Holyrood Church

Although wounded and scarred, Holyrood Church stands proudly on Southampton High Street in a position it has held since 1320. It has stood firm despite invading bands of murderous raiders and devastating German bombs and today, whilst reduced to a ruin, it continues to be a recognisable landmark on Southampton’s historic main thoroughfare.

Holyrood Church, before and after the Blitz.

Holyrood Church, before and after the Blitz.

The church we see today was originally built in 1320 but its story begins long before that. The first evidence we have for Holyrood comes in 1160 but, because of its name, the original church may have dated back to the Anglo-Saxon period. The Anglo-Saxon settlement was located in the modern-day St Mary’s area of Southampton, but evidence suggests that there was activity around the High Street area as early as the tenth century. The Holyrood – or Holy Rood – is a Christian relic which is thought to have been part of the cross upon which Jesus died. The word rood comes from the Old English rōd, meaning cross. Since the Anglo-Saxon period, the word has been spelt many different ways. It can be seen as Holy Rood or Holyrood. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it appears as halgorode. The Middle English Dictionary, published by the University of Michigan, lists variations such as holie rodehali rodeholy roode, and so on. In terms of Holyrood Day – or Holy Rood Day – there are variations such as Holy Rood Dayeholie rode-dayholi-rode day, Holyrode-day, etc. In Scotland we have the Palace of Holyroodhouse next to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, which was founded in 1128. In Essex, the church at Waltham Abbey was also known as Holyrode Waltham in the thirteenth century, owing to the legend of a miraculous crucifix. Regarding Southampton’s church, both Holyrood and Holy Rood have been used interchangeably for centuries.

It was in 1160 that King Henry II granted the churches of St Michael, St Lawrence, All Saints, and Holyrood to the monks of St Denys Priory. Together with St John’s, these five old places of worship were the original churches inside the walled town of Southampton. Today, only St Michael’s survives as a church.

John Speed's 1611 map of Southampton: H = St John | S = St Michael | T = Holyrood | V = St Lawrence | 10 = All Saints | Map is from my copy of the 1931 Southampton Civic Survey.

John Speed’s 1611 map of Southampton: H = St John | S = St Michael | T = Holyrood | V = St Lawrence | 10 = All Saints | Map is from my copy of the 1931 Southampton Civic Survey.

The church that Henry II had granted to the monks at St Denys was located not on its present site but slightly further forward, in the middle of the High Street. Back then, the town’s main thoroughfare was known as English Street and the original church of Holyrood was situated right in the middle of it. The exact year of the founding of Holyrood Church is not known but it may have predated the Norman conquest in 1066 and it was certainly established by the mid-twelfth century. However, this church had fallen into a state of disrepair by the early fourteenth century and it had become an obstruction and a nuisance in the middle of the town’s main street. In 1318, a wealthy local burgess by the name of Thomas de Bynedon provided the land for the new church, which was just to the rear of the original building. The new church was built on this site in 1320 and it remains there to this day, over seven hundred years later.

Not long after the new church opened, during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War, Southampton was savagely attacked by French and Genoese forces who had sailed up Southampton Water one morning in October 1338. The raiders came ashore and proceeded to storm the town. They ran riot, rampaging through the streets whilst setting buildings on fire and cutting down terrified citizens. Some accounts claim that some townsfolk were hung in their own houses. The French and Genoese ransacked buildings and looted whatever they could carry. They stole money and goods, valuable wool that was awaiting export, seals and charters, and, much to Edward III’s anger, the raiders helped themselves to some of his wine that was being stored in the port. Holyrood Church appears to have escaped any major damage but some of Thomas de Bynedon’s properties were burned to the ground. St Michael’s Church stands just over one hundred yards east of Holyrood Church and on that October morning in 1338, it bore witness to the terrible brutality of the raid. As the adjoining wooden buildings became engulfed by flames, the French and Genoese raiders entered the Norman church and ruthlessly slaughtered the citizens who had sought refuge within its walls.

Having survived the raid and the subsequent downturn in trade, Holyrood Church remained a landmark fixture on Southampton High Street as the town slowly began to recover. As a result of the raid, Edward III ordered Southampton to be properly defended and enclosed completely within stone walls. Holyrood Church would be safe again, for now. It would be over six hundred years until the church was attacked again.

