Sunshine after the rain and confetti in the catacombs

8 December 2017

We’d reached Six Dials and the end of our walk along the busy main road. Feeling pleased to be away from the traffic, we headed down into the underpass and emerged on Kingsway. At this stage there was no real plan, other than to get a coffee before we went back home. We stood looking over the railway bridge trying to decide which was the quickest way to our favourite Costas. Usually our walks to town would take us along Old Northam Road and through St Mary’s, so there was a certain amount of dithering and mentally recalculating of routes. 

In the end we decided to follow Kingsway until we reached Hoglands Park and then cut across to Bargate. Before we got that far though, I noticed an interesting building through the trees so we took a quick detour to have a closer look.  The large red brick building had a definite Victorian feel to it and, at first glance, it looked as if it might once have been a school. Beside all the modern flats and houses it seemed quite out of place.

When we got closer, the trefoil windows made me think it might actually have been a church. A sign on the wall and over the door told us this was the Kingsland Community Centre but there was an older, more ornate sign in the plaster above the door arch that said Holy Trinity Mission. I knew there had once been a Church in the area called Holy Trinity. It was badly damaged by bombing during World War II though and was demolished in 1950. Perhaps this building was a Church Hall?

Holy Trinity Church

Along the walls we found several plaques suggesting the building had been extended several times. They all spoke of some kind of religious use. Later Googling told me a little more, but not much. Apparently this was the Kingsland Infant School between 1828 and 1857 and from then until 1883, it was a Wesleyan chapel. It seems a shame that more of its history hasn’t been documented but it’s a splendid old building anyway and I’m glad it is still being used and cared for.

From Kingsland we cut across Houndwell Park. The new play area was empty today, probably because of the decidedly changeable weather. We stopped for a while to look at the wooden towers and sunken ships, like the city in miniature.

A little further on a seagull sitting proudly on the top of the Kell and Melly Fountain made us laugh. He looked as if he owned the park. This was actually the first drinking fountain in Southampton, built in 1858 by Edmund Kell and Charles Melly. Unlike many of the ornate drinking fountains that followed, this one was fairly plain, just a square pillar with pediments and a globe at the top. It used to stand at the junction of Marsh Lane, St Mary’s Street and East Street but was moved to Houndwell Park in 1969 because, like so many other things, it was in the way of traffic.

The drinking fountain actually has an interesting story, although it doesn’t reflect too well on the people of the town. When minister Edmund Kell left the Unitarian Church on the Isle of Wight in 1853 and moved to Southampton, he was shocked by the drunkenness and disorder he found there. Back in the day the only drink available to working men outside their homes was alcohol. It seemed to Kell the best way to tackle all the public drunkenness he saw was to build a drinking fountain. Wealthy Liverpudlian, Charles Melly, heard about his plan and offered to pay for the fountain. Whether it actually made any difference to the number of drunks on the streets remains to be seen but today, despite having long been disconnected from the water supply, it is a listed monument.

There is another monument in the park, the William Chamberlayne Gas Column. Our path didn’t take us right up to it but I did take a photo because it tied in niecely with the gasometers I’d photographed earlier. This fifty foot high blue Doric Column pays tribute to William Chamberlayne, a Southampton MP between 1818 and 1829. Chamberlayne once owned Netley Castle. He also owned the town’s gas company and donated the first gas lights to the town.  The column pays tribute to this. It was erected in 1822 at the junction of New Road and Above Bar Street. In 1865 it was moved to Houndwell Park where it stayed until 1957, when it was moved again to the centre of the nearby roundabout. In 2000 it was moved back to the park. Maybe they should have fitted wheels?

We left the park and headed along York Walk towards Costa. In part this was to see if the Bargate Centre was still there. Last time we were in town, builders, or maybe that should be demolition men, were knocking down the car park. It seems the car park is as far as they’ve got because the Bargate Centre was still standing and the medieval walls were tightly wrapped in protective netting. There wasn’t a great deal to see but I took a few photos anyway, something to look back on when the work is complete.

With my pictures taken we followed the line of the walls through the archway to Bargate. Hopefully this too will get a revamp when the work is complete. Usually this is where I stop to take photographs of the Bargate but today it was the front of the Bargate Centre that captured my attention. It may not be there much longer after all so my pictures will act as a reminder of what it used to be like. It occurred to me that most of this walk was about documenting things that were about to change.

