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History of Gunwharf Quays


The site has enormous history! In the 12th century, Richard I first started construction in the area, developing a dock for Royal Galleys. By the 1500s, it had become the site of Portsmouth’s defenses, and by the late 17th century, its stature had grown further, when Gunwharf was established as a main ordnance yard, storing weapons for the navy and for the army to help fortify Portsmouth. The Ordnance Board was disbanded in 1855, and, as ships and armaments developed, the requirement to offload the armament diminished, and the Gunwharf fell into disuse.

The site was re-established as HMS Vernon when the site was taken over by the Navy in 1923. It continued as a naval base, specialising in mine warfare, until it was decommissioned in 1986. All mine divers were trained here, and the site was integral in D-Day preparations.


After HMS Vernon was no longer needed by the Navy, the Ministry of Defense sold off the redundant land, to release monies for reinvestment in other areas of defense expenditure. Portsmouth City Council were keen that the land was used to build and grow the prosperity of the city. Their goal being to regenerate a derelict City Centre site, to open up the waterfront for public use, to create jobs, to improve the attractiveness of the City and therefore increase visitor numbers, and to attract further inward investment.

The development was not straightforward! Funded by VF (South African company who built a shopping marina concept successfully in Cape Town) and Berkeley Homes, the area was declared a conservation area in 1992, and the site offered huge challenges above and beyond the norm due to it’s location and its previous use.



  • Gunwharf Quays has its own on-site recycling centre, and over the last three years has increased its combined recycling and reuse performance from 48% to 80%.
  • Gunwharf Quays has one of the largest arrays of solar panels on a shopping centre in Europe, which are used to power the car park.
  • As the site is open 24 hours a day, the site is constantly manned, even on Christmas Day
  • The site contains 4 Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Only 2% of listed buildings fall into this category, so to have 4 on site is exceptional.
  • The canals on site are filled with salt water, and represent the last remaining piece of the marshlands from pre-1770.
  • 76 unexploded ordnances were discovered when the site was being built
  • 7 acres of foreshore were reclaimed to build the centre
  • When it was first built, Gunwharf Quays was the largest man made marine deck in Europe
  • Rumour has it that Nelson marched through Vernon Gate on his way to the Battle of Trafalgar
  • The world’s largest single masted yacht has stayed in our Leisure Marina
  • The site was one of several naval bases used for the D-Day preparations, with units based at Gunwharf responsible for carrying 3rd British Division to Sword Beach on D-Day.
  • HMS Vernon was the centre for development and training of torpedoes and torpedo men, becoming famous for its clearance diving team and Deep-diving Trials Unit, hence the deep water and the canals on site.  You can now see the Vernon monument that commemorates the heritage of the site in the canal close to the Solent Forts office.

Relevance of Avenue Names at Gunwharf Quays

Mercator Avenue

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1595) published one of the earliest maps of the world in 1569. He lived and taught in Duisberg, Germany, one of Portsmouth's twin cities, for more than 40 years. The "Mercator Projection" is used for Ordnance Survey maps today.

Sirius Avenue

HMS Sirius was the lead ship in the first fleet of ships taking English convicts to Botany Bay, Australia.  She sailed from Portsmouth in 1787; her captain was Arthur Phillip.

Phillip Avenue

Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) was the Captain of HMS Sirius as above.  He founded the colony of New South Wales which eventually became the nation of Australia.

Togo Avenue

The young Japanese Togo lived in Britain for seven years from 1871 learning seamanship from the Royal Navy. He studied on board the Worcester, a civilian private school, circumnavigated the globe on the Hampshire and studied in Cambridge before living in Portsmouth.  So great was his affection for Britain that he donated his 1905 battle flag to the Worcester when he attended the 1911 Coronation of George V as a representative of Japan.  Admiral Togo is sometimes called the Nelson of the East because of his success as a Commander and his connection to Britain. His message before the battle of Tsushima, almost exactly 100 years after Trafalgar, echoes Nelson's famous "England expects…" message: "The fate of the Empire depends upon this event. Let every man do his utmost."

Vernon Avenue

The site of Gunwharf Quays was formally known as HMS Vernon when it was taken over by the Navy in 1923.  It continued as a Naval base, specialising in mine warfare, until it was decommissioned in 1986. All mine divers were trained here, and the site was integral in D-Day preparations.

Marlborough Avenue/Square

HMS Marlborough was a three deck, 120 gun hulk added to the floating torpedo establishment HMS Vernon in 1878.  When Vernon came ashore here at Gunwharf, her poop deck and rails were built into Ariadne Wardroom dining room.  This deck is now installed at HMS Collingwood, Gosport.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Gunwharf Quays, Michael Underwood’s book is available from Guest Services, at an exclusive price of £5, saving £7.99 on the retail price.