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Portsmouth’s 8 twin towns/sister-links and the story behind them

PUBLISHED: 14:44 21 January 2019

Portsmouth Dockyard in all its glory (Photo: LA(PHOT) Paul A'Barrow)

Portsmouth Dockyard in all its glory (Photo: LA(PHOT) Paul A'Barrow)

Crown Copyright

What is a twin town and how did they come about? We take a look at Portsmouth’s international connections

“Forming, or being one of, a closely related or associated pair, esp. of children or animals born at birth.” So, my dictionary defines ‘twin’ for me. ‘Twin-towns’ meanwhile are, “two towns (usu. in different countries) establishing special links.”

I was interested in the fact that Portsmouth is either twinned or has ‘sister-links’ with a total of eight other towns and cities. Why, and why these eight? Is it significant that the two twin towns come from European countries that fought WW2? Well, almost certainly it is. When you consider that WW2 cost a conservative estimate of 60 million lives, you can understand why there was a move to foster friendship and understanding between nations in its aftermath. The modern concept of ‘twinning’ was launched into this brave new world in 1947.

Portsmouth itself had suffered during WW2. Considered the world’s greatest naval port at the turn of the 20th century, it was inevitable that the city would be targeted. Over 60 air raids resulted in close on 1,000 deaths, thousands of homes destroyed, and the historic Guildhall burnt out. As twinning got underway after the war, Portsmouth looked to rebuild itself, as did Duisburg in Germany.

Duisburg became Portsmouth’s first twin town in 1950 and this match-up between former enemies showed the desire for reconciliation in the immediate post-war world. A major industrial and logistical centre in the Ruhr, Duisburg had been a target for Allied bombers, with some historians claiming it was the most heavily bombed of all German cities, with some 300 raids destroying or damaging 80% of the housing stock. Almost the whole city would need rebuilding. This was just the second Anglo-German twinning, which has seen some 70,000 people participate in exchange visits.

Caen may not have been twinned with Portsmouth until 1987, but it was another eminently understandable union after the cities’ shared experience of WW2. Caen was liberated during the Battle of Normandy, following D-Day, but at a cost, as the city had to be wrenched from the Nazis. Intensive bombing destroyed 70% of the city and left around 2,000 French citizens dead. The Portsmouth to Caen ferry service provided a direct connection between the cities and the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth visits Caen each June for D-Day wreath-laying ceremonies.

‘Twinning’ can be a tale of semantics. The name ‘Twin Town’ is usually reserved for links with towns and cities in France and Germany and is very much a reaffirmation of the shared trauma of WW2 and a collective desire to live together in peace, both now, and in the future. ‘Sister city’, meanwhile, is commonly used for twin towns that lie elsewhere, such as the USA. Portsmouth has six of these (Haifa, Maizuru, Portsmouth New Hampshire, Portsmouth Rhode Island, Portsmouth Virginia and Sydney).

Portsmouth’s twinning has its foundations not only in a shared experience of the most-costly war ever fought, but also in its maritime traditions and commonality with other major port cities. A port city is, after all, a place where histories and cultures collide. Portsmouth has been a significant naval port for centuries, a first line of defence, part of this sceptered isle’s ‘moat defensive’ (Shakespeare: ‘King Richard II’), the world’s most heavily fortified town and the site of its oldest dry dock. It’s also been our embarkation point in moments of national crisis from Henry V and Agincourt, through to the wars of more recent times, including D-Day and the Falklands Task Force. Today, the port is the second-busiest in the UK, handling some 3,000,000 passengers a year.

Shrine of the Báb and Bahá’í gardens on Mount Carmel, Haifa (Photo by Zvi Roger)Shrine of the Báb and Bahá’í gardens on Mount Carmel, Haifa (Photo by Zvi Roger)

Haifa, in Israel, was the second overseas city to link with Portsmouth, after Duisburg, in 1963 and is aptly a major sea port. There was another close tie as many Israeli personnel were based in and around Portsmouth, whilst on courses in naval establishments. In 1994, Haifa’s Deputy Mayor attended celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of Portsmouth being granted its Royal Charter, by King Richard I (the ‘Lionheart’).

Maizuru is another port city, on Japan’s main island of Honshu, which was twinned with Portsmouth in 1993, the year in which bricks from the latter’s Historic Dockyard made their way to Maizuru’s ‘World Brick Museum’. The museum is housed in Japan’s oldest steel-framed brick building, which was built in 1903 as a torpedo warehouse by the Navy. From bricks to blooms: the Japanese Garden, in Southsea, was designed by gardeners from Maizuru, and opened in 2000. It includes a replica of Mount Fuji (not life-size) and a water feature with islands; a little bit of Honshu in Hampshire.

Portsmouth, Virginia was named after our own city, thanks to local boy John Wood, a mariner and shipbuilder, who first appreciated its potential as a shipbuilding site, in 1620. The two cities have gone on to share a strong naval tradition and were twinned in 1982. In 2001, the Mayor of the American city visited England for Portsmouth’s ‘International Festival of the Sea’, whilst the following year, there was reciprocation in the air, when our own Lord Mayor travelled to America, for Portsmouth’s 250th anniversary celebrations. Two Portsmouths have now grown to four, with Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1997) and Portsmouth, Rhode Island (2013) added into what is styled ‘The Portsmouth Atlantic Compact’, an agreement between the four municipalities to develop closer ties and enhance economic, educational and cultural opportunities for the citizens of all four places. Not only do the four Portsmouths share the Atlantic coastline, they also have historic, maritime and cultural ties.

Twinning with the city of Sydney was logical as the first colonial ships to head out to Sydney, had departed these islands, from Portsmouth, in May 1787. The so-called ‘First Fleet’ of eleven ships had set out with nearly 1,500 men, women and children aboard, mostly, but not exclusively British. These convict ships arrived at Botany Bay on 24th January 1788. The twinning was established in 1984, in time for the bicentennial anniversary. At the Sally Port in Portsmouth, there is a monument comprising two anchor chain links commemorating the sailing of the ‘First Fleet’ from Spithead. As the plaque states, ‘A Great Nation was Born’. Sydney has an identical memorial.

As well as its twin towns/sister cities, Portsmouth has ‘Friendship Links’ with four other communities around the globe, including three cities in China. A ‘Friendship Link’ tends to denote a relationship with a more limited scope than you would get with a twin town.

Sadly, not everything is well with the world today, so perhaps it’s comforting to recall the Twinning movement of 70-odd years ago that linked communities around the globe in an enlightened attempt to nurture relationships, as an antidote to nationalism and war. For Portsmouth, which itself was elevated from a town to a city in 1926, those links with eight other towns and cities (and other ‘Friendship Links’) remain in place and remain strong.


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