The current appearance of Chiswick Mall, with private gardens between the road and river, has remained largely the same since the late nineteenth century. The gardens were created in the 1880s when the borders of the tidal Thames in London were embanked for the installation of mains water, sewage and other utilities.
Chiswick was an industrial area in the past, with a draw dock for loading and unloading barges carrying cargo for the breweries, Chiswick Press, fitting out warships and other industry. But this stretch of the river has been largely residential since the late nineteenth century, and it is believed that residential boats have moored here since the Second World War . The houseboat moorings by the slipway at the western end of Chiswick Mall began to be populated after the Second World War to create affordable homes for returning servicemen and women. Some Local Authorities responded to a Government call to opportunities for low cost housing. As a consequence, some ended up living on the river in Chiswick. Fortunately, some of these were drawn to the idea of living afloat and were willing to take the risks associated with it .
The system of rents for the slipway moorings were originally incorporated into the existing Glebe system - a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman's benefice and providing income - when they were established after the war. The moorings continued to be leased in this way for many years until the parson at St Nicholas’s retired and an official lease was put together to secure the moorings for residents. The introduction of a new lease was spearheaded by the outgoing clergyman as a way to ensure security for the boats on the mooring. The new lease was created in around 1975 between all three boats at the moorings, who paid a rent to the diocese, rather than directly to the church . The moorings further along the Mall are also believed to have been created after the war in response to a request from the government;for river frontages to be made available to ease the critical housing shortage . These moorings were, and still are, individually managed and rented from the houses on the other side of the road.
Shirley Harrison and her husband John moved afloat in 1959. Their boat, a 93-foot Thames Sailing Barge called Cetus, occupied a space at the end of one of the gardens opposite Chiswick Eyot. They bought her for £300 unconverted without even a toilet but had all the original wood flooring and even a Master’s Cabin. There were three other residential boats moored at Chiswick Mall at the time. The other residents included the American actor-producer Phil Brown and his wife and author Ginny Brown, author of an account of living on the Mall ‘Swans at My Window’, who lived on Mayflower I and later Mayflower II. The couple represented bohemian life on the river and attracted much media attention due to this alternative way of living. A British Pathè clip entitled ‘Cobbler Girl’ shows Ginny painting and making shoes aboard her boat . Ashingdon was another residential boat, which arrived at Chiswick Mall in the early 1950s and was first owned by actor Richard Vernon . An article from Tatler magazine in 1964 featured some of these residents and displayed photos showing boats with elaborate interiors featuring rows of books, artworks and even grand pianos!  Nevertheless, in an article from 1972 Ashingdon was described as an ‘eyesore’ after being left in a derelict state for some years . Despite having very little money, Shirley and John were drawn afloat by the desire for an adventure, rather than due to any pressing financial considerations. They managed to lower their grand piano through the deck. But they were not good at DIY, the roof leaked and the panelling they installed to create rooms, fell down on the changing tide. Once Cetus sat on a milk bottle at low tide, which put a hole in her hold she and had to be rescued. “But where else would you find swans floating by your bedroom window?” Shirley commented. Shirley recalls the strong sense of community on the river, which has endured to this day. This is echoed by Imogen Stubbs, the actress whose mother bought Cetus from Shirley and her husband for £600 in the early 1960s when Imogen was only about three years old .
Imogen described that living on a boat was “a nightmare at the beginning” but that her mother “kind of liked the adventure of that”. Like Shirley, Imogen’s mother was drawn to the river due to personal preferences and a desire to be in London and for adventure. Imogen described a “very tomboyish, very Huckleberry Finn life” spent playing on (and in!) the river along with her best friend who also lived on a boat at Chiswick. Imogen recalls that “we used to just jump off the edge and float down the river to Hammersmith Bridge”. She remembers her childhood on the river as “paradise” and “magical” and described it as a “very bohemian life”.
She had a rocking horse on board and would swing upside down from her trapeze bar while her mum played the piano, which Imogen also slept underneath for a time. Recollections of boat-sitting and the changing nature of Chiswick Mall from John Ritchie (who grew up in a house near Chiswick Mall) demonstrate that this sense of community extended to those living in houses along and near to the river in Chiswick . This is a factor that seems less prominent today, with boat dwellers living rather separate lives to their landed neighbours. Although Chiswick Mall was home to some well-known authors and actors, the boats did have limited facilities compared to onshore dwellings.
