Brentford

The Hollows, Victoria Steps, Watermans Park and Lot's Ait

There are a number of residential moorings along the river at Brentford. Despite their proximity, they are distinct communities with varying ownership, governance and relationships with authorities.

An area of land in Brentford came to be known as ‘The Hallows’ or ‘The Hollows’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At this stage, it was still largely a rural area, part of the manor of Ealing. Slowly, industry began to build up and develop around The Hollows in Brentford, first with lime kilns in the eighteenth century, which led to breweries and malt houses and eventually gasworks, waterworks and factories.

These riverside industries would have had their own docks or wharves from about the eighteenth century [1]. The river would be used to transport goods to and from the workshops and businesses lining the river at Brentford. The trade along this part of the Thames increased over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reaching its peak after the establishment of the Brentford Gas Company in the 1820s.

The first residential boat arrived in Brentford at The Hollows footpath in the 1950s, at a time when it was still very much an industrial and working area. The boat was an ex-naval pinnace (or similar) and was lived on by a couple through the 1950s [2]. By the late 1950s this boat had been joined by five or six other residential craft moored at The Hollows. It is thought that these were the only residential boats along the Thames between Isleworth and Chelsea.

Sailing Barge Crouch Belle, built in Rochester in 1901, is listed as being a house barge at The Hollows from 1950 until she was broken up in 1971. Frederick William was a live aboard by 1950. Cumberland was there from 1941 until 1980. Normanhurst was a house barge from 1950 as was Brian Boru. [3]

Di and Tam Murrell moved to Brentford at the end of the 1950s aboard Cumberland, an ex-Thames Sailing Barge [4]. The pair, both in their early twenties, had already been living on the river for a few years by this point, having been attracted by the lifestyle, community of musicians and artists, and the abundance of boats in a time of housing shortage. 

Di remembers that at that point “it was a working river” with “cement barges that would come up to Brentford”. She recalls that “you used to get the smell of the gas works”, which was still in operation. Di described their experience on the river in those earlier years as “very primitive”. The Hollows was just “a murky little track that ran alongside a brick wall with a few barges moored”. They “used to run an electric cable from the laundry that snaked across the footpath and into the boat” to provide power to the boat. They would also use paraffin lamps and a paraffin fridge and were not concerned with safety certificates or the like. Di believes that people lived afloat because boats were available - either ex-war craft or redundant Thames Sailing Barges – at a time when houses; were hard to come by.

The comedy actress Betty Marsden (of Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne fame) and her husband Dr James Wilson Muggoch moved aboard Chilham, a converted Thames Lighter in 1963 [5]. Their circumstances were rather unusual; they had moved to The Hollows from a large house in Hampstead, a decision fuelled by Muggoch’s love of sailing and his desire to be on the water.

The Muggoch family lived aboard an old Thames Lighter, which they had had converted in the early 1960s at the Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company. The vessel was described as ‘very smart’ and ‘posh’ compared to some other houseboats at that time [6]. Such a grand boat was rather unusual and was featured in a few glossy magazines.

Chilham was the permanent home of Marsden and Muggoch, and they both lived afloat up until their deaths. The boat was passed down to their son James Muggoch, who now lives aboard with his family. James remembers the filthy condition of the river when he was a boy that you had to have your stomach pumped if you fell in. This was unsurprising given the industrial activity still going on in Brentford during the 1960s when the family first moved afloat. Barges and lighters were still common as they delivered coal to the gas works up until the late 1960s. But by the 1970s, following the closure of London's inner city docks, industry had largely ceased, making the area a potential location for houseboats.

By 1977, the site of the old gasworks was considered contaminated land and little had been done to develop it. Despite this, some people were making use of the riverside (which was slightly upstream of the Hollows) to moor their houseboats. Sue Gurney and her partner arrived in 1977 and squatted on the site along with a few other residential boats until 1979/80 when they were moved on by the council[7].

Unlike the situation by the gasworks, the boats at The Hollows had permission to moor, allowing the community to develop since the first boat in the 1950s. However, it was a changing community, with a variety of residents who came and went, including some rather famous figures. Spencer Churchill, a well-known wrestler and body builder lived aboard the Brian Baroo with his wife, and another boat Normanhurst was lived on by a writer and his family [8].

