Portsmouth History Centre

portsmouth guildhall image courtesy of Tim Sheerman-Chase

A major collection of records of all sorts on Portsmouth, its naval and civilian history and special collections on Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as material on other writers connected with the city, such as Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and H G Wells.
Situated on the second floor of Portsmouth Central Library, Guildhall Square, Portsmouth PO1 2DX , telephone: 023 9268 8046.
Postal enquiries submitted on a website pro forma are answered free of charge for work up to half-an-hour and for a fee up to three hours.
The Portsmouth History Centre is not subscribing to the forthcoming ARA archives card, but has its own card, available on presentation of suitable documentation and enabling use of all resources.

Guides available in hard copy or as downloadable pdfs include:

● The Portsmouth Encyclopedia, compiled by Alan King, a history of the places and people of the city, as well as an index to streets
● A guide  to  tracing the history of houses and other buildings in Portsmouth
● An A-Z guide to parish registers for Anglican, Catholic and non-conformist churches in the city, with date ranges

Archive collections

The archive collections comprise the official records of Portsmouth City Council from the 14th century to the present day. Other records include local church registers and records from the 16th century and material deposited by local businesses, families and other organisations There are also local maps and plans, photographs and picture postcards.
Local history collection

The local history collection comprises 20,000 books and other items relating to Portsmouth, such as directories, electoral rolls, council minutes, maps, newspapers and photographs.
The websites Ancestry and Findmypast can be visited free of charge, with regular ‘drop in’ sessions for new users of family tree sources online.  Microfiche or microfilm copies of some BMD, probate and census record are also available. Some of the parish records for the Diocese of Portsmouth have been indexed by name on card. Computer indexes of cemetery burials are also available.

Naval collection

Portsmouth’s naval collection is the largest in any public library in Great Britain.
There are 15,000 books covering the Royal Navy throughout history, and some navies from other parts of the world, including the USA. It contains the Lily Lambert McCarthy collection, which is mainly concerned with Nelson and his era.
It also includes 2,000 indexed photographs of ships pamphlets and ephemera, naval and maritime periodicals, such as Navy News from 1954 and Brassey’s Naval Annual.

Oral history collection

Portsmouth Museums hold a searchable collection of more than 1,670 interviews which are also accessible at the History Centre. It covers a wide variety of subjects connected to Portsmouth, including: the city at war, D-Day, Portsmouth Royal Dockyard, districts of the city, ferry workers, corset workers, ethnic minorities, rock and pop musicians, and much else.

Charles Dickens collection

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was born in Portsmouth in the house which is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum (5.4.5a9). A collection of 1,500 books and 100 reels of microfilm can be viewed by appointment.
The core of the collection comprises various editions of Dickens’s novels, some of the monthly magazines in which many were first published as serials, individual editions and sets of novels by his principal publishers and others.
Also on display are the main periodicals to which he contributed, Household Words and All the Year Round, along with plays, poems and letters.
There are also many critical studies, biographies and books about Dickens and places associated with him, notably in London and Kent.

Arthur Conan Doyle collection

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) as a young general practitioner lived and worked in Portsmouth for eight years, and wrote the first Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson story here.
The collection contains many papers, magazines and photographs relating to the writer and his family. It is currently being catalogued.  A selection of 1,000 books (about 9% of the book collection) are on open access, and most of others can be seen by arrangement. They include works on spiritualism, other fictional detectives and foreign language editions.
Portsmouth City Museum has a permanent exhibition on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, with interactive displays narrated by Stephen Fry, the collection’s patron.
The Conan Doyle Collection was bequeathed to Portsmouth City Council in 2004 by Richard Lancelyn Green, who was born in 1954 in Bebington, Cheshire. His father was a renowned author of popular adaptations of traditional myths and legends; his mother was well known in dramatic circles. He read English at Oxford. He devoted his life to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and became one of the leading experts in the field. His huge collection included first editions of books, related letters, film and television memorabilia, merchandising and paraphernalia.
Amongst his own publications was the definitive Conan Doyle bibliography and the Letters to Sherlock Holmes, a compilation of correspondence sent from all over the world to Holmes, c/o 221b Baker Street (even though this iconic address, unbeknown to those who wrote, was long the headquarters of the Abbey National Building Society in London). Green even recreated Holmes’ study in his attic. His other works included Uncollected Stories, Essays on Photography and Letters to the Press (with John Gibson), The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes and The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – a selected collection of pastiches and parodies on the Sherlock Holmes stories.
He was Chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London 1996-99, was well respected and liked for his sense of humour and generosity to other scholars, and was admired for his huge collection and encyclopaedic knowledge. He died in 2004 at the early age of 50. When researching Conan Doyle, he was often helped by staff at the city’s Central Library and in his will he left his collection to the City of Portsmouth, with the proviso that it should be available for all to enjoy.

Keeping Portsmouth’s Records – 70 years of progress
In the 1950s, Portsmouth was one of those few corporations whose archives were still virtually unknown to historians, although a local interest was already at work. One of the most active individuals was a young man in his twenties, who owned a newsagent’s shop in Portchester, Chairman of the Museums Society, who was to enter local government and play a major role in supporting and promoting archives in the city, and more broadly in the county. This was F.A.J (‘Freddie’) Emery-Wallis (1927-2017).

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