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Liquid history - transcript

[please note – there may be some minor differences between the script and the final version of the recording]

Track 1

Liquid History: the Elmbridge riverside audio trail

The route is along public footpaths, please stay aware of your surroundings when walking and listening to this recording. This walk can take an hour to complete. Give yourself enough time to reach the end before dark.

Hello, my name is Toby Butler. I have lived in this neighbourhood for many years and I would like to take you on a short adventure along my favourite stretch of the River Thames. In 1929 the politician John Burns said, "The Saint Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history." So come and discover some of that history now starting at the information board for the trail on Cigarette Island . It's within sight of Hampton Court Bridge and Hampton Court railway station.

Please make sure you have your earphones on the right way – this is the left side and this is the right side.

The view from the bank of Cigarette Island must surely be one of the finest on the Thames . Since the railway was built in 1849 countless Londoners have taken the short train journey out of London to escape the smoke and smog of the city to come here for fresh air and pleasure – and of course to see the palace that you can see on the bank in front of you. Hampton Court Palace was just one attraction here, but what an attraction.

On the bank where we are standing gypsies and travellers have camped for centuries, and osiers have collected willow rods for basket making. In the 19 th century house boats moored up to the island, several of which were owned by famous music hall stars including Marie Lloyd. The island gets its name from one of these houseboats, the Cigarette, which was owned by the MP and Mayor of Hammersmith Sir Henry Foreman. On the island itself a little shanty town of sheds, carriages and caravans grew. In 1931 the island was bought by the council to curb what they described as 'ever-increasing nuisance of caravan dwellers and occupiers of sheds'. The caravans and houseboats were ordered to leave and have never returned. The land was cleared and turned into the park you see today.

A few years ago one houseboat came back here for a short time – long enough for me to get married. It was my own boat and I decided that this would be the perfect place for a houseboat wedding. Lets hear from a couple of the wedding guests

Lewis Gibson (wedding guest)

These two guys who are getting married, they live on a barge by the river and they, uh, the barge came down, I'd never even seen it work before. And it started coming down, and it was completely covered in flowers, and standing on top of the roof, um, like in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, have you seen the poster for that, there's Liz, the bride looking beautiful in this big wonderful white dress, standing on top of the barge, sailing down the Thames.

Doug Board (bride's father)

It was blowing quite hard of course and one of the things we were worried about was our top hats blowing off into the river. And we got on this boat and I said where do you want me. No you've got to stand up on top. (laughs). I had to stand up on top with Liz and somebody else and that young lad you've got to take the boat down, he'd not driven it before and I thought, oh Jesus, what's going to happen if something comes and we're on this all organised and hadn't even had a trial run you know. So we got on this boat and we started going down the river. Everything stopped. Absolutely everything stopped. And we got as far as the bridge and went under the bridge, and the bridge suddenly the traffic stopped and people were in hoards on this bridge all shouting and waving and clapping and all their boats blowing sirens. And then we, as you probably know, we made one pass to try and get in and missed that one and had to come back and have another go, but eventually got tied up and I said, I must say, I was very relieved that we got there. Oh it was fun, tremendous, what a day.

Hayley Long

A boat coming up the river with the bride and groom standing on top of it, the best man etcetra and looking amazing. And it was one of the most amazing sights, it was like, it was like a floating wedding cake coming up the river but it was also two people being joined who lived on the river. With all of us standing on the edge of the river watching again a new, whole new chapter start in two peoples lives, a whole new era opening up for people. And then also people making vows, that were, you know life long vows, on the water. And then of course then we had musicians standing on the bank and people singing and it was very hard to get the sound right from people who were sitting on the boat, standing on the boat, to what was going on on the bank, and because of the acoustics in the area or something like that, but we all ended up singing this song at completely different paces and no-one could hear the other person singing at their pace, and that was just a lovely moment as well, it was just a lovely sunny moment.

Lewis Gibson (guest and violin player)

We were all out of sync and basically this echo situation happened. It was completely chaotic and it ended with Toby having to stop the whole thing from the boat and everyone was laughing and it was funny and it was a fantastic moment of musical nonsense. (singing and laughing)

A couple of musicians from Hampton Court who were mates came over to play some tunes. And they came along and they played some wonderful period dances for us and we learnt some dances, I think it was two dances, a figure of eight dance and a circle dance and a big chain dance and so you had this big crowd of different sized, different aged people from tiny little kids in frilly dresses, to elderly ladies – in frilly dresses - all kind of dancing away to bagpipes.