Southampton has always been a port of embarkation and it is not unreasonable to assume that, having been camped in and around the town prior to boarding their ships, some of the men who fought at the battles of Crécy and Agincourt may well have prayed at the church before heading off to war – and famous victories – in 1346 and 1415 respectively.

During the sixteenth century, the church would host one of Europe’s most influential and powerful figures. On 20 July 1554, a large fleet anchored in the water around Southampton and from one of its ships appeared Philip of Spain, the heir to the Spanish throne. He would have surveyed the scene before coming ashore and stepping onto English soil; soil he would soon rule. Philip arrived on a Friday and immediately went to Holyrood Church to pray. Later that evening, he addressed the Mayor of Southampton and other local dignitaries, along with Spanish and English noblemen. As a mark of respect to his English hosts (and soon-to-be subjects), Philip made a toast and drank English ale. On the Monday, he left Southampton for Winchester where he met Queen Mary I for the first time. Two days later, the pair were joined together in marriage at Winchester Cathedral and Philip thus became King of England, although executive power remained in the hands of his wife.

Before Southampton’s new Audit House was completed in the early 1770s, the west porch of Holyrood Church was used as the town’s Proclamation Place. This is where the mayor would make important announcements.

In 1801, the renowned antiquary Sir Henry Charles Englefield published his A Walk Through Southampton. Englefield noted that the church had been much altered on the outside but he believed it had never been of ‘elegant’ architecture. He described the tower as being ‘void of beauty’ but called the interior ‘large and handsome’, whilst at the same time complaining that the organ blocked the view into the chancel. Englefield seemed impressed by the stalls, which were apparently ‘of extremely neat workmanship, and pretty design’. Carved into them, he saw the words ‘Est Deo Gracia’ (‘Thanks be to God’) which was the motto of Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester from 1501 until 1528. He described a wooden screen that he dated from the time of Elizabeth I or James I and he stated that the font had been removed from its ancient position near the door to a position under the organ loft. The font was ‘octagonal, and adorned with niches, in a neat, though plain, Gothic style’.

Holyrood Church before the 1848-1849 rebuild. Image source: http://sotonopedia.wikidot.com/page-browse:holy-rood-church

Holyrood Church before the 1848-1849 rebuild. Image source: http://sotonopedia.wikidot.com/page-browse:holy-rood-church

In November 1837, a fire ripped through a warehouse on the corner of the High Street and Gloucester Square, roughly three hundred yards away from the church. Details about the fire can be found here: The 1837 Fire. Tragically, twenty-two men and boys died as they tried to tame the flames. The youngest was just sixteen years old. It was decided that their names should not be forgotten and in July 1838, two prominent tablets were unveiled on the front of Holyrood Church so that their sacrifice would forever be remembered.

Not long after the fire, the church was restored and, in some places, rebuilt. The tower would be preserved but in the 29 April 1848 edition of the Hampshire Advertiser it was stated that:

‘… the entire roof of the church and chancel to be removed, the walls to be examined and made good wherever defective, and a strong well-formed new roof to be put on under the directions of an experienced architect; the floor of the building, which emits an unwholesome smell from the vaults below, to be made good, with all needful repairs, and to be fresh laid with such material as may effectually secure a healthful and pure atmosphere for the congregation; the windows to be thoroughly repaired in all their parts, and a better more effective ventilation secured; and it is strongly recommended that with these repairs be coupled an improved arrangement of the pews, or rather an entire new pewing, so as to rescue the church from its present objectionable distribution of sittings, and obtain a large increase of accommodation.’

Tragically, a notable accident occurred early on in the rebuilding and a twenty-seven-year-old labourer lost his life. John Budd was in the process of removing one of the old arches when the arch collapsed above him. The stonework fell and landed on him, causing fatal injuries to his head and body. His workmate, Stephen Head, who had jumped clear of the falling masonry, immediately went to Budd’s aid and shifted the rubble, but Budd then ‘heaved a few sighs and died’ covered in blood on the floor of the church. The inquest was held at the Nag’s Head Inn, a couple of doors down the High Street, and the verdict of accidental death was returned, with the coroner keen to stress that ‘no blame or want of skill or negligence could attach to any one connected with the work’.

