28 January 2016
When I left St Mary’s Church I still had time for a leisurely stroll along St Mary Street before my next appointment. Although it’s down at heel in places, the rich history and the vibrant mixture of old buildings and interesting shops make this a good street for mooching about. A lot has changed since the Saxon town of Hamwic or Hamtun sprang up. The grid of streets with wooden buildings, are long gone, along with the blacksmiths, carpenters, thatchers, leather workers and potters who once plied their trade there.
In the ninth and tenth centuries the Danes sacked the town several times. This took its toll. The Itchen was silting up, making it harder for ships to get into the port. People began to move away. Some went to Winchester but others settled beside the river Test. They called their new town Hamtun too. For a while there must have been two Hamptun’s standing side by side, one growing, the other declining. If there had been postmen back then they’d have been pretty confused. By 1250 the old town along the road to St Mary’s church was nothing but a suburb of the new. They called it Newtown although there’d been a town there long before the real new town existed. The name still remains.
The first interesting building I came to was right beside the church, a long, two story, red brick edifice with a porch faced in white stone below an octagonal cupola. It looks very grand, like a Manor House, but its origins are far more humble. This was once the Southampton Workhouse, a place where the poor, sick and destitute came when they’d reached rock bottom.
The first Southampton workhouse was built in 1629 when a rich citizen, John Major, left £200 to provide twelve rooms ‘for the habitation of the poor.’ Within forty years, it was so delapidated it was moved to French Street but soon became St John’s Hospital, where lads of the woolen trade were taught. In 1753 another workhouse was set up at Bugle Hall in Bugle Street, once the home of the Earl of Southampton. It didn’t last long.
In 1776 another new workhouse was built to the north of St Mary’s church. Here the authorities could ensure the poor worked for their bed and board. The workhouse conjures up images of Oliver Twist and bowls of gruel. Dickens wasn’t too far off the mark, conditions were kept purposely poor, the work tedious and hard, to ensure only the really desperate walked through the doors. Inmates were expected to work ten hours a day at monotonous, exhausting tasks, making stockings or blankets, spinning, cleaning, washing, teasing out the fibres of old ropes, breaking rocks, cranking wheels to grind corn and other menial jobs. There was a stigma to ending up in the workhouse too so it’s doubtful anyone went there through choice.
The new workhouse was woefully inadequate from the outset, housing just over two hundred. By the mid 1800’s inmates were sleeping four to a bed in insanitary conditions. Men, women, children, the elderly, infirm and sick were all bundled together. It was a recipe for disaster. The Poor Law Inspector who visited in 1865 was unimpressed. After his visit yet another workhouse, was built next to the existing one. The foundation stone of Mr T A Skelton’s building was laid in 1866. It cost £31,200 but was still thought to be poorly built, too small and too extravagant. For all that, it’s still standing.
During World War II priorities changed. The building was used to house familes made homeless by bombs and to distribute emergency food. After the war it became a Technical College. Commando went there when he was an apprentice and, in 1995, it became Southampton City College. As I stood watching the students come and go I wondered if they ever give a thought to the building or even know the secrets it holds?
Opposite the college is a small passageway called Harrison’s Cut leading through to Kingsway and Hoglands Park. Named after John Butler Harrison who lived in a large house nearby, it seems a popular place for students to hang out. There’s an interesting mural on the wall but the sun was in the wrong place for me to get a photo today.
A few doors down a mock Tudor building stands out. Despite its appearance it isn’t as old as it looks. It was, in fact, built in the 1860’s and was once the Masons Arms, a very popular pub in its day. Sadly it closed in 1994 and has since been turned into student housing. Looking at it now you wouldn’t think it but, at one time, the Masons Arms had a very famous landlord.
Born in South Stoneham in 1893, Arthur Dominy trained as a boilermaker but, in his spare time, played football for Bitterne Guild. In 1913, after scoring fifty goals for Bitterne, he was signed by the Saints and was their top scorer that season. The next year he was top goal scorer in the Southern league with thirty goals. When war came he worked at the local Harland and Wolff shipyard. His real claim to fame came when, in 1920, he scored Saints’ first goal in the Football League. He left Saints in 1926, having scored one hundred and forty six goals for them. After a brief spell playing for Everton he returned to Southampton in 1931 as pub landlord and talent scout for the football club. In 1943 he became the club’s part time manager and, after World War II, took over the Saints supporter’s club. We could do with a player like that about now.
The street is a hotchpotch of random buildings of different ages and designs. In part, the blitz is responsible, leaving gaps that needed filling, but recently there has been a regeneration programme with the more delapidated properties replaced by modern housing, shops and the ubiquitous student accommodation. With its mix of eateries and shops from all over the world, and the diverse ethnicities of the residents it has a real multi cultural feel and is always full of hustle and bustle no matter what the time of day.
One of the most well known venues in St Mary Street must surely be the Joiners Arms. Built in the mid ninteenth century it’s a thing of beauty. Red brick is set off by painted stone dressings and embleishments and the large arched window frames at the front and to the sides give it a very distinctive look. The green and orange glazed tiles with central lion’s heads always make me smile as I pass. Once they advertised Eldridge Pope Dorchester Ales. It may be a little the worse for wear in places but I can’t help loving it.
