Inside God’s House

25 November 2017

The tour we were taking today would be the last of its kind. Between 1961 and 2011 Gods House Tower was the Museum of Archeology but, for one reason or another, I never managed to visit. The doors closed in 2011 and, since then, apart from a few tours and exhibitions, it hasn’t been possible to go inside. Now, exciting things are afoot. Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the tower is about to be refurbished, then reopened as a new arts and heritage venue.

The modern internal walls will be removed, returning the building to something nearer its original state, and the entrance on Town Quay will be restored, leading to a cafe, bar and retail area. This means, like the Woolhouse, the building will finally have a purpose and the people of Southampton will once again be able to visit it for free.

Once we’d gone through the door the sheer space and size of the place was overwhelming. The door had led us into the large rectangular hall behind the tower and beside the gate. Built to bolster the town defences after the French Raid of 1338, this addition to the original thirteenth century gatehouse was completed in around 1417. The construction was a mammoth task. The stone had to be carried across the Solent from the Isle of Wight, or, in the case of the coping stones used to dress the door and window arches, across the English Channel from Caen. There were no motor vehicles or mechanical cranes, everything had to be done by hand from mixing the lime mortar to placing each stone. When you consider the townspeople were trying to encircle the whole town with a high stone wall, including towers and gates, at the same time the idea is mind boggling.

The building became the first purpose built artillery fortification in England. The ground floor, where we were standing open mouthed in wonder, was where shot, guns and powder were stored. Later, in the 1800’s, it was used as a mortuary. Curious recesses in the walls, that at first looked like fireplaces but had no chimney opening, may well have been used as storage spaces. Whatever they were used for they showed how thick and strong the walls were and how much stone it must have taken to build them.

When the first modern restoration began in 1961, this gallery was nothing but a shell, much like the buildings of nearby Canute’s Palace, and no one is entirely sure how the building was laid out inside, although door frames and windows give a clue. The mezzanine floors and concrete staircases were all constructed in the 1960’s by city architect Leon Berger. The staircase will remain and a new mezzanine level will be built to house items from the city’s collection of historic artefacts and art. There will also be a lift.

Today we had to climb the stairs but it was no real hardship. On the first landing we could see a doorway, suggesting where the original floor would have been. It seemed to lead to a passageway corresponding with the arrow slit above the door we’d entered. Presumably, this would have been used to shoot anyone who made it past the double portcullis in the gate? In the corner there were stone stairs leading into the room above the gate.

Leaning up against the wall was a rather beautiful model of the old town. It was painstakingly created using old maps by one of the staff. Sadly, our guide didn’t know his name, but the amount of detail and the time it must have taken to make is astounding. It seemed a shame that it was hidden away here and not on display somewhere prominent. We stood for quite some time looking at it, picking out the different landmarks. It certainly gave an understanding of how the medieval town would have looked.

We continued to climb while our guide talked about the many changes the building had seen over the years. The simple stone gate protecting the town in the thirteenth century became a large fortification with a guard room above the gate in the fourteenth. In the next century the tower was built to strengthen the defences further and the mill added to make use of the town moat. By the seventeenth century though, military technology had moved on. The building was no longer of any use as a defence and it was being used as a house of correction. In 1786 it formally became the town gaol, with a debtors prison in the tower, felons in the main building and a bridewell, for petty offenders, above the gate. The bridewell was our next stop.

The bridewell is also known as the Crawford Room after Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford, one of the leading cartographers and archaeologists of the twentieth century. Born in 1886 in Bombay and educated at Marlborough and Keeble colleges, he was a photographer and flying corps observer during World War I. In 1920 he became archeological officer at the Ordnance Survey in Southampton, adding archeological information to maps pioneering the use of aerial photography. After the blitz he made a photographic survey of the city’s ancient buildings and monuments and was founder member of the Friends of Old Southampton and the president of the Hampshire Field Club.

The first thing we noticed in the bridewell was the magnificent timber beamed ceiling. The other parts of God’s House have modern roofs but this is original and although some have been replaced, the old timbers are breathtakingly beautiful. Considering its past use as a prison the room looked quite cozy and welcoming. It had obviously been used recently by an art workshop. There were comfy looking sofas under the windows and interesting bits and pieces scattered about on tables, including a huge pile of knitting wool. This seemed fitting given the town’s history as an exporter of wool.

When this was used as the bridewell though, it would not have felt like such a cosy place. This was where petty criminals were locked up for crimes like prostitution, fraud, begging, selling goods without a licence, being down and out, drunkenness or loose, idle and disorderly conduct. They were usually also forced into hard labour like beating hemp or were even whipped. Usually the sentences were short, just a couple of weeks, but the place would almost certainly have been overcrowded, cold and smelly. The majority of inmates would have been women.

It’s doubtful any of the prisoners would have looked with wonder at the old oak beams or enjoyed the views of the salt marshes or Winkle Street from the narrow trefoil windows. At the time those windows would have had no glass so it would probably have been fairly cold and damp.

The weight of history felt very heavy in this room, especially looking through the barred window onto Winkle Street. So little has changed there for hundreds of years, with half closed eyes it was easy to imagine being in another time.

Beside the large wooden doors where we’d entered the bridewell was another doorway. It had no door but the grooves in the stone frame told me there had once been one. The door led to a narrow passage with worn flagstones on the floor. If it hadn’t been very short it would have been dark and slightly unnerving.  It led us out onto the upper floor of the gallery.