The church was reopened on 28 August 1849, although the restoration of the tower was not yet complete. The church was reportedly filled to overflowing during the opening service and the rebuilding was said to have satisfied the entire congregation. Philip Brannon visited the church shortly after the restoration. In his 1850 book Picture of Southampton he commented on the work:

‘The effect of the interior is very fine; the rich tracery of the great west window – the lofty pointed arches between the body and the aisles, with the neat clerestories above them – the ancient chancel – and the open timber roof – produce a very imposing whole…’

The interior of the church.

The interior of the church.

Twelve years later, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was in Southampton to open the new Hartley Institution (the forerunner of the University of Southampton), which was situated on the High street, south of Holyrood Church. On 15 October 1862, Palmerston made his way to Southampton from Broadlands, his country estate near Romsey, a journey of about seven miles. Palmerston’s carriage was ‘drawn in triumphal procession, amid the mingled music of instrumental bands and the shouts of well-dressed spectators’ and the streets were lined with masses of people. Members of the public climbed on whatever they could to get a good view of the Prime Minister as he made his way down the High Street, and some managed to get on top of Holyrood Church’s tower. On top of the tower were four large stone balls, one on each corner. Three days later, the following appeared in the Hampshire Advertiser:

‘A LUCKY ESCAPE – While Lord Palmerston was passing through the procession on Wednesday some person, it is stated, who was on the tower of Holy Rhood church pushed one of the large balls of stone which are placed at each corner so violently that it broke off and fell on to the abutment, and bounded from thence on to the pavement below, smashing several of the flags and making a large hole in the ground. The stone was broken into two pieces; it was a fortunate circumstance that it struck the abutment or it would have fallen inside the iron railings, where an immense number of people were assembled and in all probability some of them would not have escaped with their lives. The wonder is that no person was injured, as there were crowds moving about, and the Royal Mail Steamship Company’s men had formed two deep near to the pavement, but it is supposed that from the shouting of those on the tower those below were enabled to get out of the way.’

Today, on the pavement in front of the church, there is a small brass cross. This marks the spot where the stone ball fell and it is a permanent reminder of the fact that somehow, nobody was injured or killed. It is thought the brass cross was installed by Sir Frederick Perkins and this is noted in his obituary in 1902. Perkins was a Southampton-born merchant and he had been Mayor of Southampton at the time of Palmerston’s visit in 1862. He was knighted in 1873 and he represented Southampton as its Member of Parliament between 1874 and 1880.

On the exterior of the tower facing the High Street there are two quarter-jacks; small mechanical figures that strike a bell every quarter of an hour. The quarter-jacks date to at least 1760, although a newspaper report in 1897 claimed (without mentioning a source) that they were two hundred and fifty years old. In 1872, an appeal was made to raise funds to repair the tower, clock, and quarter-jacks, which had fallen into disrepair over time. The quarter-jacks were removed, but they were not immediately returned. In 1876, one of the churchwardens, Edward Paul, offered the quarter-jacks to the Hartley Institution for display, but the offer was rejected. He then offered them to the council, but they voted against it. Paul wanted to save the quarter-jacks and so he kept them safe for the next twenty-three years. It was not until 1897 that they were repaired, restored, and refitted in their original position underneath the clock. The repair work had been paid for by Sir Frederick Perkins, who restored them as a memorial to his mother and father, who had both lived in the parish.

The quarter jacks.

The quarter jacks.

Within the tower are the church bells. In A History of Southampton by the Victorian historian Reverend John Silvester Davies, where he drew upon an earlier work by John Speed, it is stated that in 1456 and 1461 the clerk of Holyrood Church was paid for ringing the curfew and assembly bells. In 1569, the Court Leet records state that the ‘Clarcke of hollye Roods’ was ordered to ring the bells twice a day – at four o’clock in the morning and at eight o’clock in the evening – and it was agreed that he would be fined four pence every time that he failed to do so.

