Today Southampton’s Historic Old Town is a picturesque and tranquil place. It is hard to believe that in 1850 the area had been described in a report as being unfit for human habitation and it was more densely populated than the East End of London made famous by Charles Dickens. The infant mortality rate in Southampton at the time was for every 1000 babies born, 530 would not reach their fifth birthday

There were streets and lanes full of common lodging houses. A typical lodging house was three storeys high and forty or more residents would have a space on the floor or in some cases share a bed with strangers. The dilapidated buildings themselves were mostly built of brick and wood and were patched up over the generations. When they were demolished in the 1900s many had ancient timber beams inside. They were a cheap place to stay for merchant seamen and tradesmen such as shipwrights but some were used as brothels.

There were tenement buildings such as Brewhouse Court with forty or more residents sharing one privy or an ashpit. A single tap in the courtyard would only provide water for a few hours a day.

From The Norman Conquest until The Spa Town Period rich and poor lived side by side inside the town walls but the influx of wealth and investment in the 18th century meant those with the means could move outside the town. As the population grew the area west of High Street became the overcrowded slums.

Prostitute Ellen Wren was a resident and her life is a tragic tale which ended in September 1894 when she choked on her own vomit after drinking Mother’s Ruin or gin. Born into a large family in Waterhouse Lane in 1845 to a mother who was a brothel keeper, Ellen Wren’s life is documented by her many appearances in front of The Bargate Magistrates for drunkenness, robbery and violence.

When she died her naked body was discovered by landlord Walter Edmunds in the squalid five feet high attic room that he rented to her at Castle Court, 22 Simnel Street. She had been dead for some time but the smell of her decomposing body was masked by the stench of the slums and the candle factory on the corner of Simnel Street and Castle Way where animal carcasses were boiled for the fat to make tallow candles.

In 1850 a heavily pregnant women named Elizabeth Briggs had died in Castle Lane of cold and hunger after being turned away from the workhouse in St Marys Street. The inquest into the circumstances of her death hit the national newspapers and it was recommended that the slums should be cleared away.

Nothing was done until the death of Ellen Wren hit the headlines about 50 years later and the clearing of the old buildings began. St Michaels Lodging House for men in Bugle Street was built and brick cottages replaced the tenements. The last two remaining are Municipal Cottages built above The Undercroft vault in 1905.

Ellen wren was buried in a mass pauper’s grave at The Common Old Cemetery. A managed block of flats for young single mothers in Swaythling is named after her.

To this day property deeds in The Old Town stipulate that it is forbidden to make candles on the premises.