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Brentford High Street (or the A315) - a History from Roman to Modern Times
Author - Janet McNamaraJanet McNamara is a member of Brentford & Chiswick and Hounslow and District Local History Societies. She is a local heritage guide in Brentford and for some years has been researching her family history in Yorkshire.
The Origins of the High Street
Brentford was a place of settlement from prehistoric times. The river Brent entered the Thames which was wider and shallower than today and it’s likely that both rivers were able to be forded.
With the foundation of London as the capital of Roman Britain the east /west route was developed to become the main road to the west from London through what is now Shepherds Bush, Chiswick and Brentford to Staines and Silchester with a division at Hounslow to Bath.
This was the main road west from London for nearly 2,000 years. Remains of this Roman road were found during excavations when Somerfield’s supermarket was being built. These are now buried underneath the car park.
A dig near Brentford Lock in 2001 found the ditch that would have been on the north side of the road showing that the original lies underneath the present High street outside the old St Lawrence’s Church. Any other remains are likely to be underneath the present High Street or buildings along its route. The results of other archaeological digs indicate that Brentford was the site of a trading post on the road to the west.
When the Romans left Britain their roads fell into disrepair becoming little more than tracks as the years passed but their routes were still very often followed and are the routes of many of today’s major A roads.Top
Travellers, Robbers and a Market
Travellers walked or rode on horseback for many centuries. Merchants used trains of packhorses or wagons to transport their goods. Livestock for food for the towns was driven in herds along roads, fattened up near the end of their journey and killed on arrival. The staple product of the country was wool and this was carried on packhorses. As a security measure an Act was passed in the late 13th century that required trees and shrubs within 200 feet of either side of the highway between market towns to be cut down as a means of protection against robbers.
As the wealth of the country increased during the 16th century traffic increased on the roads which were still little more than the tracks that had evolved through the previous centuries. They became rutted and full of holes. They were dry and dusty in good weather and wet, muddy and often impassable during the winter.
The road through Brentford was typical.
New Brentford (the town stretching northwards between Half Acre and the bridge) had had a thriving market that attracted traffic from the early 14th century. This was extremely important to the town’s prosperity making it one of the most important places in Middlesex. Good roads were necessary to transfer goods in and out of the town and to London. The proximity of the river also attracted traffic as goods could be transferred to boats and taken to the capital.
Road Upkeep in the 16th Century
By the middle of the 16th century the poor state of the roads all over the country was beginning to hamper trade and an Act of Parliament was passed making the maintenance of the roads the responsibility of the parish through which it passed. The parishes were also required to supply labour and materials to keep the road in good repair.
The local Justices had to appoint a Surveyor who was responsible for inspecting all roads, watercourses and bridges three times a year and reporting back to them under oath. The surveyor was then required to arrange the six days labour which, by law, each member of the community had to perform to make any necessary repairs. The surveyor was not paid and neither were the people who worked repairing the roads in their parish.
The whole system was open to abuse and in Brentford the road ran through three different parishes. From east to west these were Old Brentford in Ealing parish, New Brentford in Hanwell and Brentford End in Isleworth.Top
17th Century New Brentford
By 1635 when a map was drawn by Moses Glover of the Hundred of Isleworth and environs, ‘New Braynforde’ is shown as a continuous row of buildings from west of the bridge to the Half Acre and tells that New Braynforde which together with ye Oulde is Extended one Mille, in one Streete onely.
By 1674 the Justices were ruling that all the inhabitants that have their ways pitched before their dors doe maintayne their pavments and shall not in that year when they amend their pavments work at the highwayes or contribute thereto.
So, if you lived by the road, as most people did, and kept the outside of your house in good repair you would be excused your turn repairing the road but other inhabitants were to do their duty to the highway according to the law.
Daphne Phillips in her book 'The Great Bath Road' describes how, as a result of an Act of 1555 Small communities with limited horizons were responsible for the upkeep of the road. She describes how each parish was required to choose a surveyor each year and how he had power to call on each inhabitant to work for 4, later 6 consecutive days each year mending the roads.
