Southampton City Archives, more questions than answers

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11 October 2016

As we walked through Aldermore after our final boundary stone discovery I knew the time had come to visit the City Archives to see if I could find any more information about the eleventh and twelfth stones. Several fruitless searches on the Common and Golf Course Road had left me wondering if they even existed and, if there were any answers to my questions, I guessed this was where I’d find them. 

CJ had never visited the Archives and the thought of solving the mystery of the stones got him out of bed early to come along with me. If nothing else it was a beautiful morning for a walk. There were roses still blooming on the path behind Chessel Bay. We stopped to smell them, knowing they are probably the last of the year.

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The tide was very low and the little bay was more mud than water. The swans and cygnets we saw here a while back were nowhere in sight when we stopped at the viewing platform. We walked on wondering where they were and why there were so few on the river this year. We didn’t have to wonder for long, at least about the first question. Around the corner, as we headed for the bridge, there were two swans on the calm water near the old wrecks.

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Further still we found two more swans and two cygnets, almost fully grown now but with a touch of grey still about their feathers. They were diving about in the shallows looking for food with the early morning sun sparkling on the river all around them.

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So far Autumn colour seems to be a bit thin on the ground this year and the leaves on most trees appear to be stating resolutely green. On Old Northam Road the Virginia creeper completely covering one of the houses had a touch of purple to it, not the bright red I’d hoped for. Perhaps the Indian Summer means a late autumn?

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The story was much the same when we reached the parks, a few slightly yellow leaves and a sprinkling on the ground but no golds and reds. Still, this time last year I was in North America where the colours are so bright they don’t seem real so perhaps I’m expecting a little too much.

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When we reached the Civic Centre there was something decidedly odd about one of the gate posts. Curious we went for a closer look and discovered that, what looked like a pink elephant sitting on top of the gate post, actually was a pink elephant.  What it meant was a mystery. We looked around for some sign or poster to tell us but found nothing.

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Later I discovered the strange little elephant was part of Around World Mental Health Day. The Council we’re hosting a series of events to highlight the stigma attached to mental health issues and the theme was ‘the elephant in the room,’ hence the elephant. Maybe a sign or two would have helped?

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Still puzzling over the elephant we headed across the car park to the main doors. Inside, with any luck, we might find answers to some of our boundary stone questions. As civic buildings go, Southampton’s is fairly new, built as four, conjoined blocks between 1930 and 1939. The block we entered houses the council offices and was actually the first to be completed. It was opened in November 1932 by the Duke and Duchess of York, later to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mother. It was a little strange to think we were climbing the same steps they’d stood on all those years ago.

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Inside it was a matter of not being distracted by the opulence of the surroundings and remembering how to get to the Archives. Luckily a combination of memories of my one and only previous visit and a few well placed signs soon had us going in the right direction.

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The Archives are in the bowels of the building and, once we’d negotiated a rather plain stairwell, we found ourselves in a long, white walled corridor. When I spotted the beautiful D Day Tapestry on the wall I knew we were heading in the right direction. The intricately detailed piece was embroidered by members of women’s organisations between 1950 and 1953. It shows the landmarks of the city filled with troops of every kind, the skies above a mass of barrage baloons and planes and the docks with warships and military vehicles. Once it was displayed in the Bargate Museum but it was moved here when the museum closed.

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On my first visit to the Archives I stopped for some time to admire it and wondered why it was hidden away where hardly anyone would see it? My feelings have not changed. It seems to me it should be in Sea City Museum or maybe the Art Gallery. If Bayeux can make a feature of their tapestry it seems a shame Southampton can’t do the same. CJ seemed as impressed by it as I, and stopped for his own photo.

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We signed in to the Archives and explained what we were looking for to the Archivist. She’d never heard of the 1988 boundary stones but, to her credit, she had soon found something about them in one of the huge tomes that contain the minutes of council meetings. This gave us hope that we’d find what we were looking for, a map or maybe some information about exactly where the stones were laid.

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The entry was very brief. Dated 25 September 1987, it told us that the installation of the first stone had been approved. They were to be put at Redbridge bridge, Cutthorn and Crosshouse. Perhaps there really was a stone at Cutthorn after all then?

