Ridgeways Wharf, the History

Brentford owes its founding to the confluence of the Brent and the Thames, providing in earliest times the first (from the east), feasible fording between south and north. Excavations have revealed that settlement here dates back to Neolithic times, long before the Romans came, with the possibility that even the Phoenicians utilised the site when exploiting Britain’s tin mines. The evidence for this lies largely in language analysis, with the suggestion that the Celtic word Brigantia, the name both of an early goddess and her eponymous tribe, derives from the Sanskrit. Certainly the goddess gave her name to what we now know more prosaically as the Brent, and thus to the settlement itself, as evident from early Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Bregantaford”. The quality and quantity of the artefacts found suggests that Brentford was a meeting point for pre-Romanic tribes, where part of tribal rituals included the ceremonial casting of weapons into the river. The combination of river traffic with fordable crossing for foot and vehicle travel in most directions would have made Brentford a logical cross-roads for settlement from the earliest of times. The sites of the dock and market place have not ever been excavated, but several sites close by have received attention. That near to St Lawrence’s, south of the High St and west of the market square, provided evidence of neolithic settlement, as did the site of the old 3 Pidgeons hostelry alongside the market square.

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Thomas Layton’s collection had of course previously brought together a wealth of artefacts, and this area has produced the greatest number of finds for the period ranging from the Mesolithic to the bronze age.

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The evidence for Phoenician settlement is largely philological, and it has been noted that settlements from the centuries BC were mainly on areas that will now have been flooded. However it has to be acknowledged that it was the Phoenicians whose trade in tin, (mined predominantly from the Cornwall area), enabled the bronze age to flourish, - and the Thames valley was known to have been busily engaged in trade with European settlements throughout this period. Trade in bronze was not confined to armaments, and decorative items of domestic utility are numerous. The “Brentford Spout” (left), has excited speculation as to its origin, possibly dating to the 1st Century BC. As Roy Canham in his “2000 years of Brentford” has written: “Late bronze age weapons, tools and decorative pieces give the impression of a centre of trade or manufacture where metalwork of the highest standards of workmanship was changing hands.” Throughout this period, when of course the roads were non-existent as we would recognise them, the speediest and most far-flung trade would have to have been by water.

This sketch map of Brentford supplied by an official of the Grand Junction Canal Co. shows the area prior to the Roman Road being built, with the traditional trackway running to & from Londinium, with N-S routes at the terminus of this end of the track, between Verulamilum & Dover. The town centre crossroads even then, link what became known as Pye Wharf with the “British Camp”, and later the slightly further distant Roman camp. The N-S trackway appears to pass alongside the wharf 3

approximately on the line of what became Boar’s Head Yard. This plan seems to indicate that the Brent formed an east-west barrier, the ford across the Brent being on the N-S trackway in line with the “Great Ford” across the Thames. It is significant to note that the defensive Thames staking pattern, while allowing river access as far as the Brent Ford and our wharf, interdicted river access further east as far as the present location of Kew Bridge. The more complex pattern to the south west would have trapped vessels without benefit of local knowledge by the time they reached the southern tip of Isleworth Ait at the very furtherest. Any pedestrian use of the Thames ford to cross to Brentford would necessarily be restricted to almost single file. Thus while not too much of a trade barrier, it was an effectively defended pass in terms of hostile armies.

As noted in his journals, Julius Caesar had to overcome these defences when in 54BC, he and his army defeated Cassivellaunus enroute to the north. The plan above shows by dots in the river the location of all the stakes found in the river bed. Such stakes have been found nowhere else in the Thames, so the identity of Brentford as the site of Caesar’s crossing is assured by this factual evidence.

The town’s name was not lost with the arrival of these newcomers. The Romans with their customary religious flexibility and adaptiveness, identified Brigantia with their own goddess Minerva. In this guise she is seen in a statue, where Brigantia is depicted with the typical paraphernalia of Minerva. Brigantia’s ford thus became preserved as a name, one of a few Celtic place-names that have survived in Middlesex. Others, (all rivers), are the Thames (Tamesis in Julius Caesar), meaning perhaps 'dark river'; Colne, of unknown meaning; and the Lea, meaning perhaps 'bright' or 'light' river or 'river dedicated to the god Lugus'; Brigantia possibly means 'high' or 'holy'. 4

