The Solent has for thousands of years been a vital shipping and trading waterway. The use of the Solent has steadily grown since before Roman times and particularly with the development of the great ports of Southampton and Portsmouth.
Portsmouth has a long shipbuilding and repair history. The dockyard here was established due to its proximity to France, the same reason for the present continental ferry port, the second largest in Britain. Ferries also leave Portsmouth for Wight and Gosport. Gosport had a shipbuilding industry in the 16th century, as did Hamble.
A Staple Port was established at Chichester 1353 and there was a foreign trading port at Dell Quay. Shipyards in Chichester harbour were found at Itchenor, Bosham and Emsworth throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Lymington was involved in trading from the 14th century and merchants contended with pirates, which were notorious on the Solent. Lymington also has a long shipbuilding history. The Isle of Wight (IOW) ferry to Yarmouth runs from here, this being one of three IOW ferry links, the others being Southampton to Cowes and Portsmouth to Ryde.
The main port on the Solent is at Southampton, which has a long history of intense shipping of all kinds from its strategic location on Southampton Water. Many mail boats, great Ocean Liners and later Cruise ships to far away destinations, including the ill-fated Titanic; cross channel railway steamers and car ferries have all traversed the Solent from this port. There has also been a long established cargo traffic, revolutionised by the Container phenomenon in 1968. This traffic has grown significantly and today over 1million containers are handled annually. Shipbuilding companies in Southampton have included Day Summers, George Napier & Son, Oswald Mourdant and Thorneycroft, who later amalgamated with Gosport-based Vospers to form Vosper Thorneycroft. Royal Mail and P&O also had factories.
Oil tankers have served the current Esso refinery at Fawley since 1921. The tankers have steadily grown in size and today some 24million tonnes of oil and petroleum products are handled anually. Esso rebuilt the refinery in 1951 and the first tanker to use the new jetty was the appropriately named Esso Fawley.