Following frontiersmen’s footsteps

17 January 2017

Before Christmas CJ and I took a walk that inadvertently led us past the Swaythling Remount Depot and we recently walked through North Stoneham Park where one of the Remount camps was. Looking for more information about the Remount Depot, I stumbled upon some entertaining ‘campfire yarns’ on The Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth website. Three tales told of stampedes when frontiersmen were driving as many as six hundred horses through the city. Today, I thought CJ and I would retrace some of their footsteps, as far as we could, and share their stories.

The remounts were horses, either requisitioned in England or brought by ship to be trained and used as war horses. They were mostly trained by the Legion of Frontiersmen who had branches throughout the British Empire. As soon as World War I broke out, a huge number of Frontiersmen came from around the world to offer their services, hoping an official Frontiersmen unit would be formed. This never happened but many were sent to the remount depots to use their riding skills and train the horses. The majority of these were Canadian, having strong ties with the Canadian mounted police.

Usually the horses would be transported, either from the camp to the docks for embarkation, or from the docks or a railway siding to the camp, with a Frontiersman riding one horse and leading three. Occasionally, when more horses than expected arrived or less men were available, there was no choice but the herd them through the streets as best they could.

Two of the stories I found were of journeys from the docks to the camps. These were the ones we would be concentrating on. The first, told by VW Tobin,  began as darkness fell at the end of a long day in November 1914. Frontiersmen had been leading horses for embarkation all day when the call came to say one hundred officers horses were waiting at a siding near the docks. They had to be taken to the Remount Depot but, by then, only five men were available.  The men set off, Hopeful of finding some off duty comrades at the docks to help.

The second was told by ‘Jungle Jim’ Biddulph-Pinchard, the son of Robert, the CO of the Hants and Wilts Leigion of Frontiersmen squadron. Jim was just a lad when the call came one Sunday to say there were six hundred heavy draft horses arriving at the docks station. Almost all the men were tied up with breaking and training horses at the time and just seven men were free to do the job. Even so, the Commandant ordered them to collect the horses.

Of course we couldn’t get inside the docks but a little Googling told me there had been a station near the Royal Pier at the time so this was where we began. Back then the pier was called Victoria Pier, having been opened in 1833 by Queen Victoria who was then a mere princess. Originally passengers were taken by horse drawn buses and trams from Southampton Railway Station near South Western House, to the steamers that would take them to the Channel Islands, Le Harvre and the Isle of Wight. The train tracks were extended to the pier itself in 1871 and a new station built there. The Pier Station was short-lived. By 1913 passenger numbers had declined and the service was suspended. When World War I broke out the tracks and station were already in a bad state of repair but the station was used for troop movements. This seems the most likely place for the Remount horses to be loaded and unloaded.

We stood in Mayflower Park beside the Pier looking out at the charred  remains. A lot has changed since 1914. Not only has the station disappeared, having been torn down in the early 1920’s, but the pier itself is nothing but a ruin now. It was hit by a ship shortly before the station was demolished and, despite a new pier pavillion, including the domed entrance building we know and love today, being added in 1930 the pier itself was left to go to ruin.  By 1982 it was so unsafe it was closed. A fire ten years later put paid to any ideas of it ever being restored.

It was hard to imagine what it might have been like back then, although I did find an old photograph from the late 1800’s showing a very different entrance made from red brick and a bustling station complete with waiting ships. Even with this to help it was impossible to visualise several hundred horses clip clopping along the pier and gathering around Mayflower Park.

In Tobin’s tale it was a moonlit Saturday night with a little rain falling as he and his four companions, Buck an American, Digger from Australia, Gringo from Argentina and Capey, an ex Cape Mounted Policeman searched for off duty Frontiersmen to help with their task. They found none and the four of them ended up at the siding alone with a hundred horses to get through the town. The guard helped them get the horses off the train and they turned them into a small field while they decided what to do. Whether this was Mayflower Park or not isn’t clear but we tried to imagine them there all the same.