I think it must have looked to passers by, there was all these kind of cruise ships passing by, a very strange affair, because it was just here, on Cigarette Island, just with benches on and dog poo bins and things, and fisherman and a bit of rubbish and sort of people on bikes and joggers and so on, and then there was this wedding going on, people in formal attire having a wedding, and skipping around and dancing away to bagpipes and drums, and it felt bizarre and looked bizarre and was very beautiful, very moving and very simple, to have a space like that occupied by an event like that. I don't think it ever happened there before and I don't think it'll ever happen there again.

Cross the busy road at one of the pedestrian crossings and join me upstream on the riverbank – you can check the map on the marker to find the next listening point.


Track 2

Opposite boat club

Here we join the Thames on what is now part of the Thames Path National Trail, which runs from the source of the Thames in Lechlade to the sea and it is 294 kilometres long, and is much used by walkers and cyclists. Much of the route is along the old tow path that used to be used by horses to pull boats along the river. Timber, coal and beer barges were once a very common sight here supplying communities and industries along the river, but from the 1950s the freight began to move to the roads and since the 1970s a barge carrying cargo would be a very rare sight indeed. Once a year the narrowboat trust brings coal from the midlands and sells it to the houseboat owners here, but that is about it. But the river is still very busy – but now it is rowers, pleasure cruisers and fisherman who make up the traffic, and the bridge can get very busy when there are special events at the palace, like Hampton Court Flower show, when paddle ferries still help to take people across the river.

There was a ferry here to take passengers and horses across the river, until the first wooden bridge with seven arches was built in 1753. Several different bridges have been built here over the years as traffic has increased – you can see the remains of the bridge built in 1865 if you look over to the Mitre Hotel, which has incorporated the old toll house where people had to pay to cross. The two pillars are visable either side of where the sign says ‘bar and brasserie'. On our side of the river the red brick castellated wall of the approach to the old bridge has been listed and preserved as an ancient monument. It was replaced in 1933 with the present bridge which dramatically shifted the bridge traffic away from Bridge Road in East Molesey to the new Hampton Court Way that you crossed earlier.

In very cold winters the bridge helps ice form and sometimes it freezes over entirely from bank to bank. There was even an attempt at a frost fair, where people would enjoy the novelty of feasting on the ice. This notice was printed and posted in 1855:


Glorious News: A sheep to be roasted on the Thames , near the Anglers Retreat, between Hampton and Hampton Court on Friday afternoon, February 23 rd , 1855

Between 2 and 3 o clock , and the public are invited to partake of same. Two barrels of superior ale will be supplied at the same time.

Apparently the ice melted so quickly that Friday that purchasers had to gobble their mutton quickly to avoid getting wet. Very occasionally the river still freezes - in the winter of 1963 the ice was a foot thick and you could walk or skate across the river – some daring youths even took a small motor car out on to the ice.

Turning away from the bridge now, you can see an impressive line of boats moored up at Thames Motor Yacht Club. I spoke to club members Peter Horsfield and Lynn Jones, who told me about the clubs involvement with the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in the second world war.

1930 Was it called originally, the motor, Thames motor cruising club, yeah.

Started off next door actually and we switched over … during the war time, its quite an interesting, yeah, side of it, during the war.

We had five boats go down to Dunkirk , two were lost,

there were more than five

not from our club - it was a certain amount, two were lost, yeah, two didn't come back.

They towed them down to Dover and then towed them across and then they left them and let them go, went to the shore to pick troops up and came back to the bigger ship and unloaded them. And they took a hell of a lot of boats, from all different clubs, all the way down the river.

And some of the owners insisted on going with their own boats otherwise the Navy was supposed to handle them. Some skippers weren't going to part with theirs, anyway, I think we lost two boats and that's why we have the right to fly the blue ensign. If you look most ensigns are red, ours are blue, has no-one got one out at the moment, no, it is a defaced ensign its blue with an ensign in the centre and our own badge on the side. It's a special concession that we are allowed to fly it.

We have taken the boat across to France , Belgium , Holland and we've also been up river quite a lot, which is a bit more work because of all the locks to go through. I'm always on the front throwing the line, yes, he's at the helm, he's alright. But you do get some in the boat club and the wives on the front are not allowed to do anything until they are told to do it. But I always think I'm on the front of the boat and I can see what's in front of me and I can see what's there. We understand each other fairly well, anyway. He always takes the back line, I don't have to run back, some of them have to do the front line then run to the back of the boat to tie that up you know. The general saying in the club is if there's anything a bit difficult, the men usually say that's a job for the wife.

Follow the footpath upstream until you have a good view of Molesey Lock.

