Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
Perhaps the best point from which to start our ramble is Hampton Court station. Indeed, it has been so for thousands since the railway first came here in 1849, and brought the riverside within a cheap day's excursion for urban dwellers in all parts of the metropolis.
The station stands on what was before 1930, an island. At that time the River Mole flowed prettily along the side of Creek Road, whence it bubbled out from under the wheels of East Molesey Mill — and entered the Thames approximately where the present bridge now stands.
This part of the Mole was known locally as 'The Creek' — hence Creek Road. Access to the station was by means of two rickety wooden bridges, one for pedestrians and one for vehicles which, as the author remembers as a young boy, shook violently whenever one of the horse-drawn cabs, which used to ply from the station, crossed over.
James Thorne, who rambled the River Mole in 1844, describing the scene, says: 'The termination of the Mole is a noble one. From its mouth the Thames, with Hampton Court on the opposite bank, form a picture of surpassing beauty'. This surpassing beauty attracted many artists. Sir James Thornhill, who painted the ceilings in the palace across the water, captured the view in a pen and ink sketch in 1731, which is now displayed in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The British Museum has a delightful little water-colour from exactly the same spot, executed by Girtin in 1800.
The seventeenth century pastoral poet, Michael Drayton, in a long epic about the English countryside, allegorises the Thames as the son of Thame and Isis, a princely youth, who sets out to find a bride and on the journey: 'Gainst Hampton Court he meets the soft and gentle Mole.' Poly-Olbion (1622). He tarries here and woos this fair maiden, but his parents disapproved of the alliance, wishing him instead to court the beautiful Medway. He eventually allows himself to be persuaded, but is so loth to leave his adored Mole that twice a day: 'Up towards the place, where first his much-loved Mole was seen, He ever since doth flow beyond delightful Shene'. It must be remembered that, in Drayton's time, before Teddington Lock was constructed, the tide flowed up to, and even beyond, this spot.
John Stapleton sees the scene somewhat differently, as the rather somnambulent Mole suddenly rouses to find itself mingling with the waters of the larger river:
'Now lo! the Mole, awakening from a dream,
In the early 1930s, when Hampton Court Way was constructed, to form an approach to the new bridge, the Mole was diverted into the River Ember above East Molesey Mill and the Creek was filled in.
The ancient name of Cigarette Island was 'The Sterte', mentioned as early as 1306, and which almost certainly comes from the Old English word 'Steart', a tail of land, an apt description of its situation between the two rivers. In 1843 it was called 'Davis's Ait' after the family of Davis who at one time kept the nearby Castle Inn. The present name derives from a houseboat called Cigarette which used to be moored here. Now, no longer a true island, the name is applied to the five acres of public open space behind the station.
Much of this land was at one time used for the growing of osiers or withies, which were collected, peeled, dried, and sold for the manufacture of baskets.
The reach on the Surrey side was lined with a row of houseboats, all gaily painted, elaborately ornamented and flower bedecked, a truly brilliant scene. The Cigarette belonged to Sir Henry Foreman, Member of Parliament and Mayor of Hammersmith. Besides this there was Wildflower, a massive 110 feet in length — almost half as much again as Cigarette and others with names like Mimosa, Castle, Nirvana, Happy Days and Cheznous. To own a houseboat was a fashionable thing. The surroundings were arcadian, yet within easy reach of town. The decks were usually resplendent with cheerful awnings, girls in pretty summer frocks and men in flannels and boaters.
Houseboats were particularly popular with music hall artists and with the gay young set of the times. Sometimes the peace of a summer's evening might be disturbed by the sound of a wild Bohemian party. Among those supposed to have owned houseboats off Cigarette Island at some time are Harry Tate, Marie Lloyd, Charles Austin, the McNaughton Brothers, Fred Kitchin and Lord Egmont, all household names in their day, but now almost forgotten.
A description of the Thames in 1893 says of this part of the river: 'At this point we begin to catch sight of the ubiquitous houseboats. They love the still lagoons and shady nooks that form a feature of the 'Royal river'. With their curiosities and vagaries of architecture in wood, their studies in colour, their pretty displays of plants, their dainty window curtains and the sounds and movements of their gay occupants, they delight the eye, and give a sense of comradeship to the solitary oarsman'.
