History of the River Hamble

The River Hamble has its source at Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire and joins Southampton Water South of the villages of Hamble and Warsash. Its lower section, below the village of Botley, is estuarine and the watercourse is tidal. Above Botley the River is fresh.

Today, it is a centre of significant importance for recreational boating of all kinds and the River and its adjacent banks and saltmarshes are of major environmental importance. Its marine businesses are major contributors to the local and regional economy.

Geological history

During the middle of the Holocene period (which is the approximate period since the last Ice Age or 11700 years), the Solent as we now know it from a geographical and geological perspective came into being. Prior to that, during the Pleistocene period (the most recent Ice Age) which lasted from around two and a half million years ago until 11,700 years ago, what is now the River formed part of the 'Solent River' system and was one of a number of local small tributaries which fed into the then much smaller English Channel.

Geological evidence suggests that the Solent came into being between 7,000 and 7,500 years ago, separating the Isle of Wight from the Mainland. Given the shallower depths in the Hamble than in the Central Solent, it would appear likely that the Hamble became estuarine after that event.

Illustration of River Solent and its tributaries

Illustration of Solent River and Tributaries including the Hamble

The Solent River of early to middle pleistocene joining the channel river.

Early history and archaeological evidence

Over the course of the Neolithic period (4300BCE – 2000BCE), the Bronze Age (2000BCE – 600BCE) and the Iron Age (600BCE to 50BCE), some evidence exists about the use of the River and its immediate surroundings. Hamble Common is the site of a 300m linear earth work from the Iron Age. Broader academic scrutiny has been given to Hampshire’s chalkland where Iron Age settlements have afforded visibility of considerable and intensive farming development. Whether such activity took place around the Hamble is uncertain, but the Earth Work at the Common is evidence of its importance.

The Roman conquest of Wessex, which included modern-day Hampshire was completed by the Emperor Vespasian in 43AD. The Hamble had a part to play in the conquest as the National Trust’s records of a Roman building near Curbridge show.

Roman coins
Hoard of Roman coins

There is wider evidence that Roman communities in Southern Britain exploited fish farming techniques and, given the proximity of this outlying settlement to the River Hamble, it is possible by that this was among the reasons for its location on the bank of the River. The Roman period lasted until 410AD when economic decline, reduced numbers of troops and increased attacks from Saxons and other invading groups led to cessation of effective control.

Although conflicting records indicate the landing in the Fifth Century of a West Saxon Commander, Cerdic, on the Western bank of Southampton Water, it seems more likely that the records of the Venerable Bede written 100 years after the event are more credible. This gives some indication of the later demography around the Hamble. At that time, the Isle of Wight and Northern Solent area were populated by Jutes, one of a number of Germanic tribes, in this case from the modern Danish Peninsula which colonised Southern Hampshire. The Saxon invasion, when it came, meant that the Northern banks of the solent were under a mixture of Saxon and Jute control. The Jutes were well-known for their ship-building skills and use of iron nails to fix planks and the Upper River may have offered attractive resources with which to build ships. Some evidence to support this can be found in the discovery at the Hamble Logboat at Fairthorn Manor near Curbridge in 1888.

Hamble log boat

Initially thought to be of Roman origin, a study commissioned by the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology in 2010 showed the craft to be of Saxon (period) origin. The same report gave 143 sites of maritime archaeological interest within the River of varying ages.

Written evidence of the Hamble’s use as a port in these Saxon times stems from the departure to the Holy Land in around 720AD of St Willibald. St Willibald studied at Bishops Waltham and was arguably the first Christian Saxon to record his experiences of travels in Europe and the Holy Land.

The later part of the first Millenium saw the Hamble as elsewhere in the Kingdom of Wessex in a period of instability and the threat of invasion from Vikings and other tribes. King Alfred the Great is credited by some as being the father of the Royal Navy and gave battle successfully in around 894AD in the Solent to defend the coast against Viking ships.

