by James Wisdom
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 4 (1985)
Eighteenth and nineteenth century artists have left us a surprising amount of evidence of riverside activity in the past. No view of the river is complete without at least one vessel on the water or an angler decorating the foreground. Since the artists were depicting what they saw, a variety of vessels appear in prints, drawings and painting, from small wherries and ferries to substantial Thames barges, some afloat, some moored or drawn up on the foreshore, some piled with baskets of produce or carrying passengers. On the banks of the river appear the houses, churches and pubs of the Thames-side settlements, with the roofs of malt-houses, wharves, and beds of osiers clearly distinguishable. Contemporary documentary sources provide a wealth of additional detail which reveals the great extent of the economic activity associated with or dependant on the Thames.
Of the 15 riverside settlements between London and Kingston three are in our area – Chiswick Mall, Strand on the Green and Brentford. The river provided a link between them which was more than a physical link alone. Mary Prior’s recent book on the families of Fisher Row in Oxford, most of whom were fishermen, bargemen and boatmen, reveals a long-standing and complex network of relationships up and down river and canal. The inhabitants of such waterside settlements were, in effect, the population of a linear village, a single community linked by business, marriage and mutual interest. The same relationships almost certainly applied closer to London but detailed early evidence does not survive for Chiswick and Brentford as it does in Oxford.
Some trades, like fishing, were wholly dependant on the river. The catch of fish from the Thames was lucrative for centuries. The fishing rights in our area had been granted by Henry II to the Prior of Merton. In 1233 an agreement was made between the Prior and the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s to allow the men of Sutton and Chiswick manors to use fish weirs placed in the river to catch barbel and lamperns at a rent of 23 shillings a year. Thus limited fishing rights were conceded at a distance from the Prior’s own rich fish weirs in Mortlake and Brentford. At this period fish were caught in basket-work traps (kidells or kiddles) and other wooden constructions placed under water. These caused frequent conflicts between fishermen and boat- and bargemen; fishing techniques changed and nets came into widespread use instead.
In spite of these difficulties the fishermen seem to have prospered. John Bowack, describing Chiswick in 1705, wrote “the greatest number of houses are stretched along the waterside from the Lyme kiln near Hammersmith to the Church, in which dwell several small traders, but for the most part fishermen and watermen who make up a considerable part of the inhabitants of this town.” Most of the fishermen lived in a cluster of small houses which stood between the parish church (dedicated to St Nicholas, their patron saint) and the river in an area later known as Fishermen’s Place. Here was a sloping shingle beach on which boats could be beached and nets spread to dry. In some 18th century prints a curious windowless building appears at the water’s edge here. Its purpose is unknown but it may have provided accommodation for the storage of boats, for net drying or even for drying or smoking fish.
On this tidal stretch of the Thames many species of fish could be caught. Freshwater fish such as perch, gudgeon, pope or ruff, and barbel could be found in the river along with migratory fish such as smelt, salmon and shad, as well as eels, lamperns and crayfish. A glance at 17th and 18th century cookery books reveals numerous recipes for all these, as well as for some North Sea fish, such a plaice, sole and whiting.
By the early Victorian period, fishing on our stretch of river was falling into decay. An 1829 list of those receiving parish relief at Chiswick included 23 fishermen and their families. The fishermen were taking on numerous apprentices because they needed the fees and the Chiswick Vestry was complaining about this additional potential burden on their resources. The new gas works at Brentford and the invention of the water closet were causing pollution which was killing off the fish, while engineering works, dredging and embanking were changing the nature of the river, making it less hospitable for spawning than before. The construction of locks upstream also affected the suitability of the river for migratory fish like the salmon and the shad.
The 1851Census Returns for Chiswick reveal 17 households of fishermen with 11 surnames between them. About 70 people were connected with fishing at this date and of these only 5 had been born outside the parish. Twenty-five were listed specifically as fishermen and 11 of these were sons under 30 still living at home, who presumably could not afford to marry and set up on their own. Nine of the twenty-five heads of households were aged between 50 and 70. Six of the fishing households were named Pearce. In the Local Studies Collection at Chiswick Library there is a photograph of one of the last fishermen on the river, one “Bommer” Pearce. His nickname probably derives from bum boat and indicates the rather miscellaneous nature of his work from the decline of the fishing. The photograph shows him with his Peter boat drawn up on the foreshore at Strand on the Green; this kind of boat had a central compartment open to the river in which the catch could be kept fresh.
