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Medieval Graffiti - Newsletter Articles - Vol 72, Autumn 2019


When the graffiti group saw the initials and dates in the vault of 94 High Street (see report above) their first thought was that this could indicate its use as quarters for the soldiers billeted in the town. However, these were typically placed in the inns, which caused some aggravation with the innkeepers as they were frequently not paid for the soldiers’ keep, and also prevented other more lucrative trade coming to their establishments. The George Inn, in Above Bar, set aside a special room at the back of the premises for the soldiers’ use (Figure 1).

 Figure 1.

There was never any attempt to hide the fact that soldiers were billeted in the town, or in camps on the outskirts, prior to departure for the latest war in which England was engaged. The presence of these was often regarded as adding to the social scene during ‘the season’. In addition to these transient military men, there was at least one regiment stationed in the town long term. These men became so settled that several married local girls and set up home locally.

In addition to these troops, there were two other groups held in the town, which were both liable to be embarrassments to a corporation keen to maintain the town’s reputation as a health resort. These comprised the prisoners of war, and the sick and wounded soldiers and marines. Southampton had been an official reception point for sick and wounded military personnel from the late seventeenth century, and these men were housed in temporary hospitals in the town. When peace was declared the hospitals were closed down and the remaining inmates left to their own devices, often with disastrous results. It is recorded how one of these penniless, discharged sick men, with an ensign’s commission for a regiment at Plymouth, set out to walk there. He collapsed after a few miles on the way to Millbrook. Picked up by a passing farmer in a very poor state, he was taken home, and given food and drink. The farmer however, felt unable to take the soldier into his house for the night, because he was ‘so full of lice and other vermin’, instead making a bed for him in the barn. The soldier died overnight. The report clearly illustrates the pitiful plight of the troops and indicates that the disease they were suffering from was typhus transmitted from the lice.

Such reports underline the condition of the soldiers and the reasons why the Corporation would wish to keep them from the view of the spa visitors in the town. From Figure 2, below, it can be seen that the foci of disease were situated away from the main areas the fashionable visitors were likely to visit, or at least concealed from view e.g. the Woolhouse which could be locked, or St Michael’s prison which was a cellar. St Michael’s burial registers record that the guardians of the poor were called to the ‘Half Moon’ in Butcher’s Row because a discharged soldier had been found dead in Castle Lane, due to the inclemency of the weather.

Known locations of sickness  Figure 2

Locating the temporary hospitals for these sick and wounded men is problematic. Were temporary buildings, similar to the plague booths of the seventeenth century, erected for their use? This seems unlikely, since such an arrangement would have brought them to the attention of the spa visitors, and almost certainly have caused comment. Therefore, existing buildings had to have been pressed into service, in a similar manner as the old sugar house at Gloucester Square, which was pressed into service in 1794–95.

God’s House Tower had been used as an earlier hospital for sick and wounded soldiers and marines, as demonstrated by the terms of Ann Groves’ lease in August 1746, which categorically stated that it was not to be used as a ‘hospital for sick and wounded soldiers and marines nor any other sick and wounded person ... as in the previous lease held by her father’. This continued to be a condition for all subsequent leases of the building.  The original lease to her father is missing, but a much later one for God’s House Tower, in 1779, refers to a messuage erected by John Groves, Ann Groves’ father, in the Tower.  From the description of its location, it can credibly be suggested this would have been in the right angle between the town wall and the tower, not the tower itself.  This arrangement placed the messuage outside the town, which would be a plausible siting for a military hospital.  It may be that the original lease dates from when John Grove was mayor in either 1714 or 1726, a period just before Southampton became a fashionable sea bathing resort. As the town’s popularity grew however, this ‘hospital’ would have become visible to increasing numbers of visitors using the Beach promenade, on their way to the Itchen Ferry. Therefore, the building could no longer be used for housing the sick and wounded men.

If such an attitude prevailed, then it gives extra credence to the idea that the sick and wounded men would be concealed from potential public view. What better place to hide them than in one of the vaults?