Medieval and early modern history

Up to and after the Norman invasion, the River reinforced its position as an important maritime base and a fishing port. In the lead up to the Battle of Crecy, during the Hundred Years War in 1346, the River Hamble made a larger absolute contribution to the maritime effort than Portsmouth, providing seven ships and 117 professional sailors against the latter’s five ships and 96 sailors. The Hamble also became one of Edward III’s key bases during the period. Later, in 1417, Henry V commissioned William Cotton and William Soper to build and fit out ships in the River Hamble at a site North of Bursledon. Here, the availability of excellent timber made the Hamble one of a number of important centres of expertise.

The Grace Dieu is perhaps the best known of these ships. Built in Southampton and fitted out in the Hamble, she was a very large ship and comparable in size to HMS Victory. Grace Dieu sailed only once, on an inauspicious voyage down the English Channel. In 1430, after the death of Henry V in 1422, she returned to the Hamble where she spent the remainder of her life in a mud berth before being set ablaze by a bolt of lightning in 1439. Her final resting place remains in the Hamble opposite the River Hamble Country Park Jetty. Her hulk is the River’s only protected wreck and is marked by a single yellow buoy.

Illustration of the Grace Dieu
Illustration of the Grace Dieu

An investigation into her history and the site was filmed by the BBC’s Time Team in 2004.

In 2015, an investigation into another wreck tentatively concluded that another Henrician wreck might be present near the Grace Dieu: that of the Holighost.

The River continued as a centre for ship-building with notable gaps during the reigns of Kings in the Houses of Lancaster and York and then Henry VII and the Tudors. Henry VIII used the Hamble to refit his ships, including his Flagship, Henri Grace a Dieu, known as Great Harry. Wars between England and Spain and France over the next centuries brought with it a need for ships. The important contribution of the Hamble to ship building then further developed. Records show that William Wyatt, a Master Shipwright, rented an area of hard at Bursledon near the current railway station to build merchant ships. These and others were heavily involved in serving British interests in North American colonies and the West Indies, often against the threat of Spanish and French attack.

1535 saw the first written record of the Hamble Warsash Ferry, which continues to run today.

Warship construction on a larger scale returned to the Hamble in 1744, when a shipwright called Philemon Ewer built or refitted five ships: Falkland (built in New England), Lizard, Ruby, Fox and Anson. Shortly afterwards, Richard Heather built Triton and Assurance. Moody Janverin and others also made prolific contributions. All their ships saw service in British interests in areas as diverse as the Far East, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic and Northern America. A short gap in warship building on the Hamble followed but the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic consequences of the French Revolution gave rise to three decades of contracts for the building of warships. Many notable vessels gave service to the Royal Navy in a range of theatres. One, HMS Elephant, was built by George Parsons at Bursledon in 1780 and was chosen by Admiral Nelson to be his Flagship at the Battle of Copenhagen because her shallow draft allowed her greater manoeuvrability in shallow inshore Danish waters. It was here that Lord Nelson turned his famous ‘blind eye’ to a signal ordering him to withdraw from action.

HMS Elephant went on to give service in the war with the United States of 1812 and was eventually broken up in 1830. Warships continued to be built on the Hamble until HMS Sirius, a 38 Gun ship in 1813.
Twentieth Century developments

The start of the Twentieth Century brought with it new technology and significant developments in private capital and an associated interest in recreational boating. New technology meant aviation. Boat building and early aircraft building had commonality. In 1911, the Luke brothers used their boat building skills to start building aircraft capable of operating on floats. The speed of aviation development quickly attracted the interest of the Admiralty which established a base for seaplanes at Hamble Point in 1913.

Float plane

Float plane
This early development set the course for Hamble Point’s enduring contribution to the aviation industry. Avro (famous for, among others, the Lancaster and Manchester bombers) envisaged moving their entire headquarters to Hamble but lean years in aviation production led to the sale of the company and closure of the Avro operation in 1932.