All the tools, carts and teams of horses were to be provided freely and free labour for 8 hours each day that meant that wages were lost. This was known as ‘statute labour’ and was the basis for the country’s highway administration for 300 years.
The lack of knowledge about road building and repair meant that in many places roads were largely made of mud and ruts and holes were filled in with rubbish and stones.Top
The Battles of Brentford and of Turnham Green
The road through Brentford was also very narrow. This was to the advantage of the Parliamentary forces setting up barricades in November 1642. This was done early in the Civil War to repel an attack by the Royalist forces led by King Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert. It held up the proposed advance on London for a whole day and with the delay caused by the Royalists pillaging the town overnight meant that a Parliamentary Army had time to travel out to block the road at Turnham Green and the withdrawal of the King’s forces to Oxford.
Protecting Pedestrians- the 17th Century Approach
Later, in the middle of the 17th century the Justices tried to protect pedestrians by ruling that where the road was 24 feet wide posts and rails should be set four and a half feet from the buildings.
Where it was 21 feet wide the posts and rails should be three feet from the buildings. Where it was narrower the posts only to be sett where it shall be thought convenient, not exceeding two foote from ye house for ye preservation of ye footway and ye passengers that way travelling.
The bridges were also to be widened as there were reports of people falling off into the brook and into the Brent.
The problem of Brentford High Street throughout the centuries has always been the conflicting interests of those wanting to travel straight through the town and those conducting business and moving about within it.Top
18th Century- the Advent of the Turnpike Trusts
When John Rocque drew his map of the environs of London in the 1740s Brentford was still one continuous line of buildings from Kew Ferry to west of Brentford Bridge. There were roads running north to Ealing and Hanwell and only Back Lane and Albany Road running parallel with the High Street. Perhaps this was the way that evolved for pedestrians to avoid the ‘footway’ that was only two feet wide.
The road through the town was, however, a favourite route of King George II who travelled through regularly on his journeys between London and Windsor. It is said that he ordered his coachman to drive slowly through the town as it reminded him of his native kingdom of Hanover.
Early in the 1700s businessmen around the country were realising that their trade and industries could not expand so long as the state of the roads hindered the transport of goods.
The labour and expense of keeping the roads in good repair fell heavily on parishes like those in Brentford crossed by a major route. Changes were made so that the travellers would have to contribute to the cost of repairs and so Turnpike Trusts were established.Top
Turnpike Trust Members
The trusts usually consisted of a number of local gentlemen, landowners, merchants and professional men who petitioned Parliament for an Act to set up a Trust. They then became the trustees responsible for appointing a treasurer, a clerk, gatekeepers and one or more surveyors.
The treasurer and the clerk were sometimes salaried but were only part time officers. The surveyor (who did the lion’s share of the work) was full time and received a salary of about £20 a year. The gatekeepers were paid up to ten shillings a week.
The treasurer was an important and influential officer, responsible for receiving and holding funds, making disbursements and keeping the trust’s accounts. A man of good repute was needed for this situation as his good name would encourage other people to invest in the enterprise.
The clerk was often a local solicitor who dealt with the legal matters of the trust, handled correspondence, placed notices in the press calling meetings and took the minutes of the meetings.
The surveyor’s main duty was to supervise the repair of the road under the direction of the trustees. This involved making detailed reports on the state of the road and any watercourses affecting it, notify them of obstructions needing clearing, places where the road should be widened and negotiate with owners of bridges that needed strengthening or rebuilding.
He was also responsible for obtaining supplies of gravel, chalk, stones and other materials needed for repairs and a workforce to carry out the necessary work.
A Turnpike Trust to administer the road through Brentford was appointed by an Act of Parliament for Repairing the Highways Between Kensington and Staines and Colnbrook in the county of Middlesex in 1717.
It ran from Counters Bridge in Kensington (near Olympia) through Brentford and Hounslow to Staines. The trustees early meetings were held at The King of Bohemia’s Head at Turnham Green, Chiswick and the records of the trust in Chiswick Library shows that by 1719 their debt was £13,289 3s 11dTop
The trust’s income was derived from the tolls but the trustees were nearly always obliged to mortgage these to cover the legal costs of obtaining their Act of Parliament and to pay for initial road improvements. They were not permitted to raise capital by the issue of shares as in canal and railway enterprises as the trusts were created to maintain existing facilities not to construct new ones.
