Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
As we pass away from the lock it is worth while just glancing at the wall on the Conservancy offices, where there are two cast-iron plaques, originally fixed on the side of the old lockhouse, showing the height to which the water rose during the floods of 1821 and 1894. On the wall beneath the lock-keeper's office is a similar one for March 1947. The overflowings of the river, the bane of their existence to Thames-side dwellers, are often commemorated in this way. Until a short time ago there was such a mark on the side of the Thames Hotel, the level of the great flood of November 1894. Yet another, on the old Ferry House which stood opposite the Hurst, likewise perpetuated the memory of 1774. These marks are a useful guide in determining the relative heights of various floods; thus the Hood of 1821 was higher than that of 1894, hut less than 1774's.
Molesey residents know only too well the calamity of an over-abundance of water. They wait with apprehension when snows suddenly melt on frost-hardened earth, or when the region is covered by prolonged static precipitation (to use the meteorologists' jargon). For they know full-well that all that liquid must inevitably run through their valley on its journey down to the mighty sea. Strangely enough, however, Molesey, or at least most of it, does not flood from the Thames. A perceptible ridge of high ground runs from Cherry Orchard to Palace Road, effectively protecting the village from the Thames. Molesey's big danger is, of course, the river Mole. Thus the 1947 flood, marked by the plaque on the lock, which caused great havoc in the Thames valley by the rapid thawing of deep snow in the upper reaches, was hardly seen in Molesey. Conversely, the heavy downpour in early September 1968, falling mainly on the Surrey Hills and carried away by the Mole and Wey, totally submerged most of Molesey, yet caused hardly a stir higher up the Thames.
We can picture in our mind the scene here during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Victorians discovered the Thames and flocked to it in their thousands as never before. The author of Three Men in a Boat who often used to row between Richmond and Staines says 'At first we used to have the river almost to ourselves, but year by year it got more crowded.' He describes most vividly the scene around Molesey Lock: 'On a fine Sunday up the stream, and down the stream, lie waiting their turn, outside the gates, long lines of still more boats; and boats are drawing near and passing away, so that the sunny river from the Palace up to Hampton Church, is dotted and decked with yellow, and blue, and orange, and white, and red, and pink. All the inhabitants of Hampton and Molesey dress themselves up in boating costume, and come and mouch round the lock with their dogs, and flirt, and smoke, and watch the boats, and altogether, what with the caps and jackets of the men, the pretty coloured dresses of the women, the excited dogs, the moving boats, the white sails, the pleasant landscape, and the sparkling water, it is one of the gayest sights I know of near this dull old London Town.'
The holiday atmosphere along the towpath is recalled by Martin Cobbett, a one-time resident of Molesey and kinsman of the noted Rural Rider — William Cobbett. In his Wayfaring Notions (1906), he writes: 'I can see Jerry Hawkes' (a champion light-weight boxer) 'up on the barge walk just above Molesey Lock, when we put him on to a try-your-weight machine pitched on the tow path. Jerry knocked the whole apparatus bang into the river.'
It would amaze, or perhaps amuse, today's young generation if, by the wave of a good fairy's wand, they could be transported some sixty or more years back to witness the animated scene on and along the Thames any sunny summer Sunday evening. Motoring was in its infancy and the riverside was the general escape from every-day cares. Almost the whole locality put on its Sunday best and went for a stroll along the towpath.
The author well remembers the ritual: we children in front, Father, an upright figure striding out with his walking stick, with Mother by his side, bringing up the rear, stopping every few yards to exchange comments and gossip on the weather, politics, sport, any and every subject one fancied, with whatever friends and acquaintances one met, or to watch the ceaseless flow of craft on the river, or listen to a merry party on a houseboat, launch, or steamer, singing and dancing to the latest popular tune emanating from the large brass horn of a gramophone. Sometimes, as a special treat, we would even take the steamer ourselves — sailing down to Kingston, and riding back on the tram, on steamers such as Viscountess, Marchioness, or The King.
That indefatigable chronicler of nature in all its facets, Richard Jeffries, loved this part of the river. Just above Molesey Lock', he writes, 'in the meadows beside the towing path, the blue geranium or crane's bill grows in large bunches among the mowing grass in summer. It is one of the most beautiful flowers of the field: after having lost sight of it for some years, to see it again at last seemed indeed to bring the old familiar country near London.'
Alas Jeffries' meadows no longer exist. At one time they had been 'Lot Mead', perpetuating the old manorial custom by which the tenants were apportioned their share of the meadow's crop by a process of drawing lots. Now the site is occupied — behind a rather hideous fence — by the Upper Deck Swimming Pool. Opened in 1936 by a private company, the first pool in England to draw the water which filled it from the very ground on which it stood, it is now managed by Elmbridge Borough Council, who bought it in 1969 for £15,000, less than half what it originally cost to build, and spent another £36,000 modernising the changing rooms, showers and filtration plant. Right pleasant it is on a hot summer's day to see the pool full of happy chattering youth, surrounded by colourful spectators, who have come to sunbathe or just laze around and watch.
During the appropriate months of the year along the bank of this reach, 'The patient angler takes his silent stand. The pliant rod now trembling in his hand.' At one time Molesey was the headquarters of the Thames Angling Preservation Society, and trout were captured here less than a century ago; in fact, it was the lowest part of the river usually accepted as suitable for this type of fishing. A fish ladder was added to the weir in 1864 to help the fish swim upstream. In those days a number of local people earned their living as professional watermen, fishing, hiring boats, and assisting amateur fishermen. Most of them lived in the cottages in Bridge and Creek Roads. The families of Milbourne, Davis, Watford, Martin and Tagg were well-known and respected along the Thames. Nowadays river fishing is entirely a recreation for amateurs, the fish taken, I am told, include barbel, jack, perch, roach, dace, pike and gudgeon, and in the tumbling bay, heavy tench may be caught.
