Thameside Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989

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Fred John Westcott was born in the city of Exeter in 1866, the son of working class people. Whilst still almost a child he was sent to work for a plumber, but his heart was not in it; he dreamt all day long of becoming an entertainer. Every penny he earned and every spare moment he could squeeze was spent in training to become an acrobat. Eventually he considered he was proficient enough and trudged to London where he managed to secure some bookings in the music halls. In between engagements, he and other performers took to busking on the London streets, and on sunny week-ends they brought their acts — singing, playing and acrobatics — down to Molesey. This was the part that Fred liked most; here was life, colour and gaiety. Here, too, he looked across the water and saw the pampered upper crust luxuriating on their magnificent houseboats, and made a devout pledge: 'One day I too will be rich, and one of the first things I'll do will be to have a houseboat on Tagg's Island'.

His favourite spot was Molesey Lock for, when the boats were locked in the basin, he had a captive audience. He performed his little act and then thrust a net down to all the vessels — large and small, punts and launches alike — and in went the money.

Westcott had an innate business sense and took every opportunity to fulfil his ambition. He worked ceaselessly, he saved, he scraped; at this time in his life he became notably parsimonious (an attitude which was to change dramatically). Perhaps the turning point came when a troupe known as The Three Karnos, who should have been performing at the same theatre, failed to turn up. The energetic Fred, who had watched the act many times and espied the chance of making a little extra cash, persuaded two of his colleagues to join with him, dress up, and do the act in their stead, as well as their own. They did it with so much success that they were kept on, and eventually Fred adopted the act as his own — Fred Westcott became Fred Karno — a name which was to ring around the world as synonymous with knockabout comedy, fun, and laughter.

Karno was to make his name and fortune, however, not by his own stage performance but by the antics of others. He started his own troupe and began putting on his own shows. Here his natural astuteness really began to show. His perception of the potential talent of other artists was uncanny. The shows he put on became better and better, and moved higher and higher. His 'fun factory', as it was known, produced such well-known spectacles as 'Mumming Birds', 'Jail Birds', 'Fred Karno's Army', and many others, and put many a comedian on the road to stardom. The list of recruits who owed their later success to starting out under the Karno banner is extensive, starting off with the daddy of them all — the incomparable Charlie Chaplin — but including such other greats as: Stan Laurel, Will Hay, Fred Kitchin, Billy Bennett, Max Miller, Sid Walker, Sandy Powell, Bobby Howes, Gene Gerrard, Robb Wilton, Syd Chaplin, Barry Lupino, Flanagan and Allen, Nervo and Knox, Naughton and Gold, and so many others. It seems as if Karno's judgment on a completely unknown artist's capabilities was never wrong, and he would travel miles to witness the performance of some struggling entertainer with the makings of a topliner, hut would never engage anybody whom he was not convinced could make the grade. Much of the fortune he consequentially made was undoubtedly due to his practice of employing unknown talent at cheap rates and training them himself, rather than paying tip-top wages to some well-known and well-established name. To all the people who worked for him, from the stars down to stage hands and carpenters he was known simply as 'The Guvnor'.

True to the vow he had made whilst an unknown towpath busker, one of the first things he did when money began to flow was to acquire a houseboat on Tagg's Island. This was in 1903 and the houseboat was called Highland Lassie. From then on Fred spent as much time as he could on his new purchase. He had always been regarded as something of a womaniser, and the houseboat developed into an ideally sequestered love-nest — an early version of what became known as the casting couch. Even his son, Fred Karno junior, was 'quite awed by the procession of girls — by no means all of them actresses — who moved through my father's cabin next door to me', and he had to be bribed to keep the knowledge of this veritable floating harem secret, not only from his mother, but also from his father's 'official' mistress.

The houseboat became, not only a free and easy river retreat, wherein he could forget the cares of his 'fun factory', but also a place where he could throw parties to impress his theatrical friends and assist his rise up the social ladder. For the working lad who had started out as a fairground acrobat and towpath busker was now mixing with the swells — and loving every minute of it. Fred was swayed by the society in which he now found himself; they accepted him because he was probably far richer than most of them would ever be, and because this caterer of entertainment for the masses was one of the most popular and well-known men in Britain.

