By Diana Willment, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18, 2009
The peripatetic Brentford Monument was 100 years old on 12 May 2009. Currently sited near Brentford County Court, it is made of Peterhead granite from Scotland, used in the construction of Brentford Bridge in the 1820s. It was re-used as a monument and erected on Ferry Point in 1909. Since then it has been moved twice.
Early history of the Monument
The Monument was the brainchild of Montagu Sharpe, later Sir Montagu, Brentford antiquarian, magistrate and Chairman of the Middlesex County Council. He was the moving force behind its construction and installation.
Sharpe was a respected authority on the early history of Middlesex with a particular interest in the Roman period; his researches into Caesar’s movements, and his investigation and recording of defensive stakes in the river bed at Brentford, led him to believe that Brentford was the site of Caesar’s fording of the Thames. This proposition was naturally well-received in Brentford. He expounded his theories in several books, and in articles for archaeological journals, and conceived the idea of the Monument to give his ideas a more tangible form.
An article in The Times of 10 March 1909 records that the granite to be used for the Monument was ‘formerly part of the old bridge over the Brent’. A major reconstruction of the bridge took place from 1824 to 1827, when it was rebuilt in pale pink Peterhead granite, slightly sparkling, slightly translucent. A tinted drawing of Brentford Bridge pasted into a copy of Thomas Faulkner’s book The History and Antiquities of Brentford, Ealing and Chiswick published in 1845, shows the solid granite cylinders supporting a lamp at each end of the upstream parapet of the bridge, there being two more on the other side. The circular bases on the downstream side are still in place today. The Bridge was next modified and widened in 1900, when the granite parapets and cylindrical lamp supports were replaced with iron.
Many writers have stated that the Bridge was widened in 1909, but thanks to some dogged detective work by Janet McNamara and Carolyn Hammond, we now know that the widening took place in 1899 – 1900, when the tramway from Kew Bridge to Hounslow was under construction.
The granite removed from the bridge in 1900 was stored by Brentford Urban District Council, and two of the great granite cylinders that had supported the lamps were used to make the Monument, placed one on top of the other. It is likely that this re-use of the cylinders was Sharpe’s own idea, and as Chairman of Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for maintaining the bridge, he was uniquely placed to get such a plan implemented.
Sharpe secured financial support for the Monument from Brentford Urban District Council, and also from private subscribers: the list included the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Jersey, Lord Rothschild, Mr Alfred de Rothschild, Mr Leopold de Rothschild, antiquarian Thomas Layton and many other worthies including Sharpe himself.
The unveiling of the Monument
The Monument was unveiled by His Grace the Duke of Northumberland at Ferry Point on Wednesday 12 May 1909. According to the official account of the unveiling compiled by Evan Phillips, Chairman of Brentford Urban District Council, there were present Mr Montagu Sharpe, and many prominent citizens and people of Brentford. Nearly 500 ladies and gentlemen were invited to the ceremony by the Council, and a ‘large concourse of townspeople’ came also; it was an important social occasion.
After the unveiling Montagu Sharpe addressed the throng on his researches into the movements of Julius Caesar, and then he and the Duke of Northumberland were presented with gifts made from the ancient stakes removed from the river bank.
The Monument was carefully sited on a substantial granite plinth commanding the river, marking the site of the ferry and the ancient ford. The inscriptions recorded four important events in the town’s history. The side recording Julius Caesar’s Thames crossing and defeat of Cassivellaunus faced the river. The record of Offa, King of Mercia, holding a Council of the Church in AD 780/1 was facing towards Kew Bridge, that of Edmund Ironside defeating Cnut (Canute) and the Danes in AD 1016 faced towards Brentford, and the commemoration of the Battle of Brentford in 1642 between the forces of King Charles I and Parliament looked towards Syon Park. These events were all recorded on the upper part of the Monument. The lower part referred to Montagu Sharpe’s researches into Caesar’s move-ments, and gave a full list of the members of the Brentford Urban District Council responsible for the erection of the Monument.
