20 July 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch goes on a riparian ramble.
It is said that ‘history is what one generation finds interesting about another’. More specifically, anyone interested in the history of rowing tends to be intrigued by ‘the past’ in general, even more so when some aspect of what went before relates to a group or a place or an institution that we know through our own experience. Thus, learning the history of our family, or where we live, or our rowing club, even our workplace, is a far more personal experience than studying King Harold or the War of Jenkins’ Ear (unless you happen to have illustrious uni-eyed or mono-eared ancestors).
The above lithograph has inspired me to look at the history of a small part of a long and famous stretch of rowing water that HTBS Types will either be intimately acquainted with or will know vicariously through their viewing of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race: the Putney – Mortlake ‘Championship Course’ on the River Thames in West London. The section of this famous 4 1/4 miles that I am concerned with here is a few hundred metres of riverside downstream (i.e. towards Putney) of Hammersmith Bridge on the Middlesex Bank, part of which is shown in ‘The Great Race for the Championship of the Thames’.
In both of the above pictures, I have marked the ‘Hammersmith Draw Dock’ with a red arrow. This feature still exists today and, along with the bridge, provides an unchanging marker. The draw dock was the access point for Hammersmith for commercial river traffic, carts loading and unloading goods from flat-bottomed barges resting on the foreshore at low tide.
Regarding the 2014 picture above, the ‘Rosser and Russell’ engineering works, a company with an interesting industrial history, moved to the site in 1874 (though the building in the picture dated to 1953). The ‘Riverside (Film) Studios’ were established in 1933 in the former J&H Gwynne’s Hammersmith Iron Works and over the next 20 years many great British actors worked there, including James Mason, Trevor Howard, Alistair Sim and Alec Guinness. The BBC used it between 1954 and 1974 for numerous memorable television programmes, including Doctor Who. The studios then became a multi-purpose arts space, notably with Samuel Beckett directing Waiting for Godot in 1981. Riverside Studios closed in 2014 but reopened within the new development on the site in 2019.
‘Artistic license’ can be a problem when trying to compare pictures of the same place over time, but, fortunately, the splendid 1829 ‘Panorama of the Thames’ is very reliable. In the ‘comparison’ picture below, I include more of the downstream riverbank.
By lining up the bridge and the draw dock in each picture above, I have got them to the same scale. The left-hand half of the above composite picture shows the same scene as in the 1846, 1851, 2014 and 2020 pictures. ‘Chancellors House’ with the little outbuilding with the distinctive dome is clear in the ’29, ’46 and ’51 illustrations. The ‘dome building’ could be a gateway at the top of some watermen’s steps – as remains at the Houses of Parliament today). By the mid-19th century, the area was increasingly industrialised and built up and Chancellors House was demolished in 1854. In the modern photograph, the new apartment complex, part of a larger ‘Fulham Reach’ development, sits very neatly on its site.
The right hand side of the 1829/2020 comparison picture shows that the ‘site of Brandenburgh House’, which was demolished in 1823, is nowadays occupied by new apartments called ‘Distillery Wharf’ and also by Fulham Reach Boat Club (FRBC), the community boat club and charity founded in 2014 with the primary aim of giving state school children access to rowing. When Brandenburgh House stood on the site, it was home to less altruistic people.
Historically, the land along Fulham Reach was farmland, orchards and market gardens belonging to the Bishops of Fulham. In c.1625, Sir Nicholas Crisp(e), 1598 – 1666, a Royalist and an entrepreneur who was also connected to the slave trade, built what was later to become Brandenburgh House. In the English Civil War in 1647, it was confiscated and used by Thomas Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary forces. Arguably, for a time it was Fairfax and not Cromwell who was the effective military ruler of England. In 1671, the house was bought by Prince Rupert, Charles I’s nephew, for his mistress. Over the next 150 years, various aristocratic owners made extensive improvements and, when the Margrave of Brandenburgh took over in 1792, he made it into a popular place for fashionable society and filled it with paintings by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. In 1820, the house gained its most famous occupant when the now widowed and self-exiled Margravine allowed Queen Caroline and her court to live there.
Queen Caroline was the Germanic former Princess Caroline of Brunswick who, in 1795, had an arranged marriage to her first cousin, Prince George (‘Prinny’, George III’s heir). Unfortunately, the Prince and Caroline were repelled by each other and Prinny needed much brandy to get through the marriage ceremony and the wedding night. Thankfully for both, an heir was conceived during one of their two dutiful attempts, they were separated in less than a year and Caroline returned to Saxony in 1814.
On the death of his father in 1820, Prinny became George IV and Caroline returned to Britain to assert her position as Queen Consort. On trying to enter Westminster Abbey for the Coronation, she was barred on the new King’s orders. George also attempted to divorce her, an action that failed in part because many thought him extravagant, selfish and dissolute while Caroline was, rather strangely, enormously popular with the public who saw her as the wronged wife.
Following the Napoleonic Wars, the country went through a period of radicalism and unrest; by standing up for Caroline’s constitutional rights, it was possible for critics to attack George and the Tory government without being openly subversive or anti-monarchical. Those inside and outside Parliament who wanted social, political and economic reforms used support for Caroline to unite them – hence the pictures below showing Watermen and others arriving at Brandenburgh House by river with an address of support for the Queen.
Caroline died in Brandenburgh House in August 1821. It was still owned by the Margravine, but she had long lived abroad and the place was suffering from dry rot. Within a year, the few remaining contents were sold and, by 1823, it had been pulled down and all the building materials sold – including the single ‘water closet and seat’.
With the destruction of Brandenburgh House, the site may have initially reverted to the bucolic scene illustrated in the 1829 ‘Panorama of the Thames’ but, by 1857 when the Industrial Revolution was literally building up steam, industry reared its ugly head and the Hammersmith (later, the Haig) Distillery was erected there. By 1872, a sugar refinery, the Manbré Saccharine Works (later Manbré and Garton), covered the remainder of the downstream site. These developments were the antithesis of the beauty of the former Brandenburgh House and its grounds.
The story of this little stretch of the Thames is typical of many parts of the riverside; the aristocratic Thameside villas and rural farmlands of the 18th century and earlier were replaced by heavy industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then, in the 21st century, desirable housing, together with modern leisure facilities, returned to line the banks of the ‘liquid history’ that is the River Thames.