Brentford History

Brentford is often referred to as the former county town of Middlesex, mainly because throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries county elections were held and declared here, at The Butts.

In fact, Brentford did not become a town in its own right until the 1870s, when New and Old Brentford were finally joined together, first under a local board of health and later, under Brentford Urban District Council.

The town is one of considerable antiquity; many Elizabethan and Jacobean houses survived well into the 19th century, when they were surrounded by the transport and industrial infrastructure of a new prosperity. Its antiquity is highlighted at the foot of Ferry Lane, where with splendid civic pride the Brentford council of 1909 erected a monument, commemorating four of the town's historic events:

  • the council of the church held by Offa, King of Mercia, in 780-1;
  • the defeat of Cnut and his Danish army, driven across the Thames by King Edmund Ironside in 1016;
  • the Battle of Brentford in the Civil War; and 
  • the defence of a fortified ford by Cassivellaunus and his British tribesmen against Julius Caesar in 54 BC.

This stone pillar now stands outside the County Court in the High Street. There is no firm evidence that Julius Caesar actually crossed here, though the existence of Roman settlements and an early ford makes it perfectly likely.

The Monument also has inscriptions for 'AD 1016 Here Edmund Ironside King of England drove Canute and his defeated Danes across the Thames' and 'AD 1642 Close by was fought the Battle of Brentford between the forces of King Charles and his Parliament.'

Brentford retains splendid buildings from the 17th century, reflections of earlier prestige.

Boston Manor was built in 1622 for Lady Mary Reade, extended in 1670 after being bought by an East India merchant, James Clitherow. A stately brick building, its finest rooms are on the first floor, with an especially remarkable plaster ceiling c.1623 in the great chamber. The house was bought by the council in  1924, and its grounds, leading down to the Brent, became a public park. However the Great West Road separated them from the town proper.

In the heart of Brentford, and deserving to be better known, are The Butts, a street and square of red brick houses developed from the 1680s, probably by William Parish, landlord of the Red Lion Inn. The result is one of the most attractive settings in west London. The houses bear comparison, in their more modest way, with their contemporaries around Salisbury cathedral close, and their leafy gardens provide some echo of the 'seat of paradise' the area was once considered to be. The square was once a market place, and parliamentary elections were declared here from 1701, including those contested by John Wilkes in the 1760s.  Today some of its former grandeur is being restored thanks to funds made available by the EU.

The Butts date from Brentford's grandest years, when shops as fine as any in London lined the High Street. Three large coaching inns - the Harrow, the Red Lion and the Three Pigeons - emphasised the town's strategic position on the road westward from London, and fine houses were built on the other side of The Half Acre from The Butts. But as the traffic increased, the High Street became less attractive.

Industry began to arrive in the latter half of the 18th century. The first industries tended to rely on Brentford's corn market, with numerous malthouses, normally attached to inns, as well as breweries and distilleries. Several of the former still survived into the 1890s, and at least three breweries were still active, including one in Boston Manor Road and another in Catherine Wheel Yard. This particular industry went into decline locally as Fuller, Smith & Turner bought the independent breweries and sold off the premises. Only the Royal brewery survived beyond the turn of the century.

Tanning was another traditional industry shown on the map, while the presence of so many market gardens led naturally to jam-making.

Soap-making, too, was long established locally, with a factory dating from 1764 or before, By the early 19th century Brentford was the major manufacturing centre for hard soap in the region, and the Thames Soap Works grew throughout much of the century, until they were acquired by Lever Bros in 1916.

The town's largest industry, its celebrated gas works was off the map to the east, but its mention serves to remind us of the amazing variety of smells that must have hung in the air. The gas works were removed in 1963.

It was, of course, the town's position at the mouth of the river Brent that gave it importance, just as it had since Roman times. Wharves were being developed by the 17th century and probably before, and half a dozen are listed here, stretching along the river bank.

At the end of the 18th century produce from the local market gardens was being loaded for destinations as far afield as Hungerford, while timber, corn and coal were major imports. The latter was given added significance with the completion, in 1805, of the Grand Junction Canal, following the course of the Brent for part of its route, and making it possible to bring coal and manufactured goods from the Midlands.

