INTEREST in history is alive and kicking in Winchester judging by the lack of empty seats in the Guildhall.

In the week that the discovery of King Richard III was confirmed and national newspapers caught up four months late on the Chronicle story that the bones of King Alfred could be exhumed, a sell-out audience enjoyed 1871 And All That… or The Way We Were, hearing an archaeologist, historian and cartographer make sense of the rich seam that is Winchester history.

Prof Martin Biddle spoke about the impending publication of the ‘map that never existed’ a reproduction of what the city looked like in 1800. So how do you reproduce a map that never existed?

Simple: “The basis was the 1871 Ordnance Survey map but we wanted to show the city in 1800 so all the elements added after 1800 were removed. But the buildings that we knew had existed in 1800 but demolished by 1871 were put in the map. It is complicated but it produces a very fine map indeed,” he said.

Prof Biddle is best-known locally for his archaeological research in Winchester city centre from 1961-71. As well as director of Winchester Research Unit he is also chairman of the Historic Towns Atlas Trust which is producing books on cities such as York, Oxford and Windsor.

The Winchester atlas is due out later this year with A3-sized maps from Roman times to nearly the present day. Among many things, it will show how the current street system is based not on the Roman city but from about 900, the Alfredian era; the post-medieval decline as hop gardens filled the city; the Royal Winchester of 1682-85 when Charles II hired Sir Christopher Wren to design a palace to rival Versailles. Only part was built before Charles’ death and it later became Peninsula Barracks. The building was aligned with the cathedral and Charles planned a grandiose avenue to link the two. He also wanted a giant park stretching from the city centre to what is now Stanmore and St Cross.

Prof Biddle paid tribute to Roger Brown, who was in the audience, for his “marvellous model” of Winchester in 1871 which is in the Great Hall until February 16. To applause he called for the model to be put on permanent display.

Taking on the 1871 theme Mark Allen, senior history lecturer at Winchester University, spoke about his analysis with Tom Beaumont James into the people living in the city at that census.

The city had 17,301 residents living in 3,164 properties; the major institutions being the barracks, the workhouse, Winchester College, diocesan training college, refuge for fallen women and the Royal Hampshire County Hospital.

Winchester was expanding fast, growing from around 6,000 in 1801 to nearly 20,000 in 1871. Fulflood was spreading out in the Greenhill Road area (No ‘Save Greenhill Group’ to stop them in those days).

Dr Allen has studied every scribble of the census and the information often conceals as much as it reveals. Did a weaver work for himself or employ 30,000? Did a clerk work for a firm of solicitors or a greengrocer?

The three most common occupation groups were industrial (labourers or small manufacturers), domestic servants (mainly women) and professionals in local government, the law, the clergy and teaching (men).

Two-thirds of the population was Hampshire-born, a third in Winchester itself. There were less than 40 people born in France, Italy and Germany. Few people were born in Sussex or Surrey. The lure of London was too great, suggests Dr Allen.

Giles Darkes, cartographic editor at the British Historic Towns Atlas, spoke about the problems of producing historic maps, marrying the problem of a mass of information, a lack of space with the need for clarity. He said: “Maps are essentially an agreed set of lies.”

The evening was organised by Winchester Excavations Committee. Wrapping up the event,Cllr Therese Evans called on people to join the ‘Friends of Winchester Studies’ to help finalise the publication of the information gleaned from the archaeological digs stretching back to the 1960s.

The Winchester Mint was the most recent but three are due for publication soon: on Winchester Castle, the population of early Winchester and the Anglo-Saxon ministers of Winchester.