A Southampton Church


There are so many churches in Britain that their role as storehouses of history is often overlooked. Many date back to the early medieval period, and some were built before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Frequently altered, repaired and enlarged, the very fabric of these buildings is a record of constant use over the last millennium. Within and outside every church, various monuments also have their own history, and objects with no other obvious home are frequently stored in the local church or placed there for protection, so that some churches are like small museums. Most churches have at least one interesting story to tell, but the ruined Holy Rood Church in Southampton, Hampshire, probably has more than most.


Medieval Southampton was completely enclosed by fortified town walls, large parts of which survive today. For a brief period Jane Austen was at school in Southampton, then a small port at the head of Southampton Water, and although she nearly died of typhus there, this did not deter her from returning more than two decades later. From late 1806 to early 1809 the Austens lived in a house in Castle Square, right by the town walls overlooking the sea. A great deal of land reclamation has since taken place, so it takes some imagination to appreciate its appearance then.

Several churches were within walking distance of Castle Square, including the Holy Rood Church in the High Street, right at the centre of the medieval town. In 1801, only a few years before the Austens arrived, the antiquary Sir Henry Englefield described this church:

‘Holy Rood Church … has been much altered on the outside, but does not seem ever to have been of elegant architecture. The west window is deprived of its tracery, and the tower, which is rather uncommonly situated at the south-west angle of the church, is void of beauty. The doors of the central entrance are very neatly ornamented with Gothic tracery, in a good style, and well preserved. The colonnade which runs along the whole front, is by the lower class of inhabitants known by the name of the “Proclamation”. Probably on this spot, close by the old audit-house and market, magistrates proclaimed peace, war, or other public and official notifications … The church within is large and handsome, but its appearance is much injured by the organ and its loft, which totally obstruct the view into the chancel. The nave and side ailes [sic] are very neatly ceiled in pannels [sic], and the roses which ornament the intersections of the ribs appear neatly carved. At the south-west door there is a wooden screen of mixed Gothic, of queen Elizabeth or James the First’s time, which is uncommonly well executed, and of elegant design.’


Late in the evening of Tuesday 11th November 1837, a disastrous fire took place further down the High Street, and a pair of plaques still survives on the west front of the church commemorating those who lost their lives trying to help. The following day, an eyewitness report appeared in the Devizes & Wiltshire Gazette:

‘About half-past eleven o’clock last night, a large store-room, belonging to Messrs. King, Witt, and Co. extensive dealers in lead, oil, and colours, at the bottom of the High-street and corner of Gloucester-square, was discovered to be on fire, and before any engine could arrive, the whole warehouse was in one mass of flame. At about half-past twelve, it was generally rumoured that gunpowder was on the premises; and while the inhabitants were busily engaged in removing the goods, a terrific explosion took place, and part of the front of the warehouse was blown out, burying a number of persons in the ruins; whilst those in the warehouse were cut off from all egress; the combustible matter in the upper stories becoming ignited, pitch, turpentine, and oil ran down in a liquid flame. The consternation which took place at this moment baffles all description. As each dead and wounded body was removed from the ruins, a shriek of agony and horror was given which rent the air. It was a dreadful spectacle. The flames at the same time were spreading with fearful rapidity. Twice the houses on the opposite side of the street caught fire; and it was only by the greatest possible exertions that they were not consumed. Fears indeed were entertained that the whole of Gloucester-square would be in flames: but happily the progress of the fire was arrested. Messrs. King’s warehouse is totally destroyed; and Mr. Simm’s Boarding-house, Playford’s Family Hotel, and the premises of Mr. Prialense, are greatly damaged.’

Explosions were common in warehouse fires, and it was often wrongly assumed that gunpowder was to blame, something the Morning Post noted for this fire:

‘The Hampshire Independent states that the number of lives lost at the destructive fire at Southampton last week was seventeen, and that twenty-four persons are severely injured … It appeared from the examination of witnesses that the explosion which produced the fatal catastrophe was not caused by gunpowder, but must have been owing to the ignition of a large quantity of turpentine. The Independent gives the following account of the calamity:– “The public having been assured that there was no gunpowder in the store entered it for the purpose of saving a portion of the valuable articles which it contained – a great quantity of lead, oil, and turpentine – when, we shudder to relate, the fire found its way into that part of the store which contained the turpentine, and almost immediately afterwards an awful and terrific explosion took place which was succeeded by the falling in of the roof and blowing out the front walls”.’


One of the two plaques mentions the bravery of the men who tragically died:

‘Sacred to the Memory of twenty-two brave and disinterested men commemorated by name in a corresponding tablet who in attempting to check the ravages of a calamitous fire in this parish on the night of November the 7th 1837, either perished in the flames or survived but a short time the injuries they received. The sympathizing public who have protected the widows and orphans of those who had families, erect this grateful but melancholy memorial of their intrepidity, their sufferings, and their awfully sudden removal into an eternal state.’

