Portsea in the 19th Century

Home of our Ancestors


Portsea Island is an island on the south coast of England at the mouth of the Solent. It is the location of the famous Portsmouth harbour, home of the Royal Navy. For the last half of the 19th century many of ancestors lived there.

It is difficult for us to imagine what it was like in a place like Portsea in the late 1800's.. To start with there were no private motor vehicles. In 1850 Portsmouth harbour was filled with the sailing ships of the Royal Navy, but, increasingly as the years progressed, with the steamships which were replacing them (William Scott, born 1833, had been a sailor on many steamships during his service with the Navy and Merchant Marine between about 1845 and 1854). Movement between ships was by boats rowed by watermen, the piers had not been built and there were no motor boats. Although some horse drawn vehicles were present for the movement of goods, normal movement in the town was by foot. Homes generally (and certainly those of our ancestors) did not have the space of courtyards for horses and carriages and they were not commonly used. So, whereas today we can, in our automobiles, move, in a matter of minutes from the Fratton railway station along the M275 to the mainland - a distance of about 3 miles - that would have been an hour's walk in 1860. It was not a trip that one would often make. People lived in their communities, areas which were bounded by a radius of a half mile or so. Men lived close to their work; there was no public transportation available to them.

William Scott b. 1805, worked as a warder in the prison at Portsmouth, moving his family there about 1850 when the prison opened. This prison (Kingston prison) exists today and is just north of the Fratton rail station. Nile Street where William b. 1833 lived when Walter was born, was within a ten to fifteen minute walk from it. Walter's mother, Mary (nee Jacobs) was born nearby in the village of Westbourne (about six miles away) where she was christened in 1831 and where she married William in 1856.

That Fratton rail station, by the way, only came into existence about 1860; the first train service reaching Portsmouth just 15 years earlier in 1845 and terminating in Portsmouth. But there had been substantial growth in Portsea, as in the rest of England during those years. It was, indeed, an exciting time to be born an Englishman. In 1801 (the year of the first English census of modern times) the population of England, Scotland and Wales was about 7.5 million. By 1901 it had more than quadrupled to over 32 million. At the same a large number of Englishmen (as many as 500,000 per year by mid-century) had emigrated to the colonies and to the United States of America. All this population growth was accompanied by phenomenal increases in wealth and in the size of the British Empire. In 1860 Victoria had been on the throne for 23 years, but she would reign for another 40. The population of Portsmouth was 94,799 in the 1861 census, up from 32,166 in 1801 and 63,032 in 1841 - a 50% growth in 20 years, and it would reach 190,281 by 1901. This growth was accommodated by a gradual spreading of the population from the original Portsea to new districts such as Landport, Kingston, Milton and Southsea as the century progressed. The opportunity for wealth accumulation through land value appreciation existed and it appears that at least one ancestor, Moses Good, was successful at doing this.

At the same time as population was growing, the employment of the population was changing too. In the 1800's the population of England moved in great numbers from the farms and estates, into the cities. Workers were no longer farm labourers but worked in a variety of activities associated with village and city life. The Scott family, and the women they married were part of this movement, as we see in greater detail when we study the lives of Walter's ancestors.

While at the beginning of the century almost all power was supplied by the labour of man and beast (with the notable exceptions of the power from wind and water), by the end of the century we had steam, electrical and gasoline powered devices. While at the beginning of the century the country was entering the "great age of coaching", by 1845 there was a railway to Portsmouth and later in the century roads were good enough for bicycling and even early motor cars. The Royal Navy had moved from wind power to steam power. As steam ships grew ever larger construction could no longer be done on the Thames with the result that by the end of the century the dreadnought battleships were being constructed in the dockyards at Portsmouth.

All of these changes were occurring during the last half of the 19th century and it is interesting to discover, through the various documents that are available, how the lives of our ancestors were influenced by them.


Some articles about Portsea

  1. Messum's Court. An article by Derek Slape describing a street on which ancestors lived
  2. St. Mary's Church A short description of one of the oldest churches in Portsea, with illustrations of some of the churches that have existed on the site
  3. Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum An extract from a book of this name describing the physical aspects of a Portsmouth Slum.
  4. Graveyards of Portsmouth Information on some of the graveyards, past and present, in Portsmouth