Aerial shot of Portsmouth harbour

Welcome to a literary city like no other, and to a project dedicated to capturing the excitement.

Welcome to the city where Charles Dickens was born and where Arthur Conan Doyle first unleashed the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, on a grateful world.

Welcome also to a city whose literary stories go far beyond these more familiar examples – a city whose literary character and complex identity isn’t just about the past, but about a community of talented writers beavering away as we speak on so many inventive ideas.

The Portsmouth Literary Map project

Led by Dr Mark Frost and Dr Maggie Bowers of the English Literature team, the Portsmouth Literary Map project was launched in August 2019 out of a realisation that there was an amazing opportunity to publicise the stories associated with Portsmouth’s remarkable literary past and to tap into its existing literary community networks of poets, novelists, and short story writers.

But while the work of mapping Portsmouth’s fascinating literary stories goes on, the project has wider ambitions to forge strong and creative relationships with the wider communities of Portsmouth and Hampshire by reaching out to schools and libraries, authors and readers, to anyone interested in joining us to help fan the flames of the city’s literary energy. The launch of the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog is one part of our attempts to do just that – and you will hear more from us over the coming weeks and months about our work, our events, our projects, and about opportunities for you to be part of it all. 

Inside the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog

The blog will include regular feature articles by authors, famous and local, on their own literary relationships with the city. Look forward in the very near future to pieces by one of our most renowned detective novelists and one of our most celebrated local poets. It will have a ‘Poem of the Month’ feature, introducing you to the astonishing range and vibrant quality of Portsmouth verse, with an emphasis on verse about the city. 

Our On This Day features will take you back to significant, obscure, weird, or fascinating moments in the city’s literary pasts. In the coming months, we’ll introduce you to Charles Dickens’s reading tours in the city, and to another best-selling Victorian novelist, Walter Besant, also born in the city, whose Celia’s Arbour: A Tale of Portsmouth Town (1878) offers revealing glimpses of bygone Pompey.

And as if that weren’t enough, the blog will also bring you regular ‘Map Stories’, digging into the details of the authors who were born or lived here, the novels and poems set in the city, and the various things – complementary or otherwise – that people have said about the city. There will be so much for you to choose from, and so much for you to find out. 

How much do you know about Portsmouth Literature?

Before we say a little more about our aims for the map, why not test out your knowledge of literary Portsmouth with these ten questions? 

Click on each question to see the answer, along with some links to the map for those wanting to find out more.

Test your Portsmouth literary knowledge

The current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, studied Geography at Portsmouth Polytechnic during the 1980s. The extraordinary range of his work – in literature, music, landscape, and activism – is reflected in his entry on the map.

Rudyard Kipling was the controversial author who spent his formative years in Southsea, and who was the first British recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the 1870s, in Campbell Road, Kipling spent a troubled childhood with a foster family while his parents served in India.

Now a controversial figure due to his associations with British imperialism and the Indian subcontinent, Kipling’s fame at the time led to his Nobel Prize award in 1907. The map seeks to include everyone with some connection to the city – and if they are difficult figures, like Kipling, or the children’s author Percy F. Westerman, or even Dickens, we use the map to reflect both on their achievements and any baggage that they or their works now carry.

The fantasy novelist, Neil Gaiman was born in Portchester but is now resident in the United States. His novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has been commemorated by the naming of a road on Southsea seafront. Gaiman is one of the few exceptions we have made to our rule to keep our entries within the city’s borders – but we will definitely be expanding outwards in future years.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (in the first slave narrative ever published, the 1770 work, A Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Groniosaw, an African Prince, related by himself) and Olaudah Equiano (in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, 1789) both have Portsmouth connections. The highly religious Gronniosaw did not at all enjoy his time in what he saw as an immoral and unchristian city.

The map offers opportunities to commemorate and publicise those whose contributions – to wider society and to the world of letters – are often overlooked. Here, the map is a vehicle to tell stories about Portsmouth’s black history through authors who either lived here or passed through, and we will be adding an entry for Equiano very soon. Another intriguing figure of interest is John Jea, a black preacher, hymnist, and author, who took up residence in Portsea in the early nineteenth century and preached to sailors and sinners not far from the Hard for many years. We are especially keen to find more examples of Portsmouth’s black literary history, so if you know more than we do, please contact us.

H. G. Wells, the author of The Time MachineThe War of the Worlds, and many more works, was so miserable during his apprenticeship at a King’s Road, Southsea drapery shop in the 1880s that at the weekends he regularly walked 18 miles to Uppark House near Petersfield to implore his mother to end his time there, or to threaten suicide to secure his release.

To gain a flavour of his negative feelings about this period in his life you can read extracts from his Experiments in Autobiography on the map as well as finding out more about his time in the city. 

