ONE of the most unusual houses ever seen in Southampton was Westgate House which stood close to Westgate Hall, now a popular wedding venue.

The site of the house was originally a shipyard belonging to a George Rowcliffe. His daughter, Mary, married Philip Marett of Jersey who died in 1759.

His widow carried on the ship building business but also incorporated a small house at the front of the town wall and a cottage behind the town hall into an imposing Georgian mansion.

Her grandson, Charles Marett, who inherited the property in 1809, was a prosperous lawyer and had no interest in the family business so he built a stone sea wall and the yard became a garden.

In 1823 he leased land to the rear so there was also a garden running north to Cuckoo Lane.

This plot had been used for the burial of prisoners of war who had died in captivity and so had acquired the macabre name the Spanish Burying Place.

The snag with the house was that it was cut in half by the town wall but in those pre-planning permission days that was a very solvable problem. The seaward side of the house consisted of three stories built against the wall.

The back of the house had only one storey but it was level with the middle storey of the front.

The section of the wall straddled by the house comprised two arches of what are known as the arcades.

Doorways were cut in the thick walls to give access to the two parts of the building and provided an unconventional alcove in the drawing room.

When Charles Marett died in 1870, the house passed to his son who was another Charles Marett.

He had followed his father and chosen law as his profession which he practiced as a barrister in London.

As he had no need of the property and his elder sister was established in Maybush, he offered the family home to his recently widowed younger sister and her young family.

Hannah Marett had married a Frenchman, Joseph Maes, and she was always known to the people of Southampton as Madame rather than Mrs Maes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the parish of St Michael, occupying the south west corner of the town, continued to be known as a prosperous, genteel area. It boasted such residents as Admiral Styles and General Shrapnel, inventor of shrapnel shells.

By the time of Madame Maes’ tenure of Westgate House, the tone of the neighbourhood had already taken a turn for the worse. With the expansion of the port, the Elizabethan houses, similar to those that architect William Spranger rescued and turned into the Tudor House Museum, were subdivided into mean lodging houses.

Particularly in Simnel Street and Blue Anchor Lane, the people lived in poverty and the density of population exceeded that of the East End of London.

Rather than isolating herself from the misery that she saw around her, Madame Maes was generous to those in the poor streets around her home. She visited the needy and sick and offered gifts of clothes and food which made her a very popular figure in the neighbourhood. She even opened her garden to local children and others.

Estate agent and auctioneer William Burrough Hill had a treasured childhood memory of climbing the old mulberry tree behind her house.

The council had already planned Western Esplanade - a road which would link the then Western Railway Station with the Royal Pier.

It is, perhaps, fortunate that Madame Maes did not live to see the destruction of her home. She died in 1898 and the leases on the house and grounds were bought out.

The breaches in the wall were sealed and it seemed as if Westgate House had never been.

The one reminder is the horse trough erected on Western Esplanade in 1903 and inscribed ‘to Madame Maes and other members of the Marett Family’.

Ally Hayes is a tour guide with .