Over the years, the street outside Holyrood Church became the traditional place for Sotonians to see in the New Year. For example, as 1898 became 1899, there was ‘the usual midnight assemblage on the asphalte, near Holyrood Church… and much merriment prevailed’. The High Street was completely impassable by half past eleven and people sang songs as they waited for the bells to ring. ‘The death knell of ’98 was tolled, but at twelve o’clock a joyous shout rent the air, the bells rang out a merry peal, and success to the New Year was heartily drunk’. The steps of the National and Provincial bank opposite the church (now Robins Nest, a vintage, retro, and antiques emporium) were always stated to be the best place to be and people arrived early to stand on them, as the steps gave them a good view above the crowds. One gentlemen who had secured the steps produced a bottle of Scotch and a glass, and this was passed around freely between those who had gathered to see in the New Year. Southampton’s Chief Constable estimated that between seven and eight thousand people were outside Holyrood Church that night, and he stated that the crowd was ‘the most orderly and best natured’ that he had ever dealt with. The police dispersed the crowd after around fifteen minutes of good wishes and handshakes, and they all went away singing patriotic songs. The vast majority of people went home without causing any trouble but there were a couple of exceptions. Ivor Williams, a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps (based at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley) was arrested outside the Bargate for using obscene language, and Edward Smith, a labourer, was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the High Street near the church. Both men saw in the New Year in a police cell.

Local people had gathered outside Holyrood Church on New Years’ Eve for years, and they would continue to do so. However, in 1901, the church bells rang for a different reason. On 22 January 1901, Queen Victoria died. The news quickly reached Southampton and it was met with ‘sad consternation and profound sorrow’. Holyrood’s bells tolled mournfully and ’emphasised the general sadness’ that was felt throughout the town. The majority of the town’s citizens would have probably remembered the day Queen Victoria died for the rest of their lives and, for many of them, Holyrood’s bells would have been the soundtrack to those memories.

Thomas Hibberd James' late nineteenth century photograph of Holyrood Church. From A Victorian Photographer in Southampton by Adrian Rance.

Thomas Hibberd James’ late nineteenth century photograph of Holyrood Church. From A Victorian Photographer in Southampton by Adrian Rance.

The traditional gathering outside the church as 1913 turned into 1914 was described as a ‘midnight carnival’ and many people dressed up in ‘fantastic costumes’ for the usual dancing and singing. But this would be the last peacetime New Year’s Eve for five years. In the August of 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force sprung into action, embarking for France from Southampton that same month. It is possible that some of those who were outside the church at the beginning of 1914 found themselves on foreign front lines before the end of the year. However, the fact that the country was now at war did nothing to stop people from gathering outside Holyrood Church as 1914 turned into 1915. The Hampshire Independent noted that the although the spirit of the crowd was ‘a trifle more serious and subdued than usual’, the numbers were roughly the same as previous years. There was, however, one major difference. This year, a new colour dominated the clothing of the crowd, and that colour was khaki. People outside the church sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as usual but ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was also sung. Although the rain came down as the bells signalled the coming of the New Year, the weather did not dampen any spirits and the people were in ‘the best of humour’ as they cheered and then sung the National Anthem.

The First World War wore on and towards the end of 1916, many Southampton families would have been mourning the loss of loved ones. Due to the Defence of the Realm Regulations, the bells of Holyrood would remain silent on New Year’s Eve for the first time in years. The usual church service had been cancelled and the streets were in complete darkness. This did not, however, stop people from gathering ‘on the asphalte’ and although the eerie darkness made it difficult for the crowd (which was smaller than usual) to gauge the exact time (some struck matches in order to see their watches), those who were present did break out into a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ during those first few minutes of 1917.

It was much the same a year later, as people gathered to see in 1918. Again, there were no bells or any special programmes, but a number of young people still gathered to welcome in the New Year. Despite the hardships that had been a caused by years of war, people danced and played kiss-in-the-ring, a form of the kiss chase game. Although there were no bells at midnight, the crowd sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before they were dispersed by the police.

It had been a long and costly war. Almost 2,000 Sotonians who lost their lives in the First World War are now remembered on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Southampton Cenotaph, which was unveiled on 6 November 1920. There would have been thousands of people in Southampton who reflected upon their losses as the news came through on 11 November 1918 that the Armistice had been signed and peace had been declared. Just over ten months after the last quiet New Year’s Eve, Holyrood’s bells would ring again. The Hampshire Advertiser reported that at first, the news was received in Southampton with ‘mingled feelings’. Large crowds had gathered and there was a moment of silence before a great cheer rose. The church bells rang out a merry peal, flags appeared everywhere, and ‘Southampton suddenly let herself go’ as men ceased work to join the celebrations and people danced in the street. The cheering and shouting ‘gradually swelled like a tempest’ and the High Street was completely crowded. Many would have been outside Holyrood Church as its bells rang out for peace. French, Belgian, American, and Italian soldiers joined their British counterparts as an American band paraded the streets, followed by hundreds of American sailors and students from the institution now called the Hartley College, which had been opened by Lord Palmerston in 1862. Youngsters paraded up and down the street beating baths, buckets, tin trays, and anything else that would make a noise. Land girls, munition girls, nurses, members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Royal Naval Service danced and sung arm-in-arm with soldiers and the party continued until after midnight. Holyrood Church was in a great position to witness the spectacle.

