Southampton City History

Southampton is a city full of heritage waiting to be discovered. From maritime connections to historic voyages such as the Mayflower to literary links to Jane Austen, what will you discover? 

Southampton: A City Full of Undiscovered Heritage

Bargate at night time

While it's true that Southampton had some Roman and Saxon inhabitants, the city first came to be an important port when the Normans arrived in 1066, serving as the main connection to their lands in Normandy and the South of France.

The Bargate in the centre of the High Street was built as the main entrance to the medieval walled town circa 1180 AD. and has been judged as "probably the finest, and certainly the most complex, town gateway in Britain”. It has had many uses, including holding the city’s original Guildhall, where merchants gathered for hundreds of years; during World War II it was used as an air-raid shelter helping the residents survive the bombings.

Much of the medieval city walls also still survive, together with the vaults where the merchants stored their wine.

The Mayflower

Southampton city's history with a cruise ship in background

In 1620 the group now known as the Pilgrims chartered the Mayflower, to sail to the New World to escape religious oppression in England. They sailed with another smaller boat, the Speedwell, which was originally built in Southampton, but this was abandoned in Plymouth because it leaked so badly.

Now, over 30 million US citizens are descended from those who sailed there on the Mayflower. Fun fact, Southampton celebrated the 400th anniversary of the sailing in 2020.

Military History

Historic buildings along Southampton's Westgate

The port has always been used to embark soldiers. Henry V marched his troops through the Westgate (pictured here) to sail for France and the battle of Agincourt.

Much later, soldiers left to fight in World War 1, and in the Normandy Invasions of World War II. These included many American and Commonwealth troops.

Maritime History

Family looking at an exhibit in SeaCity Museum

From the middle of the 1800’s, Southampton has been famous for being a liner port. In 1912, the world’s most famous liner, The Titanic, embarked from here on its fateful maiden voyage, carrying seven hundred Southampton residents in her crew, over five hundred of whom would never return.

Hundreds of other liners connected the port with the Empire and with America, making it Britain’s “Gateway to the World”. The rise of the aeroplane saw much of that trade depart, but now the big ships have returned as Cruise Liners, with over 500 visiting every year.

Discover more at SeaCity Museum.

Aviation History

City history Spitfire

Southampton was also the home of some of the first flying boats, and it is thought that the term ‘air port’ was first used in reference to Southampton in this role.

Local resident RJ Mitchell designed and built the Spitfire in Woolston, east of the Itchen River, and it had its maiden flight from what is now Southampton airport. Local people kept production of this vital plane going throughout the war.

To see real life examples of spitfires and flying boats, visit Solent Sky Museum.

Literary Links

Jane Austen City of Southampton History Plaque: 'Jane Austen, Author 1775 - 1817, Dolphin Hotel

Famous Sotonians include Jane Austen, the renowned novelist, who lived in the Old Town of Southampton from 1807 to 1809. It’s even rumoured that Southampton Water, a tidal estuary, is the site where King Canute tried to hold back the tides – and there’s a plaque to “prove” it!

(All of the above content has been kindly provided by See Southampton)

More to discover

Head out on your own adventure with Visit Southampton's free self-guided heritage tour. On your walk you will discover key places of interest from our city's medieval walls and vaults to many of the historic buildings still in use today. Download the heritage map here.

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