Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 35-37


Portsmouth in Jane Austen’s Time



Eastney, Southsea, Hampshire, UK


The day was uncommonly lovely.  It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and every thing looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other, on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.  Nay, had she been without his arm, she would soon have known that she needed it …

Mansfield Park (409)


In an article entitled “Jane Austen and Old Portsmouth” (Country Life Annual 1966, pp. 12-13) D. Phillips-Birt comments that Jane Austen was a writer with a lazy imagination who merely reached back in her memory to make use of her connections with and interest in such places as “that furiously busy, but essentially poor port,” i.e., Portsmouth.  So be it.  We readily associate the author with London and Bath, and Lyme Regis.  Hampshire was “home” but Winchester and Southampton, Steventon and Chawton remain nameless in the major novels; Jane Austen was too “lazy” to give Portsmouth another appellation.

The Portsmouth Jane Austen knew was a town of some 7,000 people on the south coast of Britain.  It was, at that time, confined to the southwest corner of Portsea Island, the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor.  The land side was surrounded by a heavily defended earth rampart and moat.

The Naval Dockyard referred to in Mansfield Park was located in the neighboring town of Portsea, equally heavily fortified and separated from Portsmouth by the Mill Pond, an inlet from the sea.  The fortifications, now, are largely gone.  The Mill Pond has become a naval sports field and the two towns are merged into a much larger Portsmouth.  Portsea has retained its name, but Portsmouth is now called Old Portsmouth.

The Dockyard was (and is) in Portsea; despite this, the home of the Royal Navy was Portsmouth.  The entrance to the Harbor remains so narrow that large sailing ships have rarely entered it except for major repairs or to be “laid up.”  Five miles from Portsmouth and protecting it from the English Channel is the Isle of Wight.  In the stretch of water between called Spithead, the ships of the Royal Navy moored to await orders.  When sailors came ashore they landed at Portsmouth and it was there that Jane Austen would have come to visit her sailor brother in the 1780’s and 90’s.

If she kept to the neighborhood of the High Street she would have seen a town of handsome Georgian houses with shops catering to the affluent.  Had she ventured off the main thoroughfare she would have met filthy streets, appalling slums and abject poverty.  The town had no watermains until 1811, no drainage, indeed, of any sort except the gutters which ran into the moat and into which everything including sewage was emptied.

Jane Austen did not seem to appreciate the people of Portsmouth.  To quote Fanny Price, “The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, every body under-bred” (MP 395).  A contemporary was more blunt.  “In some places Portsmouth is not only filthy but crowded with a class of low and abandoned beings.  The riotous, drunken and immoral scenes of the place exceed all others.” (Dr. George Pinchard, 1795, Portsmouth Paper #20, in Hoad)

In her letters Jane Austen makes a number of references to the town but they chiefly refer to the anticipated arrival of her brothers’ ships or to friends either living there or passing through.  Two mentions are a reminder that Portsmouth was a military town as well as a naval one.  In 1811 we read that “The Digweeds are gone down to see the Stephen Terrys at Southampton, & catch the Kings birthday at Portsmouth” (No. 74, 6 June, 290).  (The King’s Birthday Parade remained a local spectacle until the Second World War.)  There is also the rumor that Wyndham Knatchbull’s son, from Kent, might be buried with full “military honours, at Portsmouth” (No. 89, 26 October 1813, 361).  This is news from a Miss Milles, an obvious prototype for Miss Bates.  On this subject of Mr. Knatchbull’s burial plans, Jane Austen, staying at her brother Edward’s house at Godmersham, opines: “We may guess how that point will be discussed evening after evening” (ibid.).

Mr. Turner, a local grocer and ship’s victualler, is twice mentioned.  Once in 1805 when Jane Austen suggests he might arrange for a letter to be sent to Frank, at sea in command of a frigate (No. 43, 3 April, 153).  The other reference is in 1809 when she writes “Charles’s rug will be finished to-day, and sent tomorrow to Frank, to be consigned by him to Mr. Turner’s care” (No. 63, 10 January, 248).  Charles was in the West Indies.  The grocer’s name also appears in Mansfield Park.  Mr. Price remarks to his son, “I have been to Turner’s about your mess” (330).