Thomas Hibberd James' late nineteenth century photograph of Southampton High Street. Holyrood Church is on the right. The Dolphin Hotel can be seen slightly further up the street, with St Lawrence's Church just beyond it. This church was demolished in the 1920s. The Bargate can be seen in the distance. From A Victorian Photographer in Southampton by Adrian Rance.

Thomas Hibberd James’ late nineteenth century photograph of Southampton High Street. Holyrood Church is on the right. The Dolphin Hotel can be seen slightly further up the street, with St Lawrence’s Church just beyond it. This church was demolished in the 1920s. The Bargate can be seen in the distance. From A Victorian Photographer in Southampton by Adrian Rance.

Many of those who had celebrated in the streets of Southampton in November 1918 would have been horrified as Britain declared war on Germany again in September 1939. Just under four months later, some of them would have braved the winter night to see in the New Year the traditional way. Although Holyrood’s bells rang at midnight, the blackout had put many people off, and the crowd was smaller than usual. Details about the blackout can be found here: Southampton’s Blackout. On the whole, it was stated that the celebrations in Southampton on that night were very quiet.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Southampton had been the country’s leading passenger port. In addition to this, the town was also an important manufacturing centre, with a number of shipbuilding yards and aircraft factories. The Germans would have remembered that Southampton had been the country’s number one embarkation port during the First World War and, as a result, they marked the town as a major target for an aerial bombing campaign.

The worst of Southampton’s Blitz came in November 1940 with a series of devastating night-time raids. For some further details, please see this article: Postcards from the Blitz. German bombs rained down upon the town on 23 November 1940 and, according to one American newspaper, the Nazis claimed to have reduced Southampton to nothing more than a ‘smoking ruin’. Despite their boasts, the Luftwaffe returned exactly one week later, on 30 November. Southampton was still on fire when they returned the following night, on 1 December. The town was bombed throughout the war, but these three major raids changed the face of Southampton forever.

Holyrood Church did not survive the Blitz. It was one of many churches to be hit, although St Michael’s Church, about one hundred yards east of Holyrood Church, only received minor damage. Holyrood Church had been granted by Henry II in 1160 and it had stood on the same site on Southampton High Street since 1320. However, on 30 November 1940, it became yet another victim of the bombing campaign that would devastate so much of Southampton. That cold night in 1940 saw widespread destruction around Southampton’s old town, within the stone walls that had been built after the town was attacked in 1338.

Holyrood Church shortly after being destroyed during the Southampton Blitz. Image courtesy of the Southampton Memories: People and Places Facebook group.

Holyrood Church shortly after being destroyed during the Southampton Blitz. Image courtesy of the Southampton Memories: People and Places Facebook group.

Arthur Gledhill managed the Clarence pub on Southampton High Street, directly opposite Holyrood Church. He also served as an auxiliary fireman during the awful winter of 1940 when Southampton was targeted. Andrew Bissell’s excellent Southampton’s Children of the Blitz contains Gledhill’s account of the raid on 30 November 1940, when he was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service. Gledhill was on duty and he had been blown against a wall by an explosion which killed one of his colleagues. He then helped another colleague who had been blinded by a bomb blast, and he was helping another who had been buried by rubble when another bomb launched him into another wall. An ambulance arrived at the scene, amid the chaos. ‘I had to admire the young woman driver,’ Gledhill recalled, ‘she was as cool as a cucumber…’ Gledhill got in the ambulance with some other injured people and a body was also put on board. He remembered the noise of the high explosives falling and exploding, the firing of guns, and the roar of intense fires as he was transported to hospital by the calm driver who had to navigate her way through a theatre of war.

