Flint axes, dating to very early times, found in various parts of Chiswick, suggest that people have been living here since the last Ice Age, and tools and pottery found on Chiswick Eyot imply that the first people to have a settled lifestyle made a home on the island. A later settlement, dating to the 9th-8thc BC, was excavated opposite Gunnersbury Station and over 100 skulls dredged from the Thames opposite Strand-on-the-Green are believed to have been river burials made by Iron Age people (650BC-43AD), maybe as offerings to their Gods.
The Romans were here too: they built two Roman roads through Chiswick which probably converged at Turnham Green and Roman building material and pottery have been found by the river near St Nicholas Church. There is less evidence for the Saxons, although they were undoubtedly in Chiswick (Chiswick is a Saxon word meaning ‘cheese farm’). A Saxon skeleton was found by the river at Corney Reach, and Saxon objects such as spearheads, a sword pommel, scraps of armour and the remains of a shield have been found near the Thames. Perhaps the fact that the finds are of a military nature is hardly surprising since the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that, in 1016, King Edmund of England chased Canute and the invading Danes across the Thames at Brentford.
MEDIEVAL (12th to 15th centuries)
The place we know today as Chiswick was formed from five separate areas. Old Chiswick, which nestled around St Nicholas Church and along Chiswick Mall; Strand-on-the-Green, a fishing village on the water’s edge; Turnham Green, which grew up along the main road to the west of England; Little Sutton, a small hamlet clustered around Sutton Manor, and Stamford Brook which straddled the border with Hammersmith near the ford over the brook (the word Stamford means ‘stone ford’).
Sutton Manor was one of two manors in Chiswick, the other being the Prebendal Manor with its manor house on Chiswick Mall. Both belonged to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral. During the 14th and 15th centuries, though, Sutton Manor was held by the Crown and King Richard II built a house at Sutton in 1396, using timbers from the temporary parliament building in Westminster. It was pulled down in 1415 but another house must have been erected shortly after as King Henry VI issued state papers from Chiswick in 1441 and 1444.
St Nicholas Church is thought to have been on its site by at least 1181. The present tower was added between 1416 and 1435 but the church itself has been rebuilt many times. The church would have been the centre of community life, a place of worship, a theatre for mystery plays, a school and a social club.
The main occupations of Chiswick residents were fishing, transporting people and goods by water, boat building and farming. The barley grown in Chiswick was said to have been ‘exceptionally fine’, which meant that malting and brewing were important activities. Osiers (willows) were cultivated along the riverside and used for making baskets. The Thames was a major highway before there were adequate roads and there would have been a continual stream of traffic – wherries, fishing boats and grander craft. Royalty, in sumptuous velvets and brocades, gliding down the river in magnificent barges to their palaces at Richmond, Sheen and Hampton Court were no doubt a familiar sight to Chiswick people. The ferry beside St Nicholas Church probably did a brisk business with traders and pilgrims.
‘The sweet air and situation of Chiswick’ was now attracting wealthy Londoners and large mansions began to be built – Grove House, which stood where Kinnaird Avenue is today, and was not demolished until 1928, is recorded as early as 1412, although it was rebuilt. It was home to the Barker family for 200 years from 1540. Corney House, on the marshy riverside now Corney Reach, was built sometime before 1542 when it became the home of John Russell, later 1st Earl of Bedford. The Russells entertained Queen Elizabeth I here in 1602. The house (rebuilt) was demolished by the Duke of Devonshire in 1837. The large Jacobean Chiswick House, the property of the 4th Duke of Devonshire from 1753, was built around 1611.
In 1570 the Prebendal manor house on Chiswick Mall was conveyed to the Dean of Westminster who decided to use it as a refuge for pupils of Westminster School ‘in times of sickness and plague’. A new stone building was erected next to the manor house; this became known as College House
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, an important skirmish took place on Turnham Green which was then much larger than it is today. The royalist army, victorious the previous day at the Battle of Brentford, was marching on London in an attempt to wrest it from parliamentarian control. But they were halted at Turnham Green by a large parliamentarian force and fighting broke out. Outnumbered, the royalists retreated and Charles I never came so close to taking the capital again. The two armies at Turnham Green numbered around 36,000 men, making it one of the largest engagements in British history.
