History of Westgate Hall
In medieval times it was not uncommon for a building to be pulled down – or taken apart – and re-erected elsewhere. Westgate Hall is one of the few buildings in Britain for which such a move is documented, and even rarer still, there is some indication of its history prior to its move in 1634.
The date of the original erection of the building in St Michael’s Square, not far from its present position, is unknown and it is quite possible that by the first mention of the building in 1428 it was already 20 or 30 years old. Excavations in St Michael’s Square in July of 1986 suggest that the original position of the building was at an angle to St Michael’s Church, and on land which is now partly covered by later extensions to the church. Some evidence was also found to suggest that three of the open arcades were part of a solid stone wall, with the remaining open structure supported by wooden posts.
It was used as a cloth hall upstairs and an open arcade underneath for the fish market. Until the late 17th century, the whole of St Michael’s Square was called The Fish Market.
All woollen cloth brought into the town by merchants who were not resident in Southampton had to be stored and sold at the cloth hall. The hall was leased out to a townsman who, in return for managing the building, would claim all the dues and payments for the sales and storage. In the early 16th century, the Town Council had difficulties in finding someone to run the hall and so the restrictions on imported cloth were relaxed and the building fell into the possession of the Bakers Guild. By 1552 the restrictions were reintroduced but due to unreliable keepers, the hall began to fall into increasing decay.
The fish market remained in St Michael’s Square until the reign of Elizabeth I, when it spilled over into the High Street. Here it remained, despite objections, until 1770.
By 1632 the cloth hall was in such a state that it would not stand for much longer, so the Town Council decided to sell it to an Alderman on the provision that he would take it down and rebuild it elsewhere. In 1634 the hall was sold to Alderman Edward Exton for 20 marks (£13.33). At the same time Alderman Exton leased an area of land by the Westgate. A condition of the lease was that he had to build a warehouse on the site and it is believed that he ordered the demolition of the cloth hall in St Michael’s Square, and its re-erection as a warehouse at Westgate, with the open arcade filled in to provide a closed hall.
The warehouse stayed in the hands of the Exton family until 1687, when a senior mariner, David Widell, bought the building and adjacent garden plot. By the 18th century the West Key was owned by the town shipwrights and in 1725 the warehouse was bought by a shipwright called George Rowcliff. The building remained under the ownership of shipwrights, but in the hands of the Marot family, until 1890. It is quite possible that during this time the building was used as a cottage.
The council then reclaimed ownership of the building, which acted as a museum store and workshop until 1975 when the hall was taken apart and first renovated, before starting a new lease of life as a public lecture theatre. In 2009 the building was restored as part of the Tudor House and Garden project, funded by the city council, the Friends of Southampton’s Museums, Archives and Gallery, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors.