Sure enough, the death knell of New Buildings sounded in 1844 with the serving of notice of the Admiralty's intention to purchase land for its enlargement. The Hampshire Telegraph of 12 July 1845 trumpeted: 'New Steam Basin'. It reported that 'the business of removing about 130 occupants from their various localities has been most ably managed...with one or two exceptions the properties were of small value'. Yet a few words later, it was stated that 'many objections at first arose and threats were held out...'. It concluded that the Admiralty has shown much consideration in ejecting the tenants and in the cases of three old widows who were merely tenants but who had lived in their respective holdings for perhaps all their lives, they have been given £8 or £10 a year for the future'.
It might be thought that this report is a perhaps rose-tinted view of the eviction/evacuation. It may refer to one stage (of several) of the removals; or the '130 occupants' may relate to the adults and not the children who were wrenched from their homes.
By 1848, 'New Buildings' had become 'Demolished Buildings'.
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of the author Philip Wray. The original appears on his website www.myfamilymatters.org.uk