Riot, Revolt and Rebellion: A Portsmouth Timeline

Tom Sykes takes a brief look at some of the more incendiary moments in Portsmouth’s long and rich radical history.

1450 – After public protests against his high taxation policy and his refusal to pay local sailors their wages, the deeply unpopular Bishop Adam Molyens is murdered and his corpse dumped over the Hot Walls.

1729 – During the run-up to war with Spain, understaffing in the dockyard and managerial pressure to produce rope at an intense rate provokes a ropemakers’ strike lasting much of the summer. The Navy Board breaks the strike with scab labour from Cambridge, Newcastle and Ireland.

1819 – Portsea printer James Williams is imprisoned for distributing copies of William Hone’s radical pamphlet The Sinecurist’s Creed, or Belief. This ‘liturgical parody’ mocks the corruption of the Church, the profligacy of the Prince Regent and the ineptitude of politicians such as Castlereagh.

1836 – A crowd of several hundred attend a public meeting addressed by Feargus O’Connor, a leading member of the Chartist movement. O’Connor opposes the property qualification for MPs and calls for the introduction of secret ballots and annual parliamentary elections.

1867 – 300 prostitutes march to Grand Parade to protest the closure of brothels.

1874 – Four days of rioting ensue when the Portsmouth Corporation bans the public from Southsea Common in preparation for private redevelopment. The police and eventually the army are called in to quell the trouble. The Battle of Southsea Common, as it became known, was the last occasion on which the Riot Act was read in Portsmouth. The revolt succeeds; the Corporation abandons its plans and the Common is once again common land.

1909 – Prominent suffragette Christabel Pankhurst addresses a meeting at the Town Hall so well-attended that 2000 people are unable to get inside the venue.

1913 – Frederick Blessley vandalises the Town Hall – now the Guildhall – breaking a window in the process. Upon being arrested, he tells police that he was taking direct action in support of the suffragette movement.

1913 – Local women’s groups march from Portsmouth to London to demand female suffrage.

1918 – Sailors’ demands for unionisation, higher pay and safer working conditions prompt naval base administrator Lionel Yexley to warn the Admiralty that mutiny is likely if immediate concessions are not made.

1930 – A large-scale strike of dockyard workers prompts the Admiralty’s use of ‘blackleg’ labour. The claim that Southampton men were brought in to break the strike – earning them the nickname SCUM (for Southampton Company of Union Men) – is probably untrue.

1938 – 5,000 protest at the dockyard where Oswald Moseley is giving a speech to the British Union of Fascists.

1939 – At a BUF meeting the following summer, anti-fascist activists destroy the speakers and the podium.

1940 – At the height of the Blitz, hundreds storm air-raid shelters on Fratton Road that have been locked to the public. The police respond with a baton charge.

1983 – Protesters opposed to the arrival of Cruise missiles at Greenham march through Portsmouth.

1991 – Peace campaigners create a human blockade of the Portsmouth Arms Fair on Whale Island.

2013 – Hundreds go out onto the streets to express their disgust at the loss of 1200 shipbuilding and rubber plant jobs in the city.

2013 – A student campaign leads to the cancellation of a BAE Systems recruitment event due to be held at the University of Portsmouth.

2014 – Over 200 anti-war protesters march around the city centre in opposition to Israel’s assault on Gaza.

2014 – Local MP and Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt is prevented from attending the opening of a new privately financed fire station by firefighters angered by government cuts that have led to the closure of 40 stations and the loss of 5,000 jobs in the sector.


Photography by Richard Williams.