by Elizabeth Wood
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 1 (1980)
It is perhaps difficult for us today, looking at the very small amount of commercial traffic working on the Thames and the Grand Union Canal, to imagine the time when water was Brentford’s main highway. The motor lorries of that time were the Thames barges, flat-bottomed for coping with low tides with lee boards to counteract the wind, and the long, narrow canal boats drawn first by horses and later by diesel engine.
Along the river also worked the watermen’s skiffs, a sort of water taxi service with stopping or ‘plying places’ like Brooks Lane or Bell Alley at Strand on the Green or Swan Steps and Goat Wharf at Brentford. The stateliest boat on the river was the Maria Wood – the State Barge of the Mayor and City of London – kept in the Barge House opposite Strand on the Green.
Along the riverside were sited the industries and crafts of the water. At Strand on the Green there was barge-building, an industry which perhaps reached its peak in the 1860s. There were maltsters and coal merchants – the Jupp family, for instance, owning at most only five barges, or Thomas Layton the coal merchant. From the records of the Watermen’s Company it appears that the average owner had only one or two craft.
Bricks, cement and lime were arriving from Kent, the boats taking household refuse and ashes on their return journey. Exotic fruit came up from the Port of London to Brentford Market. The refuse from the Gas Works had to be carried away, unless it could be turned into locally-used breeze blocks, and coal brought in. At Point Wharf there were osier beds for the production of baskets used in the market gardens. At Montgomery Wharf there were timber yards and a saw mill as well as a depot for hay and straw – the fuel of a thriving horse-based economy.
Trades which needed plentiful water supplies were also to be found on the Brent and the Thames. There was a watermill in the Butts (later the site of the Canal Boatmen’s Mission). Several tanneries, a parchment works and a soapworks were also near the water. There were also numerous breweries, distilleries and malthouses with their grain and fuel being brought in by barge.
Although water transport is now much less important, and all of Brentford’s major 19th century industries have disappeared, there are many relics along the river and canal which can be seen today. The records of the Watermen’s Company and the Mercantile Shipping Registers can provide information about the boats and the families that worked them; so too can the Boat Registration Certificates for the Brentford area which are kept at Chiswick Library.