Perhaps the men stood looking across the road at the old Royal Southern Yacht Club building and the Woolhouse wondering how best to get the horses back to the camp. Both buildings would have been there then, much as they are today. The Yacht Club building opened in 1846 and, with its white columns and balconies, was described as the most beautiful Victorian building in the City. Today it’s empty but there are plans afoot to turn it into a restaurant. The Woolhouse needs little introduction and has been standing much as it is today since medieval times. Back in 2015 it was turned into a micro brewery and restaurant. In 1914 it was likely still being used by Edwin Moon and the Moonbeam Engineering Company to build motor launches, propellers, engines and even a flying boat.

After a short discussion, Tobin and his men decided to try to lead the horses on a route away from the centre of town and they set off with Yank at the front, Digger and Gringo blocking side roads and Casey and Tobin at the rear. Which way they went isn’t clear but, in the beginning, things looked to be going well.

With six times the horses things were never going to run smoothly for Jungle Jim’s father and  his six companions, a mixture of Canadians, Australians and ex cavalrymen. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert Biddulph-Pinchard turned the horses loose and, with his men urging them with whoops from the side and the rear, he led them towards the High Street. This was the route we chose today.

Whether the horses ran along the main Town Quay Road or not wasn’t clear but, with six hundred of them, I was fairly sure more than a few would have ended up charging along Porters Lane. This was our chosen route.

In Medieval times this was the quayside and where the licensed Porters of the town were based. Not much has changed since 1914, at least from the lane. The back of the Geddes Warehouse, now used as restaurants, is much as it would have been. There is probably a little less of the Norman Merchant’s House, better known as Canute’s Palace, than there was then and the Watergate had only been torn down ten years previously so the remaining stones were probably far less weathered.

We turned into the bottom of the High Street trying to imagine Jungle Jim’s horses clattering towards the centre of town and disrupting the peace of a quiet Sunday afternoon. Most of the buildings here were built after the Second World War so it would have looked very different in 1914. Beside Town Quay Park, Quilter’s Vault, named after nineteenth century Landlady Eliza Quilter, would then have still been the Royal George Hotel. The pub was destroyed by bombs in World War II and now just the vaults remain.  We stopped for a moment to peer through the windows into the vault.

Further up the High Street, as we approached Holyrood, a quartet of old buildings survived the bombing. Of course, on a Sunday afternoon, the Post Office I remember using in the 1980’s would have been closed. Now it and the building to its right, which I believe was once a bank, stand empty. To the left the distinctive Oakley and Watling building with its white tiled facade and a ship on the pediment may well have still been supplying fruit, vegetables and flowers to the shipping companies, including White Star who supplied Titanic. The building, erected in 1890, would have been fairly new. These days it’s another restaurant.

The final building has not changed one bit since 1914. In fact it’s barely changed since it was built in the 1400’s. A herd of horses stampeding past is not the strangest thing this building has ever seen for sure. Reputedly, Henry V stayed here in 1415 and the members of the Southampton Plot were tried here, or so the story goes. As you’d expect there are a lot of ghosts as we discovered on a ghost walk in the summer of 2015.

Although Tobin and his men had started off trying to guide their hundred horses away from the town things did not go to plan. A few horses started off a stampede, and, despite the best efforts of the six men, the whole lot charged along country lanes lined by fields of cattle and horses towards the town centre. Quite where they entered town is a mystery but, as it was market night, the place was filled with people shopping. The men watched helpless as the horses clattered along the streets amongst the traffic with shoppers dashing to get out of the way, policemen blowing their whistles and dogs barking wildly. Perhaps they passed Market Chambers and Holyrood Chambers, two imposing red brick buildings built in the 1870’s opposite Holyrood Church? Both survived the war and the stampeding horses. The former was built as a fish market, the latter as a shop.

We had now reached the junction of the High Street and St Michael’s Street. No doubt the Frontiersmen in both tales would have done their best to block the side roads to stop the horses charging towards st Michael’s Church or past Holyrood Church down Bernard Street. Both churches would have been in use back in 1914, as would the National Provincial Bank on the corner. This bank was  built in the 1860’s and four men who had once been staff there lost their lives in World War I.