The ‘corresponding tablet’ gives the names of the dead:

‘This Tablet is a Memorial
of the names of the sufferers
Henry Ball. Aged 21
George Bell. – 16
John Budden. – 21
Robert Cheater. – 22
George Diaper. – 27
Charles Edney. – 19
William Ford. – 27
James Cosney. – 28
Thomas Hapgood. – 21
John Harley. – 50
Joseph Hawkins.– 39
Thomas Henwood. – 32
William Jones. – 26
Edward Ludford. – 36
William Marshall. – 25
George Maton. – 21
William Oakley. – 29
William Powell. – 30
Richard Rose. – 34
Robert Ransom. – 46
Thomas Sellwood. – 23
Charles Tanner. – 22’


Fire Memorials

The memorial plaques to those killed in the 1837 fire


The Holy Rood Church was not affected by the 1837 fire, but just over a decade later, in 1849–50, it underwent a Victorian rebuilding. The 14th-century tower was kept, along with parts of the chancel and aisles, as well as the fire plaques. It became a very popular church, known as the ‘Church of the Sailors’, an association that became stronger as the port of Southampton grew in prosperity as a result of the ocean liner trade to and from America.

By the Second World War, Southampton was an important port and an obvious target for bombing, but inevitably parts of the old town were destroyed, including the Holy Rood Church. There were severe bombing raids during the winter of 1940, and on the night of 30th November the church was hit. The nave was destroyed and the chancel badly damaged, though the 14th-century tower survived. In 1957 the ruined church was restored for use as a war memorial and is preserved in memory of the seamen of the merchant navy who died in the Second World War.

Holy Rood Church

The ruins of Holy Rood Church, Southampton,
with the surviving south-west tower. The two fire plaques
are either side of the main doorway


Among the memorials inside the ruin is one to the crew of the Titanic, most of whom came from Southampton. The inscription on the base reads:

‘This Memorial Fountain was erected in memory of the crew, stewards, sailors and firemen, who lost their lives in the SS Titanic disaster. April 15th. 1912. It was subscribed for by the widows, mothers and friends of the crew. Alderman Henry Bowyer Mayor 1912–1913.’

Titanic Memorial

The memorial to the crew of the Titanic

The sculpture was originally a working drinking fountain set up in Cemetery Road on Southampton Common and unveiled in 1915, but it was later moved inside the ruins of Holy Rood Church. Since the Titanic sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York, different memorials to the victims of the tragedy are located around the city, but this crew memorial is particularly poignant because so many families in the town were affected by the disaster.


Another memorial on the exterior wall of the tower was erected a century ago and is a reminder that 2014 is the bicentenary of the death of Charles Dibdin, who was famous for his patriotic songs during the Napoleonic Wars. The inscription reads:

‘To CHARLES DIBDIN, son of THOMAS DIBDIN parish clerk of this church. A native of Southampton, poet, dramatist and composer, author of TOM BOWLING, POOR JACK, and other sea songs. Born 15th March 1745, died 25th July 1814.
“There’s a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft, To keep watch for the life of poor Jack” Erected by the Southampton Literary and Philosophical Society, 1914.’

Dibdin Memorial

The memorial to Charles Dibdin

Dibdin was baptised at Holy Rood Church and was one of the youngest of a very large family. His father died while he was still quite young, and the family moved to Winchester where he was educated and became a chorister at the cathedral (and where Jane Austen would later be buried), having been picked out because of his fine singing voice. He later moved to London and worked in an instrument maker’s shop, but soon moved on to become an actor in the chorus at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Within two years he began publishing his own songs.

This became the pattern of Dibdin’s career for many years, as he performed in theatres in towns and cities across Britain and in the Vauxhall and Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in London, while continuing to write his own material. He contributed both music and lyrics to the scores of operas performed in the main London theatres, particularly Drury Lane, but after a quarrel with the actor/manager David Garrick, his engagement there was ended in 1775. He continued working in various London theatres until, in 1796, he opened his own newly built theatre on the corner of Leicester Square, called the Sans Souci.

Dibdin’s greatest achievement was his series of entertainments and songs in patriotic praise of the Royal Navy and of British sailors, which became popular with the public and the seamen. With the renewal of war with France, his sea songs became so popular that the British government commissioned him to publish new war songs regularly. This was the peak of his career, and he retired in 1805. He opened a music shop in the Strand in London, but it failed and left him bankrupt. For the rest of his life he struggled to avoid absolute poverty.


Some of Charles Dibdin’s compositions

In 1809 the sailor George King took part in an operation against Russian gunboats (an incident mentioned on pages 239–42 of our book Jack Tar). It was a night-time operation using ships’ boats in a surprise attack, but it was only partly successful and cost many casualties. George King was one of the survivors and recorded in his diary what happened when his boat returned to his ship:

‘The captain was looking overside and he directly ordered some of his crew to relieve the boat’s crew and began to hoist in the dead and wounded. He then called us aft, that was left, and ordered us down below to rest ourselves, sent for the purser’s steward, and ordered him to give us immediately, each man, half a pint of rum and as much bread and cheese as we could eat. When we soon commenced upon the grog and in less than an hour some of our chaps were singing one of Dibdin’s songs.’

Letters and diaries of the time contain references to singing and music-making, but it is unusual for a song to be specifically mentioned as a Dibdin composition. Some of Dibdin’s songs have stood the test of time, and ‘Tom Bowling’ in particular is still sung today. Henry Wood included it in his Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which was originally compiled in 1905 for the centenary anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. It is still regularly performed, particularly as part of the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in London.