A brief history of Castletown

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  • Posted on: 4 August 2015
  • By: patrick

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Castletown - a brief history

Although many of Portland's villages developed around natural water springs or ponds, Castletown village is notably different, and developed during the 19th-century. The beach at Castletown was traditionally used by the local fishing industry. During the 16th-century, Henry VII selected Castletown area for the building of one of his Device Forts, Portland Castle. Having been completed in 1539, the castle played an important role in defending Portland Harbour, and was in military use until the 20th-century. Castletown later became an essential part of the horse drawn and cable operated incline railway Merchant's Railway, which was operational from 1826 to 1939. At a time when transporting stone by sea was the only available option, the railway allowed the transport of stone from working quarries at Tophill to reach Castletown's pier for shipping. 

During the early 19th-century Castletown was still only a small settlement, and aside from the castle and piers, there were only a few residential properties. One of the first commercial enterprises to be placed at Castletown was The Jolly Sailor pub, in 1775, as well as a hotel. Both enterprises attracted the custom of passing naval and merchantmen. In 1798, Thomas Ayles established a shipbuilding company within the village. The creation of a harbour of refuge at Portland had been proposed in 1794, however it wasn't until 1844 when parliament gave the green-light for the scheme. The large population increase that occurred during the 1840s and onwards was directly due to the construction of Portland Harbour's Breakwaters from 1848, and the other associated government works and defences. By the middle of the 19th-century, Castletown's was beginning to dramatically change in character, due to the construction of a harbour of refuge, naval activities and the connection of the railway to Castletown.

A one-sided terrace had been formed by 1864, and along this frontage a number of businesses and residential properties were established, including a custom house, coal merchant, chandler, barbers, post office, along with various hotels and pubs. These included the Royal Breakwater Hotel, Portland Roads Hotel, The Green Shutters and Sailor's Return. The business gained from labourers on the breakwater, and the naval personnel, was supplemented by tourists who wished to see the progressing work. As such Castletown pier underwent expansion to allow paddle steamers to berth and land passengers. Although the fishing industry continued to operate from Castletown's beach, the increasing naval presence and its activities saw fishing decline within this area of Portland. Due to it being the gateway to the naval base, Castletown became a thriving commercial area for the various businesses that had set themselves up there. However the large number of pubs also meant that Castletown's constant stream of rowdiness and violence from sailors, gained it a reputation, with the long terrace often being referred to as "Drunkards' Row".

With the outbreak of World War II, Portland was a natural target for German aircraft, due to the importance of island's naval base. Between 1940 and 1944, the island was the target of 48 air attacks, in which 532 bombs were dropped, with Castletown receiving various attacks aimed at the harbour. The installation of various light anti-aircraft guns within and around Castletown aimed to combat this. In 1944 Portland's harbour was commissioned as USNAAB Portland-Weymouth. The harbour was a major embarkation point for American troops during D-Day. As such many soldiers and vehicles passed through the village area. 

In 1993, as part of defence spending cuts, the closure was announced of the naval base at Portland. It was forecast that the departure of the Royal Navy would bring economical disaster to Castletown. With the withdrawal of the navy in 1995, Castletown lost the majority of its income and has since suffered from this, with the gradual loss of a number of businesses. Castletown managed to partially recover through the transformation towards recreational purposes, namely diving, due to the close distance to Portland Harbour. However as of 2014, no diving shops remain active within the village. This has caused a further recession within the village, as the remaining businesses have lost income from the diving trade.