Another solitary oarsman who rowed along here early one morning was that great nature writer Richard Jeffries, who lived for some time at Surbiton and was often on or along the river. Many of his writings contain records of his relationship with the area. In The Open Air (1885), he notes 'I paddled up the river; I paused by an osier-grown islet; it was the morning, and none of the uproarious as yet were about. Certainly it was very pleasant. The sunshine gleamed on the water, broad shadows of trees fell across; swans floated in the by-channels. A peacefulness which peculiarly belongs to water hovered about the river. A houseboat was moored near the willow-grown shore, and it was evidently inhabited, for there was a fire smouldering on the bank, and some linen that had been washed spread on the banks to bleach. All the windows of this gipsy-van of the river were wide open, and the air and light entered freely into every part of the dwelling-house under which flowed the stream. A lady was dressing herself before one of these open windows, twining up large braids of dark hair, her large arms bare to the shoulders, and somewhat farther. I immediately steered out into the channel to avoid intrusion; but I felt that she was regarding me with all a matron's contempt for an unknown man — a mere member of the opposite sex, not introduced, or of her 'set'.'
The owners of the last houseboats were given notice to quit from their moorings on Cigarette Island in October 1931. Within a few months nothing was left of these floating juggernauts to show their former glory.
In the latter part of Queen Victoria's reign and the spacious days before the Kaiser's War, the river functioned like a magnet to attract crowds of Londoners, who craved a respite from the dust and smells of the city streets and their ordinary humdrum workaday lives and escape for a while into the cleanness and tranquillity of semi-rural Thameside. Not all, of course, could afford the luxury of a plush houseboat or a suburban villa. Nevertheless, many decided that they were not to be left behind in the race for the river and fresh air. The fetish of the riverside week-end bungalow had started.
In a short time Cigarette Island and the adjacent meadows — the area once described by Pope as 'Those meads for ever crowned with flowers' — mushroomed with a bloom of motley home-made dwelling, a hotch-potch of caravans, crude bungalows and shanties, in an assortment of sizes, shapes, styles and colours. From wooden and corrugated iron shacks to travelling caravans, converted trams and buses, and even railway coaches, many had extraneous rooms added in piecemeal fashion, and from all kinds of building materials. An exemplification of vernacular architecture at its worst, the colony became known by locals as Venice on Thames.
These residences, graceless though they were, nevertheless had a link, so it was said, with Bluff King Hal, who once ruled the land in such stately splendour from the red brick pile immediately across the river. Legend has it that the court awoke one morning and found to its amazement that gipsies had arrived during the night and encamped on the meadows directly opposite the palace. Irate officials were just about to order them away, when Henry — obviously in one of his better moods — forbad them, saying that if the gipsies wanted to, they might stay as long as they wished, provided they did not make a permanent home there, and moved immediately they were asked to go. Apparently nobody ever asked them to vacate the land and, tradition says, they stayed. Certainly the original dwellings were all mounted on wheels. Although in later times they were sometimes fitted with electric power, piped water and even telephones, at least, theoretically, the stipulation that they hold themselves in readiness to remove at a moment's notice was strictly observed. All of which proves that pleasant legends may be told even of modern shanty towns and of sixteenth century absolute monarchs.
In the 1920s, when the possibility of controlling the environment through planning was beginning to be accepted, attempts were made to clear the colony and turn the land into an open space. In October 1926, the old East and West Molesey Urban District Council adopted a scheme to form all the land east of the railway, extending back to Summer Road and the boundary with Thames Ditton, into a public park, to curb the 'ever-increasing nuisance of caravan dwellers and occupiers of sheds'. The Council, however, could not at that time persuade either the County Council or any national body to assist in the purchase, and it was not until 1935 that Cigarette Island was finally thrown open to the public. The Office of Works, as it then was, decided to buy the land in order to preserve the view from, and of, the palace, and the freehold of the 'island' was transferred to the old Esher UDC.
From Cigarette Island one gets what is probably the finest view of that 'Structure of majestic frame, Which from the neighbouring Hampton takes its name'. See from this viewpoint the two distinctive styles of the palace Wolsey's rich dark red brick, with its 'turrets and towers', and Wren's brighter red massive square block — are, as William Morris aptly put it, 'so blended together by the bright sun and beautiful surroundings, including the bright blue river which it looked down upon, that the beautiful building had a strange charm about it'.
Nathanial Hawthorn, that ubiquitous American, calls it 'a noble palace, nobly enriched . . . it is impossible even for a Republican not to feel awe'.
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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