Nearly 2000 years ago, in about 70AD, some Romans decided to settle on the banks of the River Itchen where Bitterne is now, and set up home. They called this place Clausentum and stayed there until the Romans decided to up sticks and leave Britain in about 407AD.
A few hundred years later, in the in the 7th Century, the Anglo-Saxons established a town over the river in what is now the St Mary’s area. In fact, the current St Mary’s church is the sixth on that site, the first being built by the Anglo-Saxons in around 630AD. This would have been a focal point of their town, a town they called either Hamwic or Hamtun.
The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, they all would have had one thing in mind when establishing their town here. The water. The river Itchen, Southampton Water, and the Solent, all provided a strategic advantage. In times of decline, it has been the water that has kept Southampton alive.
Southampton was on the up in the 14th Century, and it was the import and export trade that put it on the map. The main import was wine, which was stored in vaults, some of which survive today. The main export at this time was wool, which was the main driving force behind England’s medieval economy. The English stuff was considered some of the best and it was sought after all over Europe. The trade was booming. All over Southampton there were warehouses to store this wool before it was loaded on to the boats, although only one such warehouse survives to this day, and it is appropriately known as the Wool House.
The Wool House was built after the French raid of 1338, a raid in which people were killed and a lot of buildings were destroyed . You can read about that here if you like: The 1338 Raid. After the raid, monks from Beaulieu Abbey built the Wool House and there it still stands today.
Despite its name and original function, the Wool House has led a varied life, serving many different purposes and seeing many different things. If only walls could talk… Throughout the 15th Century it was still a house of wool, but by the 16th Century it was being used to store alum, which is a chemical compound used in the wool trade to dye cloth.
During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the Wool House had a new job, which was a makeshift prisoner of war camp. French and Spanish soldiers, captured on the battlefields of Europe, were bought back to England by boat. Departing in Southampton, they were led to the Wool House and locked up there. Some of these soldiers, probably through boredom, carved their names in to the stone walls.
Towards the end of that century, and in to the early 1900s, a family by the name of Moon owned the property. The Moon family ran the Moonbeam Engineering Company, and used the building to as a workship to build motor launches. In 1903, the Wright Brothers took to the air in North Carolina, USA, and news of this exciting development spread around the world. Edwin Moon, whose brother owned the Wool House, was clearly inspired by this, and set up his own little workshop in a corner of the building to develop his own flying machine. Moon achieved a hop in Moonbeam I near Fawley, before going back to the Wool House to put what he had learned in to the construction of Moonbeam II.
Moon transported his flying machine by horse and cart from the Wool House to a field in North Stoneham in 1910. Moonbeam II was ready to go, and that day Edwin Moon took to the air, thus becoming an instant aviation pioneer. He was the first man to ever fly from this site, a site that twenty six years later would see the first flight of the Spitfire. It is now Southampton Airport. Moon went on to serve in the RAF during the First World War, where he would become a prisoner of war.
Squadron Leader Edwin Rowland Moon DSO was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1920.
In the 1940s and 1950s it was once again used as a warehouse, owned by the Itchen Transport Company. In 1966 it had a new role once more, as it opened its doors as a museum. Southampton Maritime Museum told the story of Southampton’s importance and its relationship with the sea, and did so until 2011 when it was closed and its treasures moved to the SeaCity Museum at the Civic Centre.
In 2013 the Wool House was converted in to a microbrewery and pub, called the Dancing Man. It remains the Dancing Man to this day, which is a very nice place, with good food and good beer. You can really get a feel for the history of the building when you’re surrounded by its ancient walls, and if you look closely, you can still see the names of those French and Spanish prisoners of war carved in to the stone.