The History of the Thames at Richmond: Part 2
Updated: May 20
In Part 1 of our History of the Thames at Richmond articles we explored the history of the river from Richmond Bridge down to Richmond Lock. In this article, Nigel and Sophy guide you upstream to Teddington Lock.
We pick up the story at the flats that are built on the site of Richmond Ice Rink, sadly demolished in 1992. The ice rink was originally a roller skating rink, but in 1915 was requisitioned for the war effort and converted into an explosive factory by Charles Pelabon, who had escaped from occupied Belgium in 1914. He employed 2,000 Belgians, and in total around 6,000 Belgians lived in the area. Richmond Road, which runs from Richmond Bridge became known as The Belgian Village, with Belgian shops, cafes and restaurants running all along it. In 1925 Pelabon sold the site to Charles Langdon who converted it into Richmond Ice Rink, and and built tennis courts, a sports hall and a bowling green on the land around it – the country’s first leisure centre. (Langdon also ran the Hammersmith Ice Rink, housed in the Hammersmith Palais).
The redbrick buildings on our left house Richmond Canoe Club. Originally part of Richard Messum’s boat building empire, over 1200 boats were stored in the boathouses along this stretch of river during the peak of the rowing boat hire boom in the 1920s.
Shortly after that we come to Buccleuch Gardens, the expanse of grass so popular with sunbathers and picnickers in summer. This is the only part of the river on this stretch where the towpath does not follow the river bank. When the City of London Corporation started to extend the towpath from Richmond to Ham in 1779, the Duke of Montagu, who owned this piece of land, pulled rank, and no towpath was built here. The bargemen had to float their barges upstream on the incoming flood tide, and run around the garden on the road to catch the tow rope on the other side by Petersham Meadows.
The London Plane trees in Buccleuch Gardens date from 1680, some of the oldest in the country. They can grow to 40m tall.
The small indent at the downstream end of Petersham Meadows, known as Chitty’s Hole, was home to Chitty’s boatbuilders, a famous boatbuilding firm from the 1850s to 1960. They were responsible for building many of the thousands of rowing boats that were available for hire along this stretch of the river, and also ran a ferry service from here.
Petersham Meadows, which is protected from development by Act of Parliament, is part of Petersham, which appears in the Domesday Book as Patricesham in 1086. Its church dates back to the 13th Century, when Petersham was owned by Chertsey Abbey. Famous residents of Petersham include Van Gogh and Richard E. Grant. The meadow was part of the Ham House estate from the 17th Century.
The draw dock at the bottom of River Lane here was where agricultural produce destined by barge for the City was loaded – it is now a popular spot for wild swimming.
We are now paddling past Glover’s Island, originally named Petersham Ait and situated in the stretch of the river between Petersham and Twickenham known as Horse Reach. A Reach is a straight, level and uninterrupted stretch of water.
In 1872 the island was bought by a waterman named Joseph Glover for £70 (equivalent to £6,000 today). He built a boat house and workshop on it, and proposed building an electricity station on it, as well as erecting advertising hoardings advertising Pears Soap. This would have ruined the view from Richmond Hill and caused a massive outcry. Richmond Council refused to buy it from Glover, and in the end Max Waechter, a rich businessman who lived on the Hill, bought it in 1900 and then gifted it to the council on the condition it was never developed.
At one point the level of the island was raised to its existing height using rubble removed from London tube tunnels.
Just upstream of Glover’s Island is Ian’s Raft, a ramshackle collection of boats, oil drums and rafts, lived in for the last 40 years by a (apparently wealthy) recluse, Ian McCullogh – a former lawyer. Ian keeps himself to himself, feeds the ducks and lives there year round, completely off-grid with no electricity or running water. He has won countless battles with the Council and Port of London Authority to remove him.
Marble Hill Park on your right was originally farmland. The house was built for Henrietta Howard, the mistress of King George the 2nd between 1724 and 1729. She died in 1767 leaving the house to her nephew, the politician John Hobart.
In 1986 the house became the property of English Heritage.
The Palladian design of the Marble Hill House was at the cutting edge of 18th century fashion and was inspired by the architecture of ancient Rome. It was designed to look the same from both back and front, so visitors arriving either by road or by river had exactly the same spectacle when they approached it.
Hammerton’s Ferry was established in 1908, carrying passengers from Twickenham across to Ham House. There have been ferries along this stretch of the river for hundreds of years, with the first documented in 1652. It was known as the Dysart or Twickenham Ferry. It was mentioned in Dicken’s Little Dorrit, written in 1857 – and ran up until the 1960s.
Walter Hammerton set up in competition with the Dysart ferry, and was taken to court by the Earl of Dysart over the right to operate. The case ended up in the House of Lords in 1915, with a victory for Hammerton. Francis Spencer, who ran the Hammerton’s Ferry since 2003 was a well known local character, who died at the end of 2020. The business is now run by his son Andrew.
Looking back towards Richmond, we get a fabulous view of Richmond Hill. On the top of of the hill you can see the Royal Star and Garter Home, which stands next to the entrance to Richmond Park. Originally a small inn built in 1738, it was rebuilt in 1822 and named The Star & Garter Hotel, a popular venue in the 1850’s amongst the famous, including Dickens, Tennyson and Thackeray, and visited by both Napoleon and Queen Victoria.
In 1924 it became the Royal Star & Garter Home, a military hospital for injured soldiers returning from WW1, which continued to look after disabled sailors, soldiers and airmen until 2014 when it was developed into expensive residential apartments, costing up to £7.5m.