Over time the number of houseboats moored at Brentford increased dramatically. In 1985 Victor Alonso, who lived on a boat called Brevet at; Chiswick Mall, bought a plot of land just next to the Hollows in Brentford and – after considerable back and forth with the council – gained permission for six residential boats to moor there [9]. He bought the land with the aim of creating secure and affordable moorings for people that wanted to live on the river. His company, the London River Company achieved exactly that, and the moorings at Victoria Steps exist to this day. The moorings were accompanied by access to some onshore facilities including a shower and laundry. It shows how much river life has progressed since then, as most boats now have such facilities on board.

Currently, a total of thirty eight boats make up the communities at Victoria Steps and The Hollows in Brentford. However, there is an additional fifty residential boats or so moored at Brentford. These boats make up the community at Watermans Park, which has been in conflict with Hounslow Council for many years.

Watermans Park was the site of The Brentford Gas Company, later the Gas Light and Coke Company from the early 1820s to the 1970s. It was a bastion of industrial Brentford and dominated the skyline so much so that George II ordered additional trees to be planted on Brentford Ait to block the view from Kew Gardens. The gasworks closed and was demolished in the 1970s. In 1984 part of the site was transformed into a public gardens, Watermans Park.

It was in the 1970s that people began mooring against the wharf by the gasworks. However, they were moved on fairly quickly by Hounslow Council, who deemed the boats to be illegally squatting [10]. Nevertheless, a new community has gathered since, and has been moored alongside what is now Watermans Park for over twenty-five years. The majority of boats have never paid any licence fees to the PLA nor to the local authority and do not pay Council Tax. Hounslow Council has continually disputed their right to moor along the stretch of the river and have issued multiple eviction notices. The last successful eviction was in the 1980s. In October 2014, the London Borough of Hounslow released plans for a whole redevelopment of the riverside along Watermans Park, which included ‘Watermans Park Marina’ – a series of berths for twenty six upmarket residential vessels to moor on a semi-permanent basis. As part of the site clearance the existing residential vessels were issued with eviction notices [11].

The existing residents have since refused to move and continue to occupy the site designated for redevelopment. David DeVere, who has lived at Watermans Park for over twenty five years has spearheaded the campaign for the existing boats to remain [12]. He has argued consistently (and with significant research) that the foreshore (the land to which the boats are tethered) is neither under the ownership of Hounslow Council nor the PLA, but is the property of the Bishop of London. In addition, according to crown legislation from the mid-1850s, the public have a right to moor and keep boats at convenient points on the Thames. Thus, residents at Watermans Park have dismissed Hounslow’s claim to the land and have refused to adhere to eviction notices, believing they have no claim to it under the legislation passed in the 1850s.

At present three boats have agreed to leave the moorings by 20 August 2016. The remaining residents are steadfast and will present their case to stay in an upcoming court hearing.

Lot’s Ait is a small island just upstream from The Hollows, Victoria Steps and Watermans Park. It sits next to Brentford Ait, a larger island, which was bought by the crown in the late nineteenth century to allow trees to be planted to block the view of the Brentford gas works from Kew Gardens. The island is about 51,000 square feet (4,738 square meters).

Up until the 1920s Lot’s Ait was largely inaccessible and preserved as a wildlife spot. A map from 1839 shows the island as an osier ground with three large poplar trees and willows planted along the edge of the island in order to help bind the banks. It was also once known as Barbel Island, after the Barbel fish commonly found in that particular stretch of the Thames [13].

Lot’s Ait was first established as the site of a boatbuilding business in 1920 by the Thames Steam Tug and Lighterage Company Ltd. As river traffic decreased with the advent of containerization and
construction of the national motorway in the 1950s and early 1960s, business went down and eventually many boatyards closed. Brentford Dock was also closed in 1964 and remained derelict for eight years. Lot’s Ait was one of the last shipyards be closed down in the early 1970s. Construction for a new housing estate on the site of Brentford docks began in 1972 and official opening of Brentford Dock Marina was on 7 August 1980. However, lack of access from the shore prevented Lot’s Ait from being similarly developed into a residential area (in the past, a floating bridge had been provided by attaching barges to each other).