It is possible that the headless body of Oliver Cromwell is buried in a vault in St Nicholas Church. Cromwell was just an army captain at the battle of Turnham Green, not becoming England’s Protector until 1653. When Charles II regained the throne, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and hung on the gallows at Tyburn. The head was hacked off and the body supposedly buried in a deep pit below the gallows. However, there were persistent rumours that it was spirited away by his family. No one knows where it was taken but, when the vaults were opened in St Nicholas Church during its rebuilding, the vicar’s son claims that the vault containing the bodies of Cromwell’s two daughters also contained a third, unidentified, coffin. The vaults have now been covered in concrete so we may never learn whether Cromwell lies in Chiswick. Cromwell’s daughter Mary had married the Earl of Fauconberg and they moved to Sutton Court in 1676.
The newly-restored king purchased the Jacobean Chiswick House in 1664 for his son the Duke of Monmouth, and the king’s one time mistress Barbara Villiers ended her days in Walpole House on Chiswick Mall in 1709. Sir Stephen Fox, statesman and one time financial manager to the king purchased the house next door to Chiswick House and in 1682 built himself a splendid mansion, later called Moreton Hall. This was purchased by the Duke of Devonshire in 1812, the mansion demolished and the Chiswick House conservatory and Italian Garden laid out on its site.
Another king, William III, nearly came to a sticky end in Chiswick in 1698. There was a plot to assassinate him in Turnham Green Lane (now Wellesley Road) as he returned from a hunting expedition in Richmond Park. Luckily, someone alerted the authorities and the plot foiled.
Chiswick prospered during the 18th century. Two breweries were established. The brewery which later became the Griffin brewery was founded by Thomas Mawson in 1701; the Sich family were running the Lamb Brewery next door by 1790. The first Kew Bridge was built in 1759. It was made of wood and replaced with a stone bridge in 1789. Many new houses were put up, particularly around Chiswick Mall and at Turnham Green and older properties such as Grove House, Corney House and Walpole House on Chiswick Mall rebuilt, remodelled or refronted.
Chiswick now attracted many noble, artistic and scholarly residents. Essayist and poet Alexander Pope lived with his parents in Mawson Row between 1716 and 1719. He was a great friend of the 3rd Earl of Burlington, the `architect earl’, who built the Palladian villa we now call Chiswick House between 1725-9, and laid out the grounds with his friend William Kent. William Hogarth bought his `little country box;’ in Hogarth Lane (now part of the A4) in 1749, and artist Johann Zoffany rented London Style House in 1764, moving to 65 Strand-on-the-Green in 1783. Eminent scholar, Dr William Rose ran a school for 30 years at Bradmore House, Chiswick Lane. He was a great friend of Dr Samuel Johnson, a frequent visitor, also of Jean Jacques Rousseau who came to live in Chiswick for a brief time to be near Rose. Another friend was Dr Ralph Griffiths who founded the Monthly Review which he edited for 50 years. Griffiths lived at Linden House, Turnham Green (where Linden Gardens is today).
The Earl of Burlington died in 1753 and the Jacobean and Palladian Chiswick houses were inherited by the dukes of Devonshire (Burlington’s daughter had married William Cavendish, later the 4th Duke of Devonshire). When the 5th Duke inherited in 1764, he and his wife, society queen, Georgiana, entertained their Whig friends at Chiswick. Georgiana’s favourite statesman was Charles James Fox, grandson of Sir Stephen Fox. Charles Fox died at Chiswick House while he was Foreign Secretary. The Devonshires demolished the Jacobean Chiswick House and added two wings to the Palladian villa.
By the middle of the 19th century the dukes of Devonshire owned more than half the land in Chiswick parish. The dukes had been steadily acquiring neighbouring estates – Sutton Court, Corney House, Grove House, Moreton Hall – for the last hundred years. In 1822 the Horticultural Society (it didn’t get the Royal charter until 1861) leased 33 acres from the Duke for its experimental gardens (the gardens relocated to Wisley in 1904). Fetes (the forerunners of the Chelsea Flower Show) held in these gardens between 1827 and 1857 were one of the main events of the London season.
The coming of the railways (1849 in Chiswick) and increased opportunities for employment meant that Chiswick’s population grew dramatically during the century. It doubled between 1801 and 1861 from around 3,250 thousand to 6,500. By 1891 there were 21,963 people living in Chiswick. More houses were needed, more schools and more churches. The first sizeable housing development designed to provide homes for the burgeoning working population was Chiswick New Town (between what is now the A4 and Fraser Street), started in 1821. Other developments followed, notably the Grove Park estate and the Glebe estate both begun in 1871, and Bedford Park, the prototype garden suburb, in 1875. More schools were set up and in 1843 Christ Church on Turnham Green was consecrated, followed by other churches, while St Nicholas, previously the only place of worship, was rebuilt 1882-4.
