A Personal View Of Portland

Portland is an odd place. I say that with the hope that I’m not offending hordes of Portlanders, but it really is quite different to the mainland. It’s difficult to say why. There is a distinct lack of trees and an awful lot of bare rock and boulders. In many ways it is like a Dr Who set. The houses are fairly uniformly made of Portland stone, and it’s often difficult to say whether you are looking at a house which is three or three hundred years old. The roads seem too wide, there are equally wide pavements, usually raised a couple of feet above the road. There are still vacant plots, still the odd bombsite and all over the place old quarries.

The people are also different. But there again that may not be surprising. For centuries Portland was an island in every sense of the word. The only connection to the land being Chesil Beach and that was something you couldn’t really walk along. The island was very proud of its isolation. It has a number of very strange/quaint/peculiar/unique traditions

Portland is a lump of limestone, steep sides but flat on top, roughly lozenge shaped, about 8 miles by four. The limestone is excellent building stone, hence the quarries. St Paul’s Cathedral is only one of numerous major public buildings throughout England built of Portland Stone. The quarry industry has given rise to one of the oddest traditions. On Portland there is one word you do not use, it being considered incredible bad luck. I understand that they are alluded to as ‘them tha furry things’. I’m told that their tunnelling made the quarry faces unstable and caused rock falls. If a quarry worker would see one on his way to work, he would turn round and go home. I know this tradition is still alive and well, as a couple of old ladies recently told off the chap tidying up St George’s graveyard for using the ra**it word as I was chatting to him.

Chesil Beach is a spit of shingle, which joins Portland to the mainland in a great sweep extending along the Dorset coast from just west of Weymouth, past Abbotsbury and finally ending up at Bridport. Strictly speaking it is a tombola (a spit joining an island to the mainland). The curious thing about the shingle is that the pebbles are graduated, being larger at the Portland end. It is said that Portland smugglers landing in the dead of night could tell exactly where they were by the size of the shingle.

Chesil Beach traps a freshwater lagoon between it and the shore, known as the Fleet, haven for yachtsmen and wild fowl. At the Portland end of Chesil Beach a second freshwater lagoon, known as the Meare, was filled up and became the Portland naval air station. Chesil Beach, Portland and Weymouth form three sides of what is the largest natural harbour in Britain and consequently adopted by the Royal Navy. A breakwater around the fourth side was constructed by Brunel in the nineteenth century.

It was only in the 1839 that a bridge was constructed from the mainland to Portland, until that time the only practical access to the island was by ferry. Fiercely proud of it isolation Portlanders have a number of traditions, one of which was the not uncommon habit of marrying within the island. Leaving aside the question of interbreeding (since that obviously includes my mum), there are a small number of traditional surnames on the island, the main ones being Pearce, Stone, Comben, Attwool and Otter. Other frequent names include White, Flew, Lano and Winter. St George’s graveyard (parish church from 1766 to 1917) includes some 2,500 stones, and the above names crop up with tedious regularity. Sometimes names are combined such as Winter Otter and Flew Otter.

A very ancient tradition, which I think is unique in Britain, is the practice of marriage on pregnancy. Couples did not marry until the girl became pregnant. If after an unspecified amount of time, no pregnancy was evident a couple would separate, no blemish on the honour of either of them, the girl still being considered ‘virginal’. If the man should not do the proper thing on pregnancy, he would be stoned off the island. Wesley visited Portland in the 1746 and the islanders adopted Methodism with some fervour (eg Hiram who has Hallelujah Bay named after him). Wesley however was dismayed by this practice and preached against it. This and the coming of the navy in the nineteenth century presumably saw an end to the custom, although illegitimacy (such as my grandfather) appears not uncommon and indeed there were a few unplanned pregnancies following the establishment of an American base on the island in the run up to D Day.

Another practice, which was again very unusual, was for women to be able to hold land and property in their own name (see William Otter’s will). The latter also shows that property seems to have been split up evenly amongst children, rather than just going to the eldest son. The downside was that this hastened the division of property and the break-up of estates. Note my great grandfather (Hiram) inherited quarter of a wharf and half a crane!