In April 2012, Lot’s Ait opened up for business again following a restoration process undertaken by John’s Boat Works, as well as the construction by MSO Marine of a bridge connecting the island to the riverside. Planning permission was granted despite concerns being raised at a council meeting on the ecological impact of the project, on having a boatyard in the vicinity of residential areas (because of the possibility of noise pollution), and about residential moorings being offered on Lot’s Ait. As part of the written proposal for the bridge, these issues were addressed. For instance, one concern was that building a bridge to Lot’s Ait would attract “rogue elements to the estate”. The proposal’s response was that they did not think the bridge would “create a focal point for antisocial behaviour”.

The island now offers many boatbuilding, repair and restoration services, as well as spaces for boat hobbyists and professionals to rent for working on boat and craft related projects (among which have so far have included the construction of musical instruments and a replica of a First World War biplane). The restorers of Lot’s Ait aspire to revitalize London’s boat building heritage. Part of Lot’s Ait is also meant to remain undeveloped as a natural refuge for local wildlife. The island is owned by the Thames and General Lighterage Company, and John Watson (owner of John’s Boat Works).

Nikolaj Bloch and his family moved to Lot’s Ait mooring from The Tower Bridge Moorings at Downing Roads in February 2012, because Brentford had better schools for his children [14]. They were only the second boat to arrive. The vessel they live aboard, Padoue, is a decommissioned French cargo boat built in 1950 in Cambrai, which they purchased in Paris in 2005. They had the boat converted in Belgium. As a musician, Bloch has been heavily influenced by his life on the river. He recorded an album (Magic Folkgrass) strongly influenced by the river and the people that live afloat. Nowadays, he performs concerts for people in their living rooms and accepts whatever payment audience members deem fit.

Bloch feels a strong sense of appreciation for the community of people afloat, which he describes as a mix of people from different backgrounds. He feels they are “genuine” people, who look after one another. However, this aspect of communities afloat is changing now that developers have an interest in houseboats. Bloch believes that in the future, there will be more people living afloat. This expansion, however, will be limited by available moorings and rising prices. In addition, Bloch thinks the nature of communities is and will continue to change. Traditionally, people have tended to care for their boats and the many necessary tasks of life afloat themselves, but as more affluent people come onto the river, they have less interest in this particular aspect of life afloat.

Elmer Postle also lives at Lot’s Ait with his family [15]. Having grown up on Leonard Piper, a converted Thames Sailing Barge in Chiswick, it was not an unusual progression for Elmer to buy his own boat. Elmer considers being close to the tide and birdlife as the most enjoyable thing about living on the river. He explains that “it’s an extraordinary privileged to be so close to the swans and the geese”, something which is possible at Lot’s Ait, which remains very green. He also enjoys the uniqueness of living on a boat and remembered when he was young that “it was nice feeling like you were doing something different”. Having lived on boats as a child and teenager and now as an adult, Elmer has witnessed many changes on the river, but thinks that “what has changed is the way it has become more of a mainstream activity”, mostly because the Thames is so much cleaner now. He refers to people previously having been embarrassed about the river, but as it’s got cleaner, access has opened up and now moorings are hard to come by.

Notes

[1] Cooke and Phillpotts, 2007, p.13 -  www.wessexarch.co.uk/system/files/Kew%20Bridge%20publication.pdf
[2] The Thames Sailing Barge Compendium, compiled by John White. Printed by The Society for Sailing Barge Research 2012.
[3] Interview with Di Murrell, London, 29 March 2016
[4] Ibid
[5] Interview with James Muggoch, London, 28 April 2016
[6] Ibid.
[7] Interview with Sue Gurney, London, 29 March 2016
[8] Interview with Di Murrell, London, 29 March 2016
[9] Interview with Victor Alonso, London, 27 April 2016
[10] Interview with Sue Gurney, London, 29 March 2016
[11] www.hounslow.gov.uk/
watermans_park_marina_exhibition_boards.pdf
[12] Interview with David DeVere, London, 27 July 2016
[13] M Vickers, Eyots and Aits Islands of the River Thames, The History Press 2013, p.31
[14] Interview with Nikolaj Bloch, London, 13 April 2016
[15] Interview with Elmer Postle, London, 13 April 2016