The arrival of the Romans did nothing to diminish Brentford’s importance, rather the opposite. With their keen eye for strategic locations the Romans built settlements here, at Londinium and further west and north. With these established, they built their famous roads to link them. The subsequent bridging of the Brent and extension of the Londinium road onward to the west, expanded the accessibility and therefore the value of the ancient crossroads. Brentford thus became the first major town of any significance encountered when travelling west from the new capital. As Canham writes: “… the combination of the Thames, the Brent and the Roman road must have formed a focal point in west Middlesex which would have had a distinct effect on all subsequent occupation patterns…. From the excavations along the line of the High Street it seems that the occupied area was at least 400m but less than 600m in length.” The closest curve of the Brent to this new road, where our dock is situated, must then have been almost exactly central to the Roman town. Canham continues: “In what way the inhabitants made use of their position on the Roman road network and their proximity to Londinium is far from clear. To some extent a livelihood may have been secured by providing for the needs of those who passed through, from the ubiquitous traders and merchants of the Roman world exploiting the resources of one of their most distant provinces to the herdsmen driving cattle and sheep into the capital to feed its rapidly growing populace. Coins were found in sufficient quantities to justify a belief in trade of some sort.” Interestingly, the date ranges of these coins indicates that it was the area known as the Ham that continued the Roman occupation the longest, into the 3rd & 4th Centuries AD. One thing is clear from investigations, - that buildings south of the High Street did not extend so far as the banks of the Brent. Geological sampling demonstrated that formerly, space between the Brent and the High Street was bounded by an escarpment, naturally protecting the town from the effects of high tides and flooding. Much of this is no longer evident, land-filling having taken place over the centuries, right up to the middle of the 20thC. The one place where an indication of the escarpment remains is the north bank of Ridgeways dock. The slipway cut through it illustrates graphically this relationship between Brent and High Street, as do the steps to the west that lead up from the bank level. The lower level floods at high tide, so permanent buildings were not viable.

This slightly pictorial map

This slightly pictorial map from 1786 marks out the line of the escarpment clearly.

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As opportunity arose, excavations were undertaken at various sites surrounding the Market and Dock. These proved richer in finds as they were closer to the town centre, with most of the Roman remains concentrated on the north side of the High Street. In the most recently explored area along Catherine Wheel Road, a partially disturbed infant burial was discovered

in association with pottery of the Roman period, and in the southern-most region of the excavated area the edge of a scoop containing sherds of 1st Century pottery was located. It was excavation here that revealed the geology of the bluff that dipped sharply to the river, “confirming that an almost cliff-like face existed in the southern margin of the High Street until recent times.” (Canham)

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Despite the documentary attestations, the Saxons left little in physical evidence of their occupation. In Brentford this was confined to this same area to the east of the Dock, in the form of hut remains. “It may emerge,” writes Canham however, “that the Brent Valley was as favoured a settlement in the postRoman period as it was in pre-history.”

It was also in this period that the first documentary evidence of the name occurs, when Waldhere, Bishop of London, wrote a letter in AD705, appointing “Breguntford” as a meeting place between the rulers of Wessex and the east Saxons. 75 years later “Breguntforda” hosted the meeting of Offa’s Council, and the following year the Synod of Brentford settled a dispute between Offa and the Bishop of Worcestor. It is possible, though not certain, that the meeting of King Edgar’s witan in AD957 at Brandanford also refers to Brentford. That the area south of the High Street bounded by the Brent so far as the Dock (where the Brent turns eastward to the Thames), is still known today as the Ham, is of considerable significance. This is an Anglo-Saxon place name denoting a homestead, or township of a chieftain, most commonly associated with a Roman settlement or road. This seems to underline the importance of the road and the Brent crossing, rather than the ford across the Thames. From the waterways view then, our little wharf bordering the Ham would have had greater significance to the town, providing a waterway gateway to Londinium, than the Thames’s ford itself. This importance only grew as we come to Medieval times. Not specifically mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086), this area of Brentford was counted as part of Hanwell Manor. In the following Century this came into the possession of St Peter’s, Westminster. “In spite of the scarcity of medieval finds” writes Canham, “the spread of material is coextensive with the Roman occupation, suggesting that the road continued to influence the settlement pattern in a distinctive fashion.”

