Introduction to Southchurch Hall and Gallery

Overview

I have always been fascinated by historical buildings – whether it be a castle ruin on windswept hill or a Tudor country house, or an untouched village documenting or our the ways we lived in the past, they all fascinate me. The opportunity to explore how we lived in the past and the cultural heritage that these old buildings represent has always intrigued me, and in one of the reasons for me to establish my own website and blog was as an opportunity to explore some of my favourite historical locations, bringing two of my favourite hobbies together, okay three, of my hobbies together, namely history, photograph and exploring.

I thought I would start by exploring some of the historical buildings closer to home.  Whilst I am currently researching a longer piece on the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, which overlooks the Thames Estuary just outside Leigh on Sea, I thought I would write a couple of shorter pieces on Southchurch Hall and Prittlewell Priory (forthcoming) respectively, both situated just outside of Southend-on-Sea city centre.  I will focus today’s humble contribution on Southchurch Hall and will draw on the history of the building and also a selection of photographs that I myself have taken over several repeat visits to the Hall.  I hope you will enjoy?

History of Southchurch Hall

Southchurch Hall is currently a part of the Southend Museums service and is a Grade I listed Medieval moated house located in the Southchurch district of Southend-on-Sea.  Traditionally owned by local farming families until the 1920’s. Southchurch Hall was renovated by the Dowsett Family in the 19th Century, and subsequently presented to the town of Southend in 1927 to be used as a public library when it was converted from its use as a farmhouse (called Wiffin’s Farm) in 1928-9.  It was subsequently to become a museum in 1974.  The current solar wing dates from c.1560 and the small kitchen to the East dates from approximately 1600 after modifications were undertaken and a detached kitchen range was demolished.   External to the house and adjacent to the modern bridge-based entrance to the Hall, the surviving rubble is considered to be what remains of a gatehouse, mentioned in a 1391 inventory of the Hall.

From research undertaken it is assumed that the location of Southchurch Hall reflects the location of a much earlier Saxon Hall on this site.  It is documented in the surviving records that the land was presented to the monks of the Holy Trinity Benedictine priory at Canterbury in 823AD by Leofstan, a Saxon thegn, with subsequent tenants bearing the name “de Southchurch” which continued until the death of Peter de Southchurch in 1309. By 1925, Thomas Dowsett, who was also the first Mayor of Southend, presented Southchurch Hall to the town of Southend ahead of its subsequent renovation.  It is interesting to note that during the restoration of the Hall, original doorways and window casements were discovered.  From an architectural viewpoint, the surviving hall contains a genuine C13/C14th “tie been roof with curved braces and an octagonal crown post with moulded capital.” (British Listed Buildings).

Map of Southchurch Hall location

The hall is enclosed by both a moat and surviving earthworks, which are considered to be of Norman origin. During the medieval and early modern periods, the Hall was maintained by the successful de Southchurch family until 1343, when the Hall passed to William Dersham on account of there being no male heir to the de Southchurch line. Dersham subsequently let the hall to John of Prittlewell, a London Spice Merchant, and the property was to go through several different ownerships and was for a time sub-dived into two tenements before being reunited as a farmhouse, to become known as Wittins Farm in the 19th Century.

There is a cross-wing situated at the end of the Great Hall, which incorporates both the North and South Solars.  Solars are traditionally the private rooms for the Lord of the manor and his family to reside in.  At Southchurch, they have been designed to reflect the changing fashions associated with this private residences and the South Solar is a later 16th or 17th Century extension to the Hall. The later Tudor extension is located to the Hall’s south end whist the much more modern 1930’s extension is to the East.

The main hall which survives today can be dated in terms of its construction to the period  c.1321-1364. The Great Hall is currently presented in its 14th Century form for visitors to the Hall, a feature of which “is a decorative arch and original tie beam (or cross beam) with crown post (the vertical timber standing centrally on the tie beam).” (Southend Museums, 2011). During the later 16th Century, an upper floor was added to the main hall along with internal sub-divisions with surviving evidence for a fireplace that was once situated between the two upper rooms.

What is now presented as a 16th Century kitchen area was originally designed as a service and store area sub-divided into two separate rooms with the kitchen originally being located in an adjoining building as a means to reduce the risk of fire in medieval buildings.  The area was converted into a kitchen during the 16th century with the addition of the chimney and fireplace, with the original kitchen building now lost.

The two Solar rooms are designed to represent the different approaches to the Hall’s design over the course of its lifetime. The Solars are designed to reflect how the rooms may have looked during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, encompassing the “reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (Tudor) and King James I (Stuart).” (Southend Museums, 2011).  The North Solar is designed to reflect an early 17th Century dining room, whilst the South Solar, “a late 16th to early 17th century extension” (Southend Museums, 2011) is designed to reflect a parlour room of this period. As you venture upstairs from the Solars you will be greeted by the Victorian bedrooms, designed to create how the bedroom might have looked during the ownership of the Kilworth family, who owned the property during this period.

Southchurch Hall moated site is listed by Historic England as a Scheduled Monument (list entry number: 1017385), initially added to the schedule list on 1 February, 1976.  The listing at present relates to the surviving moated site and earthworks and not directly to the surviving Hall itself.  Archaeological evidence hints at the existence at points through history of additional buildings having existed n this location in addition to the current Hall structure, “excavations have demonstrated the presence of well-preserved buried foundations on the island … [and] … [f]urther archaeological evidence is also considered to survive in the form of buried features beyond the island.” (Historic England, n.d.).  Fishponds to the west of the surviving moat still survive which presents compelling status for the wealth and social standing of the Hall’s occupants, and were at the height of their popularity in the 12th Century for their ability to provide an established source of sustainable fishing and food supplies.  There is also evidence to suggest that both formal gardens and an orchard once existed on this site too.

Terminology

Solar: A Solar, or great chamber, was the main private room of a medieval house reserved for the lord and his family.

Additional Sources of Information

Southchurch Hall: A Medieval Manor House in Moated Gardens, (1960).

Crowe, K. Southchurch Hall: Watching Brief on New Bridge Foundations, (1990).

RCHME, Inventory of Historic Monuments in Essex, (1923).

References

Attack on Southchurch Hall during the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381 | Art UK (no date). Available at: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/attack-on-southchurch-hall-during-the-peasants-revolt-1381-2538 (Accessed: 29 July 2020).

Gate inscription (2008). Southchurch Hall moat gates.

Heritage, E. (no date) British Listed Buildings (Southchurch Hall). British Listed Buildings. Available at: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-122926-southchurch-hall-.

Historic England, (no date) Southchurch Hall moated site, Southend-on-Sea – 1017385 | Historic England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017385 (Accessed: 29 July 2020).

Jenkins, S. (2004) England’s thousand best houses. London: Penguin.

Southend Museums Service. (2011) Southchurch Hall: a guide to the rooms. Southend-on-Sea: Southend Museums Service.

Southchurch Hall | Southend Museums (no date) Southend Museums 20. Available at: https://www.southendmuseums.co.uk/southchurch-hall (Accessed: 29 July 2020).

Southchurch Hall Historic House (no date). Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Available at: http://www.southend.gov.uk/info/200070/museums_and_galleries/631/southchurch_hall_historic_house/1.

Stuff, G. (no date) Southchurch Hall, Southend-on-Sea, Southend-on-Sea. Available at: https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101306880-southchurch-hall-kursaal-ward (Accessed: 29 July 2020).

Photo Gallery