THE site of Southampton’s old fruit and veg market will soon be reborn as flats in a new multi-million pound development.

But this area called Market Place was once a bustling wholesale market that the mayor in 1965 described as “the finest in the United Kingdom".

It was part of the post-war drive to bring business and prosperity back to the city after the devastation of the Blitz.

There had been a market in the city for generations with its roots in auctions on the Quayside but the auctions died out in the 1950s.

The place that was to become the market had been obliterated by bombing during the war and was covered in rubble and weeds but in the mid-1950s a fruit exchange and warehouse was built boosting what was already a £5-£7 million trade. 

Since the post-war period and until recently the whole area of Queensway, Bernard Street, Back-of-the-Walls, and Market Place has been connected with the fruit and vegetable wholesale trade.

Produce came from all over the UK and the world to be sold and distributed from here. Grapefruits came from Cyprus, nectarines from the Cape, bananas from Jamaica, cauliflowers from Italy and apples from Nova Scotia and British Columbia all to be sold here.

In recent year’s companies such as M and W Mack Ltd – previously known as Mack and Edwards, P and R Produce Ltd and Total Produce operated from here and earlier other wholesalers were Burgess Webb and Squire, GW Fresh Produce and Rowe and Co. SJ Bellows were based in Market Place but went into administration earlier this year.

Although the market came to the site just after the war, some of the companies were already in Southampton.

TJ Pouparts were founded in London and came to the city in 1928.

Another company A. G. Benfield Ltd was started in the city in 1925.

In November 1954 the Echo said in an article “Soton fruit market would add to town’s prosperity”. It went on to say that “There are plans afoot for the development of the fruit trade in Southampton. Although there were still some planning difficulties after nine years of peace.”

According to City Council Planning documents ‘P and R Produce’ got planning approval to build their warehouse at Market Place in 1955.

In the 1950’s The Echo made a special note that the Southampton firm Burgess Webb and Squires Ltd were flying veg and flowers into Southampton from Jersey and cauliflowers from Brittany.

It was thought that Southampton's fruit and vegetable trade would one day rival Covent Garden and in an Echo article in October 1955 it said: “Perhaps in a few years, a well-known magazine will again print photographs of Southampton, only this time the captions will probably read 'Once a bomb-devastated area, now a thriving modern whole-sale market, a focal point for the south’s buyers'.”

It went on to say: “Very different was the picture 25 years ago (1930), when there were but a few established wholesalers there. Gradually up to 1939 the trend turned towards importers and brokerage businesses, until today Southampton has the basis on which to build a premier provincial market.”

The same piece quotes a J.M. Lyons managing director of the wholesaler A. Philip (London) Ltd who said: “I think Southampton will pinch quite a bit of the London trade in the near future.”

He added that the handling facilities were better than at Covent Garden.

In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the Echo used to report on activities of the Southern Fruit and Potato Merchants Association especially its annual dinner dances that took place. 

In January 1964 the Echo reported that ‘Southampton Market is one of the best’ when a delegation from the ministry of agriculture fisheries and food came to see the fruit and vegetable market and said they were impressed with “the lay-out of the market, the design of its premises and the mechanical handling and parking facilities".

In October 1964 the then Mayor Mrs E.E. Willcock declared that the “City is proud of its traders” and she said: “I think the fruit and vegetable market in Southampton is modern and the sort of place where you can get on with the job and do it well.”

In the mid 1970’s the fruit and vegetable wholesale business was making a £20 million turnover in the city.

Over the years there was much less advantage in having a central Southampton wholesale produce market. Many of the smaller companies went out of business or were taken over and modern wholesalers preferred to be at larger sites near motorways.

In 2008 Total Produce acquired Benfield Philips Ltd, the long established and well-respected fresh produce wholesale business based in Southampton.

Benfield Philips was formed in 2003 as a result of a merger between two of Southampton’s oldest fresh produce importers and distributors, A G Benfield and A Phillips (Brokers).

M and W Mack Ltd are now called Mack Wholesale, part of the Fresca Group and based at Nursling Industrial Estate.

Today the last remaining fruit and vegetable wholesalers left in central Southampton is A.G. Axton and Sons which have been in business for over 100 years.

But the market site that once rose phoenix like from the debris and ashes of the Blitz to feed the nation, is now rising again to provide much needed homes for the Southampton’s citizens.

The completed project will create 84 one and 195 two-bedroom apartments across three blocks, as well as nearly 900 square metres of flexible commercial space. PMC Construction is the principal contractor, appointed to deliver on a plan to bring new residential and retail opportunities, plus greenspace, to help revitalise this prominent area of the city.

The old warehouses are now all gone and construction has begun. During the sites archaeological investigations there were discovered some of the best examples locally of Anglo Saxon defence measures against the threat of Viking attacks.

Allan Gordon, managing director of Hampshire & Regional Property Group, said: “Through the provision of much-needed housing and commercial space, we are confident that the Fruit and Vegetable market will further revitalise Queensway.

"Added to this the number of jobs already created and it’s clear the project is making its mark on local life.”

Councillor Simon Letts, leader of Southampton City Council, has said: “The Fruit & Vegetable market is one of seven Very Important Projects (VIP’s) that are underway as part of the City Centre Masterplan. As the development continues to take shape, it’s clear it is destined to make a real impact on the ongoing improvement of our city.

“This new build generates jobs, homes, retail and green spaces, and reinforces the general spirit of community. Projects such as this help us to deliver our pledge to make Southampton a ‘city of opportunity, where everyone thrives.”

As a tribute to Queensway’s historic past, local artist Dan Rawlings has provided ideas for a sculptural installation to be included on the site.