The first Sunday in August 2013 and, as usual Commando was out on a run and I was cleaning the bathroom, washing clothes and pegging them on the line. When he came home we went to town, just for a mooch around. It’s something we do once in a while on a Sunday afternoon. Then Commando asked if I fancied a coffee in Tudor House. This was not something at all normal and I jumped at the chance. For all the times I’d walked past it I had never been inside.
4 August 2013
The first thing I saw after we walked through the huge, studded oak door, was a baby rhino, who’d have thought. Spot is one of the school rhinos, Bishops Waltham Infant School to be precise. The cobalt blue background is covered with a self portraits painted by every single one of the pupils so they are all personally on the rhino trail. What a lovely idea.
The first part of the visit was the great hall, where all the banquets used to be held when the house was young. Here we had a ten minute show, projected onto one white wall in which the story of the house was told by ‘ghosts’ of owners past.
Back in the 1180’s Tudor House began life as a domestic dwelling built of rough stone and owned by one of the city’s wealthy merchants. The spot, right on the waterfront, made this prime real estate. This part of the house, now roofless and ruined, is known as King John’s Palace, although it’s doubtful if King John ever visited. After the French raid of 1338, the city walls were built and this was one of the houses incorporated into them. The sea facing windows and doors were filled in and gun slits were added.
The long chimney on the back wall has an interesting history. Originally it was part of another building in the High Street. During World War II a local woman spotted some American soldiers attacking it with pick axes, trying to demolish it for building rubble. Thankfully she managed to stop them and the chimney was moved, brick by brick to its present site.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century Sir John Dawtry bought the house. As the overseer of the Port of Southampton and Collector of the King’s Customs he felt he needed a house fitting of his status and he joined the original stone house together with three adjacent houses on St Michael’s Square belonging to his wife, Jane. So the house as it stands today came into existence. Sir John provided food for Henry VIII’s navy and built ships including the Mary Rose. After his death in 1518, his widow, second wife Isobel, married Sir Richard Lyster, one of the city’s richest citizens. Royal visitors came and went, eating in the grand hall where we were sitting in the dark hearing the tale. At the end, the curtain was pulled back to reveal a large leaded window and, behind us ancient wood panelling.
Today there is a little coffee shop where you can have lunch looking out over the flower beds and the old walls. There was another baby rhino there, just inside the door, this a mass of brightly coloured hand prints, a little like the ones my boys made years ago, managing to print the carpet quite well in the process as I remember. He is called Handsome the Rhino and was hand printed by the children of Kings Copse Primary School, some of whom are visually impaired. Another lovely idea.
After the show, Commando and I sat drinking coffee and eating a slice of lemon cake. The garden is my favourite part of the whole house, filled with old fashioned flowers and herbs, much as it would have been back when Lord and Lady Lister lived there. Lady Isobel traded in millstones so maybe the fountain in the garden today is made from some of hers. I could have stayed all day spotting and naming the flowers now seen more often as wildflowers rather than in the average garden.
Particularly interesting was the grape vine, complete with little bunches of grapes, forming a little bower with a stone bench against the old brick wall. I wondered if they made wine with the grapes and thought of how I could grow grapes of my own if only I had the space. Back then there would have been bee hives, chickens and pigs too.
Near the back wall is an old cannon. We wandered over to have a look. Peeking over the wall I could see the boats in the street below. As we went back towards the old house we found a well and saw the window of the Great Hall from the other side, it almost looked like it belonged to a church.
Then we went to explore the house further. We found a kind of tunnel leading back into the building and walked through admiring the ancient stones and bricks. There was a place where the inner timbers and lathes had been exposed and covered with glass to protect them while still leaving them visible.
We came to a kitchen, pantry and buttery laid out as if the cook had just stepped out for a moment. It was so interesting I didnt want to leave. Commando posed in the old stocks while I looked around for some rotten tomatoes or eggs to throw. There was even a Tudor House dolls house.
Tudor House was Southampton’s first museum, opened in 1912 but it very nearly didn’t make it that far. By the ninteenth century the fortunes of the house had turned. From lords and ladies, through merchants and artists it had slowly sunk into decline, finally being divided up into smaller properties and leased out. Some were used as businesses, including a dye works, bookbinders, bonnet makers and architect’s office. There were no more fancy parties, no more grand ladies or servants.
As the century wore on the fortunes of the area went down and down until, towards the end, the area surrounding the house had become a disease ridden slum. The whole area was scheduled for demolition, including Tudor House. In 1886, just a year before Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, local philanthropist, William Spranger stepped in. He recognised the historical significance of the house and bought it, then spent many years restoring it, not always to the original sadly, before opening it as a museum in 1912. We have a lot to thank him for and I have to thank Commando for thinking of taking me there.