A step back in time…Portsmouth in the 1920s

The spectacular view that you see from our view decks today would have been very different 100 years ago.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, we’ve taken a look with the help of local historian, Matt Wingett at what you would have seen from our view decks 100 years ago in what was known as the roaring 20s.

The sun shining through the windows of View Deck 1

Our view decks have a 350 degree panoramic view spanning a 23 mile radius of the city, the Solent, the IOW and beyond. 100 years ago, the city was not built up like it is now; Gunwharf Quays was HMS Vernon, home to the Royal Navy’s torpedo branch, there was no Spinnaker Tower, no Mary Rose Museum nor the Lipstick Tower and people travelled round the city on the tram, with the service going right out to Horndean. World War 1 had just finished, and the Naval War Memorial on Southsea Common was only unveiled in 1924 to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in WW1.

To give a bit of perspective about what was going on in 1920s Portsmouth, HMS Victory was permanently dry docked in the Portsmouth Dockyard in 1922 and actor Peter Sellers was born in Castle Road in 1925. It also wasn’t until 1926 that Portsmouth was actually elevated to city status. This was after a long campaign by the borough council on the grounds that it was the “first naval port of the kingdom”. In 1929, Portsmouth F.C played their first FA Cup Final but lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers. Pompey have since gone on to play in a total of four FA Cup Finals, lifting the trophy twice; in 1939 and in 2008.

We’ve taken some of the key locations from our view such as Southsea Common, The Solent, and The Dockyard.

Clarence Pier Tram Terminus. Credit: ‘DO YOU REMEMBER..IN PORTSMOUTH’

Southsea Common

Looking South East across to Southsea Common would have been very different 100 years ago. One of the things you would have seen would have been decommissioned World War 1 aircraft being flown by ex-wartime pilots in the summer, giving thrill-seekers the opportunity to see Southsea from above.

In 1923, the Portsmouth Pageant took place to celebrate the history of Portsmouth, starting with historical events in 501 AD right through to the modern day. These events were spread across Southsea Common, Southsea Castle and the Portsmouth Guildhall.

Every year throughout the 1920s, circuses would arrive on the common with live animals in tow. These animals included elephants who enjoyed nothing more than a cooling dip at Southsea beach on a warm summer’s morning.

Elephants cooling off from the Circus at Southsea beach. Photo from the Facebook group ‘DO YOU REMEMBER..IN PORTSMOUTH’
A view of Southsea Common in the late 1920s. Credit: John Cass, ‘DO YOU REMEMBER..IN PORTSMOUTH’

The Solent

Looking out over the Solent between 1929 and 1931 there would have been many planes whizzing past. This is because in the summer of 1929, the international airspeed trials, The Schneider Trophy was held on the Solent.

The Schneider Trophy Scoreboard. Credit: www.thisdayinaviation.com

French balloonist, aviationist and flight enthusiast Jacques Schneider created the seaplane speed trials to promote excellence in aviation, with his dream being that cheap flight would be available for all one day. The competitions ran from 1913 – 1931, with the winning country hosting the next, and if a country won three times in a row, they would retain the title in perpetuity. After winning in Venice in 1927, Britain hosted and won in 1929 and 1931, making them the reigning champions.

Newspapers estimated that a million people descended on the South Coast for the weekend of the 1929 race, with The Evening News reporting that the perfect, still, bright weather conditions allowed all-night bathing parties on the moonlit beach:

“As dawn broke over Southsea beach today, armies of laughing girls lit fires and stoves all along the sands and began to cook breakfast. The fragrance of eggs and bacon spread for miles.”

The Evening News, 1929

The designer of the winning British aircraft was R J Mitchell who used lessons learnt from flying over the Solent to design the Spitfire. RAF Officer T E Shaw also attended and on seeing how slowly recovery boats went out to get the crashed aircraft, recommended that the RAF developed a fast boat service for Air Sea Rescue. As a result, in WW2, high speed launches were introduced for Air Sea Recovery. Shaw was also known as T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia.

The Schneider Trophy course map. Credit: www.thisdayinaviation.com

The Dockyard

Across at the Dockyard 100 years ago, there would have been a railway extension from the Hard Interchange to the South Railway Jetty, also known as Farewell Jetty. This was designed to enable the delivery of the troops to the wharfs efficiently and also accommodate dignitaries.

If you look at the jetty by the sea in the dockyard now, you are still able to make out the railway waiting room. This would have been used by the likes of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII) in 1902 and the President of France (Armand Fallières) in 1913. The jetty was served by a railway line over a swing bridge, which took a direct hit in the Blitz in 1941 and was finally demolished in 1959.

At the beginning of the 1920s, the Naval presence was huge both in the harbour and in the city. Sailors would often head out in uniform to go about their daily business and the harbour would have been filled with Royal Naval ships with a fleet of 61 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, 30 cruisers, 90 light cruisers, 23 flotilla leaders, 432 destroyers, 147 submarines and thousands of smaller vessels with many more major warships on the slipway.

It wasn’t until 1924, that the world’s first purpose built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes was commissioned. She would have been seen in Portsmouth and may well have been moored where her massive modern counterparts, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales now reside.

A 1920 postcard of men leaving the Dockyard. Credit: www.picclick.co.uk

Old Portsmouth

Shipbuilding was a huge trade in Portsmouth 100 years ago, with the work happening on the Camber Docks and Old Portsmouth. In the 1920s, after the Great War, a company called Vosper and Co were still involved in shipbuilding, and although there was less work after the war, there was a notable £114,000 refit of Captain Scott’s Expedition Ship, ‘Discovery’ which set sail for further Antarctic expedition in 1925.

Also on the Camber Docks was a large power station, situated where the Isle of Wight Ferry terminal is today. The coal for the station was delivered to the wharf at the Camber Dock and carried in overhead hoppers. The power station was expanded in 1927 to meet rising demand and closed in 1977.

A lot has changed in Portsmouth in the last century, and it’s interesting to picture how different the view would have been.

We must give a special thank you to Matt Wingett for providing us the information. Matt has written various books about the history Portsmouth and delivers talks around the city. You can visit his website here.

South of the Guildhall in 1924. Credit: Andrew Cockburn, ‘DO YOU REMEMBER..IN PORTSMOUTH’