The History of Southampton
There have been settlements in the area of modern day Southampton since at least Roman times. After the Romans left the region, the Saxons built a sizeable town known as Hamtun. Despite being initially a successful settlement, it suffered badly at the hands of Viking raiders during the 9th and 10th centuries. The town was probably a victim of its own success; exporting wool and housing a Royal Mint at the time.
For much of its early history the town was overshadowed by nearby Winchester . It endured centuries of ups and downs to become an ever larger and more significant presence on the south coast due to its growing importance as a port. In 1750 Prince Frederick visited the town and bathed in the sea water. This started a trend for the wealthy to visit Southampton and bathe in the waters; believing that bathing in the sea water had healing properties. The fact that Prince Frederick died the year after his first visit didn’t seem to put anyone off and his sons returned in the years that followed. In addition to the sea waters, the fashionable nobles were attracted by the discovery of a Chalybeate mineral water spring in 1740 in the town.
Soon the area was populated by a number of well to do people and some fine houses were built in the area; prompting the 1762 quote that Southampton was “one of the prettiest and healthiest towns in England”, adding that it “possesses several fine houses”. Towards the end of the 18th century, Southampton continued to prosper and grow. Improvements in lighting and street cleanliness were made and there was even a tow-away zone for carts that had been left blocking the road. Owners had to pay to have the carts unlocked from the ‘pound tree’ in order to get them back; it seems that not much has changed in the last 300 years!
After many centuries of fluctuating fortunes, Southampton received a major boost and expanded rapidly during Victorian times. The creation of the Southampton Docks Company in 1835 led to the building and opening of the first of many Docks in 1842. The Royal Mail designated the port as the packet station for The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1843. Since then the port has grown considerably and, while lacking in the strong tradition of naval history that its near neighbour Portsmouth has, Southampton became an important commercial port and was of particular strategic importance in wartime. During both World Wars it was used as a major troop embarkation port; having been designated as the principle troop embarkation port in 1914. This, together with the port’s importance to the supply chain both in and out of Britain, led to the port being targeted by the enemy; especially by the Luftwaffe in World War II .
Southampton continued to prosper in the post war years. The Vosper Thorneycroft shipyard was the major employer in the area for 100 years before relocating to Portsmouth in 2004. Ford set up major works at nearby Eastleigh , which became known as ‘The home of the Transit’; being the major production line for the famous Ford Transit van. The port has seen many an illustrious ocean going cruise ship in its day; including big names like the QEII and the Titanic . The Titanic, of course, famously sank on its maiden voyage after sailing from Southampton en route to New York. Southampton continues to be frequented by large cruise liners such as the MV Oriana and the Queen Mary 2.
Despite the rise in importance and population since Victorian times, it was not until 1964 that Southampton was finally granted city status; following a Government decree in the form of Letters Patent.