High Street

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Today High Street is a fairly sedentary place largely residential in nature. In the mid20th century though the son of a previous owner of the Sally Port Hotel remembers it as fairly industrial with soot belching from the power station and sounds of the constant pounding of ship builders’ tools as they went about their business at nearby Vosper and Company.

Still earlier, High Street was no ordinary small town trading place. It was a bustling hub of commercial and social activity with householders cheek by jowl with manufacturers; and shop owners vying with each other to meet the needs of the resident or visiting civilian and military population. Indeed, during the 19th century, it was arguably one of the finest streets in the country outside London and housed a wide variety of quality shops and thriving businesses.

In 1883, within the 150 properties in High Street, 166 trades were being carried on and gentlemen, solicitors and distinguished naval officers were numbered among its residents. As well as the usual grocers, bakers and butchers, premises near the buildings which currently house the Sally Port Hotel included:

  • T Aylwin, saddler and harness maker, 40 High Street.
  • M J Taylor, trunk & portmanteau manufacturer, 36 High Street.
  • Jepps Manoah & Co., Army and Navy upholsterers, 52 High Street.
  • Alfred Burdett, music and pianoforte warehouse, 59 High Street.
  • Burrows and Company, foreign cigar importer of Burrows’ famous smoking mixture established 1832, 97 High Street.

The commercial and social character of High Street that was there in the 19th century probably dated back to the 16th century. Old maps show low gable-roofed properties running along the length of the street as they do today; although nearly all were replaced or extensively refurbished as wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries enhanced the wealth of their owners.

Over the years, High Street attracted many distinguished visitors who may have passed by or entered the buildings that now house the Sally Port Hotel. Some achieved almost iconic status. In 1628 one of the King’s advisers, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was assassinated in the Greyhound Inn (popularly known as The Spotted Dog) at No. 11 High Street. He was stabbed to death by John Felton, a disgruntled lieutenant in the English army who had been badly wounded during the 1627 expedition to the Ile de Ré, twice passed over for promotion to captain and was owed over eighty pounds in back pay.

An old map of Portsmouths fortified City
Plan of Portsmouth dated before 1540 showing low gable-roofed properties in High Street leading down to the Square Tower.

At the time the Navy was in a poor state of repair and neither parliament nor the King was willing to provide the necessary resources to bring it into a good state. Money was not forthcoming to pay the sailors or soldiers and the Duke of Buckingham, as head of the forces, received a lot of criticism. While awaiting trial, Felton's actions were thus widely celebrated in poems and pamphlets. An anonymous poem, Upon the Duke's Death, argues at length that Buckingham's assassination was not a crime as the Duke himself had been a criminal who had placed himself above the law:

A rotten member, that can have no cure, Must be cut off to save the body sure…

Felton was hanged for the crime and his body was returned to Portsmouth where, as a warning to others, his body was hanged in chains on land east of the town until it decomposed.

On many occasions during the 1660s Samuel Pepys visited Portsmouth in his capacity as Clerk of the King’s Ships. In June 1662 some friends and his wife, Elizabeth, accompanied him. According to his diary, the wives were shown over a ship; they walked around the walls and took in the sights. One of these was the room in The Greyhound where the murder of the Duke of Buckingham took place.

Admiral Lord Nelson was another frequent visitor to High Street. In 1805 he breakfasted at the George Hotel, 30 High Street (destroyed in WW2), before making his way to the beach, via the back entrance to avoid a huge throng of well wishers who had gathered at the front. After walking down Green Row (now Pembroke Road), he went along a tunnel through the ramparts which led to a drawbridge over the moat and a small sally port which opened onto the beach. Here a barge was waiting to take him to HMS Victory which was heading for the Battle of Trafalgar. An American, Benjamin Silliman, described the scene:

“… by the time he had arrived on the beach some hundreds of people had collected in his train, pressing all around and pushing to get a little before him to obtain a sight of his face… …As the barge in which he embarked pushed away from the shore, the people gave three cheers which his Lordship returned by waving his hat.” Portsmouth Cathedral houses a cross made of timber from HMS Victory and a piece of the flag that was laid on Nelson’s coffin at his funeral on 9 January 1806.

Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys painted portraits
Portraits of Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys both painted around the time of the Great Fire of London (1666).