Southampton’s springs, streams and rivers

by Milo Maguire

As well as having a beach and a saltmarsh Southampton was once characterised by being a town of springs and streams. Some of these were reputed to carry healing properties, at least one was used for communal washing and probably all were used for drinking.

One by one especially since Victorian times the streams have been covered. . In many cases their course still runs underground although some have been culverted into sewers. At least in some cases their presence remains.

It was the Franciscan friars who sailed from Assisi in the early middle ages and settled in Southampton who understood the significance of the springs and harnessed them to provide a water supply for all. They were of the first generation of friars after the founding of the order by St Francis. They built a monastery on a spot in town all that remains of which are a few crumbling ruined walls and which is situated in what is now called Friary Street.

The first spring they utilised was called the Rollesbrook spring and they built a well house in woods between Polygon and Hill Lane. Here they had the water directed through the city to the friary initially via another well house in what is now water Lane near Commercial Road. Here it met with the water bed of another spring they utilised called the Goswell which flowed from another spring near what is now commercial Road. Gos being derived from the anglo saxon word for gorse. The Rollesbrook spring was said to surface at one time to rise somewhere just south of Cutthorn Mound on the Burgess Road side of the Common, from there it’s stream meanders underground under the Avenue and rises again on the Common. The name Rollesbrook is from Anglo Saxon for ‘Hollow brook’. I’m not sure why this description, although from the common it runs parallel to Hill Lane which was once possibly a ‘Holloway’ or hollow road meaning a long straight road that has been tramped down by travellers so much over such a length of time that it has become sunken, often with trees overhanging giving the feeling of a tunnel.

One of the springs that is seldom mentioned in local history archives but is mentioned by Leland in the thirteenth century is the ‘SaintMarieWell’ . Its precise whereabouts are unknown but it would probably have been a holy well as it may have been in the vicinity of the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace which was a pilgrimage site as well as the site of an annual fayre called in later times Trinity Fayre and with it’s origins lost in time.

The whole area around this was salt marsh; an area that was not quite water not quite land, sometimes cut off at high tide and approachable only by a causeway. It was here that people kept animals and in some ways this was once the centre of town.

It was later on in 1835 that the powers that be took control of the saltmarsh, drained it and enclosed it. There was a lot of opposition, the first time they tried there was a riot and it was stopped but they eventually had their way and the blueprint of Southampton started to change. In 1840 the first docks were opened along with the railways.

The most famous spring of all was the Chalybeate spring. Being of an unusual composition- chalybeate means rich in iron, there are few such springs in Britain, others being at Glastonbury and Tunbridge Wells. It was situated in what was then known as the ‘Cherry orchard’ which is now near Waterstones bookshop and would have had a small fountain built around it. It gained a reputation for its virtuous healing powers and soon people came from far and wide to drink the water as Southampton
became a fashionable spa town and health resort. Over time Southampton became less fashionable as a health resort and a decision was made in 1835 to cap this spring. It puzzles me that they had to do this instead of just leaving alone but I’ve not so
far been able to find any literature on why this more drastic measure was deemed strictly necessary.

Could  these watercourses be restored one day?

With some it might be possible to do this and good to hold this vision.

There are other places where people have done this- in Soele, South Korea they have done it on a grand scale, streams that have run underground for many years have been daylighted and now bring joy and tranquillity to the surroundings. In Sheffield UK part of a river buried by the Victorians has now been uncovered as part of an ambitious project.

Below is two maps of known underground streams produced by geography student Aaron Brown based partly on his own findings, partly on the findings of geography researcher LA Burgess  around 1967. Some of these will be more accessible than others.

One possible contender for ‘daylighting’ might be the Rollesbrook stream where it flows down near the central railway station underground.  I imagine it could be revealed and made a feature, possibly with reed beds or something similar and have a soothing effect.

For another map detailing underground watercourses see

– Milo Maguire