Whether it brought affluence to Brentford is a moot point. Canal-boat children were a constant worry for local philanthropists and a school was established for them in the 1890s, initially in Isleworth but later in The Butts and, during the 1950s, in the old St Lawrence's school.

The railways effectively ended Brentford's days as a coaching town, but brought no golden age of their own. The loop line was opened in 1849, but has never given the town a more than mediocre service. Of greater interest, historically, was the Great Western & Brentford Railway's branch, opened in 1859, principally a freight line-passenger trains ran only from 1860 to 1915 and from 1920 to 1942. A site at Old England had been purchased from a timber merchant, James Montgomery (who also gave his name to one of the wharves), and here Brunel designed a covered dock where goods could be trans-shipped between railway and river, so providing a link between the GWR and the Port of London. This survived until 1964.

The area once covered by railway sidings has now become the Brentford Dock Development. Brentford End, the area west of the Brent and part of Isleworth parish, calls for little comment except to remark on the nurseries and market gardens that dominated the scene; this was the traditional industry of the area, which was especially famous for its strawberries. Private schools were also a feature of Isleworth - the young Shelley studied for a while at Syon Park House.

Within a few years Brentford High Street had been widened, to make way for the trams, some of the older houses and old inns had begun to disappear, though parts of Troy Town survived until the 1950s. The Great West Road, about 150 yards north of the Loop Line and running broadly parallel with it, brought modern industries to the area in the 1920s. However, the character of Brentford survived, with its small, back-street industries, its wharves and boat-building yards. Too many waterside areas have been sanitised today, not least in nearby Isleworth, but that has not happened here. For the historian with open eyes, the waterfront at Brentford, with its echoes of the past, is well worth the exploration.

Brentford Dock History

It is said that it is where the Brent joined the Thames that the armies of Julius Caesar and other invaders crossed the Thames.

The Grand Union Canal was constructed in the 18th century and the River Brent was finally converted into part of the British canal network in 1805.

Brentford Dock began construction in 1855 to a plan by Brunel as a freight link between river-borne traffic and the Great Western Railway's (GWR) rail network to the West Country and other parts of the United Kingdom. It was opened in 1859. It is interesting to note also that whilst under construction, stone, bronze and iron weapons along with roman coins were discovered in the dock basin, giving an indication as to how long there had been settlements in the area.

The finished site consisted of a large railway marshalling yard with various warehouses, workshops and goods sheds at the end of a special GWR passenger and freight 'Brentford Spur Line'. The original tracks were laid down to the wide 7ft gauge with parallel sleepers favoured by Brunel, although these were later replaced by the now standard 4ft 8in gauge used on modern railways today. The GWR passenger station was located westwards just off the main site on a raised embankment on the north side of Brentford high street.

Click image for full size view

Maps of Brentford Dock's busiest period over the next 45 years reveals expansion of all the warehouses and goods sheds, refurbishment of tracks and construction of new sidings on the northern and southern part of the site, along with the addition of a sequence of mobile cranes to facilitate unloading of boats moored on the Thames.

Old Photographs

Old Brentford Dock
More than 1800 views

Old Photographs and charts of Brentford Dock dating back to 1911, were displayed in the Marina Club during the BD150 event in 2009.

We have now made these into a slide show that you must see.

Sources:

History of Brentford and surrounding area - (extract) Alan Godfrey.

Principal sources & further reading

Brentford Through Time, Gillian Clegg (2011)

Brentford Past, Gillian Clegg (2002)

Andrea Cameron: Brentford As It Was (Hendon Publishing, 1983)

Victoria County History of Middlesex, Vols lll (Isleworth) and Vll (Brentford), 7962 and 7982.

Brentford Dock & Railway

Brentford Dock and The Railway Book Cover

Dock Resident and local historian Diana Willment has written a book about the history of the initial design, construction and operation of the Old Brentford Dock. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of GWR and the local area.

More about Diana Willment here....

More