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The strategic importance of the ford over the Thames at this point, was shown by the battle of Brentford, fought between King Edmund Ironside and King Canute, in 1016. Use of the river for fishing and transport began to assume a greater importance (in recorded material at least), especially as a growing population in London now had to turn increasingly outwards for its food supplies. A common fishery in the Brent had been appropriated by Thomas Maidstone in 1381, and the abbot of Westminster was said to have a fishery there in 1450. The main road and the two rivers produced distinctive occupations. The road was lined with inns and served by local carters, carriers, and later stagecoachmen. The rivers gave rise to basket makers, fishermen, and watermen, the latter providing the obvious transport to the capital of such goods. Dealings in property, sometimes by craftsmen, became more common from c. 1300 and several sites south of High Street were occupied during the 14th century. Pavage was repeatedly levied for the highway from 1360. Increasing traffic is indicated by grants of pontage in 1224 on merchandise and in 1280 towards Brentford bridge, and may also have prompted the grant of a market and fairs in 1306. M (Charter) Tues; gr 23 Dec 1306, by K Edw I to Ps and N of St Helen’s, London. To be held at the manor of ‘Braynford’ (CChR, 1300-26, p. 81). The rights in the market were leased in 1534; it was abolished in 1610 (VCH Middlesex, vii, p. 136). All the prioress's rights were leased in 1534 to John Rollesley, by whom the market was conveyed to Hugh Eston, who obtained confirmation from Elizabeth I. Stallholders were restricted by the narrowness of New Brentford's High Street until Eston moved them north to an orchard he converted c. 1560 into a market place.

The 1635 Moses Glover map, wherein the dock is known as Pye Wharf.

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The setting up of the formal market on this site confirms the locational importance of the dock that now lay immediately to the south of it, at a distance of scarcely 100 yards. Road traffic was still at this time slow, dangerous and troublesome compared to the water route, so the closeness of the square to the wharf contributed in no small measure to its centuries of success. Not only was local produce more easily shipped out, but the town gained ready access to goods shipped from abroad. 8

Delicate goods such as pottery could never be reliably carried any distance by road. Water borne freight meant these were tradable even from abroad, where close access to a wharf existed, as it did for Brentford’s now famous market.

The square was later enlarged and furnished with a market house. New Brentford was called Great or Market Brentford by 1593, and trade thereafter prospered with the growth of traffic to London by road and river.

Market House, looking north over the High Street from Pye Wharf

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Several times extended, Market Place was surrounded by inns: the Three Pigeons, (first known as the Doves), which ultimately stretched to the Brent, was at the south-west corner, the White Horse (now the Weir) by 1603 at the north-west, the White Hart to the east, and the Red Lion at the south-east. The Three Pigeons, which was mentioned in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist of 1610, had a loose reputation, and was later kept by the Shakesperean actor John Lowin (1576-1659), and noted by the 'water poet' John Taylor in 1636. Brentford thus became renowned as the place Londoners should go for a good time, and was frequented by the literati and pleasure seekers of the 17th & 18th Centuries, as attested to in a songbook published in 1609.

References to watermen point to growing traffic on the Thames. In the Civil War however, fishing and the expanding market gardens at Brentford suffered depredation. On November 12th, 1642 the briefly victorious Royalists subjected Brentford to sack & rapine. The pubs suffered sadly when the drunken soldiery wantonly poured out the liquor they could not drink. A Petition for monetary support and compensation was sent to parliament, and the town recovered its zest for life. Tragically, 20 odd years later the Plague struck, and 103 townspeople died. This did not however stop the famous diarist Samuel Pepys from visiting.
20th August 1665…… “I did presently eat a bit off the spit about 10 o'clock, and so took horse for Stanes, and thence to Brainford to Mr. Povy's, the weather being very pleasant to ride in. Mr. Povy not being at home I lost my labour, only eat and drank there with his lady, and told my bad newes, and hear the plague is round about them there. So away to Brainford; and there at the inn that goes down to the water- side, I 'light and paid off my post-horses, and so slipped on my shoes, and laid my things by, the tide not serving, and to church, where a dull sermon, and many Londoners. After church to my inn, and eat and drank, and so about seven o'clock by water, and got between nine and ten to Queenhive, very dark. And I could not get my waterman to go elsewhere for fear of the plague.”