Hamble airfield

Hamble airfield

Avro shared the airfield with Fairey, Vickers/Supermarine and British Marine Aircraft (later to become Folland) and flying training was also conducted from the airfield. The Second World War saw Hamble repair many operational types of aircraft including Lancasters, Spitfires, Mosquitoes, B-17 Flying Fortresses and Mustangs before they were returned to the front line by pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary, many of them women. Much more on this is available from the excellent websites of our local village history societies.

Role in recreational boating

It is difficult to capture comprehensively all the River’s recreational sailing history although it is hoped that some of the links provided will lead those interested to more in-depth material.

Although recreational sailing in the Hamble goes back further, one of the oldest Regattas in the Country (The Swanwick, Bursledon and Warsash Regatta) started in the 1880s.

Hamble Regatta


Hamble Regatta

The Regatta’s history site gives much information not only about the growth of recreational sailing but also the development of boatbuilding which supported that.

In 1913, the Luke Brothers, already involved in boatbuilding at Hamble, were asked by an earlier sailing club to design and build a small one design yacht for local competition. Twelve of these were built for the then Hamble Sailing Club which did not reform following the First World War. Other classes were also designed and built locally including the Hamble Star class which gave excellent service until the 1960s with one vessel (sail No 82) sailing at the Club’s Centenary in 2019.

With the advent of the Americas Cup, the River became heavily involved in development of the famous ‘J’ Class yachts. Endeavour was commissioned by Sir Thomas Sopwith in 1934 and arguably the closest challenger Britain has had for the Trophy. Endeavour spent some of her later years in a mud berth off Crableck (near Premier Universal Marina) and after approaching dereliction moved to Riverside Boatyard where she was bought in 1984 and returned to her former glory by an American heiress.

The River has also been at the forefront of fast motorboat development. Fairey Marine designs have been built in the Hamble to great competitive effect.

Club sailing in the Hamble started in the nineteenth century. Our four current Sailing Clubs were established in the River to meet the varying needs of the developing local recreational sailing community. The earliest is Hamble River Sailing Club, founded in 1919. Some of its members came from the former Hamble Sailing Club. The Royal Southern Yacht Club is now nearly 200 years old and came here from its former headquarters in Southampton in 1939. The RAF Yacht Club established its base in Hamble in 1952, arriving here from Calshot. Warsash Sailing Club was established in 1957. These brief notes give only a short insight into their illustrious history which has involved Olympic success and the mounting of Americas Cup challenges. Their sites give more useful information on development and trends.


Hamble lifeboat and modern boat building

In 1968, a group of local residents registered concern at the large number of casualties in Southampton Water and the Rivers Hamble, Itchen and Test, which had increased to 19 deaths in one year. The RNLI already provided services from Bembridge and Yarmouth but were not immediately able to offer a closer service. This led to the establishment of the Southampton Water Inshore Rescue Service, later to become Hamble Lifeboat. As a charitable institution, Hamble Lifeboat moved to its current site in 1974 and now operates two Halmatic Pacific 32 craft and continue to perform an essential service. It now operates from a new headquarters on Hamble foreshore opened in 2017. Its volunteers are all local people with a passion for sailing and the River and who know the challenges of local waters well.

The skills involved in ship-building proved readily transferrable to recreational boating. Like other local harbours, predominantly Cowes, Hamble boatbuilders have an international reputation for yacht and motorboat construction. These skills and services continue today, with modern superyacht tenders and classic yacht construction and everything in between being available. Moody’s yachts commenced boat building in Swanwick at the current Premier Marina site in 1827. Initial effort was in the repair of fishing vessels. The first construction of sailing craft began in 1880 and the first larger sailing yachts began in 1935.

Boatbuilding at Hamble

Boatbuilding at Hamble

Moody’s were a leading light in the development of fibreglass sailing yachts from 1965 and worked with leading designers to produce up to 400 yachts each year. Moody’s developed 39 yacht types and sold over 4000 yachts over a thirty year period before selling the site to Premier Marinas in 2005. The brand is now owned by the German company Hansa.

