31 January 2016
When I said I’d go up to the Common with Commando on Sunday morning for a photo shoot I didn’t expect rain and cold. We were amomgst the first there and we stood around shivering and chatting as other people slowly began to arrive. The photo shoot was for the runners who’d volunteered as pacers for the Southampton Half Marathon. There’d be a practice run around part of the course at the end of it.
Pacing is a difficult job. The runners give up their chance of a personal best and run, with a flag, at an agreed pace to help other runners achieve their goals. Commando will have to run much slower than he normally does, which is harder than it sounds. After a while the film crew turned up. Yellow race t-shirts were handed out. They didn’t seem to do much to keep the poor runners warm. Even in my padded jacket and woolly hat I was freezing and the damp was seeping into my bones, or so it felt. Eventually, the runners lined up for a group photo in race t-shirts and another in their club t-shirts. Everyone was itching to get running, if only to keep warm, but there were still individual club photos and interviews. People fluffed their lines and it took forever.
Finally, just after nine, an hour after we’d arrived, the runners set off and I could finally get walking although I was sorely tempted to go into the Hawthorns cafe for a cup of warming coffee. If I did, I’d probably have never come out again. My first objective was the old well, where I’d heard the missing boundary stone might be. So I set off across the Common, slightly unsure if I was going the right way. My glasses were so wet from the rain I could hardly see.
It was a bleak day and not good for taking photos but, when I reached the point where the path divides near Hill Lane, I took the right fork. Commando had told me about a fallen tree that had blocked the Parkrun route a few weeks ago. By the next week, it had been cut into seats. Almost as soon as I turned it was in front of me.
There aren’t many seats on the Common and the tree will be a home for fungi and insects. It was too wet to stop and try it out but, a little way along the path, I crossed a bridge over one of the steams that criss cross the Common. It was flowing fast. The fern growing on the bank and the mossy, ivy covered trees gave it the look of a tropical rain forest for a moment. Of course the rain here was cold.
Soon I reached the central cross roads and spotted the well. At least I thought it was the well I was squelching across the muddy grass towards. There were a couple of trees and an older version of the new fallen tree bench. There was also a stone of some kind but it didn’t look like a boundary stone to me.
As I’d thought, it wasn’t a boundary stone. Still an old well is interesting although this one was younger than I’d expected. In 1835 Southampton was growing rapidly, over-stretching the town water supply. The council called in London engineer Thomas Clarke to drill a new well. He wasn’t very successful and, in 1838, local plumber John Collyer had a go. An engine house was built, along with a reservoir to store the expected flow of water. By 1845 the well was 1317 feet deep and the Common was covered in mounds of earth but the water barely trickled.
A further, unsuccessful, attempt was made in 1883. By this time other plans were afoot and, in 1885, an act of parliament saw the building of a new waterworks at Otterbourne. The well was capped off. Two stones and a plaque are the only evidence of the ill fated scheme. Today’s water supply comes mostly from the Itchen via the Otterbourne Waterworks. In fact forty five million litres of water is pumped from the Itchen every single day to supply the city.
While I stood thinking that water from a clear chalk stream is infinitely preferable to water from the clay soil of the Common, a lone runner in a bright yellow t-shirt passed by. For a moment, I thought he was one of the pacers but it was far too early so I carried on towards the Beyond Graffiti subway.
The graffiti artists have obviously been hard at work since my last visit so I spent a few moments taking photos. For once the rain added a little interest with some nice reflective puddles. While I was there a young couple asked me about the graffiti. Perhaps I look knowledgeable, or maybe it was because I was taking pictures. Either way I explained that this was a council sanctioned project and it was worth visiting every so often because it was always changing.
My next objective was the site of the town gallows, something I hadn’t known about until Googling the old well. Apparently there were once public hangings on the Common near the junction of the Avenue and Burgess Road and, armed with a screenshot of the old map, I thought I might be able to find the place.
