Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
As we continue along the towpath, we notice on our left hand side, immediately after Molesey Boat Club, a piece of open space, which is partly laid out as a children's playground. This land was given to the district by Mr W.E.A. Hurlock, of AC Cars, in September 1953, to preserve the amenity of the riverside area.
The road which separates this land from the cricket ground was originally laid down across open fields in 1874 by Tom Tagg, to provide access to the then newly opened Island Hotel. Today it remains privately owned, although the Borough, as owners of Mr Hurlock's gift, have a corporate private right of way over it. It is now called 'Graburn Way', a tribute to Lt Col 'Willy' Graburn, a man with cricket in his blood. He became instructor to the Surrey County Club at the Oval in 1892, and was captain of East Molesey Cricket Club from 1908 to 1920, when he took over as secretary. 'His batting', it was said, 'was always graceful and elegant and stylish'.
East Molesey Cricket Club must surely have one of the most delightfully situated pitches in the country, which adds greatly to the pleasure and enjoyment of lounging around on a hot summer's day watching others run about. The club's modern pavilion is only marred by one thing — the date 1730 painted across its facade. Whilst it is true that cricket was played in Molesey in the early part of the eighteenth century, that took place on Molesey Hurst, some half a mile or so away in West Molesey. The present cricket ground was never part of the Hurst, and it is sad to see a club with an honourable history going back over a hundred years, making such a claim.
In 1871 a cricket team calling itself East Molesey played on Hampton Court Green and later on 'a meadow opposite Tagg's Island'. However, this was not today's ground, but a piece of land nearer to the lock, which was rented from Tom Tagg. The club lasted only a short while and, as they owed the rent, Mr Tagg distrained on the club's gear in lieu of the money. The late Col Tagg remembers as a boy 'annexing' the bats, stumps, and other paraphernalia, with which he and his friends played on the island.
In March 1879 it was announced 'A cricket club is in course of formation under the presidency of the Rev. W.F. Reynolds, vicar. From the present appearance it will be an undoubted success'. At first the club played on a piece of ground loaned by Mr Herbert Andrews in Molesey Park, behind today's Woolworth's store. A few years later it moved to the present pitch, which was hired from Mr Kent, and shared with a lacrosse team. The club now owns the freehold and the land should be preserved for willow and leather for all times.
One of the pleasantest features of the cricket field used to be a ponderous row of trees skirting the ground and dividing it from the towpath. Sadly these mighty creations have now all gone — humbled by the little Dutch elm beetle.
In 1917 these trees were the scene of a most extraordinary mishap. On Whit Sunday a pilot from the Royal Flying Corps training camp, which had been set up on Hurst Park during the Kaiser's War, went up and was performing acrobatics for the delectation of holiday crowds along the riverside, when his undercarriage caught on the telephone wires crossing to Tagg's Island, and the machine, a biplane, crashed head-on into the trees. The crowds on the towpath expected to see the plane come hurtling to the ground, with its occupant either killed or badly injured. Yet by some miracle the impact was so forceful that the machine remained firmly fixed in the branches. The Surrey Comet takes up the story: 'Ropes were obtained, P.C. Walter Baker, of the Molesey Section-house, climbing the tree, and after the officer, who was strapped to his seat, had fastened one around him, he was safely lowered to the ground. Beyond suffering from shock, he appeared to be little worse for the accident. The propeller of the biplane was completely smashed, as were other parts of the machine. When the aviator reached the ground he was taken to the Karsino, where he received numerous congratulations upon his lucky escape. Under the tree into which the machine crashed was a rustic seat, upon which a lady was sitting, but on hearing the crash she quickly made her escape'. (P.C. Walter Baker was the author's father.)
To the west of the cricket field the land opens out, and we now have the choice of continuing along the gravelled towpath close to the river or treading the soft, green, meadow turf. This long, narrow field between the towpath and the old racecourse was another of Mr Hurlock's gifts to the district. It was presented in December 1946, 'to preserve the picturesque nature of this part of the River Thames and to prevent bungalows and similar structures being built on it'. On a manorial map of Molesey dated 1781 this meadow is called 'More Hampton Shott'. The other meadows between here and Hurst Road, which were later incorporated into the racecourse, also had interesting names, such as: 'Beggars Bush', 'Broomhill', 'Broom Shott' and 'Pink Hill'.
The channel between the Molesey bank and Tagg's Island along this reach was at one time known as 'The Gull', a name which is often heard of along the Thames, for a narrow fast-moving stream of water.
The little ait just above Tagg's Island was known as 'Duck Eyot' or 'Swan's Nest Island', recalling the lines of Molesey's own poet — Joseph Palmer:
The Thames, majestic! flowing by her side,
Old maps show the island much larger than it is now, although the fact that the boundary between Hampton and East Molesey passes between the two islands, making Tagg's in Middlesex and Swan's Nest in Surrey, seems to suggest that at one time this was the main stream of the river. The flow of current picking up silt here and depositing it there, meant that the contour of the river was continually changing, as indeed it has done even in the lifetime of the present writer. To prevent this erosion and to keep the channel clear for navigation the Thames Conservancy has now protected both this island and the head of Tagg's with a barrier of camp shuttering. Here in the summer one can usually see one or two boats moored and their occupants enjoying a picnic on the grass.
