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Gateway to the World


The premier port

In the 1930s, ships sailed from Southampton across the globe, making it the 'Gateway to the World'. But the port rose from humble beginnings.

The ancient seaport of Hamptun, from which Southampton gets its name, appears in some of the country's earliest historical records. Early traders came from France, Greece and the Middle East. The rise of Southampton's port started with the arrival of Norman invaders - by 1300, wine and wool were traded there. In 1402, merchants from Genoa in modern Italy were granted permission by King Henry IV to land all their goods at Southampton.

Competition from other ports, such as London, saw trade decrease until the opening of the first dock in the town in 1836. Since then, the port expanded rapidly and was taken over by the London and South Western Railway in 1892. The 1938 handbook to Southampton Docks states that:-

"Within comparatively recent years, Southampton has become established as one of the foremost commercial seaports of Britain. The facilities and equipment are among the finest in the world, and the development of the dock system under Railway Company ownership has been marked by an era of progress unparalleled in the history of the port. This great increase in trade has conferred upon Southampton the title of Britain's Premier Passenger Port and also the forth port in respect of the value of freight traffic dealt with."

In 1936, Southampton docks handled 46% of all the UK's ocean-going passenger traffic.

Passengers arriving or departing560,000
Visitors to see the docks and liners500,000
Cruise passengers70,000
Passenger trains handled2,500
Shipping using the docks18.5 million tons
Shipping lines using the docks32
Number of world ports served160




Southampton also handled a large amount of cargo. Nearly 90% of South Africa's fruit exports to the UK was handled at Southampton. Express freight trains enabled produce landed at Southampton in the morning to be on sale in London fruit markets in the afternoon.

Fruit handledover 7 million packages

including 1.5 million bunches of bananas
Wagons handled160,000
Freight trains handled4,200




The facilities provided by the dock owners were impressive.

Total length of quay space29,000 ft (8.7 km)
Dry docks7

The King George (No 7) dry dock was the largest in the world and could accommodate liners of up to 100,000 tons.
Number of cranes140
Number of electric platform trucks for moving cargo61




Southampton's position undoubtedly helped it to flourish. The difference between high and low tide is on average only five ft (1.5 metres) . At its narrowest part, the approaches to the port along Southampton Water are over 600 ft (180 metres) wide - equivalent to a 16-lane motorway. The handbook continues:-

"It is understandable that Southampton, situated within the complete shelter of the Isle of Wight and enjoying the rare distinction of high tide four times a day should have been a port of considerable importance. The port's great natural advantages, its ideal position on the south coast and its intensely populated hinterland [surrounding area] have been fully exploited ... in pursuing a policy of enterprise and foresight."

It is no wonder that Southampton's port became known as the 'Gateway to the World'.

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