Simnel Street today is a part-pedestrianised lane of modern red brick houses dotted with bits of medieval wall. Tucked away from busier parts of Southampton, its modern day quietness belies its tumultuous past.
Simnel Street is up there with Southampton’s oldest streets. The word ‘simnel’ is said to come from the French ‘simenel’ which was a fine flour, and indeed there was once a windmill nearby.
Through the medieval and Tudor periods, Simnel Street was a rather well-to-do area of Southampton, where wealthy merchants set up lavish homes, and prosperity was rife.
In later years however, this would all change. The large houses with their grand wooden beams remained, but by the 19th Century, the houses were crammed full of poor, struggling families. In this time, it was poverty that was rife.
The area was so densely populated that in an 1894 report it was said that there were 441.4 people per acre here, compared to just 14.5 in Portswood. The houses became delapidated, dark and dingy, and were held up by beams and supports that crossed the street just over the heads of the people below. At its narrowest point, the street was just 5 feet and 8 inches wide. A narrow slum full of danger, squalor, and intrigue.
The ordinary Sotonian would mostly avoid Simnel Street due to its reputation, especially at night. Its notoriety was not misplaced, as crammed in to lodging houses were some of the most notorious men and women in town, and vicious drunken fights were not uncommon.
Simnel Street however played its part in pushing forward the slum clearances. In 1890, Southampton’s slums had a higher density of people than London’s, and it was even dubbed ‘unfit for human habitation’ by the Council.
Ellen Wren was a pauper who lived on Simnel Street in the late 1800s. She was a prostitute and was often on the wrong side of the law, such as when her and another man drunkenly and violently assaulted a Royal Marine on French Street in a seemingly unprovoked attack in 1873. This earned her three months in prison. The following year, Ellen Wren was found dead in a squalid attic in Simnel Street. After a gin-fuelled drinking session, she had choked on her own vomit.
Ellen Wren’s story shocked many as the story spread like wildfire across the country, and it forced the authorities to finally act. Wren’s death had sent out a message that these living conditions were beyond unacceptable and something had to change. National newspapers picked up the story and highlighted how bad life was in the slums, calling for Councils and Parliament to get their act together.
Southampton City Council finally did. Later that year a committee was formed which set out to, over the next few decades, clear the worst of the slums and provide a better place for these people to live, so that they might actually have a chance in life.