For an in-depth history of St.James’ Park, please see the publication From Shirley Rec to Renovation 1907 – 2014
Background to ‘The Rec’
On the 2nd November 1907, the Grand Opening of Shirley Recreation Ground took place. A picture taken of the ceremony shows that the land had two distinct levels: the Official party are situated on the lower level and some of the spectators on the higher level[i].
But what led up to this land becoming “The Rec” and why is the park ‘sunken’ like this?
The land which is now the park was once part of Shirley Common in the Manor of Hill and Shirley.
Following the enclosure of Shirley Common on 22nd May 1829, “New Shirley” began to emerge on Shirley Common: a fashionable and genteel Shirley, with impressive country houses, villas, lodges, and estates[ii].
“Villas are fast rising there, creating the appearance of a populous and genteel occupation of what is well known to be one of the most beautiful and healthy spots in our picturesque neighbourhood.” [iii]
In 1835, Nathaniel Jefferys, a local philanthropist who built and lived at Hollybrook House, donated land on which Shirley Parish Church (now also known as St.James’ by the Park) was erected.
In 1840, Nathaniel Jefferys also owned the land which is now the Park and it was used for pasture[iv]. By the mid 1800s, as Shirley developed, the area now known as St.James’ Park was surrounded by beautiful Victorian and Georgian villas, some still standing adjacent to the Church, built as early as 1835[v]. What is now the Park was spared from development itself, as in 1851 Mr Jefferys had the foresight to place a covenant on the land which stated that it could be used for arable or pasture, but it could not be built upon[vi].
In the 1860s the land on which is now the Park became a garden nursery; one of many in this primarily rural area. Upper Shirley and Hill were well-known for their flowers and market gardens.
In 1884, Anna Maria Martha Knowlys (who had inherited the land from Nathaniel Jefferys) and her son agree to sell the land to Mr Burrough Hill who will only buy it if the Covenant is overcome. This did not happen and the land is sold after her death in 1898 to Mr Herbert Blatch[vii].
The Ordnance Survey map of 1898 shows that despite the covenant the end of the land nearer the church had become a gravel pit, thus giving the lower level seen in the picture, as the land was excavated below street level. Although gravel was used in the building industries and in the playground of nearby Shirley School, it was primarily used for maintaining the roads, which in those days were unmade. This required vast amounts of gravel and was an undertaking of the Shirley Local Board of Health, established on 25th February 1853, the members of which were “twelve of Shirley’s most respected gentleman”[viii].
The proprietor of the gravel pit at the Park was a Mr George Harris, of “Whitedwood” (the former “Red House”), Wilton Road, Shirley.
The Land is Purchased
Towards 1907, Alderman Cawte proposed that the land be purchased by the council “for the children of Shirley”, and in March 1907, the council paid £1000 for the six-acre site and for the costs of transforming it into a recreation ground[ix]. The centenary of this purchase was celebrated by FoSJP at our Park100 event in July 2007.
There had been much fierce debate about whether this purchase was wise, given the extra expenses needed to convert the gravel pit for recreation, and the proximity of Southampton Common as an alternative. One of the clinching arguments in favour of the purchase was the possibility that the land might not be available again – as far back as the 1860s there had been plans to build a railway nearby.
In 1901, a final scheme for an ‘independent’ railway into Southampton proposed the land which now forms the Park would become the site of a Railway Station. In earlier schemes, most notably the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton Railway in the 1880s, the proposed railway station was to be sited on the other side of St.James’ Road and many of the nearby plots for building houses had been sold on the promise they would be situated close to the ‘new’ station.
However, by 1905 all attempts at a railway line which would pass through Shirley had failed, leading to the purchase of the land in 1907 by the council.
The 1911 Ordnance Survey map shows the gravel pit now at the Winchester Road end of the park, the council having taken advantage of the gravel in preparing the ground for recreation. Thus giving us the park level we have today.
In the late 1920s, the Park was all one open space with nothing but a football pitch marked out. This was home to Shirley Wanderers, who played in blue and white and whose headquarters were a shed at the nearby end of Stratton Road. In March 1922, the Council minutes show that there are now 4 tennis courts which have been marked out at Shirley Rec.
Role in Second World War
During WW2, the park played its part. In 1938 trench shelters were being dug in Southampton for the public caught in the street when the sirens went off. Two of these shelters were built in the park with a total capacity of 270 persons[x]. One had its entrance from St James Road, the other from Wordsworth Road.
A barrage balloon was also located in the park under the control of 930 squadron of the RAF. As the war went on, women were trained as WAAF Balloon operators, some of whom did their practical training here in the park[xi].
The brick building in the park today was built in 1942 to replace the West ARP report Centre in Cannon Street. Post war it was decided to retain the building as a pavilion for tennis players, a store for tools and for lavatory accommodation for the general public[xii].
More Recent History
The Childrens play areas have undergone several transformations over time as has the brick building. Memories and pictures of this have been shared with us and you can see several of these in Your Stories.
The story of the founding of FOSJP, the opening of the kiosk and the application for lottery funding to refurbish the park can be read in the book which came out of the research done by the Shirley Heritage Project: St James’ Park From Shirley Rec to Renovation 1907-2014 written by Michaela Lawler-Levene and the FOSJP history team. This book can be borrowed from the Southampton libraries or purchased online from www.lulu.com.
[i] St James’ Park From Shirley Rec to Renovation 1907-2014 Michaela Lawler Levine
[ii] “Shirley from Domesday to D-Day” Guilmant J & Kavanah H (eds) 1997, published by Southampton City Council.
[iii] Hampshire Advertiser, 8th August 1836.
[iv] Parish of Millbrook Records, City Archives, Southampton City Council.
[v] Information provided by Mrs J Catling, resident of Bellemoor Road.
[vi] Covenant of 1851, Knowlys collection at Southampton City Archives
[viii] “Shirley Nuisances and Services: Shirley Health and Local Government in Victorian Shirley” Leonard, AGK, published by Southampton City Council
[ix] Southampton Council Minutes
[x] Southampton Council Minutes and DailyEcho Sept 9th 1938
[xi] Up She Goes! and the Breighton Twins. Joan Vass 2004 Pub Paul Mould Publishing UK
[xii] Southampton Council Minutes