Unexplored Hampshire: Southampton’s Medieval Vaults

Heavily bombed during the war, Southampton’s streets don’t look like they hold much history, but there is more to the city than meets the eye. Hidden beneath the surface, Southampton is home to the largest number of purpose-built vaults in the country.

The medieval town was an important trade centre, with many imports entering the country through the port, including vast amounts of wine. Many of the vaults were therefore originally built for wine storage, with some of a similar design to those found in Bordeaux, where the wine was imported from. It is thought that merchants copied these designs to replicate in Southampton, and potentially even brought stonemasons over from France to construct them.

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The Undercroft

Known as the Undercroft, this is the most elegant of the surviving vaults in Southampton, with impressive ceilings and intricate carvings on the walls. It is thought to originate from 1300-1325. The vault has a large decorative fireplace, which is likely to have been lit when important customers came to taste the wine, as the vaults acted as showrooms as well as stores.

Traces of paint have been found in the Undercroft, indicating that the entire interior was painted, again as a way to impress potential buyers. The wine was mostly sold wholesale to butlers of the aristocracy who were sent to Southampton by their masters.

During World War II the vault was used as an air raid shelter, with the large hole leading to an emergency exit.

Vault under 93 High Street

Whilst there is some conflicting information on the construction date of this vault, it is likely to be around 1350. Similarly to the Undercroft, it has a fireplace, as well as iron bars to prevent break-ins and theft.

In more recent history, the vault was a coal cellar for the sweet shop which stood above it. In 1939 the vault and building above it were used as an air raid shelter. A bomb destroyed the house above, blocking exits and bursting a water main, tragically causing the vault to flood and drowning those sheltering within.

Lankester’s Vault

Lankesters’s vault is named after the family who owned the nearby ironworks, who leased the vault during the 19th century. Like many of the vaults in Southampton, it is built of Bembridge stone from the Isle of Wight. Marks in the stone which indicate the thickness of the block can still be seen today.

Last Updated on 19 January 2023 by Michael

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