The myths and beliefs of the origin of the name ‘Gosport’
The most popular idea for the origin of the name comes from a romantic story that was adopted by the Victorians and used as the basis for the Gosport seal when it was designed by Snape in 1922.
God’s Port, Gorse Port or Goose Port. Which?
Legend tells of the landing in mid 12th century of Henry de Blois, the Bishop of Winchester, caught in a fierce storm when returning from Normandy and brought ashore by local fishermen. He decreed that the place be called God’s Port, these words ‘God’s Port Our Haven’ are shown on the Gosport seal designed by local artist Martin Snape in 1922.
The very first written reference to this story is probably an article in Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc (Portsmouth, England), Monday, October 14, 1811. The inhabitants of Gosport were looking for assistance with obtaining an Act of Parliament for their new market house in 1811. A local Portsmouth historian, (Henry Slight?) found a document in the papers of the Bishop of Winchester which claimed to be the original grant of markets and fairs to Gosport by Henry de Blois, resulting in the Hampshire Telegraph article above.
Henry Slight writing in ‘A History of Portsmouth’ in 1838 says:
There are two fairs at Gosport, of trifling extent, viz. on May 4,
and October 10. The act of parliament passed for erecting the new
market, in 1811, recognized the ancient fairs, which were granted
by the then lord of the manor, Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester,
in 1158, in consideration of kindness shown to his brother, King
Stephen, who, in a voyage from Normandy, landed here after a storm :
The Bishop called the village God’s Port, bestowed on it the fairs
above mentioned, and three market-days in each week.
Dr. L.F. White, writing in ‘The Story of Gosport’, postulates that in 1682 a fire hearth receipt was discovered in the beam of an old house in Gosport High street when it was pulled down in 1833. It said ‘ Received of Edward King, the sum of four shillings in full for one half year’s duty for four fire-hearths in this house in ‘godsport’ due and ended at Michlemas last past. I say received by Edward Nevey, Collector.‘ However spelling in documents such as this can be arbitrary and suspect. An error in the spelling rather than a serious origin for the name of Gosport?
An explanation of the Gosport seal can be seen in a document now on display in Gosport Discovery Centre’s Museum on the Mezzanine. It reads:
‘In the year 1140 A.D. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, took shelter from the storm, which was raging outside, in the harbour, and beached his vessel on the western shores. Out of the thankfulness which was in his heart he called the name of the place ‘God’s Port.’Henry of Blois was the youngest brother of King Stephen, and the grandson of William the Conqueror, soldier and priest, castle builder, and collector of works of art, he encouraged all those pursuits which alone can bring prosperity. The original Parish Church of Alverstoke and Farnham Castle were built by him and the Hospital of St. Cross at Winchester is a lasting memorial to his name.
The country was bordering on anarchy in his time, some fighting for the King, while others upheld Queen Matilda. No man’s life was safe, but Henry of Blois gave sanctuary to the plough. This meant that all who were engaged in agriculture were as safe as the priests at the alter. It meant the difference between life and death to the husbandry, and ensured the country freedom from starvation.
The ship on the Seal represents Henry of Blois sailing into the harbour. Many another seaport town has chosen a ship for its seal, but almost invariably with sails furled. It is thought that the ship with sails fully set is more fitting as a good omen for our town, which by obtaining its Charter, may ride into the open seas of brave adventure and leaving behind many of the difficulties and limitations, find peace and prosperity.‘
This is just a story and it is unlikely to be the origin of the name Gosport. Two more suggestions have been put forward as explained by Philip Eley in his booklet: Another derivation, Goss Port, is based on the gorse or goss that prevailed on the shores of creeks in the area. Finally Goose Port is another possibility. The earliest absolute fact is that a place called Goseport existed it 1241. (God’s Port the Origins of Gosport by Philip Eley)
The second suggested origin of the name, Gorse Port, is dependent upon the idea that the yellow bushes gorse or ‘goss’ growing on the Gosport coast line are the origin of the name, ‘Gossport’. This is problematical as there is no written evidence to support the idea and we do not know how far back in time Gorse was growing on the Gosport peninsula. Yes, Gorse, or Goss, does grow locally now but one argument to counter this idea, true or not, is that the term for the bush locally was not Gorse, but Furze, (Old English Fyrs: Both furze and gorse are words with Anglo-Saxon origins) so we should be ‘Furzeport’ or ‘Fyrsport’? Also Gosport appears to have more ferns than Gorse. We have the yellow plant Broom growing at Stokes Bay and Browndown which from a distance can be misidentified as Gorse. The suggestion of Gorseport for the origin of the name Gosport is not a serious contender.