The tolls were designed to make those subjecting the road to most wear pay for the repairs so that the long distance coach and carriage travellers, goods wagons and drovers of cattle, sheep and other livestock were charged. Many, of course tried to evade the tolls and landowners who allowed travellers over their land to avoid paying were fined as were coach or wagon drivers who took off horses to reduce their toll.
Pedestrians, the royal family, soldiers on the march, post horses carrying mail, church goers on Sunday, funeral processions, carriages on election days, carts carrying road mending materials, agricultural implements or manure and horses going to water all passed through the gates free.Top
Some Items discussed at Meetings of the Turnpike Trust
An example of an item at one of the meetings states £125 to be paid to Joseph Watts for half a years wages from Christmas to Midsumer last past for Employing six collectors at the gates and paying them Tenn shillings a week each and finding them with Ticketts and Coals and candles and also £6 for employing Anthony Mosely at Hammersmith gate from April 4th 1726 to June 4th 1726 being 12 weeks at 10/- a week in all £131.
Another entry was instructions to view ‘a Drayn’ under the house of Richard Symonds in New Brentford. It was reported that it was an ‘Antient Drayn’ belonging to the said house and not liable to be repaired at the expense of the trust.
Another that it would be advisable to employ more people on the gates when the drovers came through as some planks had been broken and cattle driven through thus avoiding the correct toll. Then in March 1727 the steward of the Earl of Berkley complained that they were having to pay to drive cattle about their own land.Top
James Clitherow & the High Street's first pavements
By 1730 the treasurer of the trust was James Clitherow (III) of Boston House who was a well respected local landowner. He was also the treasurer shown on a set of accounts in Brentford Library that record donations that were collected over two years to pay to have the ‘footways’ paved in the township of New Brentford. This must have provided travellers with a comforting sight of civilisation before they journeyed on to Hounslow and the dangers of the heath and the ever present highwaymen.
Descriptions of Brentford from the 1790s
A survey of the township of New Brentford in 1792, also in Brentford library, shows that the High Street between Half Acre and Brentford Bridge was lined by dwelling houses with yards, gardens and stables. There were alleys off the High Street where people live in tenements with warehouses, workshops, two slaughterhouses and a bakehouse and printers, a distillery and mill house and assorted shops along the main road.
In this short stretch of road there were 11 public houses one of which was empty and also the Castle Inn. Only two of these are still there, the White Horse in the Market Place and The Magpie and Crown opposite the Magistrates Court.
The following year the Universal Directory of Trade described the town as a place of great trade being one of the greatest thoroughfares in the kingdom. It stated that stage carriages passed through every half hour and listed the 11 inns in London from which the coaches left. It tells that the town afforded employment to hundreds of working people in the flourmill, the pottery, the tile and brick works and the malt distillery.Top
18th Century Traffic
The eighteenth century was the heyday of coaching traffic with dozens of coaches and carts and wagons passing through the town each day. Some stopped at the Star and Garter at Kew Ferry or the Castle or the Three Pigeons near the Market Place to pick up passengers and change horses.
Other travellers were served by the smaller inns and alehouses or travelled by barge on the river. The penny post delivery was to the Castle Inn and post went from there to London at 8am and 3pm each day.
'A Dirty Miserable Place...' and the First Reference to a By-Pass
In spite of the Turnpike Trust the state of the road was extremely bad. John Middleton in his View of the Agriculture of Middlesex written in 1807 reported:-
Though this is called the county town, it is a miserable dirty place, without a town hall, or any building of that nature..... The road from Hyde Park corner through Brentford and Hounslow is equally deep in filth, as the road from Tyburn through Uxbridge. The only passable track of which, during the whole of the winter of 1797-8, was eight inches deep in fluid sludge, the rest of the road being from one foot to eighteen inches deep in adhesive mud. Notwithstanding His Majesty travels the road several times every week there are not many exertions made towards keeping it clean in winter.