Track 3 Lock keeper


[From track 1] You should now be standing in front of Molesey Lock. The lock keeper prefers it if you don't go inside the fenced enclosure, but you can lean against the fence for a great view of the lock traffic, it's usually busy.

This is the largest non-tidal lock on the Thames . The view here has been popular with artists and phototographers over the years, which has left us with a very good idea of how surprisingly little the lock has changed over the last century or so. Three Men in a Boat vividly describes the scene around Molesey Lock in 1889: '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 fashion for caps and blazers may have passed but you don't have to wait here very long in the summer before the lock is filled with people enjoying the river in much the same way and at times Molesey can feel like a holiday resort.

There have been lock keepers here since the lock was built in 1815. Their job was to collect tolls from the boats and help them pass through day and night, and stable horses for the barges. In 1829 the Molesey lock keeper got sacked for taking casks of ale and cheeses from the barges, but I'm sure they can be trusted these days.

I spoke to Steve Bowlam, the lock keeper who lives here with his family.

I'm a lock keeper. I have been doing it just over six years now. This job is what you call a resident lock keeper, so I'm a permanent resident lock keeper here. Now obviously with a house on the site you obviously get, the job itself, you get a lot of people come along to you and say, God what a lovely job you've got. And I have to agree with them, I have got a lovely job. The house makes it a lot easier. I do jog to work sometimes.

If there was no locks and weirs there would be no water left on the Thames . Now it's not just for drinking water we actually have… locks and weirs are for drinking water and navigation. There are locks are to get the boats up to the next level, and the weirs are to maintain a certain level for drinking water.

This one, the one at Hampton here, is actually for Thames tunnel, it is actually pumped up into London . So it comes all the way from here into London .

Flooding - you can't do nothing about it, it is just, you see it on TV, and it is a nightmare - I see it on TV in York last year, and it's awful, but it's, I think it's the way of the future unfortunately. There was a lady here doing a survey the other day. She's doing something for I think it's a rebuild of the Hampton Court station and I think our flood defence here is about 7 meters and something. And she's saying that by, I can't remember exactly what year it was, but it's going to have to be set at about 8.3 meters. So that is quite a significant jump. They are saying it's certain, the 100 year flood plus 20 per cent and you see it's quite high. This, will be under water. I think we are set at 7 meters something now, but yeah, but how d'you do it. You'd have to take, you'd have to rebuild everything now upwards to that 8.3. But that includes houses, so anywhere on the Thames , unless you actually have one big channel that's going to be 8.3 meters and that's it, so the water would constantly go down the centre of it, but then you're not going to see nothing the other side. So there's going to be no river here, it'd just be a big channel. Quite a bad thought actually, we don't really want that.

It would cost, although flooding's a nuisance, it would cost billions and billions of pounds to deal, to put everything right now, but who's got that kind of money. No-one's got that kind of money, certainly the Environment Agency haven't got that kind of money. Um, I know the government haven't got that kind of money, so all they can try and do is just try and sort of keep struggling away as we are now, build up flood defences where they do, they certainly do in London as you probably seen that they've got the big walls up there. Where they've got properties that might flood, they have cappings that they can put on the side of the building, so you can put sheeting that the water can't go through, so that protects the properties that way. Might have to happen here one day, yeah. Certainly might. Especially over the next sort of 20 odd years or 30 years, if this is going to be, if this is going to rise this much. Quite worrying really.

If you go and look on the small building before the lockkeeper's cottage, you can some marks measuring the highest flood levels on the wall – this will give you some idea of how bad it could get. Walk on now until you get to Molesey Boat Club.

Track 4 Ash Island

Standing at the waters edge at Molesey Boat Club, look back towards Hampton Court Bridge you will get a great view of a wooded Island - This is Ash Island, probably named after the trees that have grown there, although it has been known by other names, including Robinson Crusoe Island. The island used to be very vulnerable to flooding and in 1844 it was even reported as having been ‘washed away'. Parts of the island have been dredged away and the soil used to build up the island to its present height and it plays an important part of the flood defences here. In about 1850 a man named Joseph Harvey built a wooden beer house opened here with a skittle alley and tea gardens, and it was called the Angler's Retreat. He was fined on several occasions for selling beer on a Sunday during morning service – to catch him the police disguised themselves as gardeners. Eventually flooding drove Harvey to move his beer house on to Taggs Island where he rebuilt it with bricks.

