A History of Southampton

By Tim Lambert

Roman Southampton

About 70 AD the Romans built a town on a bend in the River Itchen, where Bitterne now stands. The Roman town near Southampton was called Clausentum. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and they were graveled.

All the buildings in the Roman town were, at first, built of wood but in the 2nd century, wealthy people rebuilt their houses in stone. They had panes of glass in the windows, painted murals on the walls, and mosaic floors. Of course, poor people could afford none of these things. They lived in wood and plaster huts.

In the 2nd century, the little town was fortified. An earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top was erected and a ditch was dug. In addition, an inner area of 8 acres was given its own ditch, rampart, and palisade. In the 4th century, the inner area was strengthened with stonewalls.

The Roman army left Britain in 407 AD and the town of Clausentum was abandoned soon afterward.

Saxon Southampton

The Saxon king, Ine, built a new town on the other side of the Itchen about 690-700 AD. It stood where St Mary’s church is today. The new town was called Hamwic or Hamtun. (The ham in Hampshire comes from Hamtun. It was once called Hamtunshire). Saxon Southampton was a large and important port. It is estimated that the population of the Saxon town was 4,000-5,000, which was very large, by Saxon standards.

Saxon Southampton was laid out with streets on a grid pattern like the old Roman town, but all the buildings in it were of wood. In the town, craftsmen made needles and combs from animal bones. There were also blacksmiths, bronze smiths, carpenters, thatchers, leather workers, and potters. Women wove wool into cloth.

The main export from Southampton was wool. Wine and fine pottery were imported as well as millstones. By the 9th century, there was a royal mint in the town.

Southampton suffered severely in the Danish raids of the 9th and 10th centuries. The Danes sacked the town several times. Late in the 9th century, King Alfred created a network of strongholds called burghs across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish raid, all the men in the area were supposed to gather in the stronghold or burgh. It is recorded that there was a burgh called Hamtun (later this name changed into Southampton). Some historians think it may have been within the stone walls of the old Roman town.

In the 10th century, Southampton went into decline. This may have been partly due to the Danish raids but it was probably also due to the silting up of the Itchen. As Southampton declined many people probably moved to Winchester but at least some moved to a new settlement beside the Test. This new settlement was also called Hamtun but it was much smaller than the old town. At the time of Domesday (1086), it may have had about 1,000 inhabitants.

Nevertheless the Witan, the Saxon parliament declared Canute king of England at Southampton.

Southampton in the Middle Ages

After the Norman conquest, Frenchmen came to live in Southampton. They settled around French Street and Bugle Street. They worshiped in a church dedicated to St Michael (the patron saint of Normandy). High Street was once called English Street. It and East Street were where the original Saxon inhabitants lived. (English Street changed its name to High Street in the 16th century).

The Normans also built a wooden castle in Southampton. In the 12th century, the castle was rebuilt in stone.

Medieval Southampton grew rapidly and probably had about 3,000-4,000 inhabitants by the 14th century. In the town, craftsmen of one kind tended to live in one street. Bakers lived in Simnel Street (simnel was a type of fine flour). West Street was known as Butcher Row, Bugle Street was also a street of butchers (a bugle is an old name for a young bull). Wincle Street derives its name from the old word wincel meaning nook, corner, or angle.

By the 13th century, there was a small suburb north of Southampton where Above Bar is today. By 1250 another little suburb had grown up outside the East Gate on the road to St Mary’s church. It was called Newtown, a name that has lasted to the present day.

At first, all of the buildings in Medieval Southampton were of wood but in the years 1150-75 many wealthy merchants rebuilt their houses in stone.

The main export from Southampton was wool. The main import was wine from France or Spain. In 1305 the merchants said the prosperity of the town depended on wine.

In the Middle Ages, there was a shipbuilding industry at Southampton, off West Quay. During the Hundred Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries, several naval vessels were built for the king. Apart from this, there were many craftsmen in Southampton making things for the people of the town (carpenters, blacksmiths, potters, leatherworkers, and thatchers).

In Medieval Southampton, there were weekly markets. There was also an annual fair. A fair was like a market but people would travel from all over the country to attend. The fair was held for 3 days each year near the Chapel of St Mary and the Holy Trinity. So it was called the Chapel or Trinity Fair.

