18th century Portsmouth harbour

This extract combines an evocative view of Portsmouth from the open sea, painted by Dominic Serres in the 18th century and a description of the naval security of the harbour by Daniel Defoe, written in 1727. First fortified as long ago as 1417, following an attack by the French in the Hundred Years’ War, Defoe compares the strength of the fortifications at Portsmouth with those he had seen in Tilbury.

The situation of this place is such, that it is chosen, as may well be said, for the best security to the navy above all the places in Britain; the entrance into the harbour is safe, but very narrow, guarded on both sides by terrible platforms of cannon, particularly on the Point; which is a suburb of Portsmouth properly so call’d, where there is a brick platform built with two tire of guns, one over another, and which can fire so in cover, that the gunners cannot be beaten from their guns, or their guns easily dismounted; the other is from the point of land on the side of Gosport, which they call Gilkicker, where also they have two batteries.

Before any ships attempt to enter this port by sea, they must also pass the cannon of the main platform of the garrison, and also another at South-Sea-Castle; so that it is next to impossible that any ships could match the force of all those cannon, and be able to force their way into the harbour; in which I speak the judgment of men well acquainted with such matters, as well as my own opinion, and of men whose opinion leads them to think the best of the force of naval batteries too; and who have talk’d of making no difficulty to force their way through the Thames, in the teeth of the line of guns at Tilbury; I say, they have talk’d of it, but it was but talk, as any one of judgment would imagin, that knew the works at Tilbury, of which I have spoken in its place

The reasons, however, which they give for the difference, have some force in them, as they relate to Portsmouth, tho’ not as they relate to Tilbury; That the mouth or entrance into Portsmouth is narrow, and may be lock’d up with booms, which before the ships could break, and while they were lying at them to break them away, they would be torn in pieces by the battery at the Point: That the guns on the said battery at the Point at Portsmouth, are defended as above, with ambruziers, and the gunners stand cover’d, so that they cannot so soon be beaten from their guns, or their guns so soon dismounted by the warm quarter of a three deck ship, as at Tilbury, where all the gunners and guns too must stand open, both to small and great shot: Besides at Tilbury, while some of the ships lay battering the fort, others would pass behind them, close under the town, and if one or more received damage from the fort, the rest would pass in the cloud of smoke, and perhaps might compass their design, as is the case in all places, where the entrance is broad; whereas at Portsmouth, they would be batter’d within little more than pistol shot, and from both sides of the way; whereas at Tilbury there are very few guns on the Gravesend side of the river.

But to avoid comparing of strengths, or saying what may be done in one place, and not done in another; ’tis evident, in the opinion of all that I have met with, that the greatest fleet of ships that ever were in the hands of one nation at a time, would not pretend, if they had not an army also on shoar, to attack the whole work, to force their entrance into the harbour at Portsmouth.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies Letter 2 part 3: Hampshire and Surrey, 1727 (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)

Vision of Britain