New to Brentford?

What's been happening in the area over the last 2500 years

If you’re thinking of moving to Brentford, or you’ve just connected up the PC in the new flat – sorry, luxury riverview apartment – and you’re wondering what you’ve let yourself in for, here’s BrentfordTW8’s quick guide to the area.

It’s fair to say that Brentford still isn’t sure of its identity. Happily, despite the best efforts of property developers and lazy journalists it seems to have withstood attempts to turn it into an outpost of Kew, Richmond or Chiswick. Whist no-one can claim that TW8 should be the next European City of Culture; a little digging reveals that the area has plenty to be proud of.

Although you wouldn’t think so to look at it, Brentford is one of the oldest settlements in the south of England.

The area was settled in the Iron Age, around 500BCE, It’s not known whether the Romans lived here or simply took advantage of the easy crossing of the Thames, but if you were to dig deep underneath Somerfield you’d find remains of the Roman road out of London towards Staines.

As with much British history, things go a bit quiet until the eighth century. In 705 the area was host to a council between the King of Wessex and the East Saxons. They knew the River Brent as the ‘Brigantia’, meaning holy (or high) water. From this name came ‘Breguntford’.

Conflict arrived for the first time in 1016 when Edmund Ironside fought and defeated the Canute, the Danish would-be King, driving him back across the Thames. More famous is the 1642 Civil War battle, where Charles’ army defeated the parliamentarians.

Brentford continued to be an important staging post, and in 1717 the Brentford Turnpike Trust was set up to raise funds to improve the road from Kensington to Hounslow, still part of the main route to the South West. Efforts weren’t very successful, it would seem – in 1754 it was called the ‘worst public road in Europe’. 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.

Brentford began to grow in its own right with the conversion of the River Brent, in 1805, into the Grand Junction Canal, connecting the Thames with the East Midlands and the rest of the ever-growing canal network. Industries grew up around this important waterway, including a large flour mill, a brickworks and a large pottery. A brewery came soon after this, then a gasworks.

The Railway Age increased the area’ importance. In 1849 the railway into Waterloo opened; yet the combination of railway and industry was more significant. 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. 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 site was an active dock until 1964.

As with many ‘port’ towns, bad behaviour was never far away. Though deemed important enough to be used as a centre for local elections, contemporary reports say that Brentford was famous for ‘drunkeness and brawling’.

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.

The arrival of trams at the start of the twentieth century saw the High Street widened, at the expense of some local shops and pubs. The Great West Road opened in 1925 and attracted factories and offices from all over west London. Whilst some areas were badly damaged by bombing during World War Two, far greater damage to Brentford’s built environment was carried out in the 1960s in the name of progress. The broadly Victorian High Street was all but destroyed in one of the many well-meaning but ill-designed redevelopments that continue to blight many British cities. (Two of the shopfronts are now in the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The High Street may have gone, but there are still reminders of the past amongst all the redevelopment. The small Victorian terraces and pubs of the dock workers, the large eighteenth century houses in the Butts Estate, the remains of the nineteenth century wharves all provide a link with Brentford’s history. Just as importantly, Brentford has retained a community atmosphere, where effort made in getting to know the long-term residents will be repaid many times over. Just don’t call it Brentwood…..

For more information on Brentford’s history, contact the Brentford and Chiswick Historical Society on 8994 4231.

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