The Battle of Southsea

‘In the summer of 1874 a huge crowd of men and women assembled on the Common to attack a barrier which kept them off a few square yards of land. They fought with special constables, they fought with the borough police, and ultimately they fought with soldiers, in a struggle that lasted for four days. They heard the Riot Act read, for the last time in the City’s history. Many citizens were injured, and – it was said – much harm was done to Portsmouth’s reputation. Yet not only were thousands of citizens prepared to risk arrest or injury for the sake of a patch of land; they were proud of their part in the famous Battle, and saw it as a struggle for principle. It was, they felt, a battle for the right of free access to the Common for all ordinary people, and for the right of public way along the beach.’ (‘The Battle of Southsea’ The Portsmouth Papers Vol.34. P.3)
Local entrepreneurs were gentrifying Southsea seafront, with a few men monopolising developments at Clarence Pier; a cartel of directors in the line of tramways, hotels and now a new luxury baths:

‘A few yards along the beach stood the Southsea Baths and Rooms. The promoters had planned ‘large and handsome separate Swimming Baths for Ladies and Gentlemen, private Hot, Cold, Vapour and Douche Baths, and Reading and Assembly Rooms, which will be available also for Balls, Concerts, or other purposes’.’ The new manager came from an aristocratic establishment at Folkstone and was hoping to enforce the highest standards of decorum. ‘Had Southsea been like Folkestone, a small town dominated by one landowner, there would have been no Battle.’ (p.11)
But the four businessmen behind Pompey’s new venture were already unpopular, Emanuel Emanuel (who built my old place, Lennox Lodge!), William Chambers, Edward Parson and Andrew Nance; many pie-fingering property developers, silver dealers, railway and floating bridge directors (and a farmer at Baffins). But they were ‘also men of political standing. All of them were magistrates, a position of great respectability… Three directors were Aldermen and one had been a councillor.’ (p.10)
Their problem was that the general public of Portsmouth, ‘the great unwashed’, were mingling with posh visitors who passed between the pier and the Southsea Rooms by the edge of the sea. So they built a wall. ‘The Town Council indignantly protested ‘against any such infringement of the public rights’, and instructed the Town Clerk to prepare a removal notice. However, before the Town Clerk could act, Barney Miller drove down to the Common and pulled the barrier down.’ (p.11)

‘At least four populist radicals sat on the Town Council… including Barnard Charles Miller, who sat for St. Thomas’s from 1868, and was an undertaker, carrying scaffolding and grappling irons onto the Common that evening.’ (p.6)
There was a distinguished Radical Tradition in Portsmouth: ‘The only organized working class political group in the 1870s was the Portsmouth Democratic Association, which had developed out of a local Reform League branch. The secretary, a Landport carpenter named Thomas Ediss, was a member of the Liberal Association committee. A co-operator, a freethinker, and above all a champion of the vote for working men, Ediss had led physical attacks on anti-Catholic speakers on the Common, and was beaten up by Orangemen a year later.

‘Thus there arose, in Landport, Old Portsmouth, and Portsea, a small but vociferous group of populist radicals, tradesmen neither liberal nor tory in their allegiance, and indeed disowned by both of the mainstream parties.’ (p. 6)
The next day, Tuesday 4th August 1874, the Pier Company re-erected their barrier, cutting off the ancient right of way for locals. ‘Protest as the Council might, the directors refused to shift and Miller therefore moved into action... Handbills were printed, calling for a protest meeting; the time and place – 7pm on the Common – were carefully chosen to ensure a confrontation. Miller’s undertaker’s van was used for a hustings…; he jumped up and outlined the history of the dispute, then called on the crowd to take direct action: (p.11)

‘“They were there to claim their right of road, and they meant to have it that night (“Hear, hear” and cheers). He hoped no violence would be resorted to. Let them take it down in a business-like manner.”’

‘And so they did. The crowd, estimated at five thousand strong, were disciplined and organised. They set to work with hammers, axes, saws, and even scaffolding, taking over an hour to demolish the heavy wooden and iron barrier. There was little enough resistance from the six or so Pier Company employees. Scandalized and frightened, the visiting fashionables had withdrawn to the Rooms…
‘The Wednesday was the first night of the Battle of Southsea. What is remarkable is the peaceful, if determined, behaviour of the crowd, There was no violence done to persons; the few police who saw the incidents wisely stood by, and the crowd left them alone. In Miller’s words, the crowd set about its task in a business-like manner; when it was completed, everyone went home. The whole affair was orderly and disciplined; as the barriers burned, the band on the Pier kept on playing…
‘The following night, the Thursday, saw more indiscriminate damage. A crowd of about five hundred, described by the Observer as ‘chiefly juvenile roughs’ and ‘regular back-slum Landportarians’, started to attack the Pier itself. A force of thirty police were stoned, and the crowd then burnt the hoardings that surrounded the Pier as well as some wooden benches. On the Friday another crowd, described variously as ‘a very large mob’ (Hampshire Chronicle) and as ‘an assemblage of boys’ (Southsea Observer) pelted the promenaders on the Pier and smashed the windows of the buildings. This time the police decide to hit back, and according to the Chronicle, ‘used their staves very freely, and some who were attracted to the spot merely by curiosity came in for ugly blows’. It took some two and a half hours for the police to disperse the crowd, so fierce was the fighting.
‘It was, however, the Saturday night that has gone down in history as the Battle of Southsea, thanks to the painting that hung in the Barleymow public house, Castle Road, depicting the fight. By eight in the evening something like three or four thousand people had gathered around the pier; at 8.30pm some stones were thrown, and police dashed into the crowd to arrest a man with an axe, Isaac Phillips. The Mayor, fearful that the rumour-ridden town was about to witness an outbreak of violence, had earlier visited the Lieutenant Governor to request military backing for the police. At the same time, entirely on his own initiative, the Police Superintendent issued some 200 truncheons to employees and public-spirited defenders of the Pier. When the Mayor read the Riot Act at 8.30pm, calling on the crowd to disperse, they cheered him and set fire to a barrel. The Mayor went straight to General Doyle’s house, and two companies of the 9th Regiment marched to the Common – some 200 men in all. Together with the police and their armed assistants, the troops stared to clear the ground. Inevitably, fighting broke out.
‘It took two or three hours before the Common was relatively quiet once more. Most accounts stress that the troops did not play much direct part in the fighting that followed, other than intimidating the crowd (who were probably aware that each soldier had been issued with three live ball cartridges). There was general agreement among the press that ‘the police and their assistants used their staves whenever an opportunity offered’ (Chronicle). The main crowd had dispersed by 10.15pm but some five hundred reassembled and threw stones. Once more the police swept them away, several men hiding in the Wheelbarrow pub at the bottom of Castle Road. By midnight all was over bar the shouting. The Sunday was pouring wet, and the Common was quiet. On Monday a crowd again assembled by the Pier, listened to speeches by Miller and the other radicals, cheered their own victory, and left. The Battle of Southsea was at an end. Arguably, the crowd had won a famous victory yet the aftermath saw a straightforward compromise, achieved after weeks of recrimination…’ (p. 13)


Just saying… ;)
Field, J.L. (Dr.) (1981). The Battle of Southsea. The Portsmouth Papers. Vol.34. Portsmouth City Council.
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