Tim Backhouse: Portsmouth’s Own Historian

Tim Backhouse was a tireless chronicler of Portsmouth history until his untimely death last summer. Before S&C begins a season sharing his wonderfully unique work, Tim’s friend John Sadden offers this heartfelt tribute to the man and his achievements. 

Last year a local artist, Lyndon Richards, visited the school where I work. The project he was working on involved him meticulously painting every building in the High Street, Old Portsmouth onto old house bricks, and he recently exhibited his work at the Aspex Gallery. Lyndon told me he’d been partly inspired by Tim’s online 1860 Old Portsmouth project and the 3D model of the High Street he created using computer-aided design.

So Lyndon was inspired by Tim’s work, and my pupils, in turn, were inspired by Lyndon.

That’s just a small example of Tim’s legacy.

I first met Tim around five years ago, through George Marsh, and we met every few months to discuss our latest local history research over a Wetherspoon’s pint and curry. In summer and at Easter, we went on marathon bike rides around Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. A sort of pub crawl on bicycles.

I remember when I first met him, Tim talked about the Channel 4 Time Team visit to Governor’s Green and what a wonderful event it was. He was excited at having found the location of a medieval hall linked to the Domus Dei, the Royal Garrison Church. Again, pupils from our school benefitted by taking part in the programme and seeing history being uncovered.

It was only when I watched the programme that I realised that not only was Tim in it, but that it was he who had invited Tony Robinson and his team to Portsmouth. This is one of the many examples of how the local history of Portsmouth was built upon and enriched by Tim’s passion. But it’s also a small example of Tim’s modesty.

Tim’s legacy in local history is anything but modest.

His websites – History in Portsmouth, and Memorials and Monuments in Portsmouth – are a wonderful resource for local historians, people researching their family history, schoolchildren, anyone interested in the history of the city. And unlike some websites, Tim’s work is reliable, accurate, authoritative.

Tim was really pleased last year when, after ten years, his Memorials website attracted recognition and support from Portsmouth City Council.

I once asked Tim whether he ever felt tempted to write a local history book, but he pointed out that far, far more people had access to, and used, his websites than ever looked at any hard-copy book. And he was absolutely right of course. Rather than reach a few hundred readers, he was reaching tens of thousands. As a means of spreading his passion, the web arrived at just the right time. And Tim embraced it.

Tim drew on other historians’ work and expertise and always acknowledged help and contributions. But he also planned and carried out much original research. Last year, for example, to mark the centenary of the First World War, Tim worked on Lives Lived and Lives Lost, researching the individual lives and deaths of four hundred local men – sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines. He was committed to commemorating those men, committed to telling their stories.

More recently Tim had been transcribing and analysing tens of thousands of names and addresses from historic electoral rolls. Tim had tremendous tenacity and stamina.

His stamina was evident on our bike rides. Pedalling up hills on the Isle of Wight and in the East Hampshire countryside, Tim left me behind on many occasions, even though he was ten years older.

Tim’s local history interests were wide-ranging, but to every research project he brought the same energy, enthusiasm and meticulous attention to detail.

When the author, Julian Barnes lost his wife, in trying to make sense of it, he repeated to himself, over and over, ‘It’s just the universe doing its stuff’.

Those who have immersed themselves in history, like Tim, know better than most that shit happens. That the universe does its stuff.

But what the universe cannot do is take away the memories we have of Tim, and of his substantial legacy of recording, interpreting and sharing the rich history of Portsmouth.

Thank you, Tim.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.