Up on the roof

25 November 2017

The final part of our tour of God’s House took us into the tower itself. Built in 1417, at the same time as the gallery we’d just left, the tower was one of the earliest forts built specifically to carry cannon. It had eight gunports and rooftop firing points. The gallery and tower jut out from the town walls and would have spanned the town moat, meaning the town gunner had the perfect vantage point to protect the water mill and the gate. Where the gallery was far larger than I’d expected, the inside of the tower seemed smaller. In the eighteenth century, when it was used as the debtors prison, it must have been terribly cramped.

All three floors of the tower housed debtors and each one had to pay their keep while they were incarcerated. The higher floors were the most desirable of this undesirable residence and debtors would pay more to stay on them. As release depended on paying off the debts that got them there in the first place and they couldn’t work to earn money while they were there, getting out was always going to be difficult.

The small room had a large recess that might have been used as a fireplace, although there was no chimney so, if it was, the room would have become very smoky. There were windows letting in enough light to see clearly and arrow slits or gunports around the walls. These were all glazed in the nineteenth century but would have been open when this was a prison. With the wind whistling in from the sea it is probably just as well the place was crowded, at least all the bodies would have generated some heat.

In 1887, just after the Harbour Board took over the building, Southampton M.P., Sir Frederick Perkins, donated a terracotta statue of Prince Albert to the town. It was placed at the eastern end of God’s House Tower. The statue remained until 1912 when it was removed because it was thought its delapidated state might cause offence to Kaiser Willhelm II, Prince Albert’s grandson, when he visited Southampton. The statue was put into storage and, during World War I when anti German feelings were running high, the Royal Engineers found it and destroyed it.

A large studded wooden door led to smaller room in the north west corner of the tower. This, it turned out, was a medieval toilet. The room was long and narrow, lit by a small window. The toilet was nothing more than a stone seat with a hole in it. It must have been very chilly sitting there and the plumbing was basic to say the least, the waste would have simply fallen down into the moat below. At the time it was probably the height of luxury. The floor of the room was littered with items that were found when the moat come canal just below the toilet window was excavated. It looked to me as if the town ditch, turned moat, turned sewer, turned canal was also something of a rubbish dump.

The very last part of our tour involved climbing a dark and cramped spiral staircase, lit only by a couple of narrow windows. The worn wooden steps may have been steep but it was worth the climb. We emerged through a doorway onto the roof of the tower. The wind was bitter cold but the views more than made up for it.

This was where the main firing platform used to be, back in the days when the tower was used to defend the city. A large cannon, nick named Bearded Thomas, was stationed here, goodness only knows how they got it up there. It’s hard to imagine the town gunner running up and down those stairs with gunpowder and shot but he certainly had a wonderful vantage point to keep watch from. Of course those views would have been very different back then. The Ocean Terminal and it’s large car park are on reclaimed land and the gunner would have been able to see the tide coming right up to the walls of the tower.

The line of Town Quay roughly follows the old shore line so, when the tower was built, everything to the right of the road would have been water, including all the tall buildings of Ocean Village. Queens Park and Southwestern House would have been salt marsh and even the Old Bowling Green, the oldest bowling green in the world, would have been relatively new, having been first used in 1299.

Even in the eighteenth century when the tower was a prison, most of what we could now see to the south and east would not have existed. Some wonderfully detailed old maps I found of the area, dating from 1893, give an idea of just how much has changed over the years.

Looking west, towards Winkle Street is probably the closest we could get to the views the town gunner would have had. St Julien’s Church and the God’s House Hospital buildings are still there, even if the almshouses have been rebuilt, and Winkle Street is much as it always was, although the businesses have changed over the years. In the distance we could see the River Test and the New Forest, much as the gunner would have. In his day then there’d have been no dockside cranes or Marchwood Power Station though, and the ships would all have had sails.

Despite the bitter cold wind buffeting us, it was a wrench to turn away from the splendid views and all the spotting of landmarks to go back down the creaky staircase. Our visit to God’s House had certainly not disappointed and it is one that will stay with us both for a long time.

As we walked back through the building to the exit we both wondered what the old place will look like when we next see it? We walked back along Winkle Street full of talk about cannons, gunpowder production and what it must have been like to be locked up in the tower. From the old walls some curious looking newcomers stared down at us and we turned to take one last look at the gate and the tower. Our final stop, before we went off to find a warming cup of coffee, were the gates of St Julien’s Church. Now there’s a place I’d like to see inside…

The renovation of God’s House Tower is expected to be completed some time next year. I can’t wait to come back and see what it looks like then. I promise I’ll take my camera and show you when I do.

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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.

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

9 thoughts on “Up on the roof”

    1. I think stout doors were all they made in those days. I imagine the whole place was very cold with the stone walls and the open windows, not to mention the sea just outside. The views were fantastic though.

    2. the heavy door used to be the ‘Prison Door’ – just imagine the niose it made when you were locked in! Now it is just resting against a wall as an exhibit.

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