Place in Focus: Southampton

Place in Focus: Southampton

Southampton’s history is intertwined with its location on a major estuary with an unusual double high-tide, and by its relative proximity to Winchester and London, the ancient and modern capitals

Header Image: The Docks, Southampton

Place in Focus, Discover Your Ancestors

Place in Focus

Discover Your Ancestors

Southampton’s history is intertwined with its location on a major estuary with an unusual double high-tide, and by its relative proximity to Winchester and London, the ancient and modern capitals of England.

Southampton’s prosperity was assured following the Norman Conquest in 1066, when it became the major port of transit between Winchester and Normandy, and the Domesday Book indicates that Southampton already had distinct French and English quarters.

By the 13th century, Southampton had become a leading port and was particularly involved in the trade of French wine and English wool. The Black Death reached England in 1348 via the merchant vessels that regularly visited Southampton at that time.

During the Middle Ages, shipbuilding became an increasingly important industry and was to remain so for centuries to come.

From 1492 to 1531, all exports of tin and lead were required to pass through Southampton. In 1554 Southampton was granted a monopoly on the export of wool to the Mediterranean and on the import of sweet wine.

The port was the original point of departure for the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower in 1623. Since then it has been the last port of call for millions of emigrants who left the Old World to start a new life in the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Barbados and other parts of the world.

In June 1664, the Black Death returned to Southampton. By the time this new plague ended in November 1666, 1700 people had died.

Southampton became a Spa Town in 1740, thanks to the discovery of a spring of Chalybeate water, attracting fashionable society. This led to several coaching inns being established.

The town experienced major expansion during the Victorian era. The first dock opened in1842. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company operated its services from Southampton. The railway link from Southampton to London was fully opened in May 1840. With these good transport links, Southampton became the official emigrant station for North America and Canada in 1844.

In common with most of the luxury liners of the time, RMS Titanic sailed from Southampton. Most of the crew came from Southampton; 549 ‘Sotonians’ died in the sinking.

During World War One, Southampton was designated No. 1 Military Embarkation Port and more than 8 million troops departed for mainland Europe through the port, as well as a steady flow of refugees, prisoners of war and the wounded arriving there. The Second World War hit Southampton particularly hard. Pockets of Georgian architecture remain, but much of the city was levelled during the Blitz of November 1940 due to its strategic importance.

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Census data provided exclusively to this magazine by TheGenealogist. reveals that the city’s population rocketed from around 27,500 in 1841 to more than 142,000 in 1911. This is clearly due to the growing importance of the docks. In 1841, although mariners appear prominently in the top 20 occupations, the list is dominated by traditional trades such as tailor, shoemaker, baker and butcher – but 70 years later dock labourers are top of the list. Coal porters feature highly too, as an ancillary trade to imports and exports.

Common surnames – again revealed by TheGenealogist’s unique resources –include White, King, Martin, Harris, Young, Barnes, Payne, Andrews, Rogers and Cooper in both 1841 and 1911. In 1841, Clark, Newman, Page and Hill also show up in the top 20, as do Bailey and Blake in 1911.

Explore Southampton’s maritime history at SeaCity Museum, which also explores the history of the Titanic, and its medieval heritage at the Tudor House and Garden. The city archives have many resources on merchant seamen in particular.

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