Jane Austen speaks of Earle Harwood, the son of a Steventon neighbor, several times.  On 18 December 1798 she writes, “Earle has got the appointment to a Prison ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having; & he & his wife are to live on board for the future” (No. 14, 39).  Prison hulks were used to house both convicted criminals and prisoners of war.  Since Earle Harwood was a marine lieutenant, presumably it was the latter he was to guard.

An earlier letter reported that “Earle and his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind” (No. 10, 27 October 1798, 25-6).  They must have truly been very poor to prefer living on a prison hulk.  In one prisoner’s account of his experiences he speaks of nearly 400 men in a deck space 130 feet by 40.  They were ill-fed, dirty, many half-naked and, often, mutinous.  The lieutenant commanding the ship lived in the stern separated from the prisoners by a bulkhead.  It is difficult to believe that such accommodations were comfortable for Mrs. Harwood.

Lieutenent Harwood did not stay long in the hulk for, just over a year later, “in cocking a pistol in the guard-room at Marcou, he shot himself in the thigh” (No. 25, 8 November 1800, 83).  He was put aboard a cutter and brought to Haslar which was, and still is, a town with a number of naval shore establishments on Portsmouth’s harbor.

In that same month, Charles Austen “walked in on a Gosport Hack” (No. 27, 20 November 1800, 90).  By crossing the Harbor entrance to Gosport he saved well over thirty miles on the journey to Steventon, still a long day for the horse.

On 14 June 1814 Jane Austen writes to Cassandra in London, “Take care of yourself, and do not be trampled to death in running after the Emperor.  The report in Alton yesterday was that they would certainly travel this road either to or from Portsmouth” (No. 96, 14 June 1814, 389).  The Emperor was Czar Alexander I of Russia and he was bound for the celebrations at Portsmouth.  The idea that he would pass through Alton is a bit puzzling as that had long since ceased to be the accepted route to and from London.  He arrived in Portsmouth on Wednesday the 22nd followed by King Frederick William I of Prussia, the Prussian General Blucher and the Duke of Wellington.  They were welcomed by the Prince Regent and all the other royal princes.  With Napoleon on Elba, the allied leaders thought they could relax and had decided to visit England to see the British Navy at work.  On Thursday they reviewed the fleet and on Friday inspected a few ships and the shore establishments.

On that same day, the 23rd, Jane was again writing to Cassandra saying that Frank had told her, in a letter she received the day before, “that the naval review would not take place till Friday, which would probably occasion [Frank] some delay, as he cannot get some necessary business of his own attended to while Portsmouth is in such a bustle.  I hope Fanny has seen the Emperor, and then I may fairly wish them all away.  I go to-morrow, and hope for some delays and adventures” (No. 97, 390).  Henry and Cassandra were in London and Edward Austen Knight and his daughter, Fanny, had joined them there to enjoy the festivities surrounding this auspicious visit by the allied monarchs and their retinue.  On her trip to the Cookes in Great Bookham, Jane Austen must have been caught up in all this flurry of activity between London and Portsmouth but she was, perhaps, more mindful of the adulation in store for her in Surrey: “… they admire ‘Mansfield Park’ exceedingly.   Mr Cooke says ‘it is the most sensible novel he ever read’ ” (No. 96, 389).

After many years at Mansfield Park Fanny Price, accompanied by her brother William, returned to their childhood home at Portsmouth.  Nearing the city they would have crossed the bridge leading from the mainland to Portsea Island and driven three miles through farmland.  “[They] were in the environs of Portsmouth while there was yet daylight for Fanny to look around her, and wonder at the new buildings” (MP, 376).  By the end of the eighteenth century neither the Portsmouth nor Portsea settlements were growing up beyond the artillery’s field of fire.  Fanny was driving through an area then called the Halfway House and now, Landport.