Though this first recorded visit was on horseback, Mr Pepys obviously preferred to travel onward by water, and later chose always to employ this safer and more comfortable mode of transport. Which of the many Inns he chose that could fit his description must remain conjecture. I prefer to imagine that he might well have chosen the Boar’s Head opposite the Three Pidgeons, whose yard ran down to Pye Wharf and whence he could have slipped off with the tide from the backyard, while never having to be far from the town centre. Credence is lent to this suggestion by considering that Pepys arrived from the west, and the first inns he would have come to were the 3 Pidgeons on his left, and Boar’s Head to his right, - both reaching to the Brent, but Boar’s Head on the south being closer to the Thames. St Lawrence’s church naturally being close at hand to provide the dull sermon. Any other inn matching the requirements would have entailed travelling all the way through the town to the opposite end. 10

Sadly, his third recorded visit resulted in the loss of his obviously prescient waterman:
September 14, 1665…….. “; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday moring last, when I had been all night upon the water (and I believe he did get his infection that day at brainford), and is now dead of the plague.”

New Brentford in 1664 had 135 houses not chargeable for hearth tax. Houses continued to multiply, while the linear pattern persisted, with increasing emphasis on the waterfront. South of the High Street the whole riverside was taken for wharfs, reached by passages lined with cottages and inns. The fields south of the High Street, like those near Ferry Lane, were enclosed and built on piecemeal. Many of the earliest industries were extractive. They included gravel digging, lime burning, brickmaking, and tilemaking, and all owed their growth to river or canal transport. Tanning also required a plentiful supply of water and the gunpowder whose storage caused alarm in 1700 was presumably brought to Brentford by boat. (Above taken from: 'Ealing and Brentford: Growth of Brentford', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7: Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Brentford, West Twyford, Willesden (1982). ) By the time of the 18th C communication between Brentford and London had increased, and a daily coach service was provided.
Exact Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, Borough of Southwark... By W. Stow., London, 1722. An exact and compleat List of the Flying Coaches, Stage Coaches, Waggons, and Carriers, with the Inns they come to, and Days of the Week they go out of London; collated this present Year 1721.

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Brainford, Co. White Horse, Fleetstreet, every Day but Sundays.

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This record seems to indicate that regular coach service between London and Brentford catered more for passengers than freight. Water freight was received at Brentford long before the first watermen were recorded in 1613. Fruit, bricks, and probably fish were shipped to London in the 17th century, the return cargoes including dung by 1609, when there was a dung wharf, and coal, used by 1679 for brickmaking. Fishing and water transport, sufficiently common in 1666 to justify the appointment of a pressmaster, were the chief occupations in 1733. In 1782 corn was an important cargo and in 1791 boats carried market produce to Hungerford (Berks.) and Queenhithe (London) by every tide. (From: 'Ealing and Brentford: Growth of Brentford', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7: Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Brentford, West Twyford, Willesden (1982) Then too, those party-goers intent on a good time at the notorious 3 Pidgeons who like Pepys preferred using watermen, would have found that using Pye wharf for arrival and departure meant the least distance for foot travel to its doors. It should also be noted in this connection, that the Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1754 had by this time reason to describe the land route as “the worst public road in Europe!” 11

It is unfortunate that the 1741 J. Rocque map is evidently in 2 sheets, with the join across the critical section we are interested in. Comparison with the Glover map of a century earlier might suggest that Pye wharf and (Catherine) Wheel wharf were located on a northern branch of the Brent’s delta-like entry into the Thames, with the section between them subsequently infilled. By the time the 1777 map was produced, our Dock is shown as a prominent inlet opposite a meandering southern stream, while only a tiny vestige remains to the east. This scenario is borne out by the discovery in 1974 that “at least 2 mtrs of hardcore had been thrown down to make up the road bed” of Catherine Wheel Road. (Canham).

1741-1745

1777

1741-45

1777

Alternatively of course, given the imprecision in scale and aspect of these early maps, J. Rocque’s northern wriggle might merely be the entirety of the Dock that was later enlarged, with the inlet at the bottom of Half Acre being artificially dug out. The survival of common to the west and north helped to concentrate early growth south of High Street, although the land there was more often flooded, as in 1682. Existing plots fronting the High Street were divided, and cottages were built in yards behind, forming narrow alleys. By 1719 the Boar's Head had been divided into 4, with at least 8 other cottages extending to the Ham. By 1720 the Plough inn had also been divided, and the Dock served the various businesses in both yards. (From: 'Ealing and Brentford: Growth of Brentford', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7: Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Brentford, West Twyford, Willesden (1982) These alleys either side of the central passage to the Dock, still survive today albeit in fragmented form. Boar’s Head alley still runs from the High St alongside the Magpie & Crown, (which must roughly equate to the site of the original “Boar’s Head”), while the Plough Yard passage is blocked to the High Street and survives only in its southern section within Twickenham Plating.