Neglect and rescue
In the 1930s Ferry Wharf was used to land and store coal for the Gas Light and Coke Company (GL&CC) at Brentford gasworks, and sometimes coal encroached on the base of the Monument. In 1938 Sir Montagu reported to the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society (LAMAS) that the Brentford Monument was being disfigured by its proximity to coal stacks, and obscured from view by a wall. The local newspaper described it as faded and blackened by coal. In September 1938 it was agreed by Brentford and Chiswick Urban District Council that the Monument should be moved to The Butts in Brentford. This news was greeted with satisfaction at LAMAS, but aroused local opposition in Brentford, and Middlesex County Council then considered acquiring land at Ferry Point for a small public open space so that the Monument could be retained in its original location. This did not make any progress because of the outbreak of war in 1939.
Eventually the local Council decided that Sir Montagu’s Monument was such a hindrance to wharf-side activities that action must be taken. In 1947 John Skinner, Town Clerk for Brentford and Chiswick, wrote to the Chief Regional Fire Officer. He requested that the Monument be moved from Ferry Point to the north western corner of the nearby Brentford Fire Station premises, fronting the High Street. Initially this was agreed, but then came a reorganisation of the Fire Service and the site was not, after all, made available,
Finally the Monument was rescued by a new neighbour, Varley Pumps and Engineering Ltd (later known as Peerless Pumps) who had moved into Ferry Lane in 1953. They provided the site by making an alcove in their boundary wall, and paid for the removal of the Monument. In April 1955 the Monument was moved from the Point, and relocated to a tiny space at the bottom of Ferry Lane, well away from the wharf, GL&CC premises and everything else. No-one seemed concerned that much of the plinth had disappeared, and that although the top of the Monument had maintained its original orientation, the lower part had turned clockwise through 90 degrees. The reason for the rotation of the lower cylinder may have been that this brought the inscription ‘AD 1909: To commemorate these historical events..’ to the Ferry Lane/Kew Bridge side, the most convenient side for reading it in these cramped quarters. There was little room to walk round and read the inscription recording Montagu Sharpe’s researches, now at the back under the Civil War, instead of with Julius Caesar where it belonged. Was the decision to realign the parts of the Monument taken by Varleys or the Council? It was surely no accident.
By the 1980s the Monument was disappearing again, this time under vegetation, graffiti, litter and worse; few knew of its existence in this deserted and neglected spot. But the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Brentford in 1642 was approaching, and the campaign to move the Monument to a more salubrious spot coincided with the desire to commemorate one of the most significant events in Brentford’s history. Funds were found to renovate the Monument and move it to a more prominent site on the High Street, outside the County Court building. On 12 November 1992 Cllr Mick Hunt, Chair of the Leisure Services Committee, and Cllr Mike Carman unveiled the monument, on its new site, in the presence of members of the Sealed Knot Society representing the forces of the King and of Parliament. This was 350 years to the day when the Royalist forces, in an attempt to take London, had stormed and sacked the town. A plaque set into the cobbled area round the base of the Monument marks the occasion of the unveiling. The Brentford ‘stump’ now looks even less imposing. More of the plinth is missing, and unfortunately the opportunity to correct the misalignment of the two halves was not taken. But Ferry Point is no longer used for coal. The Monument is of expensive, quality granite. It could be restored and returned to some dignity at Ferry Point with the plinths replaced. There is even a precedent for a lamp to be fixed to the top, after all it was used to support lamps on Brentford Bridge for over 80 years in the 19th century, and could do so again.
Based on the author’s research for her book Sir Montagu Sharpe: forgotten man of Middlesex, 2007
Diana Willment has lived at Brentford Dock for 30 years. She has been researching aspects of Brentford’s history for much of that time and has produced a number of items on the subject. Her interest was sparked off by coming across the neglected Brentford Monument in Ferry Lane in 1980.