At first, Southampton was run by a man called a portreeve assisted by bailiffs. A mayor was first mentioned in 1217.

In 1127 an Augustinian Priory (small abbey) was founded at St Denys. In 1185 the Portreeve of Southampton Gervaise Le Riche founded God’s house. It was a home for sick and poor people. It also gave shelter to poor travelers.

There was also a leper hostel, built in the 12th century just outside the town. It stood in the middle of fields and was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. The surrounding fields were called Magdalene’s fields which became corrupted to Marlands.

About 1237 Franciscan friars arrived in Southampton. Friars were like monks but rather than trying to live separately from the world, they went out into the world to preach. The friars were responsible for the first water supply in the town. They were given a spring north of Southampton at the end of the 13th century and they built a lead pipe to the friary. In 1311 they permitted the townspeople to use their water supply.

By the 13th century, Southampton was fortified with an earth rampart with a wooden palisade and a ditch. In the years 1260-1300, a stonewall replaced it. Unfortunately, the wall only protected the landward side of the town. The wall did not extend along the shore. The result was a disaster.

In 1338 a force of Frenchmen and Sicilians landed on a shingle spit near St Michaels Square while the people of Southampton were at mass. The enemy broke into St Michael’s church and killed many people including women and children. Some people fled to the countryside. They and men from the surrounding area gathered together and prepared to counterattack.

Meanwhile, the French burnt many of the houses in Southampton. Early the next morning the English counterattacked and killed about 300 French and Sicilians. The rest fled to their ships and sailed away.

In 1339 the king visited Southampton and ordered improvements to be made to the fortifications. The work went on for decades and was a huge burden on the town. The cost of the new fortifications was immense. Several new towers were added to the walls and in 1378-80 the keep of the castle was rebuilt.

The Bar Gate was given a new facade with machicolations. (Holes in a ledge overhanging the gate through which boiling water could be poured and large stones could be dropped). This time the walls of Southampton were extended along the seafront. Some merchants had houses overlooking the sea. Their houses were incorporated into the wall.

In the late Middle Ages, the prosperity of the town partly depended on trade with the Italians. From the early 14th century, they brought luxuries like spices, perfume, and silk to Southampton as well as cargoes like alum and woad (used in dyeing wool). On their return journey, the Italian ships took English wool. Southampton became a busy port and ranked third in the kingdom behind London and Bristol.

Southampton also benefited from the Hundred Years War which dragged on from the middle of the 14th to the middle of the 15th century. Ships were built for the navy in Southampton and the town was used as a departure point for armies on their way to France. The departing English armies needed large quantities of supplies such as bread meat and beer providing plenty of work for bakers, butchers, and brewers in the town.

Southampton in the 16th century and 17th century

In the late 15th century, for various reasons, the Italian trade went into a steep decline and it ceased altogether in the early 16th century. Worse, in the 15th century, Southampton was the only port in England from which lead and tin could legally be exported but it lost this monopoly in 1531.

At first, Southampton was able to compensate. The wine trade with France flourished after the end of the hundred years war in 1453. Furthermore, English kings made commercial treaties with Spain, and trade between Southampton and that country thrived. Southampton also did a great deal of business with the Channel Islands at this time.

Nevertheless, Southampton ceased to be an important port during the 16th century. By 1600 it was described as a ‘decayed’ port. There was, however, still a coastal trade. In those days it was expensive to transport goods by road. It was cheaper to do so by water. Many goods were transported by river or along the coast. Items like coal, salt, iron, malt, woad, alum, and timber were brought along the coast to Southampton and then taken inland by horse and cart.

To help the port in 1554, it was decreed that Malmsey wine, from France, could only be imported through Southampton. In 1567, after much complaining, the rules were changed. Other ports were allowed to import it but only if they charged a tariff, half of which went to Southampton Corporation.

In 1541 a visitor said Southampton had ‘many fair merchants houses’ and the High Street was ‘one of the fairest in all England for timber buildings’. In 1552 another person wrote ‘The town is handsome and for its size has houses as fair as those in London’.

