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Port of Southampton celebrates its 175th anniversary
IT is a typical tale of Victorian entrepreneurs, with seemingly limitless ambition and enthusiasm.
In the early 1800s Southampton’s main claim to fame since the 1750s had been as a seaside spa resort.
Despite its excellent possibilities and situation, the city’s trade was mostly local and continental. The only quay that was not dry at low water was the recently built Royal Pier, with the other main quay the Town Quay.
It was the age of the railways that inspired businessmen to develop the potential of the town. An early proposal for a railway came from Robert Johnson and Abel Rous Dottin, MP for Southampton.
In 1832, the Southampton, London and Branch Railway and Dock Company issued a prospectus to try and raise £1.5m to build a rail link to Southampton and develop a new dock there.
The railway proposal succeeded, but not yet the dock one. The railway was promoted as the London and Southampton Railway (L&SR) and authorised by Act of Parliament on July 25, 1834.
In 1835 the Southampton Dock Company was formed. Site engineer Francis Giles was asked by London and local businessmen to undertake a survey of the “Western Mudlands” for the purposes of constructing deep-water berths.
He dutifully reported it “expedient to construct a dock, wharves and sheds for the accommodation of trade and shipping.”
Francis Giles was immediately appointed company engineer, and began to prepare a series of plans. On May 19, 1836. Royal Assent was given to “an Act for making and maintaining a dock or docks at Southampton”.
The preamble to the 1836 Act noted that it “would be of great public utility if a dock or docks were made, constructed and maintained on the mudlands at the confluence of the Southampton Water and the River Itchen.”
The 1836 Act recognised the Southampton Dock Company as a “body corporate” and empowered the Southampton Dock Company to raise a capital of £350,000.
On August 14, 1836 the first company meeting was held in the George and Vulture Tavern in London.
Nine directors and 37 proprietors were present. Frances Giles was also present at the meeting and was formally appointed docks engineer.
The directors appointed one Joseph Liggins Esq as the company’s first chairman. There is an oil painting of Mr Liggins on the third floor of Ocean Gate, ABP Southampton’s Port Office.
Amid much pomp and pageantry, before an estimated crowd of 20,000, the foundation stone was laid on October 12, 1838, by Sir Lucius Curtis. He later became Admiral of the Fleet, and is commemorated in the name of the pub at the Ocean Village entrance.
Local historian Bert Moody identified the spot where the stone was laid: the meeting of the north and west boundaries of the area, close by what became No.1 Gate, about 80 yards west of the site on which the docks Post Office was later built.
The stone was recovered many years ago and is now on display in the Eastern Docks, just inside Dock Gate 4, next to a Titanic memorial.
The brig Tartar was to be the first ship to use the docks, but she caught fire on June 2, 1842, so when the Outer Dock was first used, on August 29, 1842, it was by P&O ships Tagus and – rather ironically – Liverpool.
On September 24, 1842, the P&O steamer Hindostan left Southampton to open the India Mail Service.
The first graving dock opened in 1846, and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s ship Forth was the first to use it.
A major expansion took place in 1850 when a second dock, the Inner, or Closed, Dock was first used. The two largest mail shipping lines, P&O and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, established their headquarters in the town.
In 1850 P&O had 30 steamers operating from the port, “all splendidly built and fitted up”.
In 1859 it was necessary to improve the inner dock as ships continued to grow. The official opening of the improved Inner Dock was by P&O’s Pera.
The connection with the liners has of course continued to the present day.
The Inner Dock was filled in in 1963, but the Outer Dock survives as the Ocean Village marina.
As ships grew ever larger, dock extensions were made to accommodate them, and today these have enabled liners such as the Queen Mary 2 to continue using the docks.
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