By Gillian Clegg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal, 16, 2007
Dukes Meadows, enclosed in a broad curve of the Thames, has always been green space. Before the river was embanked it was low-lying water meadows, prone to flooding, with osiers, used for making baskets, grown on the water’s edge. The fields were cultivated by the Jessop family, then John Smith at Grove Farm on behalf of the Duke of Devonshire.
Judging by the description of the journey down to the river from Chiswick Station in The London Argus on 2 May 1902, Dukes Meadows was an attractive spot: ‘. . . it consists at first mainly of orchards, whose glorious masses of snow-white bloom makes a delightful picture in the evening sun-light . . . the [meadowland] is rich, luscious grass land such as might be found in any low-lying rural district, and the presence of a substantial farm house … makes the scene more typical of the country. . .’
But the fact that Dukes Meadows has survived as open space is something of a miracle, given the many proposed incursions onto the land.
First, there was a housing scheme which, had it been implemented, would have more than doubled Chiswick’s population and buried Dukes Meadows under tons of bricks and mortar. On 19 April 1902 The Times newspaper reported that ‘an influential body of capitalists’ had negotiated successfully with the Duke of Devonshire for 330 acres of land for a building plan to be called Burlingwick. The promoter, manager and developer of this scheme was Jonathan Carr, the developer of Bedford Park.
The land in question stretched from Chiswick Station in Grove Park to the Pumping Station in Corney Reach, and extended from the Thames to Burlington Lane. This ambitious scheme planned to turn the meadowland and orchards into homes for up to 40,000 people (more than the population of Chiswick at that time), ‘a respectable-sized city’ according to The London Argus. Burlingwick was to be as self-contained as possible having its own market place, shops, streets, open squares and houses of all rateable values (the Duke of Devonshire had insisted that 12 acres be used for establishing ‘working men’s dwellings’). The river frontage, which was over a mile long, was planned as a riverside boulevard, provided the local authority and/or London County Council would make and maintain a roadway. A trackless tramway was mooted to run through the district and link it with the rest of Chiswick.
In 1906 The Chiswick Times, writing about Burlingwick, stated that ‘things seemed to be going backward instead of forward’ and that the scheme seemed to have ‘flickered out’. Perhaps it was the problem of putting the infrastructure in place, or perhaps the scheme was just too ambitious, but it died a death.
In 1914 the Brentford Gas Company introduced a bill to build a gasworks on 80 acres of Dukes Meadows which the company intended to purchase from the Duke of Devonshire. The people of Chiswick and others were aghast. ‘The scheme offends against the modern axiom of town-planning which insists that all amenities of living for workers should be safeguarded in densely populated areas, the new industries should be established as far afield as possible, and that land ripe for building – such as the Chiswick orchard farm – near the heart of the metropolis should be utilized for parks and garden settlement. It is to be hoped that no more will be heard of so unwelcome and unnecessary a proposal’, fulminated The Times newspaper on 6 February 1914. Chiswick residents formed the Chiswick Civic Association to fight the plan and successfully lobbied the House of Commons and the local council, with the result that the bill was thrown out.
Council purchase and gravel extraction
In 1923 Chiswick Urban District Council purchased 200 plus acres of Dukes Meadows from the Duke of Devonshire for £150,000. The Council designated the land as public and private playing fields and open space and built a riverside promenade, a bandstand and a children’s play area with paddling pools. The Municipal Journal for 19 November 1923 opined that ‘this was probably the largest acquisition in the country in the case of a comparatively small district’.
To recoup some of its expensive purchase, Chiswick Urban District Council entered into an agreement with the Riverside Sand and Ballast Group to allow gravel extraction on the land. The company (later called Thames Grit & Aggregates, then Ham and Hall) was allowed to extract at least five acres every year in exchange for £1,500 an acre. Parts of Dukes Meadows became scarred by deep pits, large cranes and huts for offices and workmen. Excavation took place between 1924 and 1937 but the area was not returned to the council until 1948. The gravel pits were filled in, mainly with rubbish brought from inner London, and the area re-landscaped. Dukes Meadows has been described as one of the earliest and most impressive examples of restoration.
In 1926 Dukes Meadows was under another threat. The London and Home Counties Electricity Authority asked the Council for 45 acres of the land on which to build a large generating station, similar to Battersea Power Station. What the Electricity Company offered in exchange was Chiswick House and 64 acres of its grounds (the Authority had negotiated their purchase from the Duke of Devonshire). The Council had been eager to acquire Chiswick House for some time so was enthusiastic about the offer. But the scheme was opposed by the Chiswick Electrical Works Protest Association, the Barnes Urban District Council – on the grounds that the smoke and unsightliness of a power station would spoil the view of the Chiswick reach of the river – and the rowing fraternity who were concerned that the wharves at Chiswick set up to provide coal for the power station would mean more barges which would impede rowers.
A private parliamentary bill in 1927 failed to pass the Parliamentary Examiners and luckily, by 1928, the Central Electricity Board had modified its plans for electricity supply in south east England, declaring ‘that the requirements for which the Chiswick station was contemplated will be more than met by developments at Fulham . . . and other municipal stations’. So, thankfully, the plan for a Chiswick Power Station was dropped.
Sadly, as the 20th century progressed, Dukes Meadows became neglected, sad and forlorn, crowded only on Boat Race Day as it has always been the perfect place to watch the race’s conclusion. In 1998 concerned Chiswick residents formed the Friends of Dukes Meadows with a view to restoring the public open space. The Friends became a registered charity in 2001 and was renamed the Dukes Meadows Trust in 2006.
The Trust has removed litter, weeds and graffiti, planted trees and hedges, repainted the bandstand, built a new £380,000 children’s water play area, with fountain, sand pit and kiosk, created a community garden and a path between Barnes Bridge and Chiswick Bridge. Rent from stall-holders of Chiswick Farmers’ Market (set up in 2000) and from artists’ studios and a flat, all converted and renovated by the Trust from the farm buildings and an old sports pavilion, provides most of the revenue for improving the public space. For further details about the Trust and its future plans, log on to www.dukesmeadowstrust.org.
Let us hope that this ‘lung for London’, as it was described in 1923 is now being returned to something like its former glory.
Local newspapers, The London Argus, The Municipal Journal, The Times and Dukes Meadows Trust
Gillian Clegg is the Editor of this Journal and author of Brentford Past (2002), Chiswick Past (1995), The Chiswick Book (2004) and Brentford & Chiswick Pubs (2005).