But by the end of the century, it was a different picture. The walls were said to be overgrown with ‘elders, yew and such other weeds’. Poor people used towers around the walls as dwellings and local butchers grazed their animals on the hill under the castle keep. Some houses, it was said, were ‘greatly decayed and likely to fall down’.

However, Tudor Southampton was not entirely impoverished. It became a manufacturing center. In 1567 craftsmen fleeing religious persecution in Belgium settled in the town. They introduced the manufacture of serge cloth in England. Furthermore, craftsmen from other English towns such as Salisbury came to work in Southampton. A survey in 1596 showed Southampton had a population of 4,200.

There were 2 outbreaks of plague in Southampton in the 16th century, one in 1563 and one in 1581. However, after each outbreak of the plague, the population quickly recovered. There were plenty of poor people from the countryside looking for work and they drifted into towns.

In 1550 William Capon, rector of St Mary’s left 100 pounds in his will to be used to found a grammar school in Southampton. It opened in 1554 on Winkle Street.

In 1618 King James sold Southampton castle, which was now falling into ruin. The king visited the town and said it was ‘one of the healthiest and sweetest towns in the kingdom’.

However, Southampton languished in the 17th century. At the end of the century, people commented that its trade had decayed and the town had fallen into neglect.

Southampton in the 18th century

In 1750 Prince Frederick went bathing in the sea at Southampton. He liked it so much that he returned the same year. Although he died the next year his 3 sons came to visit the town. Soon many rich visitors followed. People believed that bathing in seawater could heal many diseases.

In 1762 Southampton was called: ‘one of the prettiest and healthiest towns in England, it is rather extensive and well-populated and possesses several fine houses’.

Furthermore, 18th century Southampton began to recover as a port. In 1753 a writer said that it had ‘lately improved its position. Much of the wine trade with Portugal formerly handled by London is now finding its way to the port’. From the 1780s trade in Southampton began to revive even more. Coal from Newcastle was imported in increasing amounts. Wool stockings were imported from the Channel Islands.

From 1770 Southampton began to grow north of the Bargate. By 1802 growth had spread as far as Commercial Road. The population rose from about 6,000 in 1770 to about 8,000 in 1801.

From 1745 the authorities planted trees along the road across the Common. In 1761 an assembly room was opened on West Quay. Balls were held there and games of cards were. A visitor described it as ‘very elegant, handsomely lighted up with 5 glass chandeliers’. In 1766 Southampton got its first theatre on French Street. The town gained its first bank in 1778.

In 1770 an act of Parliament set up a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave and clean the main streets of Southampton. From 1782 they provided 150 oil lamps to light some of the streets.

In 1775 Eastgate was demolished as it impeded the flow of traffic. In 1765 a passage for pedestrians was cut through the east arch of the Bargate. Later another was cut through the west gate. In 1799 a wooden bridge was built across the Itchen at Northam.

The improvement commissioners in Southampton also towed away carts blocking the streets of Southampton. They were chained to a tree known as the pound tree and the owner had to pay a fine to get them back.

Southampton in the 19th century

During the Napoleonic wars, Southampton prospered because of the soldiers passing through on their way abroad. They spent lots of money in the town.

Furthermore, by the early 19th century the port was booming again. Timber was imported from the Baltic, and grain from Ireland and Eastern England. Coal, slate, and building stone were brought from Scotland. Also, wine and fruit were imported into Southampton from Portugal and Spain.

On the other hand, Southampton lost its position as a seaside resort to Brighton. By 1820 sea-bathing largely ceased. However, the quays at Southampton were insufficient for the number of ships visiting the port. In 1838-42 a dock was built.

Also in the early 19th century, many new shipyards were built along the Itchen. In 1822 a paddle steamer began running between Southampton and the Isle of Wight. In 1823 paddle steamers began running from Southampton to France and the Channel Islands. By 1830 100,000 people were travelling from Southampton by steamship every year.

Meanwhile, between 1807 and 1809 the novelist Jane Austen lived in Southampton.

In the early 19th century the Saltmarsh, east of Southampton was drained and the land was sold for building houses. At the same time, the 4 fields north of Southampton were purchased by the town council and turned into parks.