Michelle Magorian, most well-known for the children’s war novel, Goodnight Mr Tom, has fond memories of her childhood and adolescence in the city – something most obviously celebrated in Just Henry, a post-war children’s novel full of Portsmouth cinemas and scenes. Search the Literary Locations tab on the Portsmouth Literary Map for the many places featured in this charming and dramatic novel, or find out more about Magorian’s childhood in Victoria Road North.

Neville Shute, the novelist whose works were made into Hollywood films in the 1950s, ran an aircraft company from the old Portsmouth Airport and lived at a number of addresses in and around Portsmouth during the 1930s and 1940s. Find him by searching the map in Hilsea, Eastney, and Hayling Island. An ongoing project, the map is slowly gathering a range of less-well known stories from Portsmouth’s literary past – see if you can find Olivia Manning, George Meredith, Sarah Doudney, and James Clavell.

They are all Portsmouth-born poets whose poetic insights into the city are well worth reading. In order to reflect the city’s thriving poetry scene, the map now includes poems and biographies for Maggie Sawkins, Denise Bennett, Lynda O’Neill, Tricia Torrington, Tessa Foley, Stephanie Norgate, and a few others – but this is just the tip of the iceberg: the works of many more published poets will appear over the coming weeks, months and years.

Graham Hurley’s D. I. Faraday and Pauline Rowson’s Inspector Andy Horton both operate in and around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. We are delighted that Rowson has written a blog for us, ‘Pauline Rowson is always looking for a good place to bury a body’, containing many insights into her literary practice and her relationship with the city. You can find many Hurley and Rowson locations all across the city by looking under Literary Locations.

Jonathan Meades is the acerbic documentary maker, novelist, and Southampton FC fan whose novel offers a gruesomely bleak picture of the city in Pompey, a dark family saga that will raise your eyebrows and turn your stomach: the map features many of the locations from this extraordinary novel, so have a look. The city has produced another significant figure who has caused controversy in his own field – the political commentator, Christopher Hitchens who is included in our selection of Notable Quotations about the city. 

A tale of two port cities

We can learn a lot by exploring literary Portsmouth.

Firstly, this is a city that packs a literary punch. It’s hard to think of another provincial British city of comparative size that has such an extraordinary range of authors who were either born here, lived here, or felt compelled to reflect on their experiences of the city. In that respect, Portsmouth fights well above its weight.

Secondly, this is a city that has always divided opinion, and continues to do so. For every person drawn into its peculiar charms, another is repelled. This was particularly true when Portsmouth was dominated by the dockyards, peopled by sailors, and characterised by the kinds of economic activities that sailors often prefer – drinking and prostitution (for more on this, see the sister project, led by our colleagues in the History team, The Port Towns and Urban Cultures Project). The Portsmouth Literary Map project offers endless and exciting opportunities to reflect both positive and negative responses to Pompey. 

Perhaps the most piquant observations on Portsmouth came from the illustrious General James Wolfe, billeted in the city against his will in 1758 prior to sailing to Canada to defeat the French in Quebec the following year. In a letter to a friend Wolfe certainly did not hold back in making his feelings plain:

The necessity of living in the midsts of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me whether there is such a collection of demons upon the whole earth. Vice, however, wears so ugly a garb that it disgusts rather than tempts.

General James Wolfe, British Army officer

Things have moved on quite a lot since the 1750s and the citizens of this fair city might argue that Wolfe’s characterisation is now obsolete. But it’s still the case that Portsmouth has a distinctive character, something apparent in the myriad literary responses that the map project is at pains to reflect, and that the poet, Tessa Foley, will address in her own distinctive and engaging way in her forthcoming blog for us. 

Writing Portsmouth

Clichés about the city endure, and it is of course part of our task to record them. But it is also our job to record the works of those who have tried to go beyond the stereotypes of a drunken, violent city, and to capture its fascinating hybrid identity, something that has become more and more clear to us as we have accumulated literary responses to Pompey.

On the one hand, Portsmouth is an outward-looking maritime city, a window or gateway to the world, a meeting-point of cultures and a place of movement. At the same time it’s the end of the (railway) line, and at times retains an insular and inward-looking personality. Flat, densely populated, and geographically isolated, it has an island mentality while also attracting visitors and inhabitants from diverse communities: quite a few of the poems featured on the map reflect, for example, on immigrant experiences of this port city. It is a naval town, marked in so many ways by its central place in the history of the Royal Navy (the Dockyards and the Hard are very well represented on the map), but it is by no means defined by that alone. If the map is for anything, it is first and foremost a way of mapping and reflecting upon the city’s complex and productively unstable identities.

There is so much more that we could talk about, and expect much more from us over the coming months, but perhaps it is best to allow you to find out more for yourself by visiting the map. The map is designed for use on mobile devices as well as laptops and computers, and we think you will appreciate its sophisticated interface. 

If you wanted to be more involved in the project, have suggestions for what to include, or if you would like to provide us with corrections or suggestions in relation to the map entries, please contact me, the Map Director, at mark.frost@port.ac.uk.


Mark Frost is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Map Director of the Portsmouth Literary Map.

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