There’s a popular perception of Portsmouth as a monocultural, jingoistic and reactionary city. Taking a very different angle, University of Portsmouth lecturer and foreign affairs commentator Tom Sykes discusses Portsmouth’s role as a global city with social and cultural connections to almost every other part of the world. This article is based on a lecture Tom delivered as part of the nationwide Being Human festival last year.
A few sunny Saturdays ago, I was having a beer with friends in the garden of a laid-back Albert Road pub. To the left of us was a lively group of heavy-set and mostly bald men. All were dressed in black, some wore jackboots in addition. When they’d finished their pints of pissy lager they put on black masks and lined up for a group photograph. ‘Fuck the immigrants!’ they chanted several times before piling outside to, no doubt, repeat this hate crime somewhere else.
When I tell friends from outside Portsmouth about this incident, they tend to smile dourly and say, ‘Well that’s Portsmouth, what do you expect?’ They have a point, as nastiness of this type has been oozing out of our city for a long time. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists would descend here to spread racial hatred, although they’d often be challenged by thousands of protesters. More lately, their political descendants – the EDL, BNP, Pie and Mash Squad, Hitler-loving publicans, Islamo- and homophobic football coaches – have hit the headlines a little too frequently for comfort.
Our elected leaders – from the mainstream “respectable” parties – appear to fan the flames of such bigotry rather than pour sand on them. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt was recently accused of lying and ‘dog whistle politics’ when she claimed that EU member states have no veto over Turkey joining the EU and that such an eventuality would make Britain vulnerable to foreign criminals and terrorists. During last winter’s European refugee crisis, Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, declared the city closed to her fellow human beings desperately fleeing war, penury and persecution.
All of which implies that tolerance and diversity aren’t Portsmouth’s strong suits. But there is a different story about our city not often enough told. It’s a story of highly successful immigration, integration, assimilation and exchange.
Throughout the industrial era, Portsmouth’s role as a sea port guaranteed ethnic and cultural diversity. The 1851 census shows that the Irish – most of whom were skilled dock labourers – were then the largest minority in the city. They worked alongside so many Russians, North Africans and Southern Europeans that the historian James H Thomas speculates that rarely would you have heard English being spoken during those times at the dockyard – that most potent symbol of English economic and imperial power.
Today, the 270-year-old graveyard on Fawcett Road is the only obvious trace of Portsmouth’s oldest and arguably most influential ethnic minority: the Jews. In 1749, the Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation was founded, followed by the building in 1780 of the synagogue at White’s Row (now Curzon Howe Road). During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), large numbers of Jewish businesspeople came to Portsmouth to lend money and sell clothes, watches, jewellery and silver trinkets to soldiers and sailors. By the end of the wars, Portsmouth was home to one of the four major British-Jewish populations outside of London.
Compared to other parts of the UK, Portsmouth was sympathetic to the struggle for Jewish civil and political rights of the early 1800s. Leading gentiles accepted invites to dine at the Hebrew Benevolent Institution and, by 1841, Portsmouth had elected its first Jewish councillor. There were three more by the end of the decade. To this day, four Lord Mayors of Portsmouth have been Jews: Emmanuel Emmanuel (1866-7), Abraham Leon Emmanuel (1894 & 1901), Harry Sotnick (1963) and Richard E Sotnick (1978). The former two were not related; the latter two were father and son. For more detail on the compelling history of Portsmouth Jewry please see Dr Audrey Weinberg’s two-part essay here.
Some people believe that the first significant Polish community in Britain was established after EU freedom of movement policies were relaxed in 2004. In truth, it happened in Portsmouth two centuries before. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers fled Russia after their plot to overthrow the then Tsar was foiled. They came to Portsmouth where the residents not only welcomed them but raised money to pay for their food and shelter. As a contemporary journalist noted, ‘Not the rich and great alone have contributed, but perhaps many a hard-earned shilling has been dropped into the subscription boxes by the artisan or labourer.’
After World War II, Portsmouth’s three major ethnic minority groups were Hong Kong Chinese, Indian and East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi). The Chinese population spiked in the 1950s when a growing demand amongst sailors for Chinese food prompted the opening of dozens of new restaurants in the Portsmouth area.
According to the 2011 census, 205,400 people live in Portsmouth. Council figures from 2014 show that 16% of the city’s population is BME (Black Minority and Ethnic). The largest BME communities are Bangladeshi (1.8% of residents), African and Indian (both 1.4%). Other notable groups – presented here in order of size – are Chinese, mixed white and Asian, white and black Caribbean, and Arab.
Over 100 languages can now be heard around Portsmouth, with Polish the most commonly spoken non-English tongue (1,914 speakers or 1% of the city population). 1,517 residents speak Bengali (including Sylheti and Chatgaya), 1,180 Chinese languages other than Mandarin and 979 Arabic.
The headline here – and a happier one than the hateful headlines above – is that Portsmouth’s BME population doubled between 2001 and 2011.
This article was originally published here.