The building that now houses Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery has a history as rich and fascinating as many of the displays contained within. The site was developed into barracks more than 250 years ago, and in that time it has been bombed, added to, taken from, and a whole lot more. Here’s the definitive history of this beautiful and historic building.
In the 17th century, Portsmouth underwent extensive fortification, to protect the city – and Britain at large – from attack by seaborne forces. Much of the work across Portsmouth (as well as Plymouth, Medway and Harwich, among others) was overseen by the Dutch military engineer Bernard de Gomme. This work saw defensive lines built around Old Portsmouth, the Dockyard and across to Gosport.
In 1760, almost 100 years after these initial fortifications were developed, a numbers of barracks were built across Portsmouth. Among them was the Fourhouse Barracks on what was then an unused plot of land behind St. Nicholas Street in Old Portsmouth. The name is thought to have come from the Queen’s four brewhouses, which were also on site.
The barracks were decidedly well equipped, with Lake Allen’s 1817 book ‘The History of Portsmouth’ declaring: “The barracks… are so commodious as to be able to accommodate upwards of 1,000 men, with every convenience for them and their officers.”
The Fourhouse name didn’t stick for long, as the site was to be renamed in 1827 to the Clarence Barracks, following a visit from the Duke of Clarence – William IV. The Lord High Admiral, as he was at the time, would shortly go on to become King (the eldest yet to ever take the throne).
In 1893 the site was to change once again, with the development of a huge parade ground to the south of Clarence Barracks and the creation of new officers’ quarters (which will become very important later on in our story). These new additions were built using convict labour, with the unfortunate souls undertaking the job being marched through Portsea. However, the Portsmouth residents took pity on them, and many dropped sweets and small packets of tobacco for the men.
As it happens, one worker who was treated so well asked to stay on after his sentence had expired, so he could complete the heraldic carvings that he was working on.
By 1911 the site was home to over 6,000 men – thanks also to the creation of the Cambridge Barracks just alongside, which is now the site of Portsmouth Grammar School.
Some of the barracks were occupied by a regiment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, with the regimental HQ having been in the city since 1869. The KOSB occupied the barracks until 1939, at which point they were passed on to the Royal Navy.
It wasn’t long after the conclusion of World War II that Clarence Barracks were to change again – in both name and usage. In March 1948 the site was transformed for use by the Women’s Royal Navy and, in turn, re-named the Duchess of Kent Barracks – after the Commandant of the Service during that time.
Again, this transformation was short-lived, with the barracks being decommissioned in the early 1960s. By 1967 many of the on-site buildings were demolished – save for the aforementioned officers’ quarters. It was this building that Portsmouth City Council acquired in 1972, and the one that would go on to become what we know today as Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery.