IT was always a favourite place for a night on the town and, difficult though it may be to imagine these days, there was a time when Southampton’s East Street was THE place to be on a Saturday evening.

In the decades before the Second World War the street was a cosmopolitan melting-pot of nationalities businesses and street sellers.

Crowds thronged to the little specialist shops, pubs and cinemas that once packed this historic part of the city.

East Street is thought to be one of the country’s oldest byways. It can trace its roots to Saxon times and at one time the part that curved down towards St Mary’s Church was known as Bagge Row.

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Over the centuries East Street was often mentioned in local archives.

In 1563 “the painter’s wife of East Street” had to daub the dreaded red cross on doors to indicate the presence of plague victims.

A few years later, the stocks in East Street were reported to be in a bad state of repair – whether through lack of use or over use it is not stated.

In Georgian times from about 1750 onwards, East Street grew in prosperity along with the rest of the town in the spa period.

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In the 1770s the Harmonic Society was formed and met at the Yeoman Inn,East Street, for choral and instrumental music, the annual subscription being one guinea (£1.05) or 6d (2p) a week.

In the early part of the last century up to the late 1930s the East Street crowds were so big it was said you could walk all the way “from All Saints church to St Mary’s on the tops of people’s heads.”

The street was a magnet for Saturday evening shoppers.

Crowds milled under the glare of the naphtha lamps over the butcher’s shop where the Sunday joint could be bought for just a few pence.

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There were hawkers’ barrows strung out along almost the whole length of the street with vociferous dealers all vying with each other for customers.

“Here were a dozen tailors and almost as many boot shops, eight grocers, seven confectioners, six butchers, six outfitters, four watchmakers, three bakers, besides furnishers, chemists, drapers, wallpaper sellers, dyers and cleaners, fish mongers, costumiers, oil men, leather merchants, umbrella sellers, photographers, cycle merchants, toy dealers, a pawnbroker, a post office, stoneman and a blacksmith in his forge,” says one record of the time.

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“In addition there were seven pubs, two cinemas, an early Woolworths and at one time even a Marks and Spencer bazaar with nothing over a penny.”

Without doubt the greatest store was Edwin Jones, established in the late 1850s and which went on to become a local institution.

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A collection of smaller streets, including the Ditches with its own collection of tiny businesses, running off East Street all added to the character of the place.

Much of the area was lost as a result of enemy bombing during the Second World War and for years after grass, wild flowers and even small trees could be found growing amid the rubble. However, bit by bit East Street fought back and was rebuilt to play its part in the growth of post-war Southampton.