Jane Austen Danced Here
The Dolphin is one of two coaching inns still standing in Southampton. Jane Austen attended balls here and it’s rumoured that she celebrated her eighteenth birthday here.
When Austen lived in Castle Square winter assemblies were held in the Dolphin every other Tuesday. At the beginning of December 1808 she wrote to tell her sister Cassandra that she had been asked to dance at the ball on the Tuesday before by a man she had met on Sunday and whose name she was unable to remember, which makes her sound very flighty for a spinster a few days short of her thirty-third birthday. In her letter she reminds Cassandra that they had danced there fifteen years earlier, which would have been around her eighteenth birthday. Viscountess Palmerston, mother of the future prime minister, travelled from the Palmerston estate in Romsey for a ball at the Dolphin. It was clearly a very fashionable place.
The first recorded mention of the Dolphin was in 1267. In 1454 it was documented as being the property of the wardens of the parish of Holy Rood and it stands only a few doors away from the ruins of the fourteenth century church in the High Street. It wasn’t uncommon in the fourteenth century for an inn to be built fairly quickly near the site of a church so that it could accommodate the travelling artisans who would build the church over several years. Like Austen’s own parish church of All Saints, Holy Rood was bombed in the air raids at the end of 1940. The site is now a memorial to sailors in the Merchant Navy killed during the Second World War.
The Dolphin Hotel that you can see in the photograph above dates from the mid-eighteenth century and reflects the prevalent coaching inn style of the time. The building fronting the street allows entry to a coach or a carriage from the street through a central arch into a courtyard and the stables are at the back. In the Dolphin’s case the stables date from the sixteenth century.
The bow windows mark the Dolphin as a particularly elegant example of its type. It is much more elegant than the Star, Southampton’s other remaining coaching inn. Both are hotels today.
The Dolphin managed to escape destruction during the Second World War and remains the most elegant building in the High Street. It is said that William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Pendennis sitting in one of the bay windows. Other visitors have included Nelson and Queen Victoria.