The third suggestion stems from the known fact that Gosport was a port that held Goose Fairs, going back to the thirteen century. Gosport Historian Philip Eley sums it up writing in ‘The Place Names of Gosport’ :
The name apparently derives from gosa, Old English for goose, and port, Latin portus or harbour, ‘borrowed’ from Portchester, Portsea and Portsmouth. The suggested derivation from gorse is clearly nonsense as gorse is a northern name for what is traditionally called furze in this area. Similarly, ‘God’s Port’ is a nineteenth century romantic invention, but one which has ‘official’ backing in the form of the town crest with its motto of ‘God’s Port our Haven’. God’s Ports, Gorse Port or Goose Port? make your choice.
The only provable fact from written sources was that a place called ‘Goseport’ existed by 1241. A town was planned and laid out on the site before 1243 but no earlier than 1170, which was the year before Henry de Blois died. As to the true origin of the name we may never know.
Gosport, not separately mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) lay within the parish of Alverstoke, which became a separate ‘ liberty ’ since the villagers themselves held the manor under the monks of Winchester Cathedral Priory (1908 Victoria History of the County of Hampshire Vol III).
There are many references to Gosport as a Borough long before 1922.
In 1204 Bishop Godfrey de Lucy granted the Winchester Cathedral Priory the income from ‘all the profit that reasonably results from the newly built town at the haven in the Manor of Alverstoke…. ’ , while reserving to his successors the church and courts (English Episcopal Acta 8: Winchester 1070-1204, 198). The words of the charter are: Totum commodum quod de villa de novo edificata super portum in manerio de Alwarestok’ rationabiliter poterit provenire ; the word ‘villa’ could be translated village or town, but the meaning is obvious.
In a decree of the Court of the Exchequer of 1602 which sought to control the sea passage from Gosport to Portsmouth, Gosport is referred to as a Borough on no less than four occasions. Similarly in the first legislation introduced into Parliament on the 19th May 1761 to deal with the prevention of nuisances, the preamble to the Bill stated, ‘Whereas the town or borough of Gosport, in the parish of Alverstoke, is not only large and populous, but has two Fairs annually and a market kept three times in every week therein, and is a place of great resort‘.
Again in an Act of Parliament of 1809 entitled ‘for the better government of the watermen working on the passage between Gosport, Portsmouth and Portsea’, one of the 50 local worthies who were to form a Commission for putting the Act into effect was ‘the Bishop’s Bailiff for the Borough and manor of Gosport for the time being.’
But these were probably courtesy titles only. There is no evidence of an ancient charter of incorporation. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 re-established the Boroughs with new constitutions and functions and, later in the century, in 1867 and 1882, their new status was defined. Gosport was not one of these new boroughs and for the greater part of the century was governed partly as a manor then as a Local Board of Health and finally as the Alverstoke Local Board. The name gave rise to bitter controversy because although Alverstoke was the local ecclesiastical and civil parish, Gosport by the mid 19th century had become far more populous. On the 8th January 1891 application was made to the Local Government Board to change the name to the Gosport and Alverstoke Local Board.
In 1894, under the Local Government Act of that year, Gosport became the Gosport and Alverstoke Urban District Council. The first meeting was held on Thursday, 3rd January 1895, when 27 councillors from three wards took up their duties.Even before the Urban District Council was established there was some agitation that Gosport, with a population of 23,000, should seek Borough status. On the 13th July 1893, a notice of motion before the Local Board read, ‘That the Clerk be instructed to prepare a return showing the probable cost which would be incurred in obtaining a Charter of Incorporation for Gosport and Alverstoke and to obtain such information as would guide the Board in the event of its being considered desirable to take steps to procure the same.’ There was a lively and at times furious, debate, but in the end the motion was carried by ten votes to six.
The Clerk reported on the 12th October 1893. He outlined the elaborate procedure of the submission of a petition to the Queen in Council, required under the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. The application would need the support of a town’s meeting and possibly a local poll of the inhabitants. The minimum cost would be £250 but if there were objections costs could be doubled or trebled. The Clerk referred to recent applications from Torquay and Bournemouth where there had been local objections and the costs had been very high. The Clerk was thanked for his report and the matter was dropped. This was not without misgivings. Many smaller towns in Hampshire – Romsey, Andover and Basingstoke were boroughs and boasted their civic dignity. Gosport’s population, which was 16,400 in 1851, had risen to 26,000 by 1891 and justified additional status.