Plough Yard

Boars Head Yard 12

Only the central passage between the two, from the water’s edge slipway to the High Street, remains intact. Such infilling continued in spite of the spread of warehouses and malthouses associated with the busy corn market. Sixty branches of trade catered for travellers and the hinterland by 1720! (ibid) A poorhouse on the Ham common was to be inspected regularly by the beadle in 1753, and was adapted as a workhouse in 1757, though it proved too cramped for requirements, so a replacement c 1830’s was built in Isleworth, One of the later inmates of that replacement workhouse is recorded as being a Beatrice Pye. If related to the Pye who figured in accounts of the Civil War here, this demonstrates a sad fall in the family’s fortunes. It is further ironic to reflect that this family may have been the ones to give their name to the Dock some 400 years earlier! Instead, from this period the wharf became known as Workhouse Dock, a description that still has currency today. A bakery was recorded in Brentford as early as 1255, an industry for which the market was to become renowned for centuries:
“On my first Entrance at Branford was Saluted with a Roll Merchant, but did not Tracfack with him. It is a Large Town, the Beginning of which is Old Branford. It is much better Situated near the River than Hammersmith. There is Likewise a Great Market Place in this Town - it is Remarkable for Branford Rolls. I wo’d have Bought some at one of the Bakehouses, but the Honest Mann acquainted me he had none that was New.” [James Balchen Journal, April 1747]

This also, was an industry in which the Dock later became involved, as will be revealed! An 1830 recipe for the rolls survives. With the coming of the Canal age came an exponential increase in Brentford’s importance in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, becoming the gateway to the country’s interior for the rest of the increasingly accessible world. After considerable lobbying, the Grand Junction Canal Act was passed on 30 April 1793. The 90 mile route from Brentford to Braunston had been surveyed twice, by James Barnes and by William Jessop. Work started almost immediately at both ends, over 30,000 labourers being employed. Brentford to Uxbridge opened in 1794. Soon after construction was started, it was decided to build a branch into more central areas of the City. The Paddington Branch was open in 1801, a basin and warehouses built at the terminus. The canal was to eventually extend further into London, eventually connecting up with the docks via the Regents Canal. The entire route to Birmingham opened in 1805. It was this canal that really provided the transport infrastructure to bring goods from the industrial conurbations of the north and midlands to the capital. The distillery, breweries, maltings, soap works, and timber yard expanded along the waterfront. Later industrial expansion coincided with the decline of coaching traffic, when the victualling and retail trades were depressed, causing some closures and further accentuating Brentford's working-class character. In 1843 the rapidly growing population was overwhelmingly one of labourers in industry, fishing, and market gardening, liable to intermittent unemployment. (ibid) Parts of New Brentford, such as the Ham, were inhabited by the very poorest, and often flooded. At New Brentford there was also a fluctuating population of barge dwellers. These naturally had suffered in the famous flood of 1841. 13

From The Times, 18th January 1841:
“..… it was nearer to the mouth of the outlet of the Thames where the greatest damage has been done, and where a scene of ship-wreck unparalleled so far inland is still to be seen. The spot in question is at the bottom of Boar’s Head Yard, a turning leading from the high-road nearly opposite the market place, down to the canal. Off this spot the canal passes through some meadows, and there is a foot-bridge across it, and near that bridge are piled up craft of various descriptions to the number it is said of fifteen. … Some of these vessels are topsy-turvy, others are on their sides and portions of five can be distinctly seen above the water, piled on top of each other. It was impossible from the still great swell of the water yesterday, to ascertain to whom they belonged, the nature of their freight, or what had become of their crews; and it is feared that it will be ultimately found that several lives have been sacrificed.”

The fanciful rendition of the footbridge is scarcely accurate, but locates the wrecks at the bottom of the Dock, which lies to the left of the bridge in this sketch.

It is worth noting at this point that the bridge referred to in this article was known as “Turn-over” or “cross-over” bridge, and though a footbridge, was designed to enable the tow-horses to cross the canal to the towpath that here continued on the southern bank. It was not practical to continue the towpath along the northern bank, as the dock entry was here, as was also, further along, the weir and spillway. These views are taken from the opposite side of the bridge compared to the sketch of the wrecks.

The present footbridge from the same angle, built in 1978 to connect to the new Brentford Dock Estate.

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Timber merchants James Montgomery & Co used the Dock until the 1840’s, when he expanded hugely, building his own more extensive docks further east. His office was recorded in an early Kelly’s Directory as located at 119 High Street on the western side of the Bradshaw’s Yard passage. The southern bank of the Dock by turnover bridge was also acquired by him. By 1839 Montgomery had evidently sold his portion of the yard above the Dock to a William Welch, baker, while the 1841 Census shows a Samuel Smallwood, tea merchant as residing in 118. Ten years later, the Census reveals that two Thomas Bradshaws were living with him, and following his death continued as bakers until at least 1891. It was from this time that the yard became known as “Bradshaw’s Yard” as it is to this day.
118 Samuel 119 Smallwood tea dealer baker 8 incl 1 Ind 1 Ap 1 MS 1 FS 5 incl 1 J 10 10

William Welch

In 1897 the Grand Junction Canal Co purchased the southern bank of the Dock from James Montgomery’s widow.

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Malthouses, breweries, and distilleries, relying on Brentford's corn market, were noteworthy from the late 17th century, some maltsters being also dealers in corn and coal. A malthouse was sited on the northern bank of the Dock, extending north along the slipway leading to the market as can be seen from this 1910 conveyance of Bradshaw’s Yard from Elizabeth Tillyer to a Mr Francis Ashton.

The Dock also served another malthouse lying in the adjacent Plough yard

A succession of owners accumulated the titles behind 118 & 119 High St, and in 1924 an Elizabeth Ashby sold the collection to a well-known local solicitor and investor, Mr Alfred Ruston. From the conveyance it can be seen that Bradshaw’s Yard at this time contained a coach house and stables in addition to the various trades.

James Band, from a family of Bermondsey tanners, had established his own firm of parchment makers at a tannery in Boston Road near Park chapel in 1845. The firm moved c. 1910 to Plough Yard on the east bank of the Dock, the premises being extended during the Second World War. Known as H.Band & Co, by 1978 they also produced chamois leather and all kinds of vellum. On the north western corner of the Dock were the Held Glue & Compounds factory, that later became Heldite Ltd, a concern that although now thrust out from here by would-be developers, still exists. They too had rights of passage over the Dock for the purpose of loading & unloading goods. By 1827 Brentford was the main centre of hard soap production in south eastern England, and soap makers also set up below the tannery at the south east corner of the Dock, continuing in operation until just post WW11. 16

The Soap factory buildings at the south east corner of Workhouse Dock Brentford itself was 'well lighted' in 1832 by reason of the Brentford gasworks, but these often drew adverse comment for polluting both the river and the air. Supplying electricity was the obvious answer to such problems. Under an Act of 1905 Brentford was served by the Brentford Electricity Supply Co. Ltd. Here again, the premises of Workhouse Dock played a role, when Alfred Ruston in 1929 sold them a portion of Bradshaws yard for use as a sub-station.

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Brentford’s growth continued until the Second World War, by which time it was completely built up. The old market declined, finally closing in 1933, and by 1929 the town had clearly been supplanted as a shopping centre by neighbouring suburbs. In many respects the decline followed the pattern throughout the country, though for a town built so thoroughly on water transport, it felt the pain more than most. The explosive growth of the Industrial Revolution had been enabled by the waterways transport system. With the surging demand for transhipment facilities, the entire waterfronts of both Thames and Brent had been given over to wharfage, with ever larger docks being carved out of the riparian land, reaching its apogee with the building of Brentford Dock. The little wharf that had started off all this activity, so very many centuries before, now become unnoticeable and insignificant amidst such scale and bustle and efficiency. Without the waterways, there would never have been the infrastructure to build the railways. It was those very railways however, that threatened doom for the waterways they supplanted. As many as 35 canal boats were recorded at Brentford in 1891 and 36 in 1911, but only 9 in 1921. Water traffic in 1930 was declining every year. Then came WWII. As it drew to a close, the scene in this part of Brentford was of decaying slums and empty sites. South of the High Street, the Ham was a wasteland beside car-repair workshops and the redundant St. Lawrence's church. There was little activity along the banks of the Brent or most of the Thames waterfront. The alleys, no longer lined with cottages and sometimes overgrown, led to wharfs that were often deserted. (ibid)