Gledhill did not even know if his wife and children had survived the awful raid when he returned to the Clarence pub the following morning. Thankfully, he found that they were safe. Gledhill later wrote: ‘Arriving at Holy Rood, the fine old church was just a shell, its spire lay across the road, other buildings lay in ruins’. Gledhill’s family had survived the raid by spending the night in a number of different air raid shelters. Michael Gledhill recalled being taken in his pyjamas from the Clarence to a shelter near Holyrood Church, but they had to move to another shelter slightly further up the High Street, and then to another one near St Michael’s Church. Michael Gledhill later wrote:

‘When we came up to street level, I remember the scene was as bright as day with the light from burning buildings. Holy Rood Church was ablaze from end to end, the spire was gone, the roof was gone, and also all the windows. It was just a big inferno. The tower which once supported the spire was now like a Roman candle with masses of sparks coming from the top. The flames shot at least 30 feet (9 metres) into the air.’

The Gledhills had survived but sadly, their dog, Tiny, was killed during the raid. The Clarence was damaged by the raid on 30 November 1940 but it survived. The Luftwaffe returned the following night – 1 December – and parts of  Southampton were still ablaze as they unleashed yet more destruction. For Holyrood Church, the damage was already done. German bombs had reduced the church to a charred ruin. It had stood on the same site for six hundred and ten years. It had survived murderous medieval raiders, it had hosted royalty, and it had been an iconic Southampton landmark for centuries. Its ancient walls had witnessed countless baptisms, marriages, and funerals; the defining events of thousands of lives. But now, like so many other buildings in Southampton, it had been gutted by flames.

Image from the 14 December 1940 edition of the Illustrated London News. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

Image from the 14 December 1940 edition of the Illustrated London News. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

The bombs had caused its spire to come crashing to the ground below, and fire had ripped through its interior. Holyrood Church had become another victim of a violent bombing campaign which had shattered the town’s old character. However, unlike many of these doomed buildings, its story did not end here.

All Saints’ Church stood roughly two hundred and seventy yards further up the High Street and it too had been bombed during the Blitz. Its bombed-out remains, along with its imposing neoclassical pillars, were subsequently pulled down. However, Holyrood Church – although bombed, battered, and ruined – was left to stand.

Holyrood Church, November 2021.

Holyrood Church, November 2021.

The people of Southampton had experienced first-hand the horrors of war during the winter of 1940. Hundreds had been killed and parts of the town had been reduced to nothing more than piles of smashed stone and brick and twisted metal. Those who remained in Southampton would have been excused for deciding to see in the New Year from behind their blackout curtains as 1940 – one of the darkest years in Southampton’s history – gave way for 1941. Holyrood Church, which had once been the place to be on New Years’ Eve in years gone by, stood broken and wounded. Its triumphant bells had been silenced by the bombs. However, on New Year’s Eve 1940, just thirty-one days after the church’s roof and spire had come crashing to the ground in the midst of a violent inferno, a small group of people gathered in the darkness outside what was left of the ruined church.

William Dixon was the managing director of Oakley and Watling, the fruit and vegetable merchants who operated from a shop on the High Street, roughly ninety yards south of Holyrood Church. In 1940, Dixon also volunteered as a fire-watcher. Oakley and Watling’s ornate shopfront can still be seen today, next to the Red Lion pub, with the ‘O’ and ‘W’ still visible on the façade. Today, the building houses an Indian restaurant. In Bernard Knowles’ Southampton The English Gateway, the following account by William Dixon appears:

‘Chancing to be taking to the air after a spell of fire-watching duty, I was amazed to see about forty people assembled ‘on the asphalt’ ready to take part in the traditional local welcome to the New Year. As the last minutes of 1940 ticked away, I heard the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. They were followed by those of ‘There’ll always be an England’. Then came the famous hymn, ‘O God our help in ages past’, by Southampton’s own composer, Isaac Watts. It was a moving spectacle.’

In the same book, another account by an unnamed Air Raid Precautions warden appears:

‘I would not have missed it for anything. The spirit of the people was wonderful. As the old year waned I seemed to see a light shining over Holy Rood. The singing at an end, one ardent ‘asphalter’ addressed the little gathering. “I hope,” he said, “that Sotonians will always gather outside the old church on New Year’s Eve. I always have. This is still Southampton. Although Hitler may have wrecked our buildings, he has not wrecked us.”‘

On 31 January 1941, just two months after Holyrood Church had been destroyed, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited the battered town. He visited the docks, where hundreds of dockers surged around him, shouting their support. ‘Good old Winnie’ was a common cry. On the steps of Southampton Civic Centre, Churchill turned to face the crowd. With a yachting cap in one hand, and a cigar in the other, he asked the crowd: “Are we downhearted?”