Imogen Stubbs remembers that they had “very primitive systems and very little hot water” and that “the loo was pretty memorable because it was horrific. It only worked when the tide was up”. She also remembers that as the boat got older it became “grottier and grottier”. For many, it was not until the 1990s or later that the boats were connected up to the mains sewage, water and power systems. Victor Alonso believes he was one of the first to link a boat up to the mains gas supply . From 1978, all the boats on the slipway mooring by Church Street were supplied gas from North Thames Gas. When Victor moved aboard Brevet in 1978 with his wife and their two children, simple coal burners were still in use.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Victor moved afloat “in desperation!” after finding himself homeless when a deal on a house didn’t go through. He saw the boat advertised in the houseboat column of ‘Exchange and Mart’ and “couldn’t believe it was the middle of London” when he went to see it. Victor had always loved the water and the river and it offered the cheapest way of living in the capital. When Victor and his family arrived the boat was very sparse with few comforts and possessions. Steadily, over time, Victor developed the boat and raised his two sons aboard. Rico, one of his sons, still lives aboard Brevet with Victor as well as his own family.
Another family already lived nearby by the time the Alonso’s arrived in 1978. Denis Postle and his family (also with two sons!) moved aboard in 1972 and went on to spend forty years afloat . Denis described boats as a way of living outside of the mainstream, and within close proximity to nature. The Postles lived aboard the Leonard Piper, a sailing barge built in 1910 in East Greenwich, which had been moored at Chiswick Mall since the 1960s. They made numerous changes to Leonard Piper over the forty years they spent afloat, including moving the kitchen from downstairs to upstairs and swapping around the bedrooms, Denis described this flexibility as one of the joys of living on a boat. However, the family tragically lost a third of their possessions when Leonard Piper eventually flooded, leaving a metre of water left inside the boat. The boat needed extensive repairs, which finally led the family to move off the moorings.
The feeling of closeness to nature and the elements is a common theme among boat dwellers along the Thames, where the changing tide offers a greater sense of ‘wilderness’ than on London’s other waterways . Chiswick Eyot, an island parallel to Chiswick Mall makes it a particularly ‘rural’ spot, as it continues to be home to a variety of bird and wildlife.
Like the sense of wilderness, the number of boats at Chiswick Mall has not changed much since the 1950s and two of the boats have been within the same families for over forty years. This is a testament to the notion that living afloat and the coming and going of the tide really does, as Imogen says ‘get into your blood’.
Thornycroft & Co was established at Church Wharf in Chiswick in 1866. The boat building firm first specialised in high-speed launches, progressing to torpedo boats, followed by the first torpedo boat destroyers. Thornycroft also made steam-powered vehicles and experimented with the new internal combustion engine. As the boats increased in size the difficulties of negotiating the bridges downstream led to Thornycroft purchasing a yard near Southampton in 1904 and winding down the Chiswick operation. This closed completely in 1909, although Thornycroft retained the Church Wharf premises until 1919 which were rented out .
The premises were acquired by Gwynne's Engineering, producing aircraft engines, again for the Admiralty, during the First World War and, later, cars. The company relocated in 1930 downstream to Hammersmith. After this point the site changed hands a number of times, but continued to work as an industrial site.
By the late 1970s the site was largely derelict and was owned by Hounslow Council. However, there were still a number of businesses operating from the warehouses, which rented the sites from the council. One of these was a packing and export company owned by James Crowe Traders International. He rented out a few moorings that sat on his part of the site, which began to be occupied by residential craft in the late 1970s .
In 1979, when Ali Taylor and Mike Thomas moved afloat, there were two residential boats renting moorings from James Crowe: Cecilia and Radiant . Mike had thought of living afloat after spending time sailing as a child and had seen a converted motor barge Reliance advertised in ‘Exchange and Mart’. Ali, in contrast thought it was ‘a stupid idea!’ Yet after visiting the boat, Mike and Ali pooled their money to buy Reliance and obtained permission from James Crow to take over the rent of the mooring. It was a rather informal arrangement, which stayed the same even when more residential boats joined the mooring. It was a rather fragile existence, with little security of tenure and for many years the boats were not even listed on any site maps or area plans.
The site was just a wharf, with the boats simply moored up against the wall, each with a vertical ladder as the only means of access to the land. Ali recalls becoming adept at swinging down the ladder with daughter Lisa in a carry cot. This was upgraded to steps in 1985, when son David was born, since a ladder was no longer practical.
Reliance was an 'empty shell' when Ali and Mike bought her and they spent the next thirty years afitting her out for family living, as well as working on on-going maintenance. Their son David “slept on a shelf until he was twelve!” at which point they decided it was time to convert part of the boat to create a bedroom. This DIY attitude was (and still is) an attribute common to many people living afloat. Sue Gurney, who moved to Church Wharf from Brentford in the early 1980s, took on a massive project of completely renovating a Humber Keel called Radiant . Sue and Ali both remember weekends spent together down on the foreshore, both in boiler suits, repairing parts of their boats.