Then a very important suggestion...
The carriageway though Brentford is particularly bad; the street is much too narrow, does not admit of being easily widened, and it is always filthy. It is supposed that a new road might be made to pass on the north side of this town, in such a manner to avoid being offended by it; at least this might be done at less expense than would be necessary to widen and improve the present street.
Here we have the first suggestion of a bypass for the town even before Queen Victoria came to the throne.Top
19th Century Traffic
The Great Bath Road by Daphne Phillips records a census of traffic taken in Maidenhead in 1834. Over a two week period the following passed through the town:-
Growth of the Town in the 19th Century
By this time many of the building plots along the High Street were divided, with cottages built in the yards behind forming narrow alleys. The common land to the west and the north of the town had concentrated growth south of the road. There was a great deal of infill building with warehouses and malt houses associated with the busy corn market and the building of the Grand Junction Canal.
At the end of the 18th and early in the 19th century business and industry was flourishing and with many more people and goods requiring transport about the country the road through Brentford became even busier. There was one refinement, though, as from early in the 19th century the road had been lit by gas provided by the gas works east of Drum Lane (Ealing Road) and extended to Kensington.Top
'One of the Meanest Looking Towns' and the Advent of the Railways
However, Robson’s Directory of Middlesex for 1837 described the town as one of the meanest looking towns of the same extent of population in all England; the main street is inconveniently narrow, occasioning frequent obstruction every day. The market house is disreputably mean nor has it a single public edifice to claim attention. As James Marshall says in his History of the Great West Road ... the wider world was losing patience with Brentford.
The inhabitants were not in favour of a bypass though and at a public meeting at the British School in September 1836 chaired by Colonel Clitherow of Boston House adopted the following resolution to be sent to the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Roads. ‘That, in the opinion of this Meeting, any Diversion of the Great Western Road which now passes through Old and New Brentford and Brentford End, will be exceedingly injurious to the Town and Trade of Brentford; because, by any withdrawal of the present Traffic from Brentford, the value of Property along the whole Line of Road from Kew Bridge to Brentford End would be much diminished, and all existing Interests, whether as to property or Trade, would be irreparably injured.’Top
Mr Thomas Layton of Kew Bridge also moved that a Memorial be respectfully presented to the Commissioners submitting to their consideration the great advantages that would be obtained to the public by the widening and improvement of the High Street.
It was also pointed out that as the Bristol Railway and the Southampton Railway would be opening shortly, some traffic would transfer on to the railways. They pointed out that improvements were needed in the town and that this could be achieved more cheaply by widening the High Street than by building a bypass.
A great deal of the traffic on the Great Western Road through Brentford did transfer on to the railways when Brunel’s Great Western Railway opened to Maidenhead in 1838 and through to Bristol in 1841.
The last stage coach ran from Bristol to London in 1843. Brunel’s design of the dock at Brentford meant that in 1859 goods could be transferred from the river to the railway at Brentford Dock and passengers could travel from the GWR station west of the bridge to Southall to join the main line.
Brentford station on the London and South Western Railway’s loop line to Hounslow from Waterloo opened in 1849. This did lead to a great loss of business for those servicing the coaches, horses and passengers but as Brentford had other businesses and industries the effect on the town was not as dire as in Hounslow which had been more dependent upon the coaching trade.Top
Brentford's First Tramway in 1901
Some widening of the High Street was eventually encouraged and partly financed by the plans of London United Tramways who started laying tracks for their trams in 1899.
Double lines were laid through the town with 12 crossovers between the Wagon and Horses public house and Brent County Bridge. The crossovers were to enable trams to pass vehicles parked at the side of the road blocking their lines by crossing on to the opposite track and then back on to their own line when they had passed the obstacle.
Twelve crossovers in a little over a mile was considerably more than the usual number in the distance. Even so, after the opening of the lines in 1901 notwithstanding these measures, frequent stoppages resulted in long lines of trams moving slowly through the town as they moved over the crossovers from one side to the other reported C S Smeeton in his book about the early days of the London United Tramways.