Ridgeways’ Wharf in the mid 1950’s, looking north over Workhouse Dock

It was into this shambles that the Newing family stepped when (as Ridgeway Motors [Isleworth] Ltd), they bought Bradshaw’s Yard in 1947 and took over a dock that was crumbling into silt and weeds. Though primarily concerned with motor vehicles, they cleared the Dock of the worst hulks, and applied in 1953 to the Council for permits to erect a boatbuilding and motor engineering workshop. The following year Brentford Yacht & Boat Building Company Ltd was incorporated. 18

This company was soon to offer hire boats in the area for the very first time, introducing many locals to pleasures that had never been dreamt of in association with what had always been seen as a working industrial wasteland.

Brentford Yacht & Boat Co. were following a long tradition. Boat building was attested by a shipwright at Old Brentford in 1659 and by the devise of a copyhold boatyard there in 1731. In 1853 Mr. Sims had a barge building yard at the Ham, New Brentford, and in 1898 Messrs. Radford had a barge and waggon works at the confluence of the Thames and Brent. E. C. Jones & Son at the newly created boatyards below the Thames Lock, were building their own design Bantam tugs in 1953 and survived in 1978. (ibid) Mr Keith Baker, our marine engineer for Brentford Marine Services, underwent his apprenticeship with this company. Meanwhile the Council, hell-bent on modernisation, had compulsorily purchased and bulldozed entire tracts north and south of the High Street to widen it, building modern shops and rear access roads. For decades the waterside industry was taken for granted, and little concern was shown as the various support industries quietly declined almost unnoticed. By 1982 however, when the Council were considering yet more “New Plans” for Brentford, an Inspector’s report on objections to the plan had this to say:

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Ray Bulman, a journalist for “Motor Boat & Yachting”, began his boat fitting out experience here in the early 50’s and wrote of that time in a recent column.

Also remembered by Ray Bulman, two women came by the yard a couple of years ago, revisiting the scene of their childhood, when as little girls living here on their parent’s boat, they would hide to watch episodes of “Z-Cars” being filmed on site.

The two young girls (centre), with their mother on the right. The boat they lived on is here moored inside the Dock next to turnover bridge

In 1990 Brentford Marine Services moved into the premises, bringing a fresh and professional expertise to boat repair and maintenance, while improving the site facilities. Over the years since they have provided an invaluable service to the canalboats that are disinclined to venture onto the tideway, and with pontoon mooring in the basin’s entrance there is always safe mooring while waiting their turn for service. 20

Over time the premises have been variously known as Pye Wharf, Town Dock, Workhouse Dock, Bradshaw’s Yard, and Ridgeways Wharf, serving the High Street via its own central passage and those of Boar’s Head and the Plough. From the earliest simple tidal wharfage in primitive times, it has been involved in every significant industry identified with the Town, supporting the market, road building and maintenance, fishing, fruit growing, pubs, bakeries, malthouses, tanneries, timber yards, coach houses, jam making and soap manufacture, electric supply, car repairs, boat building, boat hire, boat repair and maintenance, and providing safe offline moorings. The oldest of any of Brentford’s waterside facilities, it has survived in active use down the ages to the present day, when so many of the grander, later facilities have lost their use and either been buried or subsumed under towers of waterside apartments. This still beating little heart of Brentford is so integral to the whole history of the Town that every effort must be made to prevent its sterilisation into a lifeless pond.

This Council’s predecessors were responsible for placing Ridgeways in the jeopardy that led to its recent demise, all in the cause of regenerating the town centre in a way that it now seeks to reverse. Brentford Yacht & Boat Company remains however, continuing the maritime use of the wharf as it has done for over 50 years, with Brentford Marine Services providing the boat maintenance and repair work that has gained it an unparalleled reputation over 20 years. It would be fitting for the successor authority to now play its part in ensuring that this unbroken living heritage is preserved to the benefit and education of Brentford, now and for the foreseeable future.

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