Ali, Mike and Sue all describe a strong sense of community among the residents at Church Wharf. Ali remembers that there were “quite a few young couples on the river” at the time and there was a whole community of people with common interests. Their children would play together on the wharf and all went to the same local school. Christmas was often a communal affair, with cooking shared between the boats, Sue remembers that “it was all great fun”. By the 1980s there were seven residential craft moored at Church Wharf.
It was at this point in the 1980s that wider changes on the river began to take place, as commercial operations dwindled. Derelict wharves and industrial sites along the river were steadily being taken over for the development of riverside homes and offices, which were highly profitable. This impacted on the people living on the river, and the fragility of things like moorings rights and permissions started to become much more of a concern than they had been previously. The residents at Corney Reach anticipated such changes, but were able to develop a good relationship with Hounslow Council in order to prevent the eviction of the boats to make way for development. Together, the residents of Church Wharf formed the Church Wharf Company and set forward proposals for what the site could look like after development of the land and the moorings. These ideas were well received and led to the formation of the Corney Reach Development Trust, which brought together a partnership of local people, boatowners, Hounslow Council and the developers.
After a delay in 1990, the plans continued to go ahead and in 1996 Chiswick Pier opened. The original plans drawn up by the residents had largely been stuck to and Chiswick Pier consisted of a central pier where trip boats could stop, residential moorings for eight historic boats, moorings for visiting boats, and a pier house with facilities for a charity promoting education about the Thames, a canoe club, and a sea cadet unit. A lifeboat station was added later. This was the first time that the boats at Chiswick had been connected up to the mains sewage. Previously, the residents had relied on generators and Elsan toilets, which had to be carried and emptied into the mains sewers, water tanks (which often froze in winter). Ali described the transition: “we went from 1979 and being very scruffy and having to lug children up and down ladders to being part of quite an exclusive residential development.” Despite these changes, many of the residents stayed the same and there still exists a strong community. There are currently eight residential boats moored at Chiswick Pier, which still operates in the same way as planned in the late 1980s, a testament to the original plans.
Life Afloat at Chiswick Pier by Jonathan Wright
After living for twenty-six years in Chiswick in a large house, we bought a Thames Lighter moored at Chiswick Pier. We downsized from 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 3 reception rooms, a big kitchen, cellar, biggish garden and off-road parking to 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 3 reception rooms (2 of them are external decks for Boat-Race watching), a big kitchen/dining-room, an unexpected under-deck storage space, a small deck ‘garden’, a parking-place and a shed. The house was built in 1886; the houseboat was younger, dating from 1926. We bought Cecilia in January 2013, refurbished her and moved in in October. Until we actually bought her we had no plans to live afloat but since then have no regrets whatsoever in having done so.
We faced a far from unusual down-sizing problem: having been self-employed for 25 years, we needed to generate a pension; our three daughters had, sort of left home, but needed big chunks of money to help fund their first owned houses/flats; we wanted enough space to house our two dogs, two cats, two fish and around four thousand books.
We had worries. Would there be enough space not only for our family and animals but also for the considerable mountain of stuff we had accumulated? Would the boat be as cold and damp as most of our friends none of whom had lived on a boat) seemed to relish telling us? Could we live with the constant movement of a vessel that was afloat for half the day and sitting on a barge-bed for the rest of the time? Would it prove to be too expensive; boats are relatively cheap to buy but are expensive to moor?
It is fine. It is better than fine. We hope it will be our home for the rest of our lives. The location, regarded by some as “the best on the Thames”, is wonderfully beautiful and busy. The river is never dull or boring. Constant activity from the set-pieces - the Boat Race, the Great River Race, the Head of the River Races - to the not so set pieces of amateur rowing, sailing or motoring. Wild-life sightings include a local kingfisher and a visit from a young seal. An older heron sits most days on our roof contemplating its heronic navel.
But, best of all are the people: eight boats, twelve residents and efficient landlords - a genuine community with an inclusive spirit. All help all. Five of the boats at least are owned by talented DIY enthusiasts all of whom willingly (and freely) help the others (mostly us). We decided early on that our best role is to host parties.
We have had one moment of horror when a mooring-line snapped after a particularly aggressive wash. All our lines, including water, electricity and sewage broke and only very fast action from our neighbours in Regatta and the very local RNLI life-boat secured our boat and our future.
We have learned that the Boat Race spawns a large number of new best friends - we were sixty-two for the 2016 Race. Indeed the boat seems to have become a popular visiting place for both friends and acquaintances especially at about sunset.