By now we were almost at Costas but the row of post war shops on the corner of East Street reminded me of a story I’d stumbled upon recently. In medieval times Henry II granted the monks of St Denys Priory land in the town to build a church. It was called All Hallows and this was where it stood. By the late 1700’s the old church was crumbling and a new church, named All Saints, was built on the site using money raised from rates on property rents in the parish. The new building was designed by Willey Reveley and had a neoclassical frontage with four large columns supporting Grecian pilasters and a triangular pediment, reminiscent, some said, of the Temple of Minerva in Greece. Unpopular poet laureate, Henry James Pye came to watch the laying of the foundation stone and wrote an ode about it.

The imposing church was one of the most memorable buildings on the High Street. Jane Austen was a regular worshipper there when she lived in Southampton and even mentioned it in her letters. Painter Sir John Everett Millais was baptised there.

The catacombs beneath the original church were incorporated into the new building. They had an entrance on East Street and extended beneath the pavement in front of the church. A grating near the church steps let in a little light and air, along with confetti thrown over the brides and grooms who married there, this would become entangled in the cobwebs hanging everywhere, a strange decoration for such a macabre place. Many of the town’s dignitaries were entombed in the underground avenues and passages including a Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Charles II and two notable Royal Navy officers. Each coffin was inserted into a separate brick compartment and sealed in. This underground city was populated by more than four hundred of the town’s dead, with the last burial in 1868.

The new church also had a separate burial ground  between East Street and Back of the Walls. This was where poor Lizzie Loader was buried, at least for a short while. In the seventeenth century, Lizzie was a smallholder who regularly crossed the Itchen from her smallholding in Woolston to sell  dairy products in the town market. One night a gang of footpads robbed and killed her as she made her way back to the ferry. In those days it was believed touching the body of a murder victim would cure you of illness and Lizzie’s rotting corpse was dug up and sat on the High Street near Bargate. Some say her ghost, dressed in tattered rags, can still be seen wandering in the area to this day. By 1861 there was no room for more burials and in 1914 the old headstones we’re cleared and the land used as a playground. By the 1960’s, all the remains had been exhumed and reburied in Hollybrook Cemetery and the land became the Eastgate Street car park.

During World War II the catacombs beneath All Saints Church were used as an air raid shelter. In December 1940 bombs damaged the church beyond repair but the catacomb survived virtually intact. The burial records were also saved, scorched by the fire and speckled with candle wax and molten tar, they survive to this day in the city archives. When the church was finally demolished in 1944, the lead lined oak coffins were removed from the catacombs. Some were crumbling to dust but those that were in good repair were reburied in a communal grave in Hollybrook Cemetery.

Talking about the church and the catacombs, CJ and I walked to the corner of East Street, wondering what remained of the old catacombs beneath our feet? Looking at the row of modern shops and the shoppers passing by it was hard to imagine a city of the dead below the wet pavement but, as far as I can tell, the catacombs are still there beneath the row of shops, although they are now unoccupied. As we sat in Costa drinking our well earned coffee, it occurred to me we’d once have been sitting inside the church and there were more than likely empty catacombs beneath us. Drinking coffee there may never be the same again.

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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 “Sunshine after the rain and confetti in the catacombs”

  1. I’ll have to ask my mum about the Community centre, she was born at 110 St Marys road in 1930 and grew up there before being evacuated to Bournemouth, she may remember more about it?

  2. I like that old church. It’s too bad it had to be torn down.
    Imagine removing all the headstones from a cemetery and using it as a playground. I doubt that would ever happen these days.
    There certainly was a lot of moving around of the dead back in the day. I can’t imagine being part of that but I suppose someone had to do it.

    1. So much was destroyed in the town during the blitz it changed the face os Southampton forever. I think people had different attitudes to death and the dead back then. I can’t imagine a body propped up on the High Street. In Paris they moved all the bodies from the flooded cemeteries and put them in the catacombs. What a job that must have been!

  3. I keep reading about the Catacombes. There must be some pictures around of it. Has anyone thought of getting in there. Ive heard there is an entrance from the White shop opposite Holy Rhood?

    1. I have t found any photos of the inside of the catacombs so far. There may still be a way in but it wouldn’t be from Holy Rood, the entrance was on East Street.

  4. Reading about the catacombs is fascinating though I am glad they are now unoccupied!
    Marie, was it on your blog somewhere that I read about Southampton’s speakers corner? I think it is in Hoglands Park and I’d like to know it’s exact location – I’d be grateful if you could help.

    1. I was lucky enough to visit the catacombs in Paris a while back. They are fully occupied and strangely beautiful. I’m not sure if I have written about speakers corner but it is just off the path from the roundabout outside Debenhams, on the right hand side as you walk towards St Mary’s.

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