In the 1840s growth spread to Northam. Then in the 1850s, it spread to Freemantle and Newtown. In the 1860s many new houses were built in Shirley, St Denys, and Portswood, and by 1900 growth spread to Swaythling. After 1900 Bitterne Park Estate was built.

In 1840 the railway reached Southampton. Stagecoach building was a major industry in the early 19th century. However, with the coming of railways, it slowly declined. From the 1840s there were horse-drawn buses in Southampton and from 1879 horse-drawn trams. The trams were electrified after 1900.

There were several other improvements in 19th century Southampton. Gas streetlights were installed in 1820. Then in 1836, the first modern police force was founded. In 1838 the Royal South Hampshire Hospital opened. In 1846 the first cemetery opened near the southern end of the Common. In 1889 the first public library in Southampton opened on St Marys Street.

However, in common with most towns in the early 19th century, Southampton was unsanitary. The improvement commissioners only paved and cleaned the main streets and the back streets were very dirty. Out of 230 streets in the 1840s, 145 were without sewers. In one case 77 people shared one toilet. Not surprisingly in 1849, there was a cholera epidemic in Southampton, which killed 240 people.

Life in 19th century Southampton gradually improved. After 1850 the town council took over the duties of the improvement commissioners. From then on all streets were cleaned and sewers were enlarged and improved. Nevertheless, there was another epidemic of cholera in Southampton in 1865, which killed 151 people.

At first, poor people obtained their water from conduits, wells, or pumps but in 1888 new waterworks opened at Otterbourne. By that time most people had piped water.

Also in 1888, an electricity generating station in Southampton opened in Back of the Walls. The first electric streetlights were switched on in 1889.

Southampton in the 20th century

From the 1880’s North Atlantic trade increased and in 1907 White Star transatlantic liners moved to Southampton. New docks for ships were built in the years 1890-1911. In 1919 Cunard made Southampton the terminus of their New York service. In 1919 the first motor buses appeared in Southampton.

From 1913 flying boats were made in Southampton and from 1923 there was a flying boat service to the Channel Islands. In 1932 the council purchased an airport at Eastleigh which, by 1934 was the 3rd most important airport in Britain.

About 1910 the Chessel Estate at Bitterne was built. From 1913 cigarettes were manufactured in Southampton.

During World War I more than 2,000 men from Southampton lost their lives. More than 8 million men passed through on their way to the front.

In 1920 the boundaries of Southampton were extended to include Bitterne, Sholing, Woolston, Weston, Peartree, Bassett, and Swaythling.

In the 1920s the first council houses were built at Hampton Park, Freshfield Estate, Freemantle, Woolston, and Bitterne. Many private houses were also built in Highfield, Swaythling, Woolston, and Bitterne.

In 1927 Lucia Foster Welch became the first female mayor of Southampton.

In the 1930s passenger traffic boomed. In 1933 some 75,000 people passed through Southampton. So did imports of fruit, potatoes, grain, timber, and wool. Many manufactured goods were exported. The booming port meant that Southampton escaped the worst of the depression. General Motors opened a factory on reclaimed land by the Test in 1938.

Southampton Civic Centre was built between 1932 and 1939. In 1938 a new sports centre was opened at Bassett. Southampton City Art Gallery opened in 1939.

During the Second World War, 631 people in Southampton were killed by bombs. More than 4,000 houses were destroyed as well as many shops in the High Street and above Bar. About 11,000 houses were seriously damaged.

After the war, Southampton was left with a severe housing shortage and some people were forced to live in old army huts. In the late 1940s, the council erected prefabs to house people temporarily. However permanent houses were built in Weston Park in 1946.

In 1954 the boundaries of Southampton were extended to include Millbrook, Redbridge, Harefield, and part of Thornhill. From the mid-1950s a huge program of council housing began on the eastern and western outskirts of the town. at Millbrook, Thornhill, and Harefield.

Also at this time, many slums were demolished in parts of Chapel Northam, Chapel, Shirley, and Bitterne.

More council houses were built in the 1960s. As well as more houses at Thornhill, a new estate was built at Townhill. Slum redevelopment continued in Northam. Southampton council also had the task of replacing the prefabs erected in the late 1940s and early 1950s with permanent houses.

