Isleworth

Photo: Adrian Evans

Thistleworth Marine

A residential moorings situated on the Thames in Isleworth at the junction of the River Crane. It faces the upstream end of Isleworth Ait, a nature reserve which enjoys a vast diversity of birds and ducks, aquatic life and unusual flora that have migrated from nearby Kew Gardens [1].

The site was occupied by Kris Cruisers from 1934 and was at that stage known as ‘Riverside Yard’. Kris Cruisers built various craft as well as servicing, overhauling and refitting. During the Second World War the company grew significantly in size, as they expanded into building various types of naval vessels including motor torpedo boats, Admiralty barges, motor fishing vessels, picket boats and fast launches [2]. The expansion was so great that they went from employing just thirty five people to one hundred and forty during wartime. The construction and maintenance of war-craft, made the boatyard a target for bombing in the Second World War. The depth of the river at Isleworth is attributed to a crater left by a World War Two bomb [3].

Just after the war people began living on the river at Kris Cruisers. An anecdote told by resident Steve Burchell suggests the origins of the first residency sometime in the late 1940s [4]. Colonel Lightoller (a survivor of Titanic), who ran the boatyard decided to give a woman unofficial residency after witnessing her wading through the river at low tide with her child and her shopping to reach her boat. He allowed the woman to bring her boat onto the boatyard moorings so she wouldn’t have to continue in this way.

Over time more people started living on the mooring unofficially. Wartime bombing left many homeless and housing shortages pushed some people to seek refuge afloat in the 1940s and 1950s. Living afloat offered a cheap housing option and decommissioned vessels were in abundance. Kris Cruisers continued to operate as a boatyard, with some residential craft moored onsite. By the 1970s the community living at Kris Cruisers was so significant that the residents got together and bought out the boatyard, establishing themselves as a company in 1973 before obtaining a River Works License from the Port of London Authority in 1974 [5].

Originally, the boats were simply tied together by ropes and chains and people would access their vessels by climbing from one to another. However, in 1979 piles and pontoons were added, transforming the layout of the marina, with boats occupying individual spaces along the pontoons, creating a kind of floating village [6]. This has been described as the single biggest change to the appearance of the marina over the past thirty years. Many of the boats have stayed the same, although there are fewer going vessels as purpose-built ‘houseboats’ tend to offer more comfortable dwellings.

Nowadays, the company is run by the residents themselves. Its formal structure consists of five directors, a treasurer and a secretary who hold monthly meetings which the residents can attend. The right of boat’s or mooring’s purchasers to vote at the annual general meeting on company business and to attend directors’ and general meetings is guaranteed by the ownership of shares. When a mooring is bought, the owners receive a specified portion of shares in Thistleworth Marine Limited that is allocated according to a boat's dimensions [7].

Common ownership has meant a greater level of neighbourly interaction than you might get on a typical street. Nevertheless, residents have attested to the strong sense of community despite the common
ownership, with lots of socialising and parties. Steve Burchell has described it as “like a village really. Most people know each other and stop to talk.” Angie Bisset also referred to the “brilliant neighbours” and the community as what she likes best about life on the river. Angie explained that many residents have been on the mooring for a long time and that overall the community has not changed much at all. The main change is that there are fewer young people, mainly because the cost of living afloat has risen dramatically, almost rivalling the cost of a house. 

Angie also noted the security she feels being part of the company. Angie has been living afloat since the 1980s when she first came to live on a boat with her then boyfriend after a friend gave them the idea. Angie and her husband, Bob, own a different boat now, a houseboat named Talmego. This boat is almost the same size as that of their former boat, but with greater capacity. The boat is 40-feet-long and 30-feet-wide with various wood features and furniture, some of which were made by Bob.

Steve Burchell first came to live afloat in 1987. After his lease on a flat in Hammersmith ran out, an old university friend of Steve’s suggested living on a boat. Speaking of his first year afloat Steve said “it was terrible, it was awful. It was cold and it was wet. It froze and we ran out of water. We lived on it for a year and then realised we couldn’t stay on that boat any longer.”

However, despite the cold and wet conditions that Steve and his friend was subjected to over the winter, they discovered that they loved the community aspect that came with living afloat, including the parties, as well as the closeness to nature.

During his time afloat, Steve has lived on three different boats, with each bigger in size than the last and now currently resides on Hibernia with his family, including two daughters Holly and Sophie. Hibernia is an old Thames Sailing Barge that used to be a refrigeration vessel before it was converted into a houseboat sometime in the 1970s. Hibernia is 75 feet-long and 21 feet-wide with four bedrooms. Talking about children on boats, Steve explained that his daughters “really love it and they think it’s the best place to live in the world.” He also recalled a conversation where on learning that his wife was pregnant again, her husband said simply they’d have to ‘put up another shelf ’. This, Steve says, reflects the premium on space in boats, where every inch is utilised.

The marina currently comprises twenty eight vessels varying in type from narrowboats, barge conversions, purpose built houseboats, Humber Keels and Dutch Barges, lifeboats to a historic twin-engined diesel yacht transformed from an Admiralty steam harbour launch. Steve reckons that it is one of the “cheapest moorings on the Thames” due to the communal ownership model and mutual effort residents put into things like maintenance, which helps to keep costs down.

The residents vary hugely in in age, occupations, character and previous experience of living afloat. Angie thought it was difficult to provide a generic profile for a live afloat resident. The sense of community is noticeably strong, with both Angie and Steve linking life and community spirit in the marina to village life, where everyone knows each other, has a shared history and are willing to help each other out in emergencies. Angie expanded on this, contrasting the marina with the average street in London in which people typically do not know each other. Common hazards, such as parts of trees getting caught under the boats, and regular gatherings which consists of monthly meetings and summer barbecues contribute significantly to the close-knit relations among people in the mooring.

Notes

[1] Thistleworth-marine.co.uk. (2016). Home. Available at www.thistleworth-marine.co.uk/
[2] www.panoramaofthethames...
thistleworth-marine
[3] Interview with Steve Burchell, London, 28th April 2016
[4] Interview with Steve Burchell, London, 28th April 2016
[5] www.panoramaofthethames...
thistleworth-marine
[6] Interview with Angela Bisset, London, 28th April 2016
[7] Interview with Steve Burchell, London, 28th April 2016