A further threat to the working fishermen was growing in the early 19th century. A new literate class who angled as a leisure activity was competing for the fish. The Thames Angling Preservation Society was founded by a group of these gentlemen anglers in 1838. In the following year it was permitted to appoint 5 bailiffs in addition to the only City-appointed bailiff to enforce the Lord Mayor of London’s Rules, Orders and Ordinances upstream as far as Staines. Neither the professional nor the amateur fishermen had always observed the regulations governing close seasons and the mesh of nets or respected those areas where fishing was not allowed. In their anxiety to preserve fish for sport, these bailiffs enforced the rules vigorously, securing 84 convictions between 1839 and 1844 and burning 29 illegal nets. The Society also resorted to obstructing certain preserves with sunken boats, scrap iron and stakes to keep out the fishermen. So the struggling working fishermen found themselves in further difficulties at the expense of the gentlemen anglers for whom fishing was only a sport and not a livelihood.
The fishermen worked from small boats of various kinds but these were far from being the only vessels on the river. Boats and barges carried both goods and passengers, some operating over considerable distance and some on short local trips. The oldest print of Chiswick – Chatelain’s South View of Chiswick of 1750 – shows the ferry which plied between the Chiswick and the Chiswick Steps on the Barnes Bank. The other small boats were the watermen’s wherries, the equivalent of today’s taxis, plying between the various steps which provided stopping points for passengers. The 1851 Census lists 13 watermen in Chiswick in 12 households. While the average age of fishermen was 54 at this date, for watermen it was 39 with four of them under 30 and five between 40 and 50 years old. This seems to have been a more prosperous activity than fishing. In all 45 people were dependant upon the watermen’s trade, of whom only 2 were not Chiswick born.
The development of other forms of transport during the 19th century, including steam passenger boats, threatened the watermen’s livelihood. However, they moved into sport and recreation, providing a service for those who used the river for pleasure, and became especially involved in rowing as a sport. Maynard’s Boat-House at the Grove Park end of Strand on the Green is an excellent example of the growth of recreational boating on the Thames1. Maynard built boats, hired them out, organised races and kept an eye on privately-owned craft. Some of his correspondence survives in the Chiswick Local Studies Collection, including notes from City businessmen instructing him as to when they wanted their boats ready; they travelled to Chiswick by rail and probably dined at the Grove Park Hotel before returning home in the evening. This use of the river was again the preserve of gentlemen rather than tradesmen and workers, though all classes joined in the betting and drinking which accompanied major racing events!
A further group of vessels were the Thames barges. These were flat-bottomed boats with distinctive brown sails and masts which could be lowered for passage beneath bridges. They carried consignments of heavy goods such as grain, building materials, manure, malt, market garden produce, coal and cast iron, up to 300 tons at a time. Their flat bottoms kept them stable when they were beached on the foreshore at low tide, though the procession of horses and carts which came to unload their cargoes could work in shallow water. There were also unpowered vessels of a similar size known as lighters which could be towed or propelled by means of long oars called “sweeps” and the men who manoeuvred these vessels were distinguished as lightermen rather than bargemen.
The 1851 Census records 14 Chiswick households with bargemen or lightermen at their head; 6 of the heads of households were wives, their husbands presumably being away on the river at the time the Census was taken. Fifty-four people were dependant on this work and there may have been others away from home on the barges besides husbands; none of these families had adult sons at home so they must either have been away or had set up home independently. Given that 10 of the heads of households and their wives were under 40 the latter is the most likely explanation; the other heads were much older, between 50 and 70.
An allied craft, also requiring a waterside location, was boat building. The earliest recorded mention of a shipwright in Brentford dates from 1659 and boatyards are mentioned there in the 18th century. There were several boat-building yards in the later 19th century, the most substantial being that of the Thames Lighterage Company, established in 1881 and considerably enlarged by the construction of slipways on Lots Ait in 1926. A manorial court roll provides the earliest record of boat-building at Strand on the Green in 1705; by the middle of the 19th century there were three boatyards on the Strand. Nine heads of household in Chiswick are described in 1851 as barge-builders or shipwrights, with a total of 38 people dependant on this trade. The heads of three households were under 30 with another three between 41 and 50; only one was said to employ other men and then only 3 of them. Fourteen people in this group came from outside Chiswick, including most of the wives. By the end of the 19th century there were 5 boatyards on Strand on the Green including Charles Murrell next to the City Barge and Robert Talbot and Sons. Talbots built about 300 barges between 1858 and 1908 and by the latter date were working for the Maritime Lighterage Company, a London firm whose Magnolia Wharf was still active until the 1950s.
Whereas the boatyards at the Strand were interspersed with the houses, on Chiswick Mall the yards were tucked away in the working class area near to the Parish Church. When steel barges began to replace the wooden ones in the late 19th century this must have become a deafeningly noisy business and the different locations of this activity affected the social class of the two riverside villages. The relatively quieter homes of Chiswick Mall accommodated a much wealthier community.