This was a large space and the evidence of its recent use by the art workshop was obvious. Some bright pink drawings adorned the old stone walls, it looked like silly string or something similar. On the floor were a large collection of knitted rectangles that could have been the beginnings of a quilt. All this intrigued me but the room itself intrigued me more.

Once this space would have been filled with gunpowder, gunshot guns, cannon and the town gunner, all ready to defend the town. The gunner was responsible for making the gunpowder and gunshot and that may well have been done here too. Later it would have been filled with felons, men and women who had committed serious crimes, although what was considered serious then is very different to what is a felony today. Murder, rape and treason are obviously serious in any century but in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century poaching, burglary and criminal damage also carried the death penalty.

Most of the felons would be awaiting trail. Serious cases were referred to the Crown courts and these only sat at quarterly assizes so many would have a long wait to find out if they faced the hangman’s noose. In those days there were no defence barristers and witnesses were questioned by the judge or jurors. Justice was swift and often harsh, with dozens of cases heard in a single day. Over two hundred different crimes were capital offences so the fear of hanging must have haunted all the prisoners here.

Not everyone ended up facing the hangman. Some escaped with transportation to America or Australia to serve out their sentences with hard labour. Others were flogged, branded with hot irons or put in the pillory. If the worst did happen the unfortunate souls would be taken to the gallows on the Common by cart, often followed by a rowdy crowd eager to watch them swing.

Although the room was large it would have been a crowded and uncomfortable place to be, especially with such uncertainty about the future. There are windows looking out onto Town Quay and others looking into what would then have been the town ditch. Back then they’d have been unglazed of course, but there would have been sea views as the tide came up to the walls. On one windowsill we saw a pile of unspun wool, another reminder of the wool trade that made the town rich.

There was also a fireplace, the only one in the building. It was large enough for  CJ to get into and look up into the chimney. Whether it would have provided much heat remains to be seen though.

The building continued to be used as a prison until 1855 when a new town gaol was built in Ascupart Street. For more than twenty years God’s House stood empty until, in 1876, the Southampton Harbour Board moved in and used it for storage, although the ground floor continued to be used as a mortuary. The Harbour Board did at least take care of the old building. They restored and repaired it and the outside was cleaned.

In the 1961 the building was reincarnated as the Museum of Archaeology. Finds from over fifty years of excavations in the city were displayed there and three main galleries told the story of Southampton through Roman, Saxon and Medieval times. The museum relocated to the purpose built Sea City Museum in the Civic Centre in 2011 and, once again, God’s House was left empty and abandoned.

At the far end of the gallery a low doorway led us into another narrow corridor. The military nature of this part of our journey was emphasised by the arrow slits let into the walls. Once upon a time, archers would have been stationed here ready to shoot any would be invaders to the town. Visibility would have been limited but I’m sure their aim was true. All the men of the town were expected to practice archery every week so they would have been good shots.

Two of the arrow slit windows were filled with curious stones, each with something unintelligible etched into them. Apparently they were left over from the days of the museum but no one seems to know whether they were milestones or gravestones. With the sunlight streaming in behind them they made slightly eerie exhibits whatever they were.

Now we had come to the final part of our tour, the tower. For me this was the most exciting part…

Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.

These tours were conducted by guides who’d just passed their Institute of Tour Guiding exams and had qualified as ‘White Badge Guides’. This means that they have qualified to take people on tours of God’s House Tower and also the Royal Victoria Country Park.  These tours will be running in 2018 when both places will have been revamped. STGA were a part sponsor for their training.

The model of Southampton was created by Ken Hellyar, a founder member of Southampton Tourist Guides Association (STGA).  It is going to be restored and will be in a prominent position as part of the exhibition at GHT.

If you’d like to find out more about STGA, please visit their website, where you can submit your email address to be notified of future updates on GHT and other exciting plans.

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

10 thoughts on “Inside God’s House”

  1. I hadn’t realised it had been closed for so long. I went in a couple of times while I was working in Duke’s Keep. The model of the medieval town is rather magnificent. I wonder why it didn’t relocate with everything else.

    1. For some reason I never managed to be in the right place at the right time to go inside before. I worked in Dukes Keep too for a couple of years, great for wandering around the walls in my lunch break.

    1. If you ever do come to Southampton, I’ll take you there. You’d love it. The model is fantastic. I hope they find somewhere prominent to put it.

  2. You are VERY thorough in your descriptions and photos. I feel as though I have actually visited. Last week we tramped across a primitive island which I blogged about recently, very different from the tour you describe. I hope you are keeping warm these days, Marie!

  3. Thank you Marie, a wonderfully enlightening and interesting article on somewhere in my home town. I look forward to seeing it again once the work is complete.

  4. The model of the fascinating map of Southampton in 1620 is how the Pilgrims of the Mayflower would have found the town when they stayed here for over 2 weeks. It was build by Ken Hellyar and he used the information found in our archives, the most important ones in the country for the medieval and Tudor period. Ken produced this model in 1970 in his dining room over many months – I hope his tolerant wife realised the importance of his work.

    1. It was obviously a labour of love and totally fascinating. Thank you for letting me know who made it. He did a wonderful job and I hope it ends up in pride of place. It gives an real insight into the old town that is far easier to understand than a map.

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