Meanwhile, 32 new schools were built in Southampton between 1950 and 1964. The ruined shops in High Street and Above Bar were replaced with new buildings by 1956. In the center of the town, the road layout was changed. An inner ring road was built including Castle Way and Queens Way. Briton Street was widened to several times its original size. Then in 1964, Southampton was made a city.

Trams ceased to run in 1949. Flying boats ceased to operate in 1958. However, the world’s first hovercraft flight took place in Southampton in 1959. In 1962 a hovercraft service to the Isle of Wight began. In 1961 car ferries to France began running.

Southampton remained the foremost passenger port in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962 over half a million passengers passed through the port. Imports included fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy produce, wine, grain, timber, wool, and cars.

In the 1970s the port of Southampton was changed by containerization. It meant some old docks became redundant.

The number of passengers travelling through the port declined as air travel became common in the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, some of the old docks were converted into areas of shops, offices, and marinas. New shopping centers were built such as the Bargate in 1989 and the Marlands in 1991.

In the 1950s and 1960s, shipbuilding and heavy engineering continued in the Old Docks and along both banks of the Itchen but some light industry came to Southampton including firms in the new Millbrook Industrial estate. In the 1980s there was a shift away from jobs in manufacturing industry to jobs in service industries.

Although traditional industries declined in Southampton there were many new jobs in banking, insurance, and finance.

Tourism was also an increasingly important industry in Southampton. In 1988 a Medieval Merchant’s House was opened as a museum. In 1996 an oceanography center opened in Southampton.

Then in 1997, Southampton was made a unitary authority.

Southampton in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Southampton continues to flourish. In 2000 West Quay shopping mall opened. It was followed by Westquay Watermark in 2017. Meanwhile, SeaCity Museum opened in 2012.

In 2023 the population of Southampton was 249,000.

A Timeline of Southampton

c. 70

The Romans build a town on the site of Bitterne


The Roman army leaves Britain. Afterward, Roman towns are abandoned


The Saxon King Ine builds a new town on the site of St Mary’s Church

c. 950

The town declines as the Itchen silts up and it is eventually abandoned. A much smaller town is built south of Bargate.


After the Norman Conquest Normans settle in Southampton. The Normans build a castle in the town.

c. 1217

The mayor of Southampton is first mentioned

c. 1237

Friars arrive in Southampton

c. 1250

A suburb grows up in Newtown

c. 1260-1300

Stone walls are built around Southampton


The French attack Southampton

c 1500

Southampton is in decline. The port is less and less busy.


Despite the economic decline, Southampton is described as ‘handsome’.


A grammar school opens


Plague strikes Southampton


Belgian Protestants settle in Southampton


Plague strikes Southampton again


A survey shows Southampton has a population of 4,200


Southampton is described as a ‘decayed’ port


The king sells Southampton Castle, which is now in ruins


Southampton has dwindled from being a major port and town to being a ‘decayed’ port


Prince Frederick goes swimming in the sea at Southampton and the town starts to revive


Assembly Rooms open

c. 1770

Southampton grows north of Bargate. The streets are paved and cleaned.


Southampton gains its first bank


The streets of Southampton are lit by oil lamps

c. 1801

The population of Southampton is about 8,000.

c. 1820

The port of Southampton is reviving strongly


A paddle steamer begins running between Southampton and the Isle of Wight


Paddle steamers begin running to France


The streets of Southampton are lit by gas


The Royal South Hants Hospital opens


The railway reaches Southampton


Cholera kills 240 people in Southampton


Many new houses are built in Shirley as Southampton grows


Cholera kills 151 people in Southampton


Horse drawn trams begin running in Southampton


The first public library opens in Southampton. The first electric street lights are switched on in the town.


The trams in Southampton are electrified


Cunard makes Southampton the terminus of their Atlantic service. The first motor buses run in Southampton.


The boundaries of Southampton are extended


A flying boat service to the Channel Islands begins


Southampton Civic Centre is built

World War II

641 people are killed by bombs in Southampton


The last tram runs in Southampton


The boundaries of Southampton are extended again


Southampton is made a city


Merchants House Museum opens


Bargate Shopping Centre opens


Marlands Shopping Centre opens


An Oceanography Centre opens


West Quay Shopping Centre opens

My Youtube video about the history of Southampton