He bought Southampton its gas lamps but was he a genuinely kind man or was it for personal or financial gain?

On a historical tour of the city, the guide will point out the gas lamp in St Michael’s Square or those in front of the Dolphin Hotel and explain that the iron lamp posts were a gift to the town in 1820 from William Chamberlayne who was the chairman of the town’s sole gas company.

At this point most people give a wry chuckle and view Chamberlayne’s action not as a generous gift but the cynical act of an astute businessman seeking commercial benefit.

To better judge Chamberlayne’s motives it is important to know the man and the context in which his gift was given.

In Houndwell Park there is a tall blue column which was erected by public subscription as a tribute to William Chamberlayne for his “munificent gift of the iron columns supporting the public lights of the town”. Munificent means an act of great generosity so it would seem the townsfolk at that time did not view his gift as a cynical act but a generous one.

southampton in 1828 showing the gas lamps.

Southampton in 1828 showing the gas lamps.

Originally from Coley Park in Berkshire, Chamberlayne sold the extensive estates he inherited and in 1802 moved to his new home at Weston Grove overlooking Southampton Water.

His new estate extended from the Hamble to Itchen Ferry and included Netley Abbey.

The journalist and political reformer William Cobbett described Weston Grove as a fine estate with the most beautiful views that can be imagined.

Chamberlayne was elected MP for Southampton in 1812 and was a friend of William Cobbett

Weston Grove Chamberlaynes Southampton home.

Weston Grove, Chamberlayne's Southampton home.

who said Chamberlayne was much admired by all who knew him for his just treatment of working people and his support for universal education. He also supported the abolition of slavery.

An obelisk in Mayfield Park, Southampton was commissioned by Chamberlayne and dedicated to his friend, Charles Fox who proposed the Bill that became law in 1807 as the Slave Trade Act.

Chamberlayne promoted Southampton as a Spa town and worked hard to develop ferry links with the Channel Islands.

In 1820 Chamberlayne was returned as MP for Southampton and in 1821 he donated bread and beef to feed the town’s poor. Chamberlayne was returned unopposed as Southampton’s MP in 1826.

It is said that at election time he was carried through the town on a chair by the fishermen from Itchen Ferry who also acted as his bodyguards.

Colley Park Chamberlaynes Berkshire hom

Colley Park, Chamberlayne's Berkshire home.

Chamberlayne was MP when Southampton was a popular Spa town and many wealthy people had bought land and built substantial homes and estates locally.

At the time Southampton was visited by royalty and the wealthy for their health. They came to bathe in the sea water, drink from the Chalybeate spring and benefit from the invigorating air.

They also came for the entertainment which included dancing at the Long Rooms and the Dolphin Hotel as well as plays at the theatre.

The High Street had many shops selling and lending books and coffee houses where national newspapers could be read.

Unfortunately the town did not present itself well to these visitors. Roads were unmade and neglected, street lighting was limited and houses were constructed free of planning constraints. Walking around the town was hazardous with open cellars, deep puddles and poor pavements. Waste of various types was heaped in the streets and on the pavements and street crime was a growing problem.

Plaque on the Chamberlayne Gas Column.

Plaque on the Chamberlayne Gas Column.

In 1770 an Act of Parliament was passed which required the Corporation to establish a separate corporate body to improve the town known as the Pavement Commissioners.

They had powers to police and light the town as well as maintaining, repairing, widening and cleaning the streets. The Pavement Commissioners raised additional rates to pay for this work.

By 1820 the original oil street lamps were inadequate, often unlit and covered only a few streets. The Pavement Commissioners planned to extend and replace them with gas lighting. The substantial cost had to be met by the hard pressed rate payers.

Chamberlayne’s gift of the lamp posts clearly drastically reduced these costs so It’s no wonder the townsfolk were grateful for his “munificent gift”.

SeeSouthampton logo.Godfrey Collyer is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .