A Local History Librarian’s Year, 1980-81

By Andrea Cameron

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 2 (1981)

The Editor thought it would make interesting reading to recall some of the Brentford and Chiswick local history enquiries received during the past year. The enquiries received directly by me or referred on from one of the libraries are only a proportion of the total number of enquiries dealt with in any one year. Many more queries are answered directly by the three district reference libraries.

During the year 1980-81 I personally dealt with about two hundred enquiries, which required research in varying degrees. There were more enquiries by telephone or personal visit which could be answered immediately without any consultation. Of the two hundred enquiries about three dozen referred to Brentford and Chiswick.

One enquiry concerned a James Atfield, clockmaker of Brentford. A gentleman in Weybridge had a long case clock inscribed on the face James Atfield at Brentford fecit, and he wished to date the clock and find out more about the clockmaker. We were able to trace from the Middlesex Poll Books and the Boston Manor Court Book that Atfield resided within the Manor from 1705-1710. Boston Manor House had a bracket clock made by him which was sold in the 1924 auction of the contents of the house for £57.15.0d.

Still in the area of Boston Manor, I received a letter from a gentleman in Bodmin who was restoring two paintings for a friend. These were two oil paintings by August Ballin, of sailing barges in North Wales and in the Channel. Ballin was known to have lived at 75 Boston Road. The enquirer wished to trace the dates when the artist was in Brentford in order to help him date the paintings. From local directories it was found that Mr Ballin lived at several addresses in Brentford between 1882 and 1910 and that he possibly died in 1910, as in 1911 only Mrs Ballin appears in the Directory.

Chiswick Library contains some registration certificates for barges registered at Brentford and we were asked to trace a certificate for a narrow boat called Banstead, registered at Brentford in 1936.

A proportion of our enquiries come from abroad. Often they are on very obscure subjects, and I wonder how someone thousands of miles away becomes interested in unusual bits of our local history. Such an enquiry was received from a gentleman in North Carolina who wished to have reports of a ‘dress-slashing maniac’ who operated in England and Scotland in the first weeks of December 1938. We were able to find a report in the Brentford and Chiswick Times of an incident occurring in Brentford and a copy of this report was sent to America, but we never heard why the information was required.

This last year we received several requests for information about the dates when certain businesses were operating in Brentford High Street. One such enquiry was for Tally Ho dog biscuits. The information was for a directory of match box labels. A photograph of the Seaman’s Mission in the Butts as it looked early this century was required for a book about the education of canal children. The Greater London Highways Dept wished to know the date Church Alley, the Ham, Brentford, closed.

Tracing one’s family history is a rapidly expanding hobby and results in many enquiries to libraries, record offices and parish churches. One of the many queries on this aspect of local history was a request to locate The Fox and Hounds public house in Old Brentford, in order to find the address of a great grandfather who lived in l844 in the fourth house west of the Fox and Hounds.

The site of the Plague Pit in Brentford is an example of the type of enquiry that can be answered immediately without reference to any book whilst an enquiry such as the history and date of the White Horse public house in Brentford Market Place requires possibly days of research to answer in detail. In that instance an article on local public houses contained the information that the St Lawrence Parish Records refer to the public house in l603. The enquirer would need to carry out his own research if more detailed information was required.

During the year the Chairman, Mrs Yarde, and I visited St Bernard’s Hospital to view a painting of Colonel Clitherow, who was the first Chairman of the Governors when the hospital opened in 1831. The late Mr Kenward had been tracing this painting with a view to asking if it could be displayed at Boston Manor House, as the hospital do not now have it on display. Mrs Yarde and I found the original buildings most attractive. This year the hospital is celebrating its 150th anniversary and on Sunday 17th May I represented this Society at a service of thanksgiving, followed by tea in the ballroom. The service was most impressive. Present were the Bishop of Kensington, the Rt Rev Mark Santer, the Roman Catholic Bishop in West London, the Rt Rev Gerald Mahon and the Moderator of the Thames North Province of the United Reformed Church, the Rev Michael Davies, as well as many of the local clergy and a large combined choir.

Turning now to the enquiries about Chiswick; these are less in number as many are dealt with by the staff of Chiswick Reference Library. The Camellia House in Chiswick House Grounds caused much anxiety to people throughout the year, both in trying to establish its exact age and in trying to get some permanent restoration work done to the building. One enquiry involved checking to see if the greenhouse was extensively damaged by a bomb during the last war and substantially rebuilt; this would prove that the building was not worth preserving. Fortunately this could not be proved, and in fact it has recently been established that the greenhouse was built c1813 to a design by Samuel Ware, the architect of the Burlington Arcade.

Another request was for the history of 15-17 Chiswick High Road, as the buildings were being restored for use as offices and the firm wished to know something of their history for a brochure they were producing. Listed as Grade II buildings by the Dept of the Environment they were built c l830-l840 but like so many houses they do not have histories of great importance.

Chiswick produced its fair share of people tracing their ancestors. Two families, the Farringtons, who lived around Turnham Green 1840 – 1870, and the Hunts of Fishers Lane at the same period, were traced from the Chiswick Census Returns. A Mr Hill, living in Clifton Gardens at the beginning of this century, was traced from the Rate Books.

Hogarth’s House has a set of copper plates for one of Hogarth’s series of engravings. Four of these plates were sent to Germany for an exhibition. Gunnersbury Park Museum and the Libraries Dept were involved in trying to find out their value for insurance purposes. This proved an impossible task. Most of Hogarth’s plates were destroyed during the First World War and so few are now left that they never appear in the auction rooms for sale.

The Engineer’s Dept required the date when Gunnersbury Avenue was widened; from the Council Minutes this was traced to 1928. The Great West Road was a topic of great interest after the act of vandalism to the Firestone building last August. Following this, Hounslow’s Planning Dept became very interested in the architects and the dates of completion for all the other original factories along the entire length of the road.

This resulted in much work being carried out and the listing by the DoE of the Pyrene, Coty and Gillette buildings. Gunnersbury Park Museum did some preliminary work for an exhibition, now to be held next year, and the Observer newspaper had an article in their financial section. At present the BBC are investigating the making of a programme on The Golden Mile.

The University of Vermont have a member of their staff trying to reconstruct the library of Charles Whittingham, the Chiswick printer, and he has been in correspondence with us to establish the number of books in Chiswick Library’s collection. Two enquirers were interested in the first V2 rocket, which landed in Staveley Road in 1944 and wished to know if there were photographs of the incident.

The year ended with a box of archives appearing in Foster’s Bookshop. They were in a lead-lined box labelled Chiswick Improvement Commissioners and had been salvaged by Mr Foster from a solicitors’ office that was being cleared. Our Editor, James Wisdom, got to hear of them and after going to view them for himself, informed me of their existence. The box contained 6 volumes of the Old Brentford Turnpike Trust records for the period 1757-1826, 5 volumes of Chiswick Parish civil records for the 1860s and a Chiswick Improvement Commissioners’ Ratebook for 1876. There were also about 200 assorted letters, deeds, sale particulars and insurance papers. All this material has been purchased for the local history collection and is now in Chiswick Library’s strong room awaiting cataloguing.

This account represents only a fraction of the year’s work. No mention has been made of the enquiries received concerning the Hounslow and Feltham areas, nor the many talks given to local societies. Schools in all parts of the Borough were visited and talks given to the children. Lectures were given to adult education colleges and to teachers at the Teachers’ Centre in Gunnersbury Park. Exhibitions were mounted to mark special events such as the 350th anniversary of Isleworth Blue School. Local newspapers were indexed each week and a book of Old Photographs of Bedfont, Feltham and Hanworth was written and published.

Already we are two months into a new financial year, and the work continues apace. I wonder what new discoveries we shall make this year?

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