The Duke’s New Road by Peter Hammond

Among the archives of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth is a file documenting the Duke’s plan to create a new route from the High Road to Chiswick House, and how he got his way despite opposition from some local residents.

Map of 1821, with the proposed new road. Devonshire MSS Chatsworth L21/32

On a map of Chiswick Common Field, probably drawn up in conjunction with the Chiswick Enclosure Act of 1814, there is a pencilled addition of a road from Chiswick High Road to Chiswick House. This is the road which was to become Duke’s Avenue. The next time this road appears in the Chatsworth archives is in a group of papers concerning the procedure adopted ‘for diverting a footpath etc’. With these papers is a map, dated 1821, showing the new road, now called a footpath. The Duke certainly needed a better road to get to his country house, since until he built this new one, he and his visitors had to go via Chiswick Lane and through the old village, so it is surprising that none of the Dukes seems to have thought about constructing a more impressive approach road before this.

Plans for the enclosure of the Common Field, across which a new road would be likely to go, may have started the idea but the matter was probably precipitated by the agreement of the Horticultural Society of London, (later the Royal Horticultural Society) to lease 33 acres of the land owned by the Duke in Chiswick at a rent of 300 guineas a year. This land started south of the High Road and was bounded by what were to become Duke’s Avenue, Sutton Court Road and the A4. The Society needed to find a site for their experimental gardens and agreed that Chiswick was a suitable place. The first letter in the file relating to this is dated 24 May 1821, although it seems probable that there were originally earlier letters. The Society had various points which they wanted to clarify in the proposed lease but the most serious of these was that a public footpath went across the land they would lease, and until they had assurances that this was going to be closed they would not consider taking possession of the land. This footpath was described in official documents as from the National School at Turnham Green at one end, across ‘gardens, fields and lands’ owned by the Duke to, at the other end, ‘a certain place known as the Chestnut Tree walk near to the premises occupied by Mr William Cock, Gardener’.

On 27 September Mr Sabine, Secretary to the Society explained that as there was still a footpath going across the land ‘it would be wholly worthless to us’. They obviously did not want the public being able to wander across their land at will on a public footpath. They had been assured on 15 June that measures to stop up the footpath would be taken immediately, and an alternative constructed, but there was obviously no sign of anything happening by September. One other matter in the lease which caused problems was that the Duke had asked for a private entrance to the Society’s gardens. In June the Society said that he could not have one as it was against the Society’s policy to allow anyone but Society staff to have unlimited access to their gardens. However, the Society must have been very keen to lease the gardens because by 5 July they had agreed that the Duke could have his entrance complete with a bell and someone on the Society side to open the gate when the bell was rung.

By 24 November all problems had been sorted out, and Mr Sabine suggested that the rent of the land should not start until Christmas because the new road ‘will be securely turned by then’. This was indeed going to be the case. However, no one in the parish knew anything about the Duke’s undertaking to close their footpath and give them a new one until late September. On 24 of that month John Sich, one of the churchwardens, wrote to Mr Currey, the Duke’s solicitor, and asked if he and a Mr Thompson could meet him to discuss ‘whether any and what alteration is proposed to be made in the footpath leading from Turnham Green and Chiswick’, ie, the footpath described above. Whatever Mr Currey said it resulted in two meetings of the parishioners, in October and November, which apparently agreed that they had no objection to the proposals to close one footpath and open another so that the Duke could improve his estate. However, not everyone was happy with the Duke’s plans because after the second meeting Mr Sich had to write again to Currey to say that a group of parishioners had written to the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor requesting that another meeting be held on the grounds that the meeting called merely to receive a proposal by the Duke had gone further and agreed to the proposal, to the surprise of many of the inhabitants of the parish.

[The] …undersigned, reflecting on the impropriety and impolicy of concurring with such proposals… [requested a new meeting] …specifically for the purpose of taking the intended measure into consideration and of determining upon the expediency of resisting the same in every legal way if it be not approved or making such terms as may be beneficial to the interest of this Parish, rather than prejudicial, which we consider the proposition to be.

This meeting was called for 8 December.

