A Potted History of Portland
The Island and Royal Manor
by Stuart Morris
There are few places in the British Isles with such a unique story as Portland. Throughout its long history this small Island (or rather peninsula) off the Dorset coast has played a surprising role in the development of the nation.
Traces of ancient occupation have been found in many parts of the Island, from Stone Age middens at Portland Bill, to Iron Age tools and barrows. The Romans were here in force, it was they who first used Portland Stone in quantity, and not only for their any huge stone coffins which have been found here. Their occupation saw the erection of massive earthwork defences on Portland’s summit, the Verne Hill. From here they could command a 360° panorama of the mainland coast and the English Channel. The hilltop over the sheltered anchorage was thus a natural choice for an encampment, formed with great earth ramparts and ditches.
Rampaging Danes shattered the Saxon peace that followed the Roman departure. Portland suffered one of the first Viking raids on England in the 8th Century, when they ransacked the island, murdered the reeve, and according to legend carried off prize young maidens. A phenomenon of this unique place is that stories of such far-off events have been carried down the generations in folk-memory.
Portlanders were traditionally fishers and farmers, and although Earl Godwin led a ferocious attack on the Island in 1052, the pattern of life here was settled and well organised by the time that the Domesday Book was compiled. Portland was the first Dorset entry in the 1086 Survey. It was the mediaeval farmers who devised the Great Field System, and here they laid out there strip fields separated by earth lynchets and drystone walls. They set the Island’s landscape scene for 900 years. Long since lost on the mainland, some of those ancient strip fields are still worked on Portland to this day. Portland has been a Royal Manor for more than 1000 years, and throughout that time its Court Leet has guarded the rights and privileges of the Islanders. This ancient body still sits.
Church Ope Cove is one of the few safe landing places around the Island’s rocky shores, and a fort known as Rufus Castle was constructed on a high pinnacle of rock directly over the Cove as a defence against many French raids in which this part of the English Channel coast bore the brunt in the 13th to 15th Centuries. Above this cove, too is of Portland’s first church of the C13th, sitting precariously on a cliff edge, now a romantic ruin of sylvanian attraction.
Portland Stone had been used in Exeter Cathedral in the 14th century, but its global fame was due primarily to Inigo Jones’ Whitehall Banqueting House (1620’s) and Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral 40 years later. The completion of that colossal project owes much to the unsung skills of the Portland quarrymen and stone selectors, the pride for whom is still felt on the Island today. Quarrying naturally changed the face of the Island forever.
The growth of commercial shipping brought new fears of invasion by sea, and King Henry VIII responded by building Portland Castle as part of his coastal defence plan, in 1540. This is one of English Heritage’s best-preserved Tudor monuments, and is now a top-rated tourist attraction.
The Island witnessed major battles with the Spanish Armada, but its proudest years were during the great Civil War, when Portland held out for the King against Cromwell’s troops, long after most of Wessex had fallen to the Roundheads. Portland Castle was eventually captured in 1643, but when the monarchy was restored Charles II rewarded Portland’s loyalty with special grants and rights which have been renewed by every succeeding monarch. Some of these privileges are absolutely unique in the country.
Increased shipping in the 17th to 19th Centuries led to innumerable shipwrecks on the Island shores, especially on the notorious Chesil Beach. Even after the erection of the first Portland Bill lighthouse in 1716, ships cargoes and lives were lost on an appalling scale until very recent times. The second lighthouse to be built here was the first in the world to use a proper lens.
The consequence to a truly ancient insular community of the building of the first road bridge to the mainland in 1839 can hardly be imagined. It is more remarkable that many old Island customs survived here until well into the 20th Century.
One subject, The Portland Breakwaters, dominated Nineteenth Century Portland. This was one of the greatest individual engineering projects ever undertaken in England (the 1861 Parliamentary vote for Portland was the nation’s largest in ten years, and that was the incredible period after the Great Exhibition). Everyone was affected by it in some way. Portland’s population tripled in just a few years, strangers - “Kimberlins” - outnumbered the natives. A huge convict prison and military barracks were established in association with it. Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert sank the foundation stone in 1849, and he was to take a profound interest in its progress for the rest of his life. His son the Prince of Wales laid a commemoration stone in 1872, but the great scheme was not finished until 1905.
