Brentford: The Historic County Town of Middlesex

Russell Grant argues that Brentford's position in history should be celebrated

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Brentford High Street Steering Group, supported by Russell Grant, Chair of the Middlesex County Trust, is arguing that Brentford’s heritage as ‘the historic county town of Middlesex’ should now be recognised on new signage as people approach the town.  Andrew Dakers, Chair of Brentford High Street Steering Group, said to “Brentford’s heritage is unique, and much of that stems from our geography at the junction of the Thames and River Brent/ Grand Union Canal.  As we develop the Brentford brand and mark the key entry points to the town, we have an opportunity to recognise our history too.  Whilst some have said that Brentford is one of many county towns, here Russell argues that we should recognise Brentford’s place as the county town of Middlesex."

Middlesex is unique amongst the British counties as it has always contained within its geographical area the City of London, and by that I mean the ‘square mile’.

A distinction must also be made from the very beginning. Middlesex County Council was created by Parliament in 1889 purely for local government and abolished by Parliament in 1965. But the historic county of Middlesex has been in existence for over 1300 years and continues thus as you will read later.

Middlesex was first chronicled in AD 704 in a deed between Offa, King of Mercia and the Bishop of London regarding land in Twickenham.

The initial record of Brentford and Middlesex being forever connected came just a year later. It was in AD 705 when the great West Saxon King, Ine of Wessex, met with the king of the East Saxons to discuss political business at Brentford in Middlesex. Why? Because Middlesex is in a key position between the southern Saxon kingdoms: Essex, Mercia, Wessex, so along with its capital, Brentford, on the main Roman roads leading west out of London it was important strategically.

Numerous archaeological digs and finds is the evidence that Brentford was a place of popular habitation long before Julius Caesar with his Roman army crossed the great river Thames at this place of Brentford in the land of the Middle Saxons.

It has been written by many historians that Brentford was the capital of Middlesex from very earliest times. The Ham, flat land down by the River Brent, attests to the town’s earliest importance; it is the Saxon name given to where a king, leader or noble built their homestead or township. Here there was an abundance of fish: just below is where the Abbot of St Peter’s Westminster had a fishery just west of the mouth of the Brent; the Bishop of London further down, as did Merton Abbey (Surrey – Surrey means southern region most probably of the Middlesex kingdom).

Not only is The Ham where King Ine of Wessex (an earlier ancestor of King Alfred the Great) held court but also a synod was held in AD 780 to resolve a dispute between the Bishop of Worcester in the land of the Hwicce (roughly modern day Worcestershire and Gloucestershire) and King Offa of Mercia (the English Midlands) held council here in 780 followed a year later with Archbishop Jaenbeorht, Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a synod in AD 781.

Because of Middlesex’ proximity to London, the growth of the City overshadowed many of the main Middlesex market towns – Staines, Uxbridge, Edgware, Enfield – but Brentford and Middlesex were the centre of Saxon royal and ecclesiastical life and crucially located enough for kings to wage war in the town whether Danish Canute and English Edmund Ironside or Royalist Prince Rupert and Parliamentarian Colonel Hollis in the 1642 in the British Civil War. King Henry VI held a Chapter of the Order of the Garter at the Lion Inn where the Tudor monarch created two knights.

Too often those who dispute Brentford as Middlesex’ County Town compare tribal counties – Essex, Kent, Middlesex - with the fortified burhs at the heart of shires created by King Alfred for defence with their eponymous chief towns such as Northampton, Warwick, Worcester but they are different kinds of counties, known as shires (as in shorn off the main kingdom) so they do not beg comparison. Tribal counties outstrip military shires by some chronological distance.

Throughout a thousand years of history Brentford time and time again is upheld as either the County Town, Capital, Chief Town of the Middle Saxons, Middlesex. Brentford is mentioned in Latin records as the chief town in Middlesex. And in over 50 books (covering many centuries) I have researched including the Cambridge County Histories to the learned Nikolas Pevsner they concur that Brentford is the county town of the county of Middlesex.

But if more proof were needed other than the regular meet of kings and connexion of Brentford as capital of the Middle Saxons. The Middlesex elections of knights of the shire and then subsequently MPs were held in Brentford at the Butts from 1701 which added to Brentford’s prestige as the capital of the county. But the distinction between the County of Middlesex and the now defunct Middlesex County Council is a critical one. The County of Middlesex is based on tribal lines and was created out of geography and history of which Brentford is the County Town: Middlesex County Council was one of a new breed of county for local government purposes created by Parliament in 1888/9 with its administrative HQ at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster. BUT Middlesex County Council did not cover the same area as the County of Middlesex it was much smaller for they were two separate and distinct entities. So the MCC’s abolition in 1965 did NOT affect the continuation of the County of Middlesex, in fact two Parliamentary Early Day Motions in the 1990s states that the County of Middlesex still exists and this is confirmed by a letter from the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, stating categorically that the ‘abolition of a 76 year old Middlesex county council did not mean the abolition of the County of Middlesex”.

It is therefore not necessary for Brentford to have been the county town of the county council to have been the county town. For instance in Kent, Canterbury is the obvious county