South Western House, Southampton

South Western House in Southampton is a Grade II listed building situated adjacent to the old Terminus Railway Station, and visible when driving out of Southampton’s Dock Gate 4. It was built as a hotel by a private developer about 1865, who leased the land off the London & South Western Railway Company.

The style is High Victorian contemporary with London’s Charing Cross station. The architect was John Norton of London. It was named the Imperial Hotel, and opened before it was finished in 1867. Soon after the developer went bankrupt. Subsequently, the development was taken over by LSWR Company, completed, and renamed the South Western Hotel in 1871, but not before the town council had proposed turning it into a lunatic asylum.

South of England Tourist Guides - South Western House

It comprises six stories, with the upper two floors in the mansard roof. The construction is of brick, with stone embellishments, and elaborate window surrounds. A feature of the second floor is small balconies with wrought iron balustrades. At the east end of the building, above the 5th floor level, is an interesting pediment, below which is a stone relief carving of Queen Victoria in the company of angels. To the sides are depictions of steam powered trains and ships, and the trappings of high culture, associated with the British Empire at the height of its power.

At the turn of the 20th century Southampton docks was establishing itself as a major terminal port for the growing Atlantic trade, as liners of Cunard, White Star, American Line, NDL, and Hamburg America Line increased in size, speed and luxury. In turn South Western House was modernised by Maples, the famous London decorating firm. New fittings and furniture were added, ornamental panels were repainted in blue and gold, and the kitchens and offices renewed. New electric lifts were provided to all floors. In all it cost £28,000.

In the 1920s a large seven story extension was built on the railway station side. It is faced with ashlar stucco finish with bronze windows, grilles, and street lanterns. The grand main entrance to South Western House is part of the new building. The design is sumptuous, with marble columns, wall panelling, and high decorative ceiling mouldings.

South of England Tourist Guides - South Western House Grand Main Entrance
Grand main entrance with marble columns, wall panelling and high decorative ceiling mouldings

It was at the South Western that first class passengers spent their last night before sailing on the ill-fated Titanic. Both Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line, and Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s head designer, stayed before the fateful sailing.

South Western House was the town’s first grand hotel. Porters in red livery would meet passengers, and incoming liners were wired from Hurst Castle for the convenience of guests awaiting the arrival of old friends. It was at the centre of Southampton’s high society. The venue for business lunches, where important men from the docks and shipping lines discussed their great plans.

Its heyday was the 20s and 30s, during the golden age of ocean liners, when 4 funnelled liners competed for the Blue Riband. The entire building is steeped in historical events. Rich and famous guests included royalty, politicians, and movie stars, such as Spencer Tracy and Debora Kerr. Tom Mix was once said to have ridden his horse through the Foyer. The reputation of the hotel grew on both sides of the Atlantic being known to thousands of travellers.

It continued as a hotel until WW2, after which it never reopened. During the war it was requisitioned by the military to become HMS Shrapnel, a training centre for electrical units, and functioning as the Centre of Combined Operations playing an important role in the planning of D-Day. It is believed that Churchill and Eisenhower had a high level meeting there.

South of England Tourist Guides - South Western House 5th floor pediment
Pediment above the 5th floor with stone relief carving of Queen Victoria

After the war it was converted into offices and occupied by departments of British Railways, and governments sections, before the shipping line Cunard created an office complex there. The BBC’s 30 year association with South Western House started in 1961. The original news programme ‘South at Six’ was presented by Martin Muncaster. It was later renamed ‘South Today’, with long serving anchor-man Bruce Parker. Great events within the docks were witnessed and reported from the building; the 1966 Seaman’s strike; the final sailing of the Queen Mary in 1967; and ships departing and arriving back from the Falklands war.

The BBC vacated South Western House in 1991, after which the building fell into some disrepair. In 1998 this iconic building was given a new lease of life by Berkley Homes Ltd who converted its 150,000 square feet into 77 apartments, with prices ranging from £88,000 to over £400,000. Today, South Western House stands not only as a monument to Southampton’s history, but as a symbol of 150 years of change.

Southampton’s Historic Buildings (1981) R. J. Coles
Southampton Through the Ages (1997) Peter Kilby
Titanic Voices (1994) Hyslop, Forsyth & Jemima
The Daily Echo; 15 May 1998; 23 September 1998.
Berkeley Homes, The Imperial Apartments, information and price list.
Pete Simpkin BBC ‘South At Six’

by Jake Simpkin