Farming practice was odd too. Much of Portland was common land, managed by the court leet. Presumably it was protected from the Enclosure Act by its Royal status. The court leet has generated lots of useful records and Otters appear from time to time, not only as court officials, but also for encroaching onto the common. Private land was held in the medieval fashion of strip lynchets, some of which I understand still survive to this day. Surely this must be unique! The Tithe map of Portland shows the Otters hold long, thin strips all over the place.

Stone quarrying was the major industry, followed by agriculture (sheep farming, the Portland breed still being regarding as one of the best) and fishing. The Portlanders had there own type of fishing boat, a three or four oared rowing boat called a lerrett, apparently capable of great speed and manoeuvrability. The latter was especially useful in outrunning the revenue cutters, Portland being a major centre for smuggling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Quarter Sessions for Dorset from 1817 to 1845 record at least 134 Portlanders prosecuted for smuggling. Names such as White, Pearce, Comben and Attwooll abound, but only one Otter, Thomas who was fined £100 in 1817 and again in 1820. Whether Otters were more law abiding, or just better at it I couldn’t say. With fines of £100 or more clearly smuggling was quite profitable! Incidentally Portland convictions were more than three times the number of convictions of any other single parish in Dorset!!!

The other industry was salvage. Chesil Beach is a regular source of shipwrecks, from lowly fishing smacks to Spanish treasure galleons. The stories of heroic rescues by Portlanders are manifold, but the Portlanders did pretty well out of it too. Many of the timbers of the houses came from shipwrecks and the cargoes tended to disappear pretty quickly too.

Portland’s status gave the inhabitants protection immunity against the press gang. In a famous incident in 1803 George Wolf, Captain of the frigate L’Aigle attempted to round up some ‘recruits’. This did not go down well and several Portlanders were able to produce muskets ‘salvaged’ from a recent military transport wreck and a pitch battle ensued. Four islanders were killed and several wounded, together with nine marines. The local coroner recorded a verdict of wilful murder and Captain Wolf, three officers and 10 marines were indicted for murder at Dorchester assizes. They were however found not guilty to the disgust of the islanders. William Lano’s gravestone records his ‘murder’ by the press gang in a wonderful statement of Portlander arrogance against the establishment. Mary Way’s stone is similarly commemorated, but I haven’t got a photo unfortunately

More recently, Portland had a pretty eventful Second World War. As a naval base the Germans bombed it almost continuously. My grandfather Percy Clarence Otter, was caught out in the open during one raid in July 1940. The story goes that he was deaf. He and other dockyard workers were sheltering from a raid when the ‘all clear’ sounded. As they emerged one bomber turned back. "Look out" went up the shout and the last anyone ever saw of Percy was him standing there going "pardon". The story of HMS Foylebank is famous so I won’t repeat it here. At the RN naval base were a string of oil tanks. Apparently the Germans had competions to see who could hit them. To their frustration they never did. Portland was a major base for the D Day preparations. In the run up there were numerous exercises, including HMS Tiger a little to the west. Much of the evidence of this is now on the seabed. The seabed is scattered with ‘amphibious’ tanks, the odd LST, not to mention loads of bits of Messchersmitt, Heinkel, Stuka, Spitfire and Hurricane from the earlier days.

Percy Clarence, by the way, married Irene Smale, daughter of Frank Smale of Weymouth. He was a senior officer in the Salvation Army, echoes of Hiram perhaps.

It was thanks to the presence of the Royal Navy that my dad Raymond Terrence Housby RN (Leading Sea) rtd met my mum Shirley Frances Otter (Portland carnival princess) rtd. Married at Easton and reception held at Pennsylvania Castle in 1954. For any Americans dropping into this site. Pennsylvania Castle is the former residence of William Penn, Governor of the island and also founded the colony of Pennsylvania! The naval base and air station are no longer there, being closed a few years ago.

My mum moved off the island, settling eventually in dad’s hometown of Leicester. Of mum’s two brothers, Geoff now lives on the mainland, but Chris, after several years in Cambridge has moved back to the island and is now a stonemason. There are still plenty of other Otters living on Portland, all of whom are related, all originating from the very first Portland Otter who moved over from the mainland in the 1740s.