There is one strange thing: the turn-over of boat-owners is considerable. Of the eight boats, six have changed hands in the last decade or so, five in the last four years. Perhaps “Life Afloat” does not suit everyone for ever. We plan to be an exception.
Cubitts Yacht Basin
In 1914 an ornamental lake in the grounds of Grove House in Chiswick was turned into a basin and a lock constructed to provide access to the River Thames. Here, Cubitts Concrete Construction Company (later Cubitts Shipbuilding and Engineering Dry Dock Co) built concrete barges which carried ammunition to France during the First World War.
The first houseboats arrived in 1920. In 1923 the site (then called Cubitts Dock or The Port of Chiswick) was bought by Chiswick Urban District Council and by late 1925 the British Motor Boat Company acquired a lease on the site. An article in The Times of 15 October 1925 states “it is not the intention of the club either to turn out boats who are already in the dock, or to increase the fees at present in force.”
By February 1927, about 36 craft of all sorts and sizes were established in the dock. In 1928 the charge for mooring varies from 15s to 25s per week for vessels over 85’ in length down to between 2s to 4s for craft under 25’ in length. A fee of £1 was charged for working the lock and an additional docking or undocking fee of 3s was also made.
By 1932 it became Cubitts Yacht Basin and had become a floating village of about 50 houseboats. In 1936 the basin was acquired for development and notice to quit the site was issued in 1939, but this was prevented by the onset of the Second World War.
In 1937 Cubitts Yacht Basin was described in WM Jameson’s book Sunfinders: A Floating Home as: “an artificial sheet of water about two aces in extent, separated from the Thames by a massive concrete gate, which is only opened at spring tides. A staff of shipwrights is maintained to undertake repairs and alterations. There is an excellent hard, and a slipway on to which yachts of up to 150 tons can be floated when the dock is flooded. Many yachtsmen, however, undertake their own work. Electric light and the telephone can be laid on to any boat, and water tanks can be filled by hosepipe once a week by the resident steward. Each craft can have her own gangway to the shore. Many business people keep their yachts here all year round when they are not away cruising. The dock is five minutes’ walk from Grove Park Station, from which Waterloo can be reached in twenty minutes.”
In the 1950s British Pathe made two short films about life at the basin. The first in 1951 was called Floating Village , the second, in 1958 was called Showgirls’ Houseboat . In 1958 Thames Village was built on the site adjacent to the basin. This in-filled gravel pit had been occupied with caravans until 1952.
A development proposal in 1965 was rejected after a public enquiry but in 1969 the houseboats were forced to leave and in 1972 the basin was strengthened and made smaller and development plans for Chiswick Quay were approved. The first houses were completed in 1974.
Life at Cubitts Yacht Basin with Betty Leese
In 1947 you could buy a decent house for £1,500 but for some strange reason, when my father was invalided out of the army he bought a converted Motor Torpedo Boat called Athene. She cost £2,000, was eighty-two feet long and was moored in Cubitts Yacht Basin in Chiswick. Most MTBs are about 60ft but the Athene was American.
My father [Mark Leese] later died, leaving my mother with two girls (I was 12 and my sister Marcia was 14) and our brother Brian was 18-months-old. We all moved on to MTBAthene but without my father. It's not easy for a woman to live on a boat on her own. We did manage of course, but there was no money to put aside for repairs which you do need to do.
When we first moved onto the boat I went to Strand-on-the-Green School and walked home along the towpath past The City Barge and The Bull and along Hartington Road. Later, I went to Chiswick County School. Later, my sister contracted TB and spent her days in the wheelhouse of the Athene or in a sanatorium.
In my opinion, one of the best boats to live on is the Thames Barge. They're very big, quite wide and comfortable, apart from the keel. A Motor Torpedo Boat is good, but it has to be without the engine. The boats were moored quite close together. Everybody had a gangplank. You always knew when somebody was coming because the top of the gangplank started creaking. The milkman and grocery shops didn’t seem to mind delivering onto boats. One of the suppliers, long gone now, was the onion man who come over from France. 
One of the problems was that Cubitts was so far from any amenities. It was a long walk to the shops and local transport. Also it was quite isolated, surrounded by playing fields. The 71 bus took you to Richmond, but when you arrived in Chiswick there were no houses visible. It was very scary at night. From the bus stop we had to walk past the playing fields, along an unpaved road with trees overhead and then down the steps to the yacht basin. I felt save once I could see the lights from the boats. 