“They passed the Drawbridge, and entered the town” (ibid.).  The gate, Landport Gate, still stands, at the present looking a little out-of-date as the entrance to a naval sports field.  The moat and ramparts have long since vanished.  The approach to town was more formidable than the narrative suggests.  Leaving “the new buildings,” they passed the Mill Pond which was dominated by a fortified island, crossed a drawbridge leading to a second fortified island and, finally, crossed another drawbridge before passing through the Landport Gate into the town.

A left and right turn brought them into the High Street where “they were rattled into a narrow street, leading from the high street” (ibid.).  Second World War bombing has left little of the Portsmouth Jane Austen knew, but, perhaps, the narrow street she had in mind was Peacock Lane where a few half-timbered seventeenth century houses survive.

Henry Crawford was lodged at the Crown during his brief visit.  The Crown, nicknamed the Naval Inn because of its popularity with naval officers, flourished during the Napoleonic Wars but shut down soon after.  It was the home of the assembly nights, which entertainment William would have missed owing to his visit to Northamptonshire.  These assemblies were held fortnightly throughout the winter, two of them being described as “by moonlight,” a safety feature which Jane Austen alludes to in her correspondence.  Contemporary maps show that the Crown had a garden.  The subscription was 15 shillings (75 pence) for six assemblies), three shillings (15 pence) for one.  Tea was included.

There were occasional special assemblies.  In the “Hampshire Telegraph” for 17 April 1801 there was an advertisement which read, “W. Herman respectfully informs the Nobility and Gentry of Portsmouth and the Vicinity that the next Portsmouth Assembly will be on Thursday next, 2nd. May.”  The assemblies were not run for profit.  Another advertisement asked subscribers “to meet at the Crown Inn Tuesday next at twelve o’clock to examine the treasurer’s accounts and to determine how the surplus money in his hands should be applied.”  No one seemed to be interested because the ad was published several times.

“The Prices were just setting off for church … when Mr. Crawford appeared again …. he was asked to go with them to the Garrison chapel, which was exactly what he had intended” (408).  The Garrison Church dates to 1212.  Then called the Domus Dei, it was a hospice for the old and the sick.  It was also used by pilgrims from France who rested there after crossing the English Channel on the way to Canterbury.  With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530’s, the site was occupied by the military governor, the church being used by the garrison.  The governor moved into the High Street (next door to Mr. Turner, in fact) in 1805 but the church remained in use as the Garrison Church until it was bombed in 1941.  The chancel has been restored as a beautiful memorial to the men of the garrison who lost their lives in the Second World War but the nave is a roofless ruin.

“In chapel they were obliged to divide, but Mr. Crawford took care not to be divided from the female branch; and after chapel he still continued with them, and made one in the family party on the ramparts” (ibid.).  The ramparts completely surrounded the town on the land side.  A short stretch, overlooking the sea and replete with moat, survives and it is here that Mr. Crawford and the Price family would have climbed the steps to commence their walk.  It was a popular place for a walk.  “It was [Mrs. Price’s] public place; there she met her acquaintance, heard a little news, talked over the badness of the Portsmouth servants, and wound up her spirits for the six days ensuing” (ibid.).

Mr. Price: “I was upon the platform two hours this afternoon, looking at her [the Thrush).  She lays close to the Endymion, between her and the Cleopatra, just to the eastward of the sheer hulk” (380).  The platform he refers to was the Saluting Platform, adjacent to the northern end of the surviving ramparts and overlooking the Harbor entrance.  As its name suggests, it was built in the 1490’s to welcome foreign ships and visiting royalty.  When, on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I visited the town she was not greeted by the firing of guns.  When she complained, the Military Governor explained the Saluting Platform was in such a sorry state they dare not fire the guns.  The Queen organized a raffle in the City of London to finance the Platform’s repair.

