The canal was to connect with the sea at God’s House Tower via a lock just inland from the defensive work. God’s House Tower was built in the early 15th century to protect the sluice gates which controlled the flow of sea water into the town moat. The building was designed for use with artillery and was the headquarters of the Town Gunner, an important official in the 15th century. This tower was one of the earliest forts built specifically to carry cannon and had eight gunports and rooftop firing points. From 1775 to 1855, the Debtors Prison and Felons Gaol were housed here. It should also be remembered that before the 19th century, tidal water came up to within a few yards of the tower. The nearest sea water is now over 100 yards away.
The canal company constructed “an arch under the Debtors Gaol in Southampton, wide enough for barges to go out of the lock into open water.” This seems to have been an enlargement of a pre-existing arch for the town moat. The engraving published in 1817 showing the south side of the tower would indicate that the archway was continued towards the sea as a bridge to carry road access. The construction of the bridge arch appears somewhat similar to that of the arch just visible on the north side of the tower.
God’s House Tower to Bernard Street
The sea-lock was situated at the south end of the site of the modern building (Monument Court) behind God’s House Tower. It is uncertain whether construction of the lock was ever completed and is highly unlikely that there was ever any commercial use of the waterway east of the tunnel. The canal continued northwards along the Town Ditches just outside the remains of the town walls. Maps dating from before the construction of the canal indicate that at least part of the Town Ditches consisted of two parallel water courses separated by a narrow strip of land although by 1771 a map shows only a short pond. Outside the town walls in 1800, building development was only just beginning to spread out from East Street and it was still possible to see open country east of the canal.
The line of the canal runs almost due north-south and lies between the roads/paths of Back of the Walls and Canal Walk. Although the latter is not continuous, it originally ran outside the full length of the eastern walls of the town. It closely follows the east bank of the canal and the name derives from the towing path. Mooring rings and wharf stairs were once to be seen west of this street.
After the demise of the canal, much of the moat / canal was filled in and mostly built over by the mid 1840’s, obscuring or destroying much of the remains. In the early 19th century some of the houses were substantial dwellings and Canal Walk became quite a fashionable area. In the early 19th century, Canal Terrace was the name for what later became Lower Canal Walk which is that stretch of Canal Walk from God’s House Tower to Bernard Street. Canal Place was the name given to some of the buildings facing the canal on the east side of Canal Terrace.
As the century progressed, however, it changed from a residential to a business area. It was also known as The Ditches reflecting the fact that it was built over the town moat which was originally part of the town’s eastward defences. Much of downtown Southampton suffered badly from German bombing in World War 2 and subsequently extensive rebuilding took place, a lot of which has been replaced again by much more recent building.
The first street crossing the course of the canal north of God’s House Tower is Briton Street but the present alignment dates from after the Second World War. Before this, the road met the site of the canal further north and did not cross it.
North of Briton Street, the next crossing of the site of the canal is Bernard Street. Before the First World War the portion of this street west of Canal Walk was called Bridge Street. Between Briton Street and Bernard Street, Canal Walk no longer exists.
Bernard Street to East Street
It is said that, before the Second World War, you could buy whatever you wanted in the next section of Canal Walk, the busiest shopping street in town for ordinary families, and visiting merchant seamen. Canal Walk was virtually destroyed by bombing in the War.
Amongst the modern redevelopment of this part of town, one remaining building of note is the Old Bond Store in Back of the Walls. It is thought by its owners to be contemporary with the canal although its Grade II listing says “Probably second half of C19”. The canal would have been between the back of the building and Canal Walk. It was clearly designed with a planned canal in mind. Originally a flight of steps ran down from the building to the proposed canal with a recess in which barges could be loaded. It is a two-storey red-brick building with gable ends and is the only surviving example in Southampton of a type of building that was once commonplace in the town.
East Street to Houndwell
Back of the Walls and Canal Walk do not extend north of East Street although a road called Strand continued the alignment of Canal Walk. The southern part of Strand has been built on and is no longer directly connected to East Street. More of The Strand north of East Street is to be covered by the Bargate Quarter redevlopment. West of Strand lies the Polymond Tower which dates from the 14th century and was situated at the north east corner of the Southampton’s town walls. Here the canal left the Town Ditches to continue north across Houndwell in almost a straight line to the junction with the Northam branch. On the way it crossed the modern Pound Tree Road about 30 yards west of what is now Palmerston Road. As the canal crossed the Houndwell and approached the junction it entered a cutting.
Originally, the tunnel was to be 880 yards long but problems with bad ground during the early stages of construction led to a reduction in length to around 580 yards. Much of the reduction in length was at the eastern end where the top of the tunnel would have been only a few feet below the surface. Over 200 years ago engineers knew little about soil mechanics and were afraid that cuttings might collapse into the canal and seemed to prefer to tunnel even if it would be quite near the surface. The original plans also envisaged that the junction with the Northam branch would have been further east and the canal to God’s House Tower would been at ground level as it crossed the Hoglands to the east of Houndwell to reach the Town Ditches.
Houndwell Field was one of Southampton’s medieval common fields stretching north from the town walls and east of Above Bar, where burgesses had Lammas pasture rights. Today Houndwell Park refers to the part of the common field south of Pound Tree Road. The portion north of that road is now called Palmerston Park after the Victorian prime minister. These are part of Southampton’s Central Parks which are listed as Grade II* and which were originally laid out between 1846 and 1860.
The former junction of the main line of the canal and the branch to Northam seems to have been situated under what is now Palmerston Road about 10 yards north of the traffic lights for the pedestrian crossing near The Angel public house. It should be remembered that the canal would have been some 12-15 feet lower than the present road surface. The canal in this area was filled in with spoil from the construction of the railway tunnel in the 1840’s. However, evidence from contemporary maps indicates the area between the canal tunnel mouth and the road probably remained unfilled for over 20 more years. The canal tunnel ran in a west-north-west direction under the rising ground within Palmerston Park whilst the branch to Northam turned east.
When the canal was under construction, Palmerston Road did not exist. From the Ordnance Survey (OS) First Series One Inch mapping surveyed in 1806, it seems the area of land to the east of the modern road as far as St Mary Street, and known as Kingsland Place, was just beginning to be developed. By 1825 a number of houses had been built south from New Road with a narrow approach road called Portland Place. Those north of the later railway tunnel remain and are Grade II listed buildings. The OS mapping of 1846 shows that by that date Kingsland Place was fully built up. South of where the Angel pub now is, a road called West Front had been constructed. By 1870, Portland Place and West Front had been widened and were renamed in the late 19th century, presumably in honour of Viscount Palmerston.
On the 1846 map, a short terrace of about 3 or 4 houses called Canal View is shown immediately south of the approach to the tunnel entrance and west of the junction. It is not clear from the OS mapping from 1806 whether the terrace was in existence at that time but it is quite possible that the housing was intended for canal workers such as a tunnel keeper or a toll clerk. From an 1870 map, it seems that the eastern end of the terrace was demolished when the adjacent road was widened. Mapping dating from 1895 shows that the terrace and all trace of the tunnel entrance had disappeared.