Space here prevents the listing of every boat-building service offered within the River. River family names remain and are woven through the many yards. Elephant Boatyard is tucked away at Lands End at Bursledon. Named after HMS Elephant, built for the Royal Navy by George Parsons in 1780 and Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Copenhagen, the yard offers some very rare skills and builds new large wooden yachts from scratch. The traditional boat-building skills offered here provide a direct link to Hamble’s heyday as a ship building centre of excellence.

Mooring and marina development

The River mooring pattern we see today has built up incrementally over two centuries. There are around 3200 yachts and motor vessels afloat within the River. These sit on a mix of commercially-owned and private moorings. A very small number of moorings are private property and tend to be close to private houses with river-frontages. The majority of ‘private’ moorings belong to the Crown Estate and are administered by the Harbour Authority. The Crown Estate operates over 650 of these which have been placed over time along the banks of the River as far North as the A27 Bridge. At the same time, Marinas and Yards have developed since the early 1960s to cater for recreational needs and host the essential expert services to maintain vessels.

Moorings on the River Hamble

Moorings on the River Hamble

Marina development started with Port Hamble in 1964. Port Hamble is situated just North of the Royal Southern and RAF Yacht Clubs, above Hamble. Mercury Marina followed and its initial owner was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, then living in Hamble Village with his wife, daughter and infamous black labrador. Its development, that of Hamble Point and the development of Moodys at Swanwick took place in very different times. Their locations were all in what were then saltmarsh areas which are now subject to Habitats regulations. Marina development in a finite space has limitations. In 2016, the Harbour Authority commissioned a study into saltmarshes to learn more about their loss and what might be done to arrest further degradation. The study shows that between 1964 and the present day, 64% of our Hamble saltmarshes have been lost.

Training establishments and World War II

As well as its contribution to the building of warships over the years, and to military aviation, the River has been home to training establishments for both the Royal and Merchant Navies.

TS Mercury was based at what is now Mercury Marina and was established by the banker Charles Hoare in 1885 to conduct pre-naval training for the Royal Navy.

Some of the buildings remain today, along with a conspicuous remant of a World War 1 ship HMS Sultan. Her fighting topmast is decaying gradually but remains clearly visible North of Mercury Marina.

Internationally-renowned Merchant Navy training on the River has taken place at Warsash since 1942 at the site of the Royal Navy’s wartime HMS Tormentor site. This site also offered navigational training to United States’ naval officers based in the United Kingdom. Among the personnel receiving training there was the actor Douglas Fairbanks Junior in 1942. Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler attended the college as part of his preparations for Operation Frankton (the Royal Marines’ Commando raid on Bordeaux in December 1942). Major Hasler was part of the Royal Marines’ Boom Patrol Detachment – the forerunners of the Special Boat Service. The site continues to deliver on-water and firefighting training.

The Hamble’s involvement in World War 2 was considerable, in line with many smaller Solent ports’ contribution.

D-Day embarkation at Warsash
D-Day embarkation at Warsash

The Imperial War Museum website gives a helpful resume.

River Hamble Harbour Authority

The Harbour Authority’s own history is also varied. The River Hamble was until 1970 part of Southampton Harbour Board. That year saw the separation of the Hamble as a port from Southampton, with which we retain close links as adjacent authorities. Hampshire County Council took over the running of the Harbour and delegated its responsibilities to the newly established River Hamble Harbour Authority.

Our first Harbour Master was Captain Tony Leach and our first Harbour Office was established in Hamble, close to the current Royal Southern Yacht Club. Captain Leach recognised the need for new headquarters and this was established at Warsash. The current distinctive building was built in 1976 and has been the headquarters ever since. Developments have taken place in Harbour Authority facilities since with walk ashore jetties at Warsash and Hamble and a visitors’ facility mid stream opposite the Harbour Office.

Silhouette of harbour