The ships that Mr. Price reported sighting were moored on Motherbank.  This is a stretch of water some three miles from Portsmouth and a mile from the Isle of Wight.  It is deep enough for vessels to moor there without going aground yet so shallow as to allow a reasonably short anchor cable.  American aircraft carriers moor there today, being too large to enter Portsmouth Harbor.

A “sloop,” the Thrush would have been about 100 feet long, fitted with 15 guns, fore and aft rigged.  There is no record that the name “Thrush” had ever been given to a ship in the British Navy up to the time.  The Endymion, however, a sixth-rater with 24 guns, and the Cleopatra, a fifth-rater with 38 guns, were both ships on which Charles Austen had served.

The “sheer hulk” was a maintenance and repair vessel used to replace masts and spars.

“The conclusion of the two gentlemen’s civilities was an offer of Mr. Price’s to take Mr. Crawford into the dockyard” (402).  Little is actually said about the Dockyard itself aside from the party’s finding a seat on a vessel in the stocks.  It seems odd to clamber on board a ship under construction just to sit down but at least we know from the remark exactly where they walked.  To reach the building slip they must have followed the same route as today’s visitors use to view Nelson’s flagship, H.M.S. Victory, and Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose.  Happily, many of the buildings they passed are still standing and the wet dock at the end of the road is little changed from the day they took their walk.

The Royal Naval Academy, in which both Francis and Charles Austen trained to become naval officers, was in the Dockyard.  Francis joined in 1787 and Charles soon after.  The handsome brick building remains but naval training there ceased in 1837.  Nearby, and within the precincts of the yard, is St. Anne’s Church.  As it was built in 1787 Francis must have been one of the first to worship there.

There are memorial plaques to Charles Austen and his son, Henry.  The one to Charles reads:


Charles John Austen, Esqr., Rear Admiral of the Red, and Commander in Chief of H.M, Naval Force in the East Indies, who departed this life off Prome, in the River Irrawaddy, while conducting the naval part of the attack on the Burmese Empire … on the 7th October, 1852, aged 73 years. 




This was a remarkable age to be on active service.  At the time there were three fleets in the British Navy, The Red, the White, and the Blue, the ships flying an ensign of the appropriate color.  Now all ships fly the White Ensign.

The other plaque reads;


Henry Austen, a Captain in Her Majesty’s 73rd Regiment, youngest son of Rear Admiral Austen, C.B., who was killed by a fall whilst serving with his Regiment on the Heights of Governors Kop, near Grahams Town, October 21st 1851, aged 25 years.


At this time the British were fighting their way north along the east coast of South Africa.

Admiral Sir Francis Austen and his family retained their ties with Portsmouth.  Until his death at the age of 91, at which time he was Admiral of the Fleet, he resided at Portsdown Lodge on the Hill overlooking the port.  His grave is in Wymering (Churchyard), on the mainland but now a part of Portsmouth.

If we can possibly equate Mary Crawford’s words with Jane Austen’s opinions, the latter disliked Portsmouth’s climate as much as its populace:  “My dear little creature, do not stay at Portsmouth to lose your pretty looks.  Those vile sea-breezes are the ruin of beauty and health” (416).  She was wrong.  Nowhere are the girls prettier or more healthy.





Gates, W.G., History of Portsmouth, 1900.


“The Hampshire Telegraph.”


Hoad, M.J., Portsmouth As Others Have Seen Us, 1973.


MacDougall, P., Royal Dockyards, 1982.


Saunders, W.H., Annals of Portsmouth, 1880.


Webb, J., An Early Victorian Street, The High Street, Old Portsmouth, 1977.


Wright, H.P., Domus Dei of Portsmouth, 1873.





Portsmouth City Library, Local Collection, Portsmouth City Record Office and Marjory Thomas.


Edited by J. David Grey

Back to Persuasions  #12 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page