Heritage: the real life King and I story, and its links to Southampton

Heritage: the real life King and I story, and its links to Southampton

by Martin Brisland.

The much-loved musical play, which has recently been at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre, and film tells the real-life story of the tempestuous relationship that develops between King Chulalongkorn of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British school teacher whom the King brings to Siam (Thailand) to teach his many wives and children.

 Less well known is that the King of Siam actually visited Southampton.

The King of Siam’s royal yacht, ‘Maha Chakri’, was a 2,500 ton armed cruiser. In 1897 it came to Southampton for repairs, its crew got in a bit of trouble, and the King visited the town.

 In 1897, King Chulalongkorn of Siam was on an extensive tour of Europe in an attempt to improve relations with the European colonial powers who threatened Siam’s independence. 

His royal yacht joined the Royal Navy fleet review at Spithead in marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897. 

On 4th August 1897, the King travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to visit Queen Victoria. The royal yacht ‘Maha Chakri’ came to the shipyards at Northam for repairs. 

Later, on the evening of 17th September 1897 the King attracted a large crowd when he arrived back at Southampton Docks.

Waiting for him on the dockside was the Mayor of Southampton, Edward Gayton and local dignitaries. A red carpet was extended from the berth to a special train ready to convey King Chulalongkorn to London.

Mayor Gayton thanked him for choosing a Southampton firm to repair his yacht. This was the Day, Summers, and Company iron works at Northam. King Chulalongkorn was familiar with the Southampton shipbuilder’s workmanship as in 1878, they had built another royal yacht for him, named Vestari.

At the nearby yard of Summers and Payne, work was also being carried out building a new 36 foot long royal barge for the King. Once complete, it was to be loaded onto Maha Chakri in Southampton Water.

The King visited Southampton again by train on 1 October 1897. He was received by the Mayor and other dignitaries. Men of the Hampshire Regiment 2nd Volunteer Battalion formed a guard of honour outside the Terminus station and the King inspected their ranks.

After leaving the Northam yard, Maha Chakri was in the docks where the ship was being painted. 

After inspecting the ship, the royal convoy made its way to the Royal Pier.

At a reception with 200 guests, the Mayor of Southampton, Edward Gayton thanked the King for choosing a local firm for the work on his yacht.

Gayton said that in Bangkok they were more advanced in civilisation in certain respects than they are in Southampton as they already had electric trams. It was 1900 before the first ones arrived in Southampton.

Mayor Gayton also said the King had told him there should be a permanent bridge that linked Southampton and Woolston. It was 1977 before the Itchen Bridge was opened.

The King and his family then took a trip up the then picturesque High Street that was so damaged in WW2 bombing. They then went through the Bargate and up to the Avenue before returning to the Terminus railway station for the London train.

However, the ‘Maha Chakri’ crew’s stay here was not without incident.

Some had been buying guns. One had been inspecting his new purchase when the gun suddenly fired a bullet into his chest but he survived. 

Also, a young stoker named Bun, appeared at the Southampton Borough Police Court. Bun was charged with wounding John Webb of Millbank Street. 

The charge was altered to common assault and Bun pleaded guilty, stating through an interpreter that he had only acted in self-defence. The sailor was discharged. Chief Constable Berry said that he had not received a solitary complaint as to the conduct of the sailors during the whole time the royal yacht had been in the port.

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