Just before the First World War the Molesey Urban District Council, showing much more foresight than it usually displayed, drafted a forward-looking plan to create a public park alongside the Thames from the lock to Hurst Park. This was joyfully reported in The Times in August 1913: 'A scheme for increasing the amenities of the River Thames was brought before the urban district council of East and West Molesey at its meeting yesterday by the chairman Mr. J. Ray. The proposal involved the construction of a boulevard by the riverside, extending for a distance of about half a mile, from Molesey Lock, to the boundary of the district opposite Hampton. The undertaking is expected to add greatly to the attractions of the district. The present scheme is to acquire — voluntarily if possible, but if not by compulsory powers — a strip of land varying in width from 30ft. to 64ft. adjacent to the towing path and commanding a fine view of a picturesque stretch of the Thames, with Hampton church in the distance, and Garrick's Lawn and Temple and Tagg's Island and the "Karsino" in the foreground. The belt of trees standing on the land will not be disturbed and it is proposed that the boulevard shall be so laid out as to make it one of the most delightful spots on the banks of the river. The District Council very heartily approved the scheme, and instructed the clerk to take all the necessary steps to obtain powers for the acquisition of the land.'
The 'necessary steps' included the obtaining of an Order from the Local Government Board permitting the compulsory acquisition of the land, which was signed and sealed on 6 March 1914, and confirmed by special Act of Parliament in the same session, receiving Royal Assent on 8 July.
The plan was supported by the Thames Conservancy Board, and received approbation from Mr Tom Burns, the President of the Local Government Board. Unfortunately, and to their everlasting shame, it was not entertained with the same enthusiasm by certain people in Molesey. The scheme would have involved an addition of twopence (less than one new penny) to the rates — surely a small price to have paid for such a magnificent extension to the recreational amenity of the district. Even this insignificant amount was too much for a section of the electors. They formed a residents' association to fight the plan, stood some of their members for election to the Council and, after a bitterly fought contest, won. The Molesey Scheme was defeated and dropped. Oh! if only the electors had had the foresight of their Council, they would have invested their twopences in a worthwhile piece of property which would now be valued at several million pounds. A short while ago, less than two acres of this self-same land was offered to Elmbridge Borough Council for £340,000.
Opposite the Upper Deck, the Thames races over the weirs in a never-ceasing drone, whipping the river in the tumbling bay below into a boiling, writhing mass of froth. The weirs connect an island, of some four acres in extent, which is called Ash Island, probably from the trees with which it is covered. It has known many names — Garrick's Lower Eyot (from the famous actor, whom we shall meet again later), Mr Clay's Ait, Anglers' Ait, Harvey's Ait, Ashen Ait, and (by far the most delightful this) Robinson Crusoe Island.
At one time the island was much lower than it is today, and was often overrun by floods. In 1844 it was reported as being 'washed away', and some years later the owner complained to the Thames Conservancy about the erosion. After the 1877 floods, parts were dredged away and spread over the rest of the island to raise its level, a process which was repeated during the navigation improvements which accompanied the erection of the new Hampton Court Bridge in the early 1930s.
About 1850 a man named Joseph Harvey, who was then the tenant, attempted to open up the island as a refreshment centre, catering for boating and fishing folk. A wooden beerhouse was built, adjoining which were a skittle-alley and tea gardens. The whole went under the grand title of 'The Anglers' Retreat.' Although the premises were somewhat tumbledown, it was said of it some years later it 'provided good dinners and other accommodation at prices which at Thames-side hotels are now things of the past.'
Harvey, however, seems to have fallen foul of the local constabulary for consistently selling beer on a Sunday during morning service, which was against the law. The inspector at Hampton police station tried several times to catch him but, as he complained, 'he himself had been over to the island, but being so tall he was easily observed.' Therefore, he had to employ a subterfuge and, dressing up two of his men in disguise, sent them over to the island; the hapless host was caught red-handed and hauled before the magistrates. Harvey pleaded guilty, and said he was a poor man, and the people came to the island and imposed on him, and if they fined him he did not know what he would do. Nevertheless the beaks fined him £5 with 8s 6d costs. The next Sunday the inspector sent another two constables, again suitably attired, and again he was caught selling beer out of hours; again he pleaded guilty, again he said 'he was a poor man and if they fined him he did not know what he should do', but again they fined him £5 with 8s 6d costs. Yet again on the following Sunday two policemen arrived on the island, dressed as gardeners, and for the third time Harvey found himself in front of the justices, but this time he pleaded not guilty and brought witnesses to prove his case; notwithstanding he was still found guilty but, as apparently they were not too sure, this time they only fined him 50s with 16s costs. Whether this tipped the scales and frightened him off or whether he set up an improved early warning system and was never caught, or even whether the inspector thought him so incorrigible he gave up trying to stop him, is not clear, but he never seems to have graced the dock again.
During the great freeze-up of February 1855, when the river was frozen solid, the following advertisement was posted:-
The day of the sheep roasting started off apparently with the frost as intense as ever but, by the time midday arrived, a swift thaw had set in, and the unfortunate caterer had scant time in which to sell his roast mutton and 'superior ale' before the whole ice melted away.
For a number of years the enterprise seems to have paid off, but after some bad experiences of flooding the proprietor deemed it expedient to transfer the complete undertaking upstream to the higher and drier land of what is now called Tagg's Island. He obtained a lease, and there constructed premises built of brick.
In 1866 Molesey Boat Club was formed and Ash Island became its headquarters.
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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