Above Swan's Nest Island the river starts on a wide left-hand sweep, which continues for half a mile or so, and broadens out into a grand vista, with the tower of Hampton Church peeking over the trees, and the noble villas and verdant lawns of the opposite bank completing altogether a picture unsurpassed for beauty anywhere else on the Thames.
The water's edge here is rutted by little coves, covered with beds of reeds and lilies, the widened river becomes more sluggish and:
'Flowing so softly that scarcely it seems to be flowing,
Isa Craig Knox
This part of the river is a paradise for anglers. A hook called The Lower and Mid Thames; where and how to fish it, published in 1894, says 'Swan's Nest Island, is above Taggs Island, and the water in this vicinity holds jack, one of over 20 lb. being taken there some years ago. These specimen fish are, however, a rarity in any part of the Thames. A favourite roach swim is opposite Garrick's Villa, and bream may sometimes he taken there. The angler will see that from a pipe fixed in the wall some spring water falls into the Thames. He should fix his boat or punt just opposite. Hampton Deeps, which hold jack, roach and bream, extend from Molesey Weir to Garrick Villa, a distance of 1500 yards; and there is an eddy under the willow tree at the end of Garrick's lawn from which a jack or two may sometimes he taken'.
On the Hampton side of the river, shaded by the branches of a massive cedar tree, and with a velvet lawn stretching right down to the water's edge, is a large house known as Garrick's House, not to he confused with Garrick's Villa, which is the next house upstream and on the other side of Hampton Court Road. This house used to he called The Cedars. It received its present name because it was once owned by David Garrick junior, the nephew of his more famous namesake.
Downstream from Garrick's House, where now a green bank slopes sharply down from the road to the river, there stood until a few years ago another rambling old mansion, which was known as St Albans. This is alleged to have been built by Charles II for Nell Gwyn, and named after their son, the first Duke of St Albans. 'Nelly', so the story goes 'stood at a window with her baby son in her arms and, looking down at her kindly lover below threatened to throw the child out unless he was instantly given a title, whereupon Charles II called out loudly, "save the Duke of St. Albans" '. The house certainly contained some eighteenth century work, but was chiefly of much later date, and — as a well-researched booklet by Mr A.F. Kelsall, published by the Twickenham Local History Society, points out — it was never occupied either by Nell Gwyn or her son. It was, in fact, a later Duke of St Albans after whom it was named.
The story seems to have been invented and nurtured by the novelist Winifred Graham, a prolific writer in the early part of this century, who lived in the house for many years. There are no less than ninety-three books credited to her in the British Library index, and her life here is told in the trilogy of her autobiography, the most interesting features of which are the photographs of the house, both inside and out. She seems to have written so many novels that her whole life appears to devolve into a fantasy, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
The house was substantially altered in the 1920s by Theodore Cory, Miss Graham's husband, a wealthy businessman with extensive interests in coal and shipping, who completely transformed the inside, removing walls, replacing them with Corinthian pillars (said to have come from Hurst House, West Molesey, together with some Adam fireplaces), and lining other walls with genuine old oak panelling brought from elsewhere, thereby giving the interior a luxury little to be expected from the nondescript pot-pourri of styles exhibited outside.
When Mr Cory died in 1961, he left the house to the Borough of Twickenham to be preserved as a memorial to his wife, but unfortunately with no endowment to sustain it. Equally unfortunately neither Twickenham nor its successor, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, possessed either the capital or the inclination to preserve the house, and in 1972, then in a state of imminent collapse, it was demolished and the site incorporated into the riverside gardens. Nevertheless an elegant brick shelter has been erected as a memorial.
Above Garrick's House, moored close to the Middlesex bank, rides the last remnant of the Golden Age of the houseboats, Astoria — Fred Karno's home — probably the most luxurious floating house ever known on the Thames. This was the houseboat which Karno had had built in 1913. After Karno's collapse she was sold, and in 1932 came into the hands of yet another great music hall artist, Vesta Victoria, the comedienne who made famous such songs as Daddy wouldn't buy me a Bow-wow, Waiting at the Church and Poor John.
Vesta resided on Astoria, and died in April 1951. The houseboat was sold, reputedly for a sum of £14,000. However, the new owner was not connected with the music hall, he was a business man, and disliked the publicity that life on a famous houseboat on a famous island brought. Seeking private waters, he had his home towed up to this more sequestered place, where he was less likely to be peeped and peered at by a prying public.
Here Astoria now sits, her magnificent panelling, marble fittings and plush furnishings intact, although she has a new hull, with some of the elaborate framework gone. As we stand on the Molesey bank we can now take full advantage of her ninety-two feet of glory, and with little effort still picture the famous parties on a summer evening, the awning spread, the upper deck awash with a mass of humanity all swaying and gyrating to the lilt of Jack Hylton's music.
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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