1 June 2015
The rain had stopped on Monday morning, if not the wind. There were no guarantees it would stay that way so I decided to shelve the idea of a walk to Lakeside and another cygnet hunt and go somewhere where there was easy access to shelter and coffee. When I told CJ what I was up to he decided to come along too. Probably it was the thought of a latte and maybe a cake to go with it that did it.
Before the sixteenth century Southampton High Street was called English Street. The Saxon inhabitants of the town lived there and in East Street. The street running parallel to it was, and still is, called French Street after the Frenchmen who settled there and in nearby Bugle Street after the Norman conquest. Of course things have changed a great deal since then but the area still has a lot of history to offer.
For a while now I’ve been meaning to explore French Street, not that I’ve never walked along it of course, but a proper exploration looking at the wonderful old buildings. CJ is partial to a bit a history too so it wasn’t just the coffee calling. We started on Town Quay, next to the Wool House on a grassy park that was once the site of the Royal Pier Hotel. Built in around 1830, it was a casualty of the blitz and today a tree has been planted to commemorate the lives that were lost.
The wall running behind this garden is the boundary wall of the Registry Office. Many years ago I had my wedding photos taken on the other side, not knowing the history behind it. The rear wall backs onto French Street and is partly medieval, with an arched church like window. In 1696 King Edward VI grammar school for the poor moved here from nearby Winkle Street. The school was founded in 1553 as a bequest from William Capon. Isaac Waats of enchanted park fame was among the pupils.
Just across the road is the next building of interest. The tall red brick building with small high windows looks slightly austere and forbidding to me but that might be because I know its origins. In 1629, John Major, Mayor of Southampton, endowed £200 to build Southampton’s first workhouse. It was built two years later in French Street. This is the building. The workhouse was relocated close to St Mary’s Churchyard in 1774. The old workhouse became a mission hall and is now part of St John’s School. What terribly hard lives the original occupants must have had.
Also part of the school grounds is the medieval Weigh House. From the outside it doesn’t look much, a square stone building with a large window and an arched door, but it was built in the early 1200’s and was once of great importance to the town. It was here the wool that was the mainstay of the medieval economy was weighed. It housed the king’s weigh beam, called the Tron, a large wooden balance beam where bales of wool were weighed for sale and for the tax man.
Local merchants were suspicious of the beam and it was, allegedly, susceptible to misuse. During the French raid of 1338 the beam and weights were stolen, so there is nothing left of it today and I must admit I can’t quite picture how it would have looked or worked. Unfortunately the building is now just a shell, having been another victim of the blitz. As it’s part of the school we couldn’t go inside but I took a few photos through the bars of the gate.
The door on the opposite side of the large, square room has steps leading down to a medieval stone vault which runs under the school playground. I wonder if the children know how lucky they are? The vault dates from the fourteenth century, is built in dressed stone and may once have been used as a shop. In 1939 it was used as an air raid shelter. One of these days I promise I will take the vaults tour and see it for myself.
The school itself is a lovely old red brick building with lots of tall windows, accents of light coloured stone and the name St John’s Council School proudly emblazoned. It was built in 1911 when times were very different. One of the cold cellar rooms was used as a bath house. The poor children would go down two at a time and bathe in tin baths with carbolic soap and scrubbing brushes. It’s hard to imagine such a thing today.
Recently the school has begun to outgrow it’s surroundings and is expanding across the road to the old Eagle Warehouse site. For us this was a little unfortunate because it was one of the buildings I wanted to photograph but it’s currently covered by a shroud of white tarpaulin and scaffolding.
It’s a shame because it’s truly a beautiful Art Nouveau style building, designed by Francis William Wade and built in 1903. Four stories high and built of red brick with stone dressings like the school, above the tarpaulin covering, the parapet and the eagle that gives it its name could just about be seen but the painted legend May & Wade, Export Grocers, Shipping Contractors on the side is hidden. As the writing suggests it was originally a warehouse but, from the 1980’s it was used as Southampton’s archaeological finds store. Quite what will become of all the artifacts remains to be seen. When it is uncovered again I will come back and take some photos, until then I will make do with some from Google Street View.
Not far along the street is the pièce de résistance in terms of old and interesting buildings. As we approached it I was disappointed to see an elderly lady and two small children sitting on the steps by the door getting in the way of my photo opportunity. They looked as if they might be about to move on and, while I waited, I took some shots of the barrel above the door and the steps to the cellar. It was, of course, the Medieval Merchant’s House.
The interlopers moved on and I walked back down the street a little way to get a good shot of the building only to find CJ had sat on the wall himself.
“Do you want to be in this photo then?” I asked sarcastically, “only I was hoping to get a picture of the building with no one in front of it.”
He responded by hopping down onto the cellar steps and crouching out of sight. Quite why he didn’t just get out of the way is anyone’s guess but I can’t see him in the photo even though I know he’s there.
The Merchant’s House is another one of those places I keep meaning to visit but never quite get round to, mostly because it’s only open on a Sunday morning. In 1290, when this house was built this was the most desirable part of the town. It was designed by John Fortin, a well to do wine merchant, with a vaulted wine cellar and a shop at the front. The wooden, shutter like structures under the front window could be unfolded to use as tables to display wares. The house may well have been one of those damaged in the French raids in the 1330’s as the south western corner collapsed at around that time and was hastily rebuilt.
After the riads, as the town’s prosperity went into decline, the house was rented to tenants, one, John Barflet was a descendant of John Fortin, the other was Thomas Fryke. Over the following centuries it underwent many changes. During the seventeenth century it was divided into three cottages and then converted back into a single building a century later. It was then owned by a Mrs Collins who took in actors as lodgers. In Victoiran times it was converted into a beer shop, something akin to its original use, and later it became a pub called the Bulls Head.
By 1939 French Street was no longer a fashionable area to live, in fact the house was being used as a brothel and much of the surrounding area was filled with cramped tenements and slums. Over the years the house had been changed and modernised almost beyond recognition. During the blitz it was seriously damaged and came to the notice of the council who saw its importance and bought it. Of course, the wheels of the council grind slow and their coffers are usually empty so it wasn’t until 1984 that it was handed over to English Heritage that the restoration work began. After much research the modernisations were removed and, over a period of two years, the house was restored as closely as possible to the medieval original. They did a fantastic job. Historian Glyn Coppack Called it “the only building of its type to survive substantially as first built.”
As you would expect with a house of this age, there have been reports of ghosts. One member of the English Heritage staff found mysterious footprints in the gravel of the cellar floor. The floor had been raked over the night before and the cellar locked. In the morning there were footprints, beginning in the middle of the floor and disappearing into a wall. In fact, one footprint was bisected by the wall!
With a promise to come back and visit again one Sunday when the house is open, CJ and I walked on. We didn’t get very far. The plot next door is one of the few remaining bomb sites still untouched in the city. There is a good reason for this, 52, 54 and 56 French Street were also medieval houses. Number 56 was owned by Benedict Ace, Mayor of Southampton between 1237 and 1249 and the other two were owned by God’s House Hospital and rented to the needy. Archeological investigations carried out in the 1990’s show that they were probably timber framed houses and, for now, what remains has been preserved. For how long remains to be seen.
We stood for a while trying to imagine what the buildings might have been like. The next houses along the street, although undoubtedly old, probably Victorian by the look of them, gave no clue. By now we’d reached the point where French Street becomes Castle Way. We looked back down the street, now an eclectic mixture of the ancient and modern and tried to picture it as it would have been. Our explorations were at an end and coffee was calling.