There was a tremendous, united reply: “No!” Just two months after their town had been so savagely bombed, the people of Southampton showed incredible resilience. The man who spoke outside Holyrood Church one month before Churchill’s visit was right. Hitler had wrecked many of Southampton’s buildings, but he had not wrecked the public’s spirit.

Just after the bombing had ceased, a small piece of the church’s history was rescued from the chaos of the rubble and debris. Although burnt and damaged, the church’s medieval lectern was saved. Described by Pevsner and Lloyd as ‘perhaps the most beautiful in England’, they date it to the early fifteenth century, and they suggest that it may have been made in Flanders. The lectern, which depicts an eagle, was carefully restored and subsequently placed inside St Michael’s Church, where it remains to this day.

Holyrood Church, November 2021. Compare this to the image of the church's interior. The two photos were taken from a similar position.

Holyrood Church, November 2021. Compare this to the image of the church’s interior. The two photos were taken from a similar position.

In 1949, four years after the end of the war, the Mayor of Southampton, Frank Dibben, issued an appeal to create a garden of remembrance within the shattered walls of the church which would act as a memorial to the Merchant Navy and the thousands of people in that service who gave their lives during the Second World War.

Two years after Dibben’s appeal, in 1951, the church’s quarter jacks were restored and a new clock was fitted. The work had been paid for entirely by Harry Parsons but sadly, he had died in the February of 1951 at the age of seventy-nine. In his obituary, he was described as one of Southampton’s ‘foremost and respected public men’. He had formed the Parsons Motor Company in 1904 and he had been the chairman of the Southampton Harbour Board for twenty-one years. He was also a local magistrate for thirty years, a role he held among many other positions. In June, the restored quarter jacks – which Parsons had paid for – were unveiled, and the honour was given to his widow, Kathleen. At the ceremony, the chairman of the memorial fund committee, Rex Stranger, who had been Mayor of Southampton in 1944, stated that over £7,500 had been raised, but they still needed over £2,500 to cover the conversion of a bombed church into a memorial. In response, the mayor at the time, Minnie Cutler OBE, who was in attendance, launched a final appeal to make up the deficit. Kathleen Parsons stated that her late husband had been anxious to see the new clock installed with the working quarter jacks. Perhaps, in years gone by, he had been one of those who had braved the cold to stand beneath the tower to see in the New Year? Kathleen pressed the time switch to set the clock in motion and, at noon, the quarter jacks came out and carried on their work, just as they had done for centuries before they had been damaged during the war.

Holyrood's tower. The spire of St Michael's can be seen beyond the former National and Provincial bank. It was said that the best place to see in the New Year was on the steps outside the bank's front door.

Holyrood’s tower. The spire of St Michael’s can be seen beyond the former National and Provincial bank. It was said that the best place to see in the New Year was on the steps outside the bank’s front door.

Despite the restoration of the clock and the quarter jacks in 1951, it would be another six years before the Merchant Navy memorial would finally become a reality. On 11 April 1957, nearly seventeen years after the church was bombed, and eight years after the appeal was issued, the memorial was finally unveiled. The provisional arrangements for the ceremony stated that the unveiling would be attended by the Bishop of Southampton, the Vicar of St Michael’s Church, the Chaplain to the Missions to Seamen, the Mayor of Southampton, and other council members. Cadets of the School of Navigation at Warsash were to form a guard of honour on the pavement outside the church, and the bugle calls would be sounded by Cadet B. R. K. Nicoll of TS Mercury at Hamble. The Southampton Police Band provided the music, and it was stated that the hymn ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past’ would be sung. This is not just symbolic because it was written by Isaac Watts, who was born in Southampton in 1674, but also because the people of Southampton had sung the hymn outside the ruin a month after it had been bombed. In addition to this, ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ would be sung; this hymn is traditionally associated with seafaring. It was a fitting hymn for the opening of a new memorial to members of the Merchant Navy who had lost their lives at sea. The honour of unveiling the main plaque fell to Sir Cyril Ivan Thompson, who had first gone to sea in 1910. He joined Cunard in 1916 and then served at sea during both World Wars. He was Commodore of the Cunard Line between 1954 and 1957 and on that April day in 1957, he removed the Red Ensign and unveiled the plaque. The Last Post was then played.