There the matter rested until 1905 when the Urban District Council decided at its meeting in February to petition for a Charter of Incorporation. The announcement provoked a furious local storm. There were violent protests. The leader of the opposition was the formidable Admiral Field. He had been the M.P. for South Sussex from 1885 to 1900 and in retirement had settled in Grove House, off Spring Garden Lane. He had won notoriety in the controversy as to whether Alverstoke or Gosport should predominate. The statutory public meeting held in the Thorngate Hall was one of the most rowdy and violent in the town’s history. Amid abuse and threats from the local citizens and assertions that the Council was endeavouring to line its own pockets, the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated.
Fifteen years were to pass before the issue was raised again. Admiral Field died in 1912, the first great war lasted from 1914-1918 and during it Gosport was a busy naval town, bustling with activity. By 1919 all the talk was of reconstruction. The Urban District Council resolved in 1919 to appoint an Incorporation Committee charged with the duty of preparing a petition to the King in Council and of negotiating the new application. This time there was little opposition. The County Council of Hampshire passed a formal resolution which was reported to the Urban District Council on the 17th May 1920, ‘That the Council approve generally of the application for a Charter of Incorporation for the Gosport and Alverstoke Urban District.‘
It was also reported at the same meeting that the Privy Council had appointed Mr. T. R. Dill to hold a public local inquiry in connection with the application. The date suggested was in August 1920 but the local council was in a hurry and it was finally agreed that the inquiry should be held on the 16th July 1920. There was little opposition. The Incorporation Committee submitted a scheme defining the area as the Borough of Gosport and suggesting a Council of 30 members – 8 wards with three members each (Town, Forton, Brockhurst, Elson, Alverstoke, Leesland, Newtown, and Christchurch) and 8 aldermen.
After the inquiry a year passed by, but on the 4th July 1921 a letter was received from the Privy Council asking for minor amendments and stating that the Charter would probably be granted in 1922. The Minutes for the Urban District Council held on 16th May 1922 read, ‘The Chairman reported that a letter had been received from the Privy Council announcing that the King had been pleased at the Council held on the 5th May 1922 to approve the grant of a Municipal Charter to Gosport and Alverstoke and that the Order in Council approving the draft charter had been issued to the Home Office, from which Department the Urban District Council would receive a communication in due course: also that the Council had received the Order of His Majesty in Council in connection with the grant of the said Charter’. When the final reckoning was made it was found that the total cost incurred in obtaining the Charter was £487.18.1d.
At its meeting in September 1922 the Council decided to appoint a sub-committee to improve the Council Chamber and provide a mayor’s parlour. They also agreed to accept a new seal for the Borough prepared by the artist Mr. Martin Snape (who was eventually paid £3.3.0d. for the design) and to make a grant of £300 towards the Mayor’s expenses.
Elections for the new Borough were held and the first meeting of the new authority took place on the 4th November 1922. The first motion was ‘That Mr. J. F. Lee be elected Mayor of the newly constituted borough’. It was also agreed to provide a badge and chain of office for the Mayor. At the second meeting of the Council the following resolution was submitted : ‘That the time has come when the necessary steps should be taken to uphold the dignity of the Borough of Gosport and a Committee should be appointed to deal with the question of proper robes for the Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors and a suitable uniform for the Mace Bearer.‘ But the Council had had enough of ‘upholding dignity’ and the expense incurred. The resolution was turned down flat.
The Gosport Maces
The Gosport Borough Mace is believed to be the only wooden one in the country. It was carved from the mast of H. M. S. Victory and presented to the Council by Charles Pilcher, Esq. A second Mace was presented to the Borough by the Officers and men of H. M. S. Sultan in 1968.
The Gosport Seals
In 1845 at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute, Sir Frederick Madden exhibited a wax impression of what he called the Common Seal of the men of Alwarestoke. This seal was used on all official documents of the Urban District Council of Gosport and Alverstoke until 1922 when the town became a Borough.
In 1606 the silver matrix of the seal was kept with a 13th Century charter granted to the men of Alverstoke (including Gosport, Bury, Brockhurst and Forton) by Andrew de Londonia, Prior of the Covent of St. Swithun. Their right to use a common seal depended on this charter. Since 1606 there is no further record of the matrix, and it is not known what became of it, but Sir Frederick Madden in 1845 thought that it must have been used not long before then to make the wax impression which he held. A very full description of the charter is given by Dr. L. F. W. White in his book ‘The Story of Gosport.’