Holyrood Church has changed a great deal since the horses thundered past. It was bombed in World War II and the ruin has been left as a memorial to merchant seamen. These days a huge anchor from the QE2 stands outside. It might have proved an obstacle for all those horses if it had been there in 1914.

By now we could see the Bargate. As the horses clattered past the Star and Dolphin hotels the poor Frontiersmen must have had a few worries about getting them through the ancient gate. Back then the walls around the gate were still intact and there were just three small arches for the beasts to pass through.

The Bargate, Southampton an FGO Stuart postcard

Somehow Jungle Jim’s six hundred horses must have got through the Bargate arches into Above Bar because, in his tale, they later rampaged through Postswood. As for Tobin’s stampede, it’s unclear exactly which way they went when they left the town but, more by luck than judgement, they got out of town without anyone being injured. The obvious route from the High Street to Portswood is along Above Bar towards the Avenue and this was the route we took today. This area was decimated by bombs in World War II and has been rebuilt more than once since then so little remains of what the horses would have passed. Today the area in front of Bargate is a precinct with the huge frontage of WestQuay in the centre. Back then it would have been a road, perhaps with horse drawn carriages, the odd car and, of course, trams.

One of the few old buildings that remain is the late nineteenth century Prudential Assurance Building, just above the Marlands shopping centre. A little further on and the animals and men would have passed the clock tower that now stands at Bitterne Park Triangle. Back then it was at the junction of Above Bar and New Road. Perhaps a few horses would have stopped for a quick drink? A couple of old postcards I found give a good idea of what the area would have looked like back then.

Above Bar, Southampton FGO Stuart postcards

Not really knowing whether the horses would have galloped through the parks or carried on along Above Bar we kept going forwards. Almost all the buildings here date from after World War I, even the Guildhall, glimpsed across Guildhall Square. Some are brand, spanking new, like the Stable Restaurant. This last did at least make me smile. The poor Frontiersmen could have probably done with a stable back then after all.

Obviously there was no cenotaph back in 1914, but the Titanic sailed and sank in 1912 and the Titanic Engineers Memorial near the entrance to East Park was unveiled in April 1914. If they did come this way it’s doubtful whether the Frontiersmen would have had chance to even give it a glance though.

As Jungle Jim’s horses had passed through Portswood we continued onto London Road heading for The Aveune where we could take a side road in that direction. In 1914 the old dairy building would actually have been a diary, rather than an Estate agent’s office and it’s likely there would have been horses there, used for making deliveries. What would they have made of the stampede if it did come this way?

Now we’d reached the bottom of The Avenue and we had to decide on the best route to take towards Portswood. There was no way of knowing which way Jungle Jim’s horses went so there was rather a long stop to consider our options.

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

14 thoughts on “Following frontiersmen’s footsteps”

  1. I’ve never thought much about how they moved all those horses around during World War 1 but they must have had to move thousands of them. It makes me glad I wasn’t around then!
    I don’t think the squirrel at the Titanic Memorial will be foolish enough to go in that cage.

    1. The Frontiersmen did a wonderful job and got very little recognition for it. I loved finding their stories and, as you will see tomorrow, there was a humorous side to some of them. I wondered if anyone would notice the little squirrel. I don’t think he was planning on going into the cage around the lights 🙂

  2. The stand alone clock tower on the right of the final Above Bar postcard looks like the one which has been at Bitterne park triangle all my life (at least). Did it get moved or were there two?

    1. It isn’t the same one, it was moved from the junction of Above Bar and New Road when traffic became a problem. It has been at Bitterne Park Triangle all my life too.

  3. A very interesting read about another largely forgotten episode n Southampton’s history. The number of horses used during WW1 was phenomenal, an estimated 8 million. There was a military pier built during the first world war where Mayflower Park is now, and there was a direct rail link from there to the mainline station (now Central Station). I wonder if this would have been an embarkation point for the horses? PS you stated that the Red Lion hasn’t changed since the 1100s, it wasn’t built until the 1500s.

    1. From what I read the horses embarked and disembarked from the stations at the docks but were either led by road or on trains to Swaythling Station, close to the remount depot camps. It must have been difficult getting them through the streets. Sorry about the typo, I will correct it now.

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