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History & Setting

Southampton and the Royal Pier Waterfront

Evidence of habitation in Southampton can be traced back to around 10,000 BC. Its relationship with its waterfront for defence, trade and industry goes back many centuries before the construction of the Docks.

The Roman settlement was located at Bitterne Manor (on the east bank of the Itchen), and was known as Clausentum. The Anglo-Saxons formed a new larger settlement on what is now the St Mary’s area of the city, known as Hamwic. This evolved into Hampton after Viking raids in the 9th century.

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Southampton became the major port of transit between England and Normandy, and had extensive links with London. A Royal Castle was built in the 12th century and by the 13th century Southampton had become a leading port, particularly involved in the import of French wine in exchange for English cloth and wool.

The walls of the medieval town constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries defined the boundary of the town. Roughly half of the walls, thirteen of the original towers, and six gates survive and together with the castle bailey wall and keep, medieval timber framed houses, inns, churches and stone built structures, provide a reminder of Southampton’s past.

The current layout of the Old Town is largely unaltered from the medieval design. Narrow properties (burghages) are arranged along north-south routes (French, Bugle and High Street) and these are interconnected with minor east-west streets.

The city’s interface with the water was focused in three areas, a quay at Westgate, another at Town Quay and a broader platform on the site of Platform Road. There was no perimeter road around the city – and there would not be until the late 19th century – and goods were brought directly into the city through grand gates, remains of which still survive.

For a brief period in the late 18th Century Southampton successfully reinvented itself as a smart spa town. The Royal Pier was built in 1833 providing a landing point for ferry services between Southampton and the Isle of Wight and Channel Islands and functioning as an extension of the small, genteel promenade that was established at the foot of the Town Walls. The Pier’s recreational role would continue as a place where people could go and experience the town’s relationship with the water and the port, even as the scale and frequency of commercial traffic increased.

The town experienced major expansion during the Victoria era. The Southampton Docks company had been formed in 1835. In October 1838 the foundation stone of the docks was laid and the east docks were opened in 1843. Around the same time a railway link to London was fully opened (May 1840). With the growth of cargo and passenger steam ship trade Southampton subsequently became known as “The Gateway to the Empire”.

In the years that followed swathes of land were reclaimed from Southampton Water and allocated to port operations. This changed ancient Southampton’s relationship to the water profoundly, shifting the critical interface eastward, away from Town Quay and breaking the direct relationship between the water and the southern and western Town Walls. In the 1920s and 30s reclamation took place to the west of the Esplanade and Town Quay to create the western docks and Mayflower Park.

During the 20th century heavy bomb damage and the construction of Dock Road as a major piece of infrastructure had a particularly damaging effect on the character of the Town Quay/Royal Pier waterside promenade and the southern portion of the Old Town.

Southampton has witnessed a number of key national events during its history, including:

  • In 1338 the town was raided by French and Genoese privateers.  This was the first action of the 100 Years War

  • In 1415 Henry V left from Southampton to invade France.  This culminated with The Battle of Agincourt in October 1415

  • Henry V’s famous warship HMS Grace Dieu was built in Southampton

  • In 1620 the port was the point of departure for the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower

  • Walter Taylor’s 18th century mechanisation of the block-making process was a significant step in the Industrial Revolution

  • In 1912, the RMS Titanic sailed from Southampton

  • The first use of the term “airport” originated in Southampton, when flying boats landed and departed from the port of Southampton. It was named ‘air-port’ by the Mayor of Southampton

  • The Supermarine Spitfire was designed and developed in Southampton; and

  • Southampton was the major port of embarkation for the D Day landings in 1944.

With such a rich and varied history, the City of Southampton is a fascinating destination to visit. The Royal Pier Waterfront development will add greater dimension and experience for anyone, resident or tourist, to enjoy.


  • Henry Grace a Dieu
  • Mayflower
  • RMS Titanic
  • Soton Royal Pier
  • Supermarine Spitfire


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