The History of the Thames at Richmond: Part 1
Updated: Feb 17
The Thames around Richmond has a really rich and fascinating past, and every time we get out on the river we paddle past palaces, historic houses, bridges and islands with intriguing stories.
In this series of blog posts, two of our paddleboard coaches, Nigel and Sophy, explore the history of our beautiful stretch of the river - from Richmond up to Teddington – described as you’d see it from a paddleboard. In Part 1 we explore our immediate environs, from Richmond Bridge, down to the Lock and back.
We start our trips from our floating pontoon, moored up next to Richmond Bridge. The pontoon was originally built for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and contained an engine powering two huge flapping wings – apparently still stored in boatyard in Chatham. There used to be a floating restaurant on the pontoon, called The Boat, between the shore and our shed. It sunk in 2015. Rumour has it, it will return later in 2021.
Richmond Bridge is the oldest surviving bridge on the upper Thames. It was built from Portland stone (like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster) between 1774 and 1777 to replace the ferry that had carried passengers across the river since medieval times. The huge blocks of stone were transported on barges along the river and hoisted up manually by the builders. The bridge was widened in 1937-40 to accommodate increasing traffic.
The original plan was to build the bridge just downstream at the foot of Water Lane by the White Cross pub, but the landowner on the Twickenham bank refused to allow it.
Tolls of ½ penny were charged for foot passengers crossing the bridge until 1859, with increasing rates for other vehicles or animals. A coach drawn by 6 horses paid 2s 6d, and a “drove of calves, hogs, sheep or lambs” paid 6d per score. (Sixpence per twenty).
The bridge was financed by a tontine (a mix of investment and gambling) whereby all the investors shared the profits from the toll. As each investor died, the profits were shared by a smaller and smaller pool, until the last survivor received all the profits. Investors typically nominated their youngest child or grandchild, taking on the risks of high infant mortality. Females tended to live longer, and indeed the final tontine holder was a woman who was 12 months old when she was nominated – and 86 when she died in 1859. For the last 5 ½ years of her life she received all the profits, equivalent to about £40k a year in today’s money. The Thames at Richmond has frozen over18 times in the last 400 years, the last time in 1855, when ice hockey was played next to the Bridge.
You can still rent rowing boats from Richmond Bridge, although only a few are now available. It used to be one of the most popular pastimes in London, particularly as Richmond became easily accessible with the opening of the railway from London in 1846. From 1870 -1939 there were around 4,000 pleasure boats for hire between Richmond and Teddington, with 26 different boat hire firms between Petersham and Richmond Railway Bridge – with each firm taking business in turn operating like a taxi rank. The business died off once greyhound racing took off as a spectator sport in the 1920s, hence the phrase “they’ve all gone to the dogs”.
Now only one boat hire business remains, run by Mark Edwards the boat builder. He builds traditional wooden rowing boats - wherries, skiffs, rowbarges and shallops (the Daimler of the river) from the arches next to our pontoon, and even built a wooden submarine for the BBC. Mark built the shallop Jubilant for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the 90ft long rowing barge Gloriana for her Diamond Jubilee, and received an MBE in 2013 for services to boat building. Both Gloriana and Jubilant are very much in use, rowed by local schools and scout groups.
Heading downstream from the pontoon we pass Richmond’s Riverside development, with its controversial modern buildings in mock Classical style, built by Quinlan Terry in the 1980’s. Only two of the buildings are old – Heron House (1693) and Tower House (1856) just above our pontoon and the Pitcher and Piano. Heron House, owned by the Duke of Queensbury, was lent to Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s lover, after Nelson’s death.
The Slug & Lettuce pub was once a brewery, built in 1720 to much local opposition due to the “smoke, filth and stench”. In 1870 it was purchased to house Richmond’s waterworks.
Water Lane, the cobbled lane running up to the High Street, follows the course of an old stream, and was the main route used to bring the goods from the barges stopping at the drawdock into town. If you walk up it you will notice that the cobbled setts are angled to give the ponies pulling the carts traction. The smooth central stones are for the cartwheels to run without friction.
The drawdock by the White Cross was once a thriving trading hub, with barges loading an unloading coal and other goods - the pub was originally called The Waterman’s Arms.
Outside the White Cross is St Helena Pier, used by Turk Launches, who run riverboat cruises up and down the Thames. Their two boats, The Southern Belle and The New Yarmouth Belle are Mississippi style paddle-steamers – Southern Belle features a stern-wheel, while the New Yarmouth Belle has side-wheels. Turks are a family run business, who have been building and operating boats on the Thames at Richmond and Kingston for centuries. The family claim to have been acting as boatbuilders and ferrymen for over 800 years!
You may also spot the Princess Freda pleasure boat, operated by Colliers Launches. She saw active service in the Second World War when she was one of the “little ships” that helped evacuate troops from Dunkirk in June 1940.
Further downstream you pass Friars Lane, at the end of the row of boathouses underneath St Helena Terrace. There was a Friary here, for the Fransiscan Grey Friars who Henry VII housed here. They were expelled in 1534 when they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
Next we come to Asgill House with its famous octagonal rooms and the grounds of Richmond Palace originally built as Shene Palace by Henry V and established as Richmond Palace by Henry VII. Shene was originally a manorial estate, and under Edward III a moated manor house was built here as a royal palace. In 1383, Richard II, aged just 16 married Anne of Bohemia, and built a love nest on the aits (small islands opposite), possibly on the Flowerpot Islands (of which more later). When Anne died young, Richard ordered all the buildings to be dismantled. Henry V then rebuilt it as a great wooden palace, and when that burnt down in 1497 Henry VII built the spectacular brick and white stone palace that was one of greatest architectural feats of the time. It became the centre of royal life for the next 150 years, until being demolished during the English Civil War.
It was there that Catherine of Aragon was sent by Henry VIII after being swapped with Anne Boleyn. Her daughter, Queen Mary spent her honeymoon there with the future Phillip of Spain. It was the next queen, Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth’s favourite palace, as it was warmer and less smelly than the others. It was there Elizabeth was compelled, against her wishes, to agree to the death-sentence for Mary Queen of Scots, and where she used the first flushing loo to be installed in England, designed by her favourite god-son, and also where she died in 1603.
After Charles I was executed, the Palace it was sold and demolished within 10 years, and now only a few traces, such as the Gate House, remain.
Richmond Palace was a favoured home to Elizabeth I and was a residence of the royal family until the execution of Charles I. After that it was sold and demolished within 10 years, and now only a few traces, such as the Gate House, remain.
The towpath from here to Kew was built by the City of London Corporation starting in 1777 to allow barges to be drawn up the river. Rather than appropriating the land of the (very reluctant) private riverbank landowners, the Corporation drove pilings into the river to add a fresh margin to the river bank, which was then filled in to become the towpath. The pilings and the City labourers working on them were initially attacked by a gang of coal-heavers and watermen, armed with axes and saws. It took a file of soldiers to suppress the trouble and arrest the delinquents.
We head under Richmond Rail Bridge, built by Joseph Locke (who worked with George Stephenson) in 1848 just after the Windsor, Staines and South Western Railway was given the go ahead. Next to the railway bridge stands a Water Board kiosk which has steps leading down to an inspection tunnel that runs under the river to the Twickenham side, where there is a similar kiosk. It is thought that the tunnel was used to inspect a water main that ran under the river here.
Twickenham road bridge was built as part of the Great Chertsey Road in 1933 by Maxwell Ayrton, designer of Wembley Stadium, putting an end to the ferry service that used to run from this
site. It is Britain’s first ferro-concrete bridge and contains articulating hinges to allow movement, with the arches resting on cork bases. The bridge is clad with bronze plate and similarly bronze street lights, although they are subject to frequent theft.
On the towpath on the right you can just see two obelisks. They were erected to achieve a median line to orientate the observatory , now in the middle of the Royal Mid Surrey golf-course, for the young George III to observe the Transit of Venus, the same one Captain Cook had sailed to Tahiti to observe and report on.
Richmond Lock was built in 1894 with a pedestrian bridge connecting Richmond to St Margaret’s. At the time it was one of the most advanced feats of engineering in the world, and was built to ensure the river from Richmond to Teddington was always navigable, irrespective of the tide.
Old London Bridge, with its 19 arches and 4 water wheels, acted as a weir in terms of maintaining river levels upstream, and also helped regulate the speed of the tide. When it was demolished in 1831 the increase in river flow resulted in the tides rising and falling far faster in the upper tidal Thames and leaving no more than a little stream during the ebb tide. The Thames above Richmond Lock up to Teddington became unnavigable during the twice daily low tides, and the river also stank due to the sewage and industrial products that were released into the river and no longer washed away. Too much for the sensitive noses of the rich Richmond residents, who commissioned the lock!
Richmond Lock is in fact a half-lock, letting some of the river flow through it whilst maintaining a depth of water upstream at 1.72m, making the river fully navigable between Richmond and Teddington and a lot less pungent.
The three central sluice gates, each weighing 38 tons, are lifted twice a day for two hours either side of High Tide, allowing boats to pass through the bridge. At other times they need to go through the lock on the right (or for kayaks and paddleboards, you can carry your craft through the left hand arch – next to the Middlesex bank)..
The Port of London Authority who police the river from Teddington to the sea have a base and patrol boats at Richmond Lock.
Turning back upstream, we head along the Middlesex bank and Duck's Walk. Here we find a plaque commemorating the remarkable Commander Charles Lightoller. Charles was the senior surviving officer on the Titanic and was the last individual to be rescued from the stricken ship. In his later years Charles piloted his motor yacht, Sundowner during the evacuation of Dunkirk and after the war he ran the Richmond Slipways boat building business. A true local hero.
We then come to the Flower Pot Islands and the larger Corporation Island.
The Flower Pot Islands were originally one island (possibly home to Richard II’s love nest), but were divided into two in 1796 on the orders of the Duke of Queensbury, who’s house overlooked them, possibly to improve his view.
As you go past the Flower Pots you will see Lillian, a large white boat – a large white motorised yacht – the oldest surviving diesel gentleman’s yacht in the world, originally built for a corrupt Danish millionaire banker in 1916. It was later owned by the Bollore family in France, and then used as a training ship for Sea Cadets at Windsor. The couple who live on it now have been there for 40 years and occasionally go on trips (including across the Channel and up to the Baltic).
Originally named Richmond Ait, Corporation Island was renamed to mark Richmond’s new Borough status in 1890, when it became the Corporation of Richmond. The island is uninhabited and densely wooded with various Willows and Black Poplars. It is home to a nesting colony of grey heron – you can see the nests high up in the trees on the downstream end of the island.
Photos of The Beatles were taken on Corporation Island in April 1969 – the second last time they were all photographed together. (The last time was 4 months later at John Lennon’s house near Ascot).
We now paddle upstream, under Richmond Bridge, towards Twickenham and Teddington, past the modern development on our left, once the site of Richmond Ice Rink, which was demolished in 1992.
Our journey upstream, past the houses of rock stars, royalty and some fairly risqué sculptures will continue in our next blog!