From the evidence provided by the graffiti in 94 High Street it seems very plausible that this was used as such a hospital. The dates carved into the vault ribs can all be directly linked to the presence of sick soldiers in the town. In particular the parish registers of St Mary’s church list the names of soldiers that died in the hospitals and were buried in the churchyard. The record ranges over the years from 1741-1748, which includes those that appear in the vault; 1745, 1747 and 1748. In addition there was one for 1795 and possibly 1775. The initials IG or IC appeared a number of times associated with the dates, the initials WB and I/JA were found, but not associated with any date. Since the letters I and J were interchangeable and/or represented by the same symbol, this extended the possibilities to include JG, JA or JC as well. Assuming that those who feared they would die shortly wished to make some last statement about their identity and presence, they would be more likely to carve their initials. Therefore the lists of names in the St Mary’s registers was checked for suitable initials, with the following results: 1746 - March: John Gilbert; July: William Bodymead; August: John Curtis
1747 - Feb: James Gant; John Gillard; John Clark; May: William Brown; Dec: John Cole
1748 - Feb: John Cooper.
It was noticeable that all the names, with the exception of one Scot, for the whole period 1741–48 were English. Individuals bearing the undated WB and JA initials were also found in earlier years, which could indicate the length of time the vault was used as a hospital. So William Bradborn was buried Dec. 1742; Joseph Ambrose: Sept. 1743; James Argent: Oct. 1743; John Adcock: Jan. 1744; James Allwood: Mar.1744; William Bartlead: April 1745. In addition the presence of the scratched apotropaic markings suggest individuals attempting to protect themselves from danger, that is the danger posed by their sickness and wounds, by invoking spiritual assistance through the last resource available to them.

The vault itself also offers further circumstantial evidence for its use as a hospital due to the apparently anomalous insertion of an eighteenth century fireplace (Figure 3).

Fireplace in the vaults at 94 High Street, Southampton Figure 3

If the vault had continued to be used for storage, as in previous centuries, there would have been no need for such an addition, since the temperature within the town vaults remains almost unchanged throughout the year, ideal for storage purposes. The size of the bricks used to make the fireplace denies it being either Tudor, or nineteenth century in origin. Assuming the vault’s use for housing sick and wounded soldiers, the presence of a fireplace suggests a degree of care for the men being provided by the authorities, or a concerned individual. It may be that just such an individual was at hand in the shape of the surgeon, John Monckton.

Initials and date cut into support rib of vault  Figure 4

Living in a substantial house in Holy Rood, from 1747 Monckton had taken on the lease of the Woolhouse and was responsible for the French prisoners of war housed there. As part of their care he provided a compound for them to have fresh air and exercise, but was ordered to remove it. Admiralty Records show that he was still responsible for the care of sick soldiers and seamen in the town in 1790, and was possibly responsible for the conversion of the sugar warehouse into a hospital in 1794, used by the sick military personnel, at that time. Similarly he was active as a poorhouse visitor ensuring there were regular inoculations against smallpox for the inmates, and had been senior surgeon during the inoculation campaigns against smallpox for the poor, in 1774, 1778 and 1783. Taken altogether the evidence is that Monckton was a genuinely compassionate man, regularly working with the underprivileged and excluded members of society. If that was the case the coincidence of dates between the French prisoners of war in the Woolhouse, and the graffiti dates in the vault, 1747 and 1748 (Figures 4 and 5) plausibly makes it possible that Monckton cared for both groups, or at least oversaw their care by one of the other town surgeons, or his own apprentice.

Name and date (1748) of French prisoner cut into Woolhouse beam Figure 5

Taken altogether the evidence strongly suggests that the vault at 94 High Street, was used as one of the temporary military hospitals in the town during the eighteenth century. Initially this plausibly started with returning casualties from the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48) could have continued during the Seven Years War (1756–63), the American War of Independence (1775–83) and into the mid 1790s. These were all periods when Southampton was at its most pressed to provide accommodation for returning sick and wounded soldiers and marines, whilst at the same time trying to avoid alarming its increasing spa visitor trade.

Many thanks to the graffiti group for finding the evidence to fill a gap in the town’s history.


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