The building’s history and how it became a museum

Built between 1491 and 1518, Tudor House and Garden has a long and fascinating history, and with King John’s Palace dating back to 1180, providing us with rich insight into the lives of people who lived in Southampton over the last 800 years.

Prior to becoming a museum in 1912, Tudor House passed through many hands over the years including Southampton Sheriffs, Mayors, MP’s and a Lord Chief Justice of England. There has been plots to kill a Kings, involvements in coronation processions and more. Follow the timeline overview below or read more detail about this amazing house further down the page.

Built circa. 1180

King John’s Palace’s original building was built


Southampton town wall was built, modifying some of King John’s Palace


Sir John Dawtrey joined three cottages together to create the Tudor House as we know it today


Owned by Sir Richard Lyster, one of the richest men in Southampton who decorated the house lavishly with extravagant tapestries


Tudor House was at the height of prosperity, and owner George Rogers even added an extension

1750 – 1880

Tudor House in decline as Southampton is hit by economic depression


The first saving of Tudor House

July 29 1912

Tudor House opens as a Museum

Tudor House in Prosperity (1491 – 1750)

During the 1400s and 1500s, the medieval town of Southampton experienced both social and economic change, heralding a new era of prosperity for those living within its walls.

Southampton was one of only eight ports in the 1400s which were granted export status, from which wine and wool were traded, which greatly increased the city’s wealth. As trade steadily grew, so did the coffers of the Crown and those associated with it, including the merchants who lived at Tudor House.

In 1491 Sir John Dawtrey, MP and Sheriff, married the widowed Jane William former wife of Watkin William owner of Tudor House, which at that time, comprised of three cottages. Dawtrey, joined these cottages to create the larger one we can see today. It showcased his wealth in an extravagant black and white timber façade.

As the owners of Tudor house became more affluent changes within the property continued to evolve, reflecting its prosperity and influence within the wider community. In fact, the next owner, Sir Richard Lyster, was one of the richest men in Southampton when he attained the property in 1518.

Richard and his wife Jane employed eight servants, frequently held lavish gatherings in the Banqueting Hall, and decorated the house with extravagant tapestries.

As the 1500s century ended, the deeds and ownership of Tudor House changed over the centuries. As did its evolution to accommodate the fashionable changes of each passing century.

By the time the 1700s came about, Southampton had reached the peak of it’s fashionable and wealthy status. The city became a spa town and Tudor House acquired a whole new extension to host its newest affluent family – the Rogers – in which George Rogers could paint while looking out upon Southampton’s healing waters.

However, this age of prosperity was under threat, and Tudor House would find itself weathering a whole new world soon enough.

Written by Jacqui Buckman (Volunteer)  

Tudor House in Decline (1750 – 1880)

In the 1800s, Southampton was in the grip of the Industrial Revolution. It had become a passenger and commercial port city and welcomed thousands of people to work on the railways and docks.

However, at the same time the town was suffering from an economic depression. The ships and their associated offices were taking up the space traditionally housing more profitable ventures, such as warehousing and trade. This meant that most of the trade went straight from the docks to the railways and out of Southampton.

This economic decline hit hard in some areas, and none more-so than the area around Tudor House. While populations grew thanks to the new shipping and railways, some parts of the city were becoming overcrowded, and people were forced to find dwellings in slums, exactly like those that grew up around Tudor House.

From the 1830s, Tudor House had begun to be split up into several different dwellings and businesses. The Pope family, for example, had a dyeworks on the ground floor of the building, and the Poole’s were architects living and working on the first floor. These families rented portions of the house and largely stayed in business there until the 1880s.

However, their relative success did not translate to the area around them and by 1850 the area of St Michael’s was described as unfit for human habitation. It was densely populated, with a communal water source, open sewers, and piles of rubbish in the streets. Disease was extensive; a cholera epidemic broke out in 1849 causing the deaths of 240 people in the area.

The death of the poverty-stricken Ellen Wren 1894 caused a national outcry, and the clearing of the slums began. Tudor House itself was scheduled for demolition too, though it was saved at the last minute by a local philanthropist, William Spranger, who had acquired the much-dilapidated building in 1886.

The Saving of Tudor House (1880 – Present)

Did you know that Tudor House has been saved not once, but twice?

During your visit you will discover how this unique Tudor gem in the heart of Southampton Old Town was saved from collapse in 2002. But few people know that it was in even greater peril over 100 years before that!

Created in 1491, Tudor House was the most prestigious in medieval Southampton, home to wealthy merchants. But by the 1880s, the surrounding area an insanitary, disease-ridden warren of cheap lodgings, slum clearances saw nearby houses condemned. This fate awaited Tudor House. 

Step forward its saviour, wealthy Victorian philanthropist William Francis Gummer Spranger, In 1886 he bought, for £1450, the freeholds of the once grand House, now leased to a Dyer, Bookbinder, Milliner and Architect, and the adjoining ‘Norman House’, used as a coal-yard and stable. Spranger’s extensive renovations cost around £7000. 

Did he do a good job?  He preserved many original features – herringbone brickwork beneath render, panelled oak ceilings beneath false plaster ones, Tudor beams and timbering. But the ghosts of the Banqueting Hall whisper that he added fanciful and inauthentic features, creating doors that led nowhere, windows that cut through supporting beams, and a ‘minstrel’s gallery’ that was a pure flight of romantic fancy. See which side you are on when you visit!

In August 1905, when Southampton Corporation Town Museum asked Spranger to sell them Tudor House for a Town Museum, he generously offered it for £4200. Now fully restored, its frontage as we see it today, this sounds like a bargain. However, the Council rejected it.

It was not until late 1910, after Spranger put a ‘For Sale’ sign outside the House, that the Corporation capitulated. The tipping point came when local paper the Southampton Times published a letter suggesting the existence of a prospective American buyer who would dismantle both buildings and ship them to America. The Council bought Tudor House for the original £4200.

On Monday July 29th 1912, the Mayor officially opened the Tudor House Museum. It would be nearly one hundred years before it needed saving again…

Written by Pat Ford (Volunteer)  

Tudor Garden

Tudor House’s garden was designed by garden historian Dr Sylvia Landsberg in the early 1980s. It was recreated from manuscripts and historical documents to show how it may have looked in the 1500s, while John Dawtrey owned Tudor House. It contains over 100 plants and flowers, formal pathways, and low box hedges in the form of a ‘knot’. This type of garden became popular in England in the 1500s following their introduction from Italy.

Cardinal Wolsey believed a garden should act as ‘refreshment of the very mind’. However, gardens were more than ornamental, also serving as a larder and an apothecary. Plants were chosen for their culinary or medicinal properties, and most of the plants grown within the garden had a use.

Formal gardens such as this one, however, were a sign of status during the Tudor Period. They were designed to complement the architecture of the house using formal lines and simple geometric shapes. This applied to features such as paths, walls, pools, statues, hedges, and topiary. The ornaments within Tudor House’s garden are representative of two of the early owners, John Dawtrey represented by the unicorn, and Richard Lyster by the stag.

Bees would have been kept for pollination and honey. Honey was one of the sweeteners that was used in Tudor cooking, as well as being an excellent natural medicine used to treat wounds and burns.

The museum building is part of the iconic Grade II* listed Civic Centre buildings, which were started in 1929. London architect E. Berry Webber designed the building as four interconnecting blocks faced with white Portland stone. The Duke of York (later King George VI) laid the foundation stone of the first section in 1930.

Written by Aaron Matthews (Volunteer)  

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