Southsea Lifestyle – Free Magazine for Southsea, Old Portsmouth, Eastney & Gunwharf Quays

History Hot Spot – Canoe Lake, Southsea

Words: Victoria Doxat

Canoe Lake has not always looked as it does today. The Lake began life as an area of marshy wasteland and open water which was known as the Great Morass (muddy or boggy land). The Great Morass covered a huge area- the whole of what we now know as Southsea Common and beyond. The land was considered unusable.

In fact, the area was described in the City of Portsmouth Records in 1884 as “a dismal-looking depression, strewn with rusty tins, mouldy rubbish and other abominations.” Rather than being the iconic landmark it is today, Canoe Lake was originally a rubbish tip and an eyesore!

There was another, smaller marshy area, known as the Little Morass, near Old Portsmouth and this was drained between 1820 and 1823 to allow for the land to be developed and built on. As Portsmouth grew in size and the population expanded, new land was required for development and so in 1886 the Great Morass was also drained.

In 1884 work had already begun to turn part of the Great Morass into an ornamental lake, a project which took two years to complete. The Mayor opened the brand new ‘Canoe Lake’ on 17th June 1886, and it soon became a popular Southsea attraction.

In a nod to its past life as a salt water marsh, the lake is still filled with sea water which is topped up at high tide when a sluice gate is opened. The fact that the lake is salt water, rather than fresh water, makes it a fantastic spot for crabbing as small fish and crabs are brought in with the tide.

Southsea enjoys one of the mildest winters in the UK. During the Victorian period it attracted huge crowds of holiday makers and became a fashionable seaside resort. Southsea was originally called Croxton Town and only took the name ‘Southsea’ (borrowed from Southsea Castle) to promote itself as a holiday resort. This tactic clearly worked as tourist guide books from the 1900’s have Southsea listed as one of the top UK seaside destinations.

Southsea’s mild winters and the sheltered position of Canoe Lake is why nowadays, Canoe Lake is known as a ‘swan’s nursery’ and during the winter months you can see anywhere up to a hundred juvenile mute swans in residence. As well as the mute swans, you can also find a huge variety of other birds including mallards, tufted ducks, Mediterranean gulls, cormorants and little grebes enjoying the comfort and security that the lake provides.


Victoria is a writer and lecturer and has lived in and around Portsmouth for most of her life. You can read her blog ‘Jelly Nightmares’ at

Posted in: Articles, History & Architecture