Stone production on Portland reached tremendous levels for the supply of masonry for great Victorian and Edwardian buildings throughout the nation. Point to almost any prestigious building in London and you are pointing to a bit of the heart of Portland. In 1824 Dorset’s first authorised railway (horse-drawn) was constructed to convey the stone to the quay. The main railway did not arrive until 1865, and only reached the top of the Island in 1901. Skirting the East Cliffs it was described as “one of the prettiest lines in the land” for its marine views. But it was a financial failure and closed in 1965.
The Royal Naval Base in Portland Harbour soon assumed great importance, the Grand Fleet assembled here before the 1914/18 war and the Island was a major embarkation point for Allied and American forces for the D-Day landings. The area went on to play vital roles in the training and working up of naval shipping from all over the world. Portland became the centre of top secret development of underwater weapons and research, and was the scene of one of the most notorious Russian spy cases of all times in 1961. From 1958 the country’s largest naval helicopter air station was developed over a former tidal mudflat called the Mere.
The late 20th Century saw a further transformation of the Island scene. Quarries and housing developments spread across the historic rural landscape. The ancient community spirit has survived it all, and Portland still has a fully functional Court Leet, a thousand-year-old body which almost uniquely in England still retains legal powers. But the Island braced itself for yet another upheaval when the Royal Navy base, Royal Naval Air Station and Admiralty Research establishment (DRA) all departed in the last decade of the century. The potential effect on the local economy was devastating, but the opportunities were, like the Island itself, unique. The Ministry of Defence left one of Europe’s largest natural Harbours, overlooked by Victorian defences - all now scheduled Ancient Monuments, which with imagination will be catalysts of interest. Portland Harbour was always renowned for water sports, and is of national natural history importance. The former Air Station is being rapidly transformed into a world-class maritime centre, with prestigious associated leisure and industry. Here now is the National Sailing Centre and a huge yacht marina, set to be one of the finest in the country. Osprey Quay and Portland’s waters are thus a fitting venue for the 2012 Olympic Games sailing events.
The former top-secret Admiralty research establishment (DERA) has become the Southwell Park. Complementing more than 100 new businesses on this site are the Portland Spa – a fantastic leisure and conference complex, also lauded as “world-class.” The opening in 2008 of South Dorset’s only purpose-built 4-Star luxury hotel with spectacular marine views completes the picture at Southwell.
The historic and world-famous Portland Stone Industry is alive, supplying beautifully carved work to numerous classical buildings including most of the UK’s national museums and galleries, numerous churches, cathedrals etc.
Nothing happens by half on this Royal Manor, as seen by the development of enormous subterranean natural gas storage caverns, out of site far below sea level on Portland’s east coast. Above this on the East Cliffs a multi-million pound “Interpretation Centre” is being developed to bring to life Portland’s incredible history, and to imaginatively show the Island’s geology, natural history and industrial heritage.
Portland’s renowned Natural History and Geological interests are recognised internationally. In recent years Professor David Bellamy opened Dorset’s first Butterfly reserve in a former quarry; there are Visitor and Study Centres at Portland Bill and Chesil Beach, and perhaps the biggest accolade of all is the inclusion of the entire Portland Coastline as the central part Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, World Heritage Site.
Recreation and tourist opportunities abound, and property here is now much sought after. It is after all a striking and unusual environment in which to live, enjoying one of the sunniest climates in the UK!
© Stuart Morris 1994/2008
Stuart Morris is a local historian and the author of “Portland, an Illustrated History”, “Portland Camera”, “Discover Dorset – Portland”, “Portland, a Portrait in Colour” and “Portland: Then and Now”, all published by the Dovecote Press.