Molesey Boat Club built their first headquarters on Ash Island in 1866, formed after a local crew were refused membership at Kingston Rowing Club. They organised a regular regatta which became second only to Henley in size. In 1901 a ‘bathing station' was built here to allow easy access to the river for swimming. Later an outdoor swimming pool was built near Molesey Lock. After the second world war a boatyard was established by a rowing club member, Tommy Allen, and he eventually established a fleet of hire boats, a bungalow and a business letting out moorings to houseboats which is still run by his family.

I lived on a houseboat here for nearly 10 years. To tell you something of what it is like to live afloat here, I decided to talk to Howard who is the most experienced boat dweller on the island.

My name is Howard Bissell, I've lived on the river since 1971 which makes it 33 years. It's cold outside but as you can see it's a very small space to heat. I have a diesel floor-mounted stove there and it's toasty warm almost instantly and very economical to run so, an old wooden boat - no you shouldn't be cold at all, easy to keep warm. You have to have a chemical toilet, you're not allowed to discharge into the river, which is a good thing of course, so then you have to dispose of it. Here on the island we have a cesspit so you have to lug the bucket up to the cesspit, empty it and wash it out. Me on my own, that's a weekly chore.

It is odd, if you notice these boats are three deep so I've got to walk over 2 neighbour's boats to get ashore and back again. So yes we're very, we're close like that, and if anybody's in trouble, if the boat starts taking water or, god forbid, fire which has happened, then everybody leaps to and it usually sorts out very quickly. But people tend to be quite private, you know if you have your windows shut, doors shut and curtains drawn people don't sort of, you know, you're not living in each other's pockets.

I mean, when I first moved on, one of my neighbours he was a middle-aged gentleman, seemed ever so old then, an air traffic controller at London Heathrow and he had a still on board and it got to him in the end - died of cirrhosis of the liver. His beer he brewed was excellent but the spirit was a bit over proof and tasted like aftershave. But when he died we had to break in, you know, because his daughter was coming down to sort out the boat and we didn't want her to find the still so that went overboard pretty damn quick.

Now walk on and pass Molesey Cricket Club, which has a café if you would like to stop for refreshment. Look out for the bright green rose-ringed parakeets who like the trees around here. They are native to Africa and India . One theory is that that they escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of the African Queen in 1951, and they have been here ever since. After the cricket club you will find a bench with a good view of the next island, Taggs Island .

Track 5 Taggs Island

Taggs Island was once known as Walnut Tree island. It used to be populated by squatter families who cut willow rods here to be made into baskets. They were evicted in 1850 by a property speculator who bought the island and leased it out to Joseph Harvey, who moved his pub here from Ash Island , and to Thomas Tagg who set up a business renting skiffs and punts. His son took over and became a famous boat builder, making launches for an impressive client list. In 1872 he took over the Angler's retreat, demolished it and built a fine hotel and restaurant which became very fashionable. Enormous houseboats for the rich became particularly popular along this stretch of river because they could be moved into position for the rowing regattas, providing an extremely luxurious and prestigious home and grandstand combined. Taggs Island became surrounded by them. For example an enormous boat called the Satsuma was built here in 1888. It had six bedrooms, stained glass windows, two pianos and was 20 feet high.

In 1883 an article in the Daily Telegraph described how it had become popular for three or four young men to hire a houseboat for the summer and commute to their offices using the railway, free from the responsibility of servants, they would cook for themselves and sit on deck as the starts came out, smoking and chatting. The lifestyle was also popular with artists and journalists. For example JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, rented a houseboat here at this time and wrote much of his early work on the river here.

This spot also used to be a popular place to come on Sunday evenings, when Mr Bradford, the owner of the Gypsy, one of the houseboats here, used to light brightly coloured lanterns and play an old fashioned brass horned gramophone from the upper deck. These free concerts were very popular and people used to gather here and in punts on the river to listen. Imagine the scene here on a warm summer evening.

Show business has had a very long connection with the island after the hotel was taken over by a houseboat resident, Fred Wescott. He was an acrobat and an entertainer who used to busk at Molesey Lock at weekends. The busy lock had a captive audience and after his act the boaters would toss coins into a net that he passed round. His stage name was Fred Karno and he became famous for his music hall variety show which included performers who would become world famous such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Max Miller. It is also said that he invented the custard pie routine so beloved by circus clowns ever since.

He always dreamed on living on one of the fine houseboats on Taggs Island , and when he had made his fortune he commissioned a new houseboat that was moored here, the Astoria . There is one account of a visit from Charlie Chaplin, who would have been employed as an actor by Karno at the time. Chaplin was said to have been very taken with the place, but he soon left for America , destined for a career in film.

