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The Commercial History of Southampton, Hampshire

An important port in modern England has been so for centuries. It draws traders, producers, immigrants and investors, connecting the UK to global markets.

As the BBC reported in February 2015, researchers at the University of Warwick have identified remains of wheat that was imported to the Solent area near the Isle of Wight about 8,000 years ago, likely from southern Europe. To historians it means trade was occurring a full 2,000 years before agriculture developed in Britain.

What might come as little surprise, however, is that this area near Southampton would be a point of seagoing trade as early as 6000BC. The city today is a major port as it has been throughout recorded history. And while Southampton, the largest city in Hampshire, has had to reinvent itself time and time again, it has always attracted innovators, merchants, kings and those seeking to create a better future for themselves.

As well as investors. Over time, walls were built and grand homes rose from dirt, as the town became known for its port, businesses, shipping intermodals – and where luxury cruise ships set sail (the Titanic is one of the more infamous ships that began her maiden voyage from Southampton). Today, Southampton is a magnet for real asset portfolio investing that is building new commercial and residential property to serve residents and tourists alike.

But the area has waxed and waned and waxed again over the centuries as a place for excitement, its fortunes very much tied to events elsewhere in Europe and across the globe. Consider the following periods:

Late Middle Ages (1300s-1500s) – Silk, spices and perfume arrived on Italian ships, and they took English wool back to Rome and Florence. The Hundred Years War on the continent contributed to a shipbuilding industry in Southampton, as well as business for butchers, brewers and bakers who sold provisions to the armies. Also, by royal decree only Southampton could receive Malmsey wine from France in the years 1554-1567 (in the realm of real assets, there was quite a political fight over that wine).

Expanding commercial period (1500s-1700s) – Foreign trade fell, so the city become more of a domestic port, receiving coal, salt, iron, malt, woad (a dyeing agent for wool) and timber from other parts of England to transport inland by horse carts. It was during this period that local manufacturing grew, in part from an influx of religious Belgian refugees who were skilled craftsmen. In 1750, Prince Frederick discovered swimming in the sea and instigated interest in the health-giving properties of salt water.

Before and during the Victorian Era (1700s-1800s) – The advent of the paddle steamers enabled Southampton to be the port of preference in passenger travel to France and the Channel Islands. This was the beginning of leisure and migration passenger travel from Southampton that continues to the present. Railways reached Southampton by 1840, supplanting the stagecoach industry there and opening up the area to increased trade and tourism.

Modern Era (1900s to present day) – The War years, the interwar period and the post-war era were marked with destruction (much of the medieval districts were destroyed by Germany in WW2), deaths (2,000 soldiers from Southampton died in WW2, in addition to 631 civilians killed by Luftwaffe bombs).  After the war, housing was in a severe shortage and substandard army huts and low-quality prefabricated homes accommodated the people. Land development to help fill a gap in housing extended to surrounding areas.

A housing shortage exists today throughout England for new reasons. But joint venture partnerships are enhancing the port, portside developments and other commercial and residential developments around the city. The same port that drew wheat and perhaps other foodstuffs 8,000 years ago continues to attract trade, manufacturing and tourism to the area in the 21st century. Investment partners looking at contemporary business activities should also consider the area’s geography and history, recognising that Southampton is naturally predisposed to reinvention and prosperity.

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