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Unfortunately, this was where the trail died. There was one more piece of information, a memo, largely about the design of the stones. It was also from 25 September 1987. It did tell us that the stones were to be included in the annual beating of the bounds ceremony, although looking at the ones we have found recently, I think that has long since gone by the wayside. Interestingly, it mentioned only ten locations but said that the existing original locations were also to be marked. What it didn’t say was how? Did this mean there were only ever ten stones? Then again it could mean there were thirteen as there are three ancient boundary stones that I know of and have visited. Oddly, none of them seem to have been marked by anything other than plaques.

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We may have been finding more questions than answers but we did discover something very interesting. The stone used to make the boundary stones was salvaged from the outside of the rose garden that used to occupy the road outside the Civic Centre. Even so, the cost in transportation, cutting and installation was estimated at around £700 per stone. Cutthorn was still mentioned as one of the first locations for the stones in this memo.

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We searched through later volumes of council meeting memos but found nothing more about the stones. Meanwhile, the archivist had phoned the library to see if there had been any publicity about them when they were made and laid. There was nothing, not even an Echo article. She then phoned someone else she thought might know something more. This turned out to be Ingrid, the Historic Environment Record Officer who provided the information I already had and who had also found ten stones. With far more opportunity to research than I, Ingrid was none the wiser. The trail was, as far as either of us could tell, completely dead.

CJ and I, having exhausted every avenue we could think of, left the Archives and the Civic Centre. We were wiser in some ways but still unsure if our quest was at an end or not. It seems bizarre that something that happened such a short time ago was so badly documented. The stones were a fabulous idea, beautifully made and laid in interesting places. Where the council seem to have fallen down is telling the people of the city about them and keeping track of them. This is a terrible shame.

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We walked through the precinct towards Bargate, pleased to finally find some autumn colour in the line of maples there. In my pocket I had the name of one of the councillors involved in one of those original meetings who is now part of the City of Southampton Society. There was also the cryptic message I’d recieved after my radio broadcast. There were still avenues to explore.

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Back at home I looked again at the cryptic message, half in hope there would be a reply to my request for clarification. There was no reply and the message ‘try Bassett Green woods near the church on Stoneham Lane,’ was, on the face of it, as confusing as ever. Bassett Green was nowhere near Stoneham Lane but maybe these were two seperate locations? A great deal of time was spent looking at the map. Clearly both locations were close to the city boundary although neither were mentioned in the information about the stones.

Perhaps I should look at each location and see if I could find anything on street view? I began with Stoneham Lane and the church, St Nicolas, we visited a while ago.  Some time later I’d discovered something that looked like an ancient boundary stone but nothing more modern. Of course this didn’t mean there was nothing there.

Then came Bassett Green Woods. To be honest I didn’t even know where the woods were although I knew Bassett Green from my fruitless boundary stone hunt in March.  A bit of googling showed me where the woods were and some virtual wandering on Google Street View had me squealing out loud. There, right by one of the entrances to the woods on the side nearest the boundary, was something that looked very much like a stone. It was half hidden by a wheelie bin but it was the right shape and size. Then again, it could have been wishful thinking…

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

22 thoughts on “Southampton City Archives, more questions than answers”

    1. It would be good to know for certain that I had found them all but I’m not holding my breath. I think there have been too many changes of council and no one really kept track of them.

    1. From what I’ve seen it doesn’t look as if they have been beating the boundary around these stones. I’m still trying to find out more though.

      1. If the stones mark the boundary, the people who beat the boundary should know where they are.

        I thought the entry in the council minutes linked their placement to beating the boundary.

        1. It does and they should know where they are but it doesn’t look as if anyone has cleared around them except us for years.

  1. it seems odd that they’d lose track of things that cost so much money, nut I wouldn’t be surprised. I hope you’ll know for sure that you found them all.
    Odd too that the mental health people would put out pink elephants so people could think that they were losing their minds.

    1. It is a shame they haven’t documented the stones better but at least I found some information. The pink elephant was a very strange thing. I really did think I was seeing things.

    1. Thank you. The royals opened that section of the building. I guess they were only minor royals at the time, before the abdication.

      1. That’s it. I notice now from a photo I took on a plaque at the front of the Guildhall – all the different Royals opening different parts at different times – the Law Courts, Library, and Art School (which had a direct hit during the blitz and killed some of its students).

  2. You will definitely have to write a book about your search! Then you could sell it to the counsel! A shame they didn’t document it better. Pink elephants – an odd way to bring mental illness to light.

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