Also on Chiswick Mall a small and rather experimental boat-building company was established in the 1860s. Thomas Thornycroft purchased some land beside Chesterman’s boatyard in 1864 for his son, John, to use for boat-building. Within two years they had completely taken over Chesterman’s yard. In partnership with John Donaldson, Thornycroft was building steam launches, river steamers, torpedo boats and destroyers. Contracts from the Admiralty and foreign governments ensured financial success. As they began to build larger and larger vessels new sites had to be found for the construction work further downstream. The firm’s move to new yards at Southampton began in 1904 and was completed by 1909, causing something of a slump in Chiswick’s economy when so many skilled men were left without work. The firm also built steam lorries in Basingstoke and continued as Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton.
Another, more recent, boat-building development, should also be mentioned here. At Cubitt’s Yacht Basin, formerly a man-made lake on the Grove Park Estate, concrete barges were constructed during the First World War. Tantalisingly the site is left blank on the ordnance Survey map of 1915, presumably for security reasons. Later it became a mooring for numerous house-boats and it survives today as Chiswick Quay, a marina with some residential moorings surrounded by town-houses.
Numerous other businesses benefited from a riverside location. Goods carried by boat need wharves for loading and unloading and warehousing for their storage. Brentford’s wharves can be traced back to at least the 17th century; locally-produced fruits, bricks and probably fish were being sent from Brentford to London by water at this period and return cargoes must have included dung and coal. There was a dung wharf by 1609 where stable sweepings were imported to fertilise the local market gardens and a coal wharf is recorded by 1679, supplying the fuel to such local industries as brick-making and lime-burning. A century later several coal warehouses existed at Brentford and the arrival of the Grand Junction Canal made it possible to bring coal to Brentford from the Midlands rather than around the coast and up the Thames. In Chiswick boats were drawn up on the sloping shingle draw docks at Chiswick Mall and beside Kew Bridge for loading and unloading; the one at Chiswick Mall remains little changed through the construction of the present Kew Bridge has changed the shape of the foreshore there.
Malt-houses, breweries and distilleries, using grain and fuel brought in by water, were a common feature of riverside settlements. Malting is known to date back to at least 1222 in Chiswick, but its malting businesses seem to have operated on a relatively small scale in comparison to Brentford’s. The prominence of Brentford’s grain market from the 17th century must have boosted this trade and, since so many of Brentford’s small brewers were attached to the town’s pubs, the resulting ales must have been consumed by those drawn into the town on market business! Often malting and brewing went hand in hand while some maltsters combined this trade with corn and coal dealing. In Brentford there were several substantial distilleries, including the one acquired by Booth’s in 1817. This had been described as the fourth largest in England in 1802 but was subsequently enlarged further by Booth’s acquisition of four malt-houses and other property. In Chiswick one malt-house building survives on Strand on the Green while the brewery of Messrs Fuller Smith and Turner still flourishes, the successor to a domestic brew-house known to be in existence on the site as early as the 1660s.
Although the railways took over some river traffic during Victoria’s reign, water transport continued to play its part. The building boom of this period, when the transformation of the area into suburbs of London began, required enormous quantities of bricks, tiles, timber and other building materials. The feed and bedding for numerous horses who delivered such goods from boat to builder’s yard or building site were also imported by barge, while the dung of the horses from further downstream continued to be brought in for the market gardens. Even a comparatively modern concern like Chiswick Products brought in its own materials, including waxes, by water and the Corney Road council depot had its own wharf for the disposal of refuse by barge.
Market garden produce was loaded into a variety of baskets and carried to the London markets by boat or by cart. The market gardeners generated a demand for baskets which ensured the survival of another riverside activity for some generations. Osiers for basket-making were planted at the water’s edge and on Chiswick Eyot and these were harvested until the 1920s. In Brentford osiers were being cultivated on islands in the river by 1397 and the town had two prominent basket-making families in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today’s river is very different; sport and recreation have triumphed over its commercial life. Rowers from numerous riverside boathouses can be seen at all seasons though the only time the river is really crowded is on the day of the Head of the River race in the spring; the banks and Chiswick Bridge still draw crowds for the finish of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Large pleasure boats ply back and forth during the summer, bringing tourists to Kew Gardens and beyond. Since the 1980s there has been virtually no commercial traffic. The pleasure of being beside the water if not actually on it brings crowds out for a stroll or a drink in the riverside pubs on hot days but it is now difficult to imagine the water crowded with traffic as it was for centuries.
1 Maynard’s boathouse, latterly known as the Wheelhouse Club, was demolished May 2004 to make way for three town-houses.