The village of Hythe lies in a pivotal position on the western shore of Southampton Water abutting the New Forest. In the area now known as the Waterside, Hythe is the central village of numerous small communities now vastly expanded by dormitory housing serving the petrochemical industries in the Waterside as well as the City of Southampton. Hythe with its sister communities of Dibden and Dibden Purlieu is now part of the Parish of Hythe and Dibden but until 1913 Hythe was a detached part of Fawley Parish completely surrounded by Dibden Parish.
A Hyth in Old English was a hard, permanent, landing place on a river or sheltered estuary and the position of Hythe clearly fits that description. It is possible that the name was in use as early as the sixth century AD but the first recorded use of the name dates from 1293. In a Parliamentary Roll of that year it is recorded that:
the "All Saints" of Hethe juxta Novam Forestam was wrecked and plundered on the Cornish Coast while carrying a cargo of wine from La Rochelle".
The villagers of Hythe were occupied in a mixture of agriculture, fishing and ferrying. During the Middle Ages the size of vessels visiting Southampton increased to such an extent that they could not land their cargoes directly onto the quays. They anchored in the river and the boatmen of Hythe acted as lightermen, transferring the goods from ship to quay. By an act of good fortune or perhaps through careful planning the manor of Dibden was part of a larger manorial holding which included the Town of Wallingford on the River Thames. Wallingford and Southampton had a reciprocal agreement and did not charge each other taxes on goods which passed between the two towns. Those men of Hythe who came under the jurisdiction of the Manor of Dibden were thus able to land goods in Southampton free of tax. This ensured that Hythe and Dibden flourished with a significant number of boatmen trading in their own right until the rights of the "Honour of Wallingford" were extinguished in the 16th Century.
Hythe Ferry 1575
The first mention of a regular ferry occurs when the name Hitheferye appears on Saxton's map of Hampshire in 1575, though clearly the passage had probably been manned since the village was founded.
In 1588 one of the boatmen of Hythe; John Holforde, was commissioned to take a shipload of gunpowder, shot and matches from Southampton out to the Ark Royal; Lord Howard of Effingham’s flagship, during the pursuit of the Spanish Armada.
It is uncertain what effect the Civil War had on Hythe but the village did receive some shots from a Parliamentary gunboat while Southampton’s allegiance was in doubt.
By the late 1750s Hythe already had a thriving shipbuilding yard run by George Wadmore. Positioned on the southern edge of the village in what is now Shore Road it had good access to Southampton Water and had a dry dock as well as several slipways. George’s cousin John Wadmore inherited the business and his two daughters married shipwrights who carried on the family business. John’s three grandson’s William, Mark & John Richards continued the family tradition and built small vessels for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Period. The shipyard continued in various ownership’s and intensities until it was bought in 1927 by Hubert Scott-Paine.
British Power Boat Company
After a major reconstruction of the yard he founded a company for the construction of a revolutionary design of power boats. The British Power Boat Company as it was known built initially for the private market but the designs were soon taken up by all three armed services.
Little Ships for The Royal Navy
Hythe became the home of the "little ships" of the Royal Navy, the Motor Torpedo Boats and the RAF Air/Sea Rescue Boats of World War II. With the successful conclusion of the War there was no need for further military vessels to be built and with no civilian market at that time the yard was forced to close thus bringing to an end over two hundred years of shipbuilding on the site.
The Royal Navy Beach Commandos who were trained for the task of making the Normandy beaches safe for the D-Day landings were based on what is now the Ewart Recreation Ground in Jones Lane prior to their sailing. Also in 1944 King George VI visited Hythe in great secrecy just before D-Day. He rode on the Pier train and a commemoration plaque was placed in the carriage soon afterwards. Unfortunately it was removed by a person or persons unknown.
In 1960, The Hovercraft Development Company and Sir Christopher Cockerel, its founder, moved to Hythe. While the original concept and prototype were designed and built in East Anglia it was from its base at the Grove, in St. John’s Street, that basic designs were refined which culminated in the first cross-Channel hover-ferry in 1966.
Before Hythe Pier was built, ferry and other boats landing at Hythe used a gravel hard which ran from the land in front of what is now the Drummond Arms out to the low tide point in Southampton Water. Walking along the hard was not easy and travellers often got very wet. Various ideas to improve the situation were suggested and finally, construction of the Hythe Pier was started in October 1879. It was opened with considerable ceremony on 1st January 1881. At 2,100 feet (640 metres), this nineteenth-century iron pier is one of the ten longest piers in the British Isles. In 1909 tracks were laid for use by hand-propelled trolleys to carry goods and luggage. In 1922 a narrow gauge electric railway opened to take passengers the full length of the Pier. This railway with its original engine and rolling stock is still operational today and an important part of the local transport system to Southampton.
St. John’s Church
Until 1823 Anglican worshippers in Hythe had to travel to the mother church of the Parish in Fawley or to the church in Dibden. In that year a small chapel was built to serve the local congregation. Accessed from St. John’s Street, it was initially manned by a curate with Hythe not becoming a parish in its own right until 1841. The chapel was really too small for the whole of the new parish and at the first opportunity a new church was built to the rear of the old chapel but now facing into New Road. Consecrated in 1874, the church still provides an impressive backdrop as you enter the village from the south.
photo © Gary Woletz