There were not many young children in Cubitts but we did know Sheila and Meryl Ffoulkes-Jones who lived on Cherokee. I could row and skull although I was quite small although dinghies are usually a bit too heavy for girls,
I never felt there was anybody at Cubitts Yacht Basin who was odd or weird or frightening. I think it was very respectable community. Just people who had just chosen for one reason or another to live on a boat. Not a wise financial decision because boats generally didn’t appreciate in value.
Captain Warwick lived aboard Ariel with his wife and three boys. He was Captain of the Queen Elizabeth. When Captain Warwick was at sea, his wife had to deal with the boys. If she was cross with them they would hop into a dingy and row out to the middle of the water and would follow them on the footpath. One of the boys, Ronnie, became Commodore Ronald Warwick, Captain of the QE2.
Another famous person who lived there, although we didn't know him personally, was the playwright John Osborne. John was living with his friend Anthony Creighton aboard MY Egret. 
1947 was a terrible winter. The water froze, and the ice was so thick a man rode a motorbike on it. We couldn’t skate because there was so much debris frozen in the surface – twigs and leaves etc. We could walk on it quite easily though. Getting fuel was a nightmare as the coal delivery trains were frozen in the sidings. This was a contrast to the Summer when the water was totally covered in duck weed.
The main living area on the Athene always referred to as the saloon. The cabins were always referred to with their nautical names. We had normal furniture and a coal fire. . The Rayburn cooker in the galley was run on Calor Gas - very heavy cylinders which were delivered. We had water in a big tank and, of course, the dreaded Elson toilet, which you had to pump. We had a phone, but people planning to drop in never thought to call. They think of a visit to a boat was a way of entertaining their guests.
The yacht basin was run by Miss Myfannwy Prys . She was very fierce, like a headmistress and ensured the high standards in the yacht basin. For example, hanging washing on deck was forbidden.
Our life on the boat came to a sad end. In August 1958 we woke up to water coming in, causing the bilge boards to float up. We managed to get off, but then the Athene sank. The firemen were called and they began pumping, but the vessel eventually settled on the riverbed, with filled with 8ft of water. There was no way we could live on it after that, it was completely ruined. My family had lived on board the Athene for 11 years.
- Interview with Elmer Postle, London, 13 April 2016
- Interview with Victor Alonso, London, 27 April 2016
- Interview with Elmer Postle, London, 13 April 2016
- Email correspondence with John Ritchie, May – June 2016
- ‘A Prospect of Chiswick Mall’ by Mark Bence-Jones, Tatler & Bystander, 25 March 1964
- ‘It was her last voyage’, Brentford and Chiswick Times, 20 January 1972
- Interview with Imogen Stubbs, London, 30 March 2016
- Email correspondence with John Ritchie, May – June 2016
- Interview with Victor Alonso, London, 27 April 2016
- Interview with Denis Postle, London, 30 March 2016
- Interview with Ali Taylor, London, 13 April 2016
- Interview with Sue Gurney, London, 29 March 2016
Life at Cubitts Yacht Basin with Betty Leese
- “My father owned MTB Ariel and I lived aboard as a youngster. He sold it in about 1953. I have recently found an invoice for mooring charges dated September 1953. He was charged £2 2s 6d per week plus an additional 1/- a week for water . All the Royal Mail for the boats was delivered to one office. Miss Prys gave me half a crown a week to deliver the letters to the boats. I used to do this every morning before walking to school in Strand-on-the-Green.” [taken from Notes 24, 27, 36 & 41 by BosunsMate]
- “Many families are living in converted boats of varying shapes and sizes. It is a haven for people of all ranks and professions. The basin is one of the peaceful spots left in an all-too bustling London.” Quoted from Picture Post of 28 October 1950 which featured an article called London’s Floating Village by Anthony Carson with photographs by Charles Howitt. “The boat dwellers are of all kinds – business men, teachers, artists, retired professionals and Service men. Income groups of all types. There is even a farmer from Romney Marshes, who arrived here a year ago with his wife, and has taken to the Basin like a duck to water.”
- “In 1955 the 27-year old was a struggling actor and untried playwright. In June that year he completed Look Back in Anger and by the following August it had been rejected by every theatrical management and play agent he could find. His fortunes turned when the English Stage Company optioned the play and took Osborne on as actor, understudy and play reader.” [taken from: The Cinema of Tony Richardson: essays & interviews. Edited by James Walsh. p67]
- “My God Mother Myf Prys was the manager of the Basin during and after the war. She lived aboard a residential Thames Barge called Hibernia. Her pride was that every usable craft was made available for Dunkirk and those not “friendly” were towed to the middle of the basin and left.” [see note 2 posted by Judith Hilton]