Richard George Tomlinson was born in the 1780s, probably in Burton-on-Trent, and came to the Nine Elms area of London by coal barge in about 1804. Burton and London were linked by canal via Brentford; at Nine Elms the Gas Light and Coke Company had a depot with wharves, though it was still pretty rural at this time. Richard became apprenticed to a lighterman. He married a Surrey girl named Susanna and by the end of his apprenticeship she had borne him two sons. The oldest was William John, who was to become the Chiswick builder. There were thirteen children altogether, a number of whom were to die in infancy like the first daughter, named Susanna after her mother, who died aged three in 1816 and was buried at St. Mary’s Parish Church in Battersea.
Richard George Tomlinson died at the age of 70 in September 1859 of asthma and old age. He was living in poor lodgings at Westminster at the time. His wife, Susanna, is recorded two years later in the Census as a housekeeper living with her youngest daughter, Emma, a milliner, in King Charles Street, Westminster. Susanna died in 1870 and was by then living at Oak Cottage in Hanwell, one of a row of cottages built for canal workers in the 1860s, close to the terminus of the Grand Union. Several of her children worked on the canal.
William John Tomlinson, Richard and Susanna’s first child, was born in February 1810. He was educated at the Bluecoat School in Westminster which had been established in the 17th century for poor boys. In March 1827 he was apprenticed to his father, gaining the freedom of the river as a waterman in April 1834. He then took on his younger brother, Alfred, as his apprentice and their father took on another of his sons. The family worked from Whitehall Stairs on the Thames at Westminster.
In August 1834 William John won the annual race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge. This had been established in 1715 by an Irish comedian of that name; it was open to apprentices who had completed their term in the preceding year, three from above London Bridge and three from below. The race was rowed from London Bridge to Chelsea. During the 1834 race William John’s father followed by boat and was involved in a collision which propelled him into the water. William John managed to win the race in spite of this distraction which he found particularly amusing. (Later generations of Tomlinson children used the orange livery which was part of his prize for dressing up!)
At this date watermen were beginning to lose trade to the new and larger steam boats. Some watermen began to work on unloading goods from the steam boats but these vessels could travel further upstream, depriving the watermen of this role. In addition a new London Bridge was constructed which was said to have ruined the watermen. By 1832 the Tomlinson family was involved in a new business. In that year Tomlinson and a partner were recorded at the Adelphi as boat-builders.
About 1840 William John married Elizabeth (“Betsey”) Ernest who is said to have run a greengrocer’s shop near St. James’s Park. In 1851 the family appears in the Census at Hanover Cottage, Brook Green, Hammersmith with two children and a servant. William John was beginning to put together a fortune, building houses rather than boats and speculating in property. As London’s suburbs were expanding rapidly William John could hardly fail as a house-builder. In 1852 he was building in King Street, Hammersmith. As he prospered he began to build on his own land; his first building leases were on land opposite Gunnersbury Station, including the John Bull public house. Tomlinson’s uncle married a daughter of Frederick Austin who sold the pub to Barclay Perkins.
Tomlinson was involved in developing Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Clarence and Thornyhedge Roads and Silver Crescent. He moved into his own house in the High Road in 1870. Soon he was being referred to as “Esquire” in deeds. Since he was becoming a prominent local figure it was natural that he should become one of the Chiswick Improvement Commissioners.
In the 1870s he was recorded as owning 23 acres of land and in 1887 he had 12 acres in Thornyhedge Road and Silver Crescent, though by that date he was too old to build on it himself. He had property in Prospect Place and Green Dragon Road, Brentford, in High Street, Acton, in Myrtle Terrace, High Road, Grosvenor Road, Heathfield Gardens, Chiswick and in Spring Grove, Kew. When William John died in 1893 heavy death duties were due on his extensive freehold properties.