The unveiling of the Merchant Navy memorial. Image from the 20 April 1957 edition of the Illustrated London News. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

Today, the ruins of Holyrood Church remain a memorial to the Merchant Navy. Although situated on the busy High Street, the stone walls block some of the noise and the memorial still feels like a place of peace and reflection. It continues to draw visitors who wander through its doorway, where so many have walked in the past, and they can often be seen observing the various memorials and plaques within. Some surviving memorials can be seen in the chancel, and in the nave there is a tomb belonging to the Speed family. John Speed (1552-1629) was a famous mapmaker; his map can be seen above. His descendants settled in Southampton and they were buried in Holyrood Church. Information on the Speed family can be found at the bottom of this article. Another somewhat hidden tomb can be found just outside the church’s walls, south of the chancel. This belongs to Richard Taunton, who was born in Southampton in 1684. He was a wealthy businessman who, like one of the Speeds, served two terms as Mayor of Southampton. After his death in 1752, he was buried in the family tomb in St John’s Church. However, this church was demolished in the early eighteenth century. The tomb remained on the site until 1958, when it was moved to its present position. By 1958, the school that he had founded with money left in his will was almost two hundred years old and still going strong.

The memorial tablets which remember those who died in the 1837 fire can still be seen outside, having been restored in 1985. On the tower is a memorial to Charles Dibdin (the son of Thomas Dibdin, a parish clerk of the church), who was born in Southampton in 1745. He was a poet, dramatist, musician, actor, composer, and prolific songwriter, who is perhaps best known for Tom Bowling, which has been played many times at the Last Night of the Proms.

Holyrood Church, November 2021.

Holyrood Church, November 2021.

If you visit the church today, you can see a number of other memorials and plaques. Inside the church tower is a memorial to the crew of Titanic, which had been subscribed for by the widows, family, and friends of the crew members who died. It was originally unveiled on Cemetery Road at the entrance to Southampton Common on 27 July 1915, but it was moved from this position to Holyrood Church in 1972. The Titanic disaster had a profound and terrible impact on Southampton. The interactive Titanic Crew Map displays the addresses of seven hundred and twenty men and women who lived or lodged in Southampton prior to the maiden voyage. Five hundred and forty-two of them died in the sinking.

There are a number of other plaques that remember members of the Merchant Navy. On the north wall there is a memorial to Southampton-born Captain Charles Fryatt, who was executed by the Germans in Bruges on 27 July 1916 after he had been captured and arrested for ordering his merchant vessel SS Brussels to ram a German U-boat. Nearby, there is another plaque to commemorate to the invaluable service of the Merchant Navy who operated out of Southampton during the Falklands War in 1982. Outside the church, there is an anchor that once belonged to the QE2.

Holyrood Church has been a familiar sight on Southampton High Street for over seven hundred years. From 1320 to 1940, this building served as an important place of worship in the heart of a port town. For centuries, its walls would have witnessed the baptisms, marriages, and funerals of the townsfolk, as entire lives were lived within earshot of the bells. Since 1957, the church has served not as a place of worship, but a place of quiet reflection. To walk in the church today is to walk in the footsteps of history.

It is well worth a visit.



Sources and further reading:

Southampton’s Children of the Blitz by Andrew Bissell

Southampton The English Gateway by Bernard Knowles

Southampton At War 1939-1945 by Anthony Kemp

The Southampton Blitz by Anthony Brode

Southampton Blitz The Unofficial Story by Claire Frankland, Donald Hyslop, and Sheila Jemima

Picture of Southampton by Philip Brannon

A Walk Through Southampton by Sir Henry Englefield

A History of Southampton. Partly from the Ms. of Dr. Speed, in the Southampton Archives by Rev. J. Silvester Davies, 1883

Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

Archaeology in Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

Birth, Marriage, Death & Parish Records, Findmypast.co.uk

Census records, Findmypast.co.uk

Newspapers, various, Findmypast.co.uk

Sotonopedia: Holy Rood Church, Memorials, Proclamation Place

Sotonopedia: Richard Taunton, John Speed and the Speed family

Sotonopedia: ‘Little Men’ of Holy Rood at work again, Holy Rood merchant navy memorial will be unveiled in April 

Philip of Spain’s arrival in Southampton

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