Impressive as the building is, music is the pub’s main claim to fame. In 2013 it won the NME award for best small music venue. Despite holding just two hundred people at most, it boasts live bands every night. Many have gone on to become household names. Bands like the Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead, Oasis, Supergrass, Coldplay and one of my personal favourites, Green Day, whose song Boulevard of Broken Dreams often runs through my head as I walk, have all played there. Sadly, not all who play the Joiners end up famous or Bard wouldn’t be a chef right now.
At the opposite end of the terrace, on the corner of James Street, is another interesting building. This is currently a Cash and Carry but, above the blue and red shop windows, the brick and stone with intricate mouldings in arches above the windows and on the pediments give it an air of grandeur. Around the corner a sadly weathered ghost sign gives a tantalisingly out of focus glimpse of what it might once have been.
Something else that makes me smile is the mural on the opposite side of James Street. Painted by local graffiti artist Slam Daniels, it seems to be a tongue in cheek rendition of the legend of Sir Bevois along with some of the local people and buildings. It certainly brightens up the street corner and gives a real identity to the area.
There were weekly markets and an annual fair in the area back in medieval times. The tradition began again in the 1880’s with Kingsland Market in St Mary Street. Local residents weren’t too happy when workmen began to level the area beside Kingsland Tavern to build the market square. They said it would be a nuisance and complained about the expense but work went ahead. Soon it became a popular place to shop and, by 1926, had been adopted by the council who charged traders ten shillings a week.
In the 1920’s it was a lively place filled with traders, entertainers and ‘dentists’ who would pull a rotten tooth. There was even a Punch and Judy show for the children. When I lived in Woolston and money was tight I took a weekly walk over the bridge with Philo and later Bard in a pushchair to buy all my fruit and veg. The colourful stalls were piled high and the traders would call out to attract the throngs of shoppers. It was a place of noise and movement where you could buy clothes, fabric, knitting wool, bric a brack, meat and household items, as well as fruit and veg. With my pushchair piled high I’d walk home, Philo or Bard walking beside me.
On New Year’s Day 1980 a special lunch for the homeless was held there. Local traders donated food and the Salvation Army helped serve it. This was the market’s hey day but, over the next decade, as the face of the city changed, it became isolated and its popularity dwindled. The council erected a permanent roof in an effort to tempt people back but it wasn’t enough. Recent modernisation of the area has seen the market square repaved with a zebra crossing on St Mary Street and a pelican crossing on Kingsway but, although the market survives, it’s a shadow of its former self. Much as people like to complain, it’s the changing shopping habits of the public rather than the council who bear the blame.
A pub stands on either side of the market square, to the left is the Plume of Feathers. Built in the 1930’s of stone rubble with heavy oak doors it looks older than its years. In fact it wouldn’t look out of place alongside the medieval walls. Sadly, it seems to be another of the ever growing number of closed pubs. With the Kingsland Tavern right opposite, I suppose there wasn’t enough business. Despite appearances the Kingland Tavern is the older pub. Built in the 1820’s, it still seems to be thriving, although it did close for a while.
Directly opposite the market is Jonas Nichols square. Nichols was a Councillor and a builder, most noted for building nearby Nicholstown. At the entrance to the square an interesting cast iron drinking fountain is another of the things that brighten my day. This beautifully painted twenty two foot colum with dolphins and lion’s heads originally stood at Six Dials and was erected in 1882 by Nichols to commemorate his son’s twenty first birthday. It was moved to Kingsland square in 1954, then moved across the road to its present location with an electric light replacing the gas lamp.
Towards the top of the road there are more grand houses gone to seed cheek by jowl with new properties built as part of the regeneration. Many are interesting looking shops of the kind that once used to be on every high street but have become rarities, like the fruit and veg shop and the fish shop. Bigland’s Bakery in particular stands out as one of the most beautiful shops in the street with distinctive gold lettering on the fascia and a stunning stained glass window above the door advertising.
The shop has been around since the late ninteenth century. As far as I can tell it’s always been a bakers, although I’ve never dared go inside because of all the calories involved in the enticing looking cakes I see through the windows. Maybe another day when I’ve walked further…
The opposite corner of Ascupart Street is in stark contrast. Once a supplier of fruit, veg, farm eggs and ship supplies, the shop’s windows are boarded the plaster cracked and crumbling. A buddliea plant has grown from a crevice. Before the regeneration there were many more like this. As this one has recently been sold, I hope it will soon be looking spick and span again.
Along the road a little way is another boarded up building. This was once Foley’s American Pool Bar. Obviously playing pool has gone out of fashion but at least the front of the shop has been made interesting by a curious looking piece of graffiti. I’m not sure what it’s meant to represent but it’s way better than bare boards.
Soon I was approaching the end of St Mary Street. Next to another closed shop, once, if memory serves me right, a record shop, is one of my favourite buildings. Once it was The Bridge Gallery, so called because it’s right over the railway bridge leading to Central Station. Once it was undoubtedly a private house and now it has been divided up into flats. With its rounded end, conical roof and mass of little embleishments it seems to have something of the fairytale castle to it and I can’t help wondering about its story. Just because I haven’t been able to find it doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
The old Bridge Gallery building is actually in Old Northam Road rather than St Mary Street but that is a post for another day. Now it was time to go to my next appointment. With one last look back along St Mary Street I returned to the present day.