The Latin inscription round the seal reads:
SIGILL’ COMUNE HOMINUM PRIORIS SCI SWITHUNI DE ALWARESTOKE.
(Each letter N is reversed).
It has been translated ‘This is the Seal of St. Swithun’s belonging to the Tenants of Alverstoke.‘
Opinions differ on whether the seated figure is Saint Swithin or Prior Andrew de Londonia. The book with embossed cover which he is holding is probably the Gospels
Today we have the Gosport emblem in a modern, colourful form.
The liberty of ALVERSTOKE, including GOSPORT, is bounded on the east by the waters of Portsmouth Harbour, and on the south by Spithead. In the south-east of the district, between the inlets called Forton Lake and Haslar Lake, stands the populous town of Gosport, from which the lines of houses extend northward along the Fareham Road and westward to Alverstoke. To the north are the hamlets of Bridgemary, Elson, Hardway, and Brockhurst, and to the east Forton, now rapidly becoming indistinguishable from Gosport itself.
ALVERSTOKE was among the possessions of the Old Minster or priory of St. Swithun, Winchester, in Saxon times. It is said to have been bestowed on the minster by a noble Saxon lady, Alwara, for the soul of her husband Leowin. In 1086 the bishop of Winchester held it for the support of the monks of St. Swithun, to whom it was confirmed by the pope in 1205, and again in 1243; but in 1284, a critical year in the continuous dispute which had been maintained for some centuries between the bishop and the monastery, the manor of Alverstoke with Gosport was transferred to the bishop with two other manors in return for certain important concessions relating to the appointment of obedientiaries and secular servants. In June, 1284, the king confirmed to the bishop the manors which he had thus acquired from the priory, and a second confirmation of the agreement was issued in the following May. The successive bishops of Winchester retained the manor until, under the Act of 1641 confiscating all episcopal lands, it was seized by the state and sold in 1648 to George Wither, who was noted early in his life for his lyrics, and later for pamphlets in support of Cromwell’s government. At the Restoration the bishops regained their lands, and Alverstoke remained a possession of the see of Winchester until it was taken over by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
BEDENHAM (Bedeham, xiii cent.; Badeham, xiv cent.; Bednam, xvi cent.) gives its name to three farms which lie on a broad peninsula to the north of Gosport, at the head of Portsmouth Harbour, where it is joined by the estuary of the Wallington River. Here as elsewhere in the parish the land is level and the chief feature is the wide expanse of the harbour, with Portchester Castle as its most conspicuous landmark. Beyond Bedenham Farm are the Foxbury Brick and Tile Works.
Bedenham was evidently originally parcel of the manor of Alverstoke, but was held in 1303 by John de Drokensford, Keeper of the Wardrobe, who was consecrated bishop of Bath and Wells in 1308. The manor of Bedenham was held of the bishop of Winchester, and is possibly identical with the half hide at Alverstoke held before the Conquest by Sawin and in 1086 by a certain knight.
GOSPORT (Goseport xiii cent.) covers the district between Forton Lake and Haslar Lake, i.e. the land for which the villeins of St. Swithun paid twopence more the acre than they paid for the rest of the manor. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, nor is there any trace of it in the records relating to Alverstoke before the thirteenth century. In 1284 it was ‘the manor of Alverstoke with Gosport,’ which the monks transferred to the bishop of Winchester, and doubtless before that time Gosport had only existed as a member of Alverstoke, being perhaps the more important on account of its situation at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. In the following century Gosport rather than Alverstoke was the centre of the shipping on the west side of the harbour, for in 1302 Portsmouth and Gosport together were ordered to provide a vessel for the Scotch expedition. The bishop held separate courts for Alverstoke and Gosport in the thirteenth century, but the profits of both were accounted for by the same two men.
(Taken from A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.)
The Old and New Seals by Jesse F.Lee
The Beginning of the Borough of Gosport: Gosport Records No.4
God’s Port the Origins of Gosport by Philip Eley
The Place Names of Gosport by Philip Eley
A History of Portsmouth Henry Slight
The Story of Gosport Dr. L.F.White
A History of the County of Hampshire Volume 3
Article in Hampshire Telegraph October 14 1811
Gosport Characterisation Report. Sept2014.doc 29/09/14 20 Oxford Archaeology
All photos and drawings come from the archive of the Webmaster