Fred Karno took on the lease for the hotel in 1913 and converted it into a ‘Karsino', a hotel, restaurant, theatre and pleasure gardens with a resident orchistra and a Palm Court that could seat 800 people. A small ferry would take guests to and from the island; you could hire punts, play croquet, tennis and badmington and for a time it was very popular.

The first world war and the popularity of the motor car and then the cinema meant that Karno's expensive river resort fell out of fashion. The business eventually failed and Karno was bankrupt in 1927. The hotel changed hands may times. It's new owner built an ice rink in the grounds but even this failed. Eventually the rink and the covered tennis courts were converted to a factory for AC cars, who made invalid carriages and the trains for Southend Pier. In 1971 the hotel was finally demolished by a property developer who planned to build a new hotel and then blocks of flats on the island. Before any building began the developer went bankrupt and the now overgrown island was eventually bought by houseboat residents once again. Today you can see many modern equivalents of the old floating palaces in this thriving floating community.

Walk on until you get to Hampton Ferry, where you will find a large historical marker and plenty of places to sit if you wish. You will soon see Fred Karno's houseboat, the Astoria moored up on the other side of the river, a few hundred yards after you pass Taggs Island . It was built in 1913 and it was designed to allow a 90 piece orchestra play on the deck. Now it is owned by Dave Gilmore, who installed a recording studio and has recorded two Pink Floyd albums there – in that respect the show business connections continue.

Track 6

You should be at the Heritage Marker overlooking Hampton Ferry. This is Hurst Park , which used to be common meadow that commoners could graze their cattle between hay harvests. The large, flat and relatively unregulated expanse of land between communities made it the place perfect for sport and from the 18 th century it became a popular place for cricket, archery, prize fighting, horse racing – have a look at the Hertage Marker to get a better idea of the sheer variety of activities that happened here.

It was perhaps best known for horse racing. The course was not enclosed so entry was free and in the 19 th century it was estimated that the Hampton Races could attract over 100,000 people on a race day, an event that would rival the Glastonbury Festival in scale today. Special trains from London and steamers brought Londoners to what became known as the ‘cockney derby' and there were dozens of drinking tents, stalls, bands, fortune tellers, gambling stalls and sideshows. Gypsies, travellers and hawkers would camp here the week before and each June records show that traveller's babies were baptised at West Molesey Church . The crowds meant the races could be extremely dangerous – tragically the first lock keeper at Molesey Lock was killed under the hooves of a racehorse here. In 1887 the Jockey Club refused to renew the racing licence on the grounds that the course was too dangerous and that was the end of the ‘happy hampton races – until a purpose built, fenced racecourse with grandstands and a club house was built three years later.

In 1913 the race course became internationally famous when it became the target of a protest by suffragettes who were campaigning for women to be allowed to vote in elections. The campaign had already been running unsuccessfully for many years and Christobel Pankhurst began organising an arson campaign to get the issue on to the political agenda. Railway stations, cricket pavilions, golf clubhouses and race courses were targeted. In 1913 the Royal box and grandstand at Hurst Park was burnt to the ground in a fierce fire. Two suffragettes were arrested – Clara Giveen and Kitty Marion. Both were sentenced to three years in prison. Kitty Marion went on hunger strike and was repeatedly force-fed. Eventually she grew so ill she had to be released as the authorities did not want to create a martyr. She had been arrested several times before and said that she had been force fed 232 times in four hunger strikes. The arson campaign was extremely controversial in the suffrage movement at the time and its overall impact on political change is still debated, but Kitty Marion's tenacity and dedication to the cause made her an important figure in the history of the suffragette movement.

After the grandstand was rebuilt, Hurst Park profitably ran race meetings until 1962 when it was sold off for property development and this park was created alongside the new flats and houses. Now the huge fences around the race course have gone the wonderful views across the park between Molesey and Hampton have been restored.

Before we finish I should say something about one of the oldest things here – Hampton Ferry. A recent survey counted 214 bridges of various descriptions across the Thames ; it is hard to imagine a time when fords and ferries were the easiest ways to cross the river, but for centuries there were no bridges between Staines and Kingston . There has been a licenced ferry here since 1514, and I am happy to say it is still going. From March to October you can ring the bell and it will come and take you to Hampton for a very small fee. At Hampton you can find refreshments, enter Bushey deer park , and walk or bus back to Hampton Court . Otherwise you can carry on exploring this side of the river.

The Elmbridge audio trail finishes here, If you have any comments or would like to find other walks like this, contact details and further information is available at the website or This trail has been produced by memoryscape and Elmbridge Borough Council's lesuire and cultural services. We hope you have enjoyed this liquid history trail.

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