The “view” from Richmond Hill was protected by Parliament in 1902– the first time this had been done. This prevented any development of Petersham Meadows. The view is a popular spot for locals and tourists, and was immortalised in paintings by Joshua Reynolds, who lived on the hill, and J M W Turner, who lived in St Margaret’s.
Further to the left of the Star & Garter home, you can see Wick House, built for the painter Joshua Reynolds. It later became a home for nursing staff from the Star & Garter home.
Adjoining Wick House is The Wick, formerly owned by the actor John Mills, and now residence to Pete Townshend from The Who, on the site of a former pub, The Bull’s Head. And a little further along, the large yellow brick Downe House is owned by Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones. He lived there with Jerry Hall, and when they split up, he moved into the next door house. We don’t know whether Mick and Pete used to meet for a drink in the Roebuck, the lovely pub in between their two houses.
Directly below Wick House the large Gothic looking building is the Petersham Hotel, built in 1865.
On your left you can glimpse Ham House, built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, a fearless sea Captain and jouster – and Knight Marshall to the Royal Court. William Murray, a close friend of King Charles I moved into the house in 1626. Has was made Earl of Dysart in 1643. The house was expanded in 1670 and is probably the preeminent example of Stuart architecture in the country.
It now belongs to the National Trust, with the gardens restored to their 17th Century layout.
It’s a popular period location for TV and film companies and has starred in Downton Abbey, Rebecca, Sense and Sensibility, The Young Victoria and Taboo amongst others.
As we approach Eel Pie Island, we pass the beautiful little White Swan pub on the Twickenham Bank, which was built in the 17th Century.
Eel Pie Island was originally named Parish Ait and Twickenham Ait, and was home to a large monastery. Eel Pie House was built on the island in the 16th Century and became famous for its eel pies. Apparently, King Henry VIII frequented the island for the pies and to visit his mistress.
The Eel Pie Island Hotel was built in 1830 and was a popular stopping point for steamer excursions and in the 1920’s and 30’s it became a popular venue for ballroom dancing.
In 1952 an antique dealer and ice skater named Michael Snapper bought the hotel with the intention of turning it into an ice rink and casino but instead it became a famous music venue.
David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and The Who all played at the venue. It burnt down in 1971 in a mysterious fire.
During the 60’s the island became a hippy commune attracting artists, poets and the famous inventor Trevor Baylis. Eel Pie Island has nature reserves at both ends, and is now home to boatyard businesses and artists, with 150 residents living on the island. The bridge connecting Twickenham riverside to the island was built in 1957.
As we paddle up past Eel Pie Island on your right you can see the famous Naked Ladies statues. Originally Italian, they were brought here in 1909 by Sir Ratan Tata when he owned York House, which you can just see behind the statues (Queen Anne was born there). Ratan Tata’s father founded the great Indian industrial empire, Tata industries, which now owns Jaguar and Land Rover, as well as Tetley Tea, amongst many other things.
A little further up, before the bridge, you can see Twickenham Rowing Club, based on Eel Pie Island since it was established in 1861. It’s the third oldest rowing club on the Thames. It’s first boathouse was built from timber as a floating building and cost £295. It sank a number of times before being raised to ground level where it has remained ever since.
Leaving the island behind us we pass flats and come to Radnor House School, site of the famous Pope’s Grotto, and Radnor Gardens
Alexander Pope, one of the greatest English poets and satirists of the 18th Century, moved to Twickenham in 1719, as, being a Catholic he was disbarred from owning property within 12 miles of London. Here he created his famous villa, grotto and gardens.
Pope suffered with Potts Disease (tuberculosis of the spine) and grew to just 4 ft 6’. The
grotto still exists beneath Radnor House school and is occasionally open to the public – once a month and during the Twickenham Festival in June.
Upstream from Eel Pie island and Radnor Gardens you soon come to Swan Island – with a boat yard and a small collection of house boats and dwellings – home to about 40 people. You can paddle all the way round the island, giving you a fascinating insight into life living on the river.
About 200m before we reach Teddington Lock, you can see an obelisk on your left (Surrey) side. This marks the limit of legal powers between the Port of London Authority (who police the river from here to the North Sea) and the Environment Agency, who are responsible for the river upstream of here. For practical purposes the PLA maintain responsibility up to Teddington Lock.
Arriving at Teddington Lock (hopefully for a refreshing drink at the Anglers or Tide End Cottage) we reach the end of our paddle through history.
Teddington Weir was originally built around 1345 and marks the upper end of the tidal Thames. Before the weir was built the tide affected the river as far upriver as Walton and Staines. The original weir was replaced in 1810 and is now the largest on the Thames with 20 gates. Other weirs have more gates but are far smaller.
At peak flow 12 billion gallons (54 billion litres) of water moves through the weir.
Teddington flooded in 1894 and continues to flood every 50 years, the last time in 2000.
Teddington Lock is actually 3 locks built in 1810 – one for small boats and two for large ones. You can carry a paddleboard or kayak over the small skiff steps slightly upstream of the main lock structures just before the foot bridge and continue your journey to Kingston, Hampton Court and beyond.
The RNLI have a base near Teddington Lock (at The Wharf), one of three RNLI stations on the Thames – the other two are at Chiswick and Waterloo Bridge.
That completes our paddle through this historic section of the Arcadian Thames. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it, and invite you to join our River History paddleboard and kayak trips that we will be launching in Spring 2021, so you can experience the beauty and history of the river first hand.
Nigel Muir and Sophy Aykroyd, with acknowledgements to David McDowall’s excellent Walker’s Guide to the Thames: Richmond to Putney Bridge and Hampton to Richmond Bridge