The growth of the market at Kew Bridge and in the town increased the problem of traffic blocking the High Street. The delays led to aggravation. James Marshall quotes newspaper reports of arguments and disagreements between tram drivers and those of slower moving vehicles that ended up in court Again inconvenience and annoyance was caused by the opposing interest of through traffic with that operating locally.Top
Road Widening Schemes
On January 18th 1902 a conference of Local Authorities was held to discuss the effects of the traffic delays through Brentford and it was decided that it would be necessary to take down the whole side of the street in New Brentford.
On September 1st 1903 the Council agreed to petition Parliament to widen the High Street and Kew Bridge Road and on January 19th 1904 considered three schemes for improvement.
Councillor Bigwood (later the local MP, whose name appears on many foundation stones of the time) submitted plans for a bypass to the north that would have cost £409,618 and another for a revised road width of 50’ along the whole length that would have cost £534,426.
It was, however, the plan from the local surveyor, Nowell Parr that was accepted at a cost of £450,120 with the aim of widening the road to 80’ which meant the demolition of most of the north side of the road.
His proposals that were formally accepted by the Council in June 1905 were
In his thesis in Chiswick library about Nowell Parr, the Council’s surveyor and architect DG Eke points out that this widening became a long term project that eventually achieved its own momentum. In spite of the Great West Road opening in 1925 to provide a by pass to the High Street, the Middlesex County Council prescribed ‘a widening line’ in 1928. The council then acquired the freeholds of properties along the road and this led to several decades of planning blight and the run down of property and businesses.Top
Cecil Roberts' Views on Brentford (1939)
In 1939 when Cecil Roberts travelled the High Street on his journey exploring what was left of the great coaching route to Bath he described having to make a decision at Chiswick Roundabout. Should he take the road to the right he described as industrial America transplanted on to the perimeter of London or to the left through Brentford, which he described as hideously disfigured by its gasometers.
He decided to follow the old route but said that the entrance to Brentford was like the gate of Hell with the gas works and the coal yards already there for stoking the punishing fires! Kew across the river he described as the Garden of Eden.
He repeated the stories of George II likening the road to his muddy native Hanover. Of George II and Queen Caroline tipping out of their coach into the mud and of a journey to Brentford made by Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne, early in the 18th century. The Court Circular apparently recorded that ‘His Highness made no stop during the journey except when overturned or stuck in the mud.’
He also makes conjectures about the likelihood of Shakespeare visiting the town to visit an old member of his company who became the landlord at the Three Pigeons in the Market Place and of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s school days at Syon Park Academy.
In 1939, when he was writing the house where this was conducted was very dilapidated and contained the offices of a transport company. There was a gazebo on the garden wall overlooking the road which he suggests would have originally been a perfect vantage point to watch the fashionable, well to do travellers on their way to Bath and the guests of the Duke of Northumberland at Syon House. He points out that a previous house on the site had played host to the Indian Princess Pocahontas. It is now the site of the Royal Mail Sorting Office.Top
Post WWII - Time for a Rebuild?
By 1944 the Brentford and Chiswick Council were describing the town as a mass of unplanned streets, buildings, derelict spaces and residential areas sprinkled with industry, and shops sprawling from one end of the High Street to the other.
A plan for the wholesale rebuilding of the High Street in 1947 was found too costly and a phased scheme was started in 1959 with the small shops and houses on the north side being replaced by council houses and flats with new road layouts.
The road widening plan can be seen in operation in the short section of road between Ealing and Pottery Roads in front of the Watermans Arts Centre. Some widening of the road west of Half Acre also took place but in this section the building line has been set much further back to give wide pavements. Interestingly though, the rebuilding in 2003 at Brentford Lock takes us back to narrow pavements and the road narrowed by crossing islands and pedestrian lights.
With the latest projects coming to fruition from 2003 we are seeing dramatic changes along the High Street and the rest of the town with buildings that will change the character of the town from a vibrant, dirty, smelly, working class town to ……. What?
Only time will tell.
Published September 2005