Chiswick was becoming more organised too. The High Road was lit by gas from 1841 and bodies such as the Chiswick Improvement Commissioners, then the Chiswick Local Board, replaced by the Chiswick Urban District Council in 1894 took over responsibilities from the parish council. There was a police station from 1865, a public library in 1890, a purpose-built fire station (1891), sewage works (1879) and a local paper from 1895.
Chiswick was also attracting industry: Frederick Walton invented the floor covering linoleum in British Grove in 1861; Thornycroft and Co began building torpedo boats and other large craft by the river in 1864, Arthur Sanderson & Son established a wallpaper factory in Barley Mow Passage in 1879 on the site of what had been since 1854 a militia barracks for the 3rd Middlesex & Westminster Light Infantry.
Leisure activities weren’t forgotten either. There were boathouses and clubs for cricket, tennis, cycling and a short-lived golf course. The Vestry Hall (now Chiswick Town Hall), built in 1876, was the centre of social life with balls, concerts, lectures and political meetings; Chiswick Hall (where Old Cinema Antiques is today) was also licensed for music and dancing in 1888. The pubs did good business too – there were 39 in Chiswick by 1888.
In the early years of the century, horse-drawn transport was superseded by electric and motor transport. London’s first electric tram service was actually inaugurated in Chiswick in 1901 from London United Tramways massive generating station, the Power House behind Chiswick High Road. Motor buses reached Chiswick in 1911 and Kew Bridge was replaced in 1903. The famous Cherry Blossom boot polish was launched by the Chiswick Soap Company in 1906 and became an immediate success. Chiswick got its first hospital in 1911, a new secondary school (1916), more houses and more churches. Chiswick’s beloved live theatre, the Chiswick Empire opened in 1912 and there were three cinemas. Hogarth House opened as a museum in 1904.
The fabric of Chiswick was relatively unscathed during World War I, although three bombs fell on Chiswick High Road, injuring five people, damaging surrounding property and smashing gas and water mains. After the War theCouncil put up a memorial on Turnham Green and built the War Memorial Homes off Burlington Lane for disabled ex-service men. A major employer, the London General Omnibus Company, set up its works opposite Gunnersbury Station in 1921 and a new small theatre, the Q Theatre started in 1924. In 1927 Chiswick was merged with Brentford to form the Brentford and Chiswick Urban District Council.
The Duke of Devonshire was now selling off his Chiswick land. In 1923 Chiswick Urban District Council acquired 200 plus acres of Dukes Meadows acres which the Council designated for public and private playing fields and open space. In 1929 the Duke sold the Chiswick House estate to the Middlesex County Council; it was leased to Brentford and Chiswick Urban District Council which opened the grounds to the public. The house itself was put in the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1948. It carried out a ten year restoration programme, including the demolition of the 18th –century wings. The house was opened to the public in 1958.
New roads were built: the Great West Road now part of the western end of the A4 from Chiswick to Bedfont was opened in 1925; the Great Chertsey Road (now A316) and Chiswick Bridge to carry it over the Thames in 1933.
Then came World War II. Air raid shelters were opened around the area, the children were evacuated and bombs fell on Chiswick almost every night during the Blitz in the autumn of 1940. There was considerable damage to property,including Hogarth House, and around 52 fatalities with many more people injured. In November 1944 the Germans launched their deadly V2 rockets. The first exploded, totally without warning in Staveley Road, leaving a crater 20 ft wide. Three people died and 24 were injured. Eleven houses had to be demolished and many more were damaged.
After the war, Chiswick was virtually sliced in half by the building of the Cromwell Road extension (now the A4) and Hogarth Roundabout between 1955-6. The Chiswick Flyover went up in 1959 and the A4 was joined to the M4 in 1964. The `temporary’ Hogarth Flyover was built in 1969. In the latter half of the century, the large industries departed, the Chiswick Empire was closed (1958), so was Chiswick’sonly department store, Goodbans in 1974. Office buildings, which began to be built in the 1960s, now dominate the western end of Chiswick High Road which is today known for its many restaurants. Chiswick, with its easy access to Heathrow and to central London, is now one of London’s most desirable suburbs. This is reflected in the high house prices and the fact that many people who are well known today choose to live here.