The group of parishioners who had signed this rather inflammatory statement were five in number, Henry and Douglas Thompson, Thomas Lotherington, James Wood and Thomas Neil. Two of these men, Douglas Thompson and Neil, were active members of the Parish meeting, of the Vestry as it was known. Additionally Douglas and Henry Thompson owned the Griffin, later Fullers, Brewery. All of them were therefore in a position where the Duke’s displeasure was of no great consequence to them, they were not his tenants and their livelihood did not depend on him in any way. They did not win their argument though; the establishment, as it might be called, had prepared for the meeting. This was opened by a Mr Humble (a wealthy inhabitant of a house in Chiswick Town), proposing a motion, seconded by Mr Jessop, an active Vestry man, and also a farmer and a considerable tenant of the Duke, that the new footpath ‘about to be made’ was a full and sufficient replacement for the one the Duke proposed to close. This was passed with only five votes against and 85 in favour. Not deterred, an amendment was proposed by Henry Thompson, seconded by Thomas Neil, and was phrased in a similar way to their letter of 3 December but additionally making the point that the alteration to the present footpath would ‘be injurious and detrimental to several persons Parishioners’. One wonders who these several persons were. The Chiswick five ended their motion by proposing that three or five parishioners be appointed to meet with the Duke’s agents to discuss a more equitable exchange for the path to be closed. This was defeated by a similar majority to that passing the first motion. Having disposed of the opposition Charles Whittingham (the printer) then proposed and Mr Jessop seconded:

…that it appears to this vestry that the alterations now carrying on by his Grace the Duke of Devonshire will, when completed be a considerable improvement and a material advantage to this parish, and as the parishioners have at all times expressed their readiness to give every facility to gentlemen desirous of improving their estates this vestry is of opinion that no opposition should be offered to the intended alteration of the church path from Chiswick to Turnham Green.

This sycophantic motion was passed with the Chiswick five being the only dissentients. This result was reported in triumphant terms to Mr Currey (‘we have beaten them out of the field’) by George Ridgeway, the Duke’s agent for Chiswick. It is an interesting question as to whether the Duke (or his agents) had realised that holding Vestry meetings might result in such opposition.

Legally he did not need the assent of the inhabitants of Chiswick but perhaps he and his agents thought it better to ask for their agreement rather than not ask, although because of the delays caused by the disagreement the meetings were overtaken by events. The legal process for stopping up unnecessary roads was laid out in an Act of 1815. The procedure had already been set in motion in a message dated 10 November to John Yeoman and John Gardner who were Petty Constables in the parish. As prescribed the notice was from two JPs of Middlesex and told Yeoman and Gardner to inform the inhabitants of Chiswick that a hearing would consider whether or not to allow the blocking of one footpath and its replacement with another, described as ‘now made’. The hearing was to be held in the Pack Horse and Talbot Inn on 17 November. If the new road was indeed ‘now made’ the anger of the five dissentients can be understood, an anger that would be fuelled by the appearance on the church door of the formal notice to the parish of the hearing at the Pack Horse.

The document in the Chatsworth archives, shown here, is the actual document which was fixed to the door, with the pin holes still visible in each corner. In one margin is a signed affidavit by Yeoman and Gardner that they had fixed the notice on the church door 11 November where it had remained during divine service. It should have been fixed on the door for three weeks running, but cannot have been because there was not enough time before the meeting on 17 November.

Official notice of the meeting to receive the Duke’s proposal. Devonshire MSS Chatsworth, L21/23

The meeting at the Pack Horse and Talbot was duly held, and the two JPs predictably agreed that the new footpath was exactly equivalent to the old one, if not better, and that therefore the old footpath should be stopped up and the land it was on become part of the Duke’s estate. They further accepted that the Duke had agreed to give the land on which the new path had been made at the Duke’s expense, and ordered that the new path should be for the use of the public, for ‘all his Majesty’s liege subjects to pass and repass’ as the award puts it. The new path (actually a road) went from the end of the previous one at Chestnut Tree walk to a place near to the house of Mr Stillwell, carpenter, at Turnham Green. They refer to the new work as ‘two paths’ rather than a new path although so far as can be seen there was only one. The whole process was now nearly at an end with the posting on the church door of the official notice, dated 17 November, that the change to the footpaths had been agreed, this time for three weeks running, on 18, 25 November and 2 December. A notice to the same effect was placed in The Morning Advertiser on three consecutive Thursdays from 22 November.

The order said that the document would be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace for Middlesex until the Quarter Sessions to be held ‘on or about 8 January’ when the order would be made final unless appeals had been made. The Chiswick five seem to have accepted their defeat because there are no further documents in the file. We can therefore assume that from about 8 January Duke’s Avenue became the road to and from Turnham Green, Chiswick and Chiswick House. The cost to the Duke of the exercise described (not including making the road) came to £25.5s.0d. He probably considered it money well spent.

Devonshire Manuscripts, Chatsworth, L21/20 and L21/23, and Vestry minutes and Churchwardens’ Accounts in Chiswick Local Studies Library and St Nicholas Church. The images are reproduced by permission of the Duke of Devonshire & the Chatworth House Trust.

Peter Hammond is the Honorary Treasurer of this Society, and co-author with his wife, Carolyn, of  Chiswick (1994) and Chiswick Then and Now (2003)

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