Thankfully the gallows are long gone. Walking along the Avenue, with one eye looking for the illusive boundary stone, I wondered what this walk must have been like for those poor souls destined to hang or worse. What could be worse than a public hanging you might wonder? Records show there was a lot that could. In 1738 Mary Groke aged just sixteen murdered her mistress and in 1784 Mary Bailey killed her husband, both were burned at the stake. Several men were hanged in chains for murder and, in 1782, David Tyrie was hanged, drawn and quartered in Portsmouth for high treason.
The punishment didn’t always fit the crime either. Between 1735 and 1799 there were at least one hundred and fifty nine executions carried out in Hampshire. Most were at Gallows Hill in Winchester but three, at least, were on Southampton Common. Crimes could be as serious as high treason, murder or rape but highway robbers, horse thieves, arsonists, forgers and burglars also faced the noose. Poor Henry Borrow was sentenced to death for damaging a fishpond, John Bridger went to the gallows for cutting and maiming a horse and Thomas Noble was hanged for extortion.
When I reached the spot where the gallows used to stand I found some stone steps. They looked fairly modern but I climbed them anyway. At the top was an iron fence and a locked gate with more steps beyond. The gallows has been replaced by a covered reservoir and it seems the steps and fence belong to Southern Water who are keen to keep people out.
Maybe it’s just as well, I’m not sure I was ready to face any gallows ghosts. The last three hangings on the Common took place in the late 1700’s. In 1760 John Marchant was hanged for the murder of his wife Elizabeth, Daniel Moreto met the same fate in 1766 for forgery and, finally, on 27 July 1785, the Southampton gallows claimed its last victim when burglar William Shawyer was publicly executed.
So I walked back across the Common in the rain feeling glad we have moved on from those dark days and public hanging, or hanging of any kind, is a thing of the past. In 1867, solicotors clerk Frederick Baker was the last person publicly hanged in Hampshire. The twenty nine year old met his fate in Winchester. His was a particularly notorious crime.
On 24 August 1867 young Elizabeth Adams and her friend Minnie Warner told a neighbour a man had given them ha’pennies and carried eight year old Fanny Adams off into the hop field. The neighbour dashed off to Tanhouse Lane near Alton to investigate and found Frederick Baker coming down the lane. He admitted he’d given the girls money for sweets but denied everything else. He was such a respectable man the neighbour believed him.
When Fanny’s body was found, cut into pieces and scattered about the field the police went to the solicitors office where Baker worked. His shirt and trousers were covered in blood and he carried two blood stained knives but still he denied everything. A search of his lodgings revealed a diary in which he’d written ‘Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.’ His fate was sealed. A crowd of five thousand turned out to see him hang.
Poor Fanny’s name lived on. Shortly after her murder, tins of mutton were introduced as rations for British seamen and, with the crime and the strewn body parts fresh in their minds, a sick rumour circulated that the tins contained parts of poor Fanny’s body. Sweet Fanny Adams became naval slang for mutton or anything worthless and is still used today.
Crime and punishment was on my mind as I approached the drained boating lake. The rain began to get harder and I hurried on past the next stream towards the Cowherds. The pub looked warm and inviting but I passed it by. The runners would be finished soon and I needed to get back to the Hawthorns Cafe.
As it turned out I needn’t have hurried. A lone pacer was about to enter the cafe.
“I bailed out early,” he said. “It was dragging on a bit. There were lots of stops for briefings so the rest of the runners will be ages.”
Even after I’d had a coffee there was no sign of them and I paced up and down outside looking at the water dripping from the wrought iron gates.
Eventually the first of the pacers rocked up but they were the fast pacers. Commando would be a while yet, they told me. There was time to stroll back to my car to pick up all their bags and jackets and have a little look at the wet crocuses and rhododendrons that really shouldn’t be flowering yet before he finally arrived.
He was wet and cold and I was more than happy to have another coffee while he told me all about it. In the end he’d been rup ing back and forth between the back markers and the front runners just to keep warm. Running a marathon or a half marathon takes a lot of training and determination but the organisers, the marshals and the pacers are often forgotten. If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that the unsung heroes who volunteer their time and energy are extraordinary people who deserve recognition.