The fortune he had scraped and saved he was now ready to spend — and spend lavishly. The skinflint now became the spendthrift. The Highland Lassie, although grand and comfortable in its way, was not grand enough. He had to have something far more magnificent. He had to be the owner of the biggest and most luxurious houseboat on the river. Like all his theatrical ventures it had to he the most spectacular production ever.

Once fixed on the idea he set to work with his usual enthusiasm and earnestness. The layout he devised himself, with the help and advice of anybody he could find, including Mr Henry Hewitt, who had built himself what was then thought of as the finest houseboat on the Thames — Satsuma — which was moored at Platts Ait just up the river. After spending much time discussing the plans, he had his chief stage carpenter make a wooden scale model, perfect in every detail, to see what in would look like and to reassure himself for he was going to expend a great deal of money. The hull was laid down at Brentford and, after launching, it was towed up to Tagg's Island, ready to receive the superstructure and living quarters. Everything was absolutely de luxe, the most expensive, the most lavish. The spacious saloon and the cabins were all panelled in solid mahogany, the floors were thickly carpeted, the window frames were bronze, and the bathroom was walled and fitted with washbasins, all in finest marble. Electric light, water, and the telephone were installed and the rich furnishings were supplied by Maples of Tottenham Court Road. The sun deck, ninety feet long by eighteen feet wide, was surmounted by an elaborate wrought-iron framework, over which could he drawn a canvas awning, and on which hundreds of electric fairy lamps were suspended to flood it with light for evening dances, for these a full orchestra was often engaged. It was the nonpareil of houseboats, even larger and more luxurious than Satsuma; all others paled to mere floating camps beside it. This vast wonder, which was christened Astoria, cost a sum variously estimated up to £20,000, an enormous amount in 1913.

When it was all finished, Fred had to have an opening night dinner, a sort of grand première; over a hundred guests were present. Joe Lyons was hired to do the catering, at a cost of nearly two pounds a head, not including drinks. After dinner there was music and dancing on the upper deck, for those who received no invitation there was always the river and the towpath from which to gape at those who had. Around the animated houseboat it was said so many little boats were packed that it was possible to step from one to the other from the Molesey bank right across to Hampton.

Karno's houseboat was moored close to another, called Cosy Corner, occupied by Henry A. Lytton, a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan opera singer, and a close friendship developed between the two.

With England's most successful showman and England's most popular Savoyard both in residence, it was not long before their neighbours and other Thames devotees began pestering them to use their influence to bolster up the attractions of the island. Not that Fred required much pressing on that score. He fairly lapped up the publicity that serving on committees and organising charity shows brought. During the summer of 1907, for instance, the two organised a great water carnival, under the magnificent title 'The Grand Fete des Theatres'.

These divertissements brought a number of people to the island and custom to the hotel, but were only held occasionally. At other times the paucity of patrons was obvious. It became increasingly evident that what was required was a new and vigorous management and a generous transfusion of fresh capital. Where, however, were these desiderata to be found? Karno, as everyone now knew, possessed organising ability, business acumen contacts in the world of entertainment, an enthusiastic nature and, most important of all, a considerable fortune to boot, which he was now eager to spend. Who better to take over the place? He was approached and, after much discussion and persuasion, he agreed to do so. The houseboat owners feared that, if the hotel failed, the island would be sold for building development and their mooring leases would not be renewed. An agreement was drawn up and Karno took over the island for a term of forty-two years from Christmas 1912.


Astoria takes shape

Astoria takes shape on Tagg's island in 1911.


Astoria at Tagg's Island.

Mr and Mrs Fred Karno

Mr and Mrs Fred Karno take their ease aboard Astoria on 28 June 1913.

ISBN 0 86023 414 2

Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.

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A printed copy is available from:

  • Molesey Residents Association: Ernest Mallett, 20 Walton Road, East Molesey, Tel 020-8979-6446
  • Bookshop: 68, Walton Road, East Molesey 020-8224-3232
  • Molesey Library, The Forum, Walton Road, West Molesey 020-8979-6348
  • Houben's Bookshop: 2a Church Court, Richmond 020-8940-1055
  • Alternatively you may be able to get second hand copy on amazon.

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