If you were standing outside the Bargate on 16th January 1434, you would be in the middle of the noise and the bustle of preparations for a great feast. It was to be held in the Guild Hall upstairs in the Bargate, by the guild of merchants. All the details and expenses for this feast are listed in the account book of the Town Steward which is preserved in the City Archives.
The Bargate was the main entrance to the old town of Southampton. If you look up at the parapet you can see the 17th century watch bell. At the end of each day, the Watch Bell (or curfew bell) was rung and the gate shut. Curfew derives from the French phrase “couvre-feu”, which means cover the fire. Taxes were collected here by the broker. Two taxes were levied on carts; ‘cartage’ was paid on the cart, and ‘pontage’ was a toll for the bridge. There was also a ‘Petty Custom’ toll on goods carried. The earliest named broker was William Rede. In 1435, he collected £20 in taxes. The first floor Guild Hall was used as a courtroom and the ground floor was a prison.
The Bargate was constructed in Norman times as part of the fortified walled city, the Bargate was the main point of entry and exit to and from the north. Since Southampton is on the south coast, this made the Bargate the main gateway to the city. The Bargate is a Grade I listed building and a scheduled monument. The original Bargate was built circa 1180 AD, constructed of stone and flint. Further alterations were made to the building around 1260 to 1290, when large drum towers were added to the north side, with arrow slit windows.
A two-storey extension was made to the south side towards the end of the thirteenth century, with four windows lighting the upstairs room. In the middle of the four windows is a statue of George III in Roman dress, which replaced a wooden statue of Queen Anne. Work was also carried out to the interior of the upper room during the thirteenth century, when the stone fireplaces were installed. The embattled north front was added to the building around 1400.
In 1605, the city’s curfew bell was added to the southwest corner of the building. A sundial was added a century later. Following the establishment of Southampton’s police force in February 1836, the upper room was used as a prison. The Bargate was separated from the adjoining town walls in the 1930s, so that it became a traffic island. The Bargate again served as the police headquarters for the city during WW2. Southampton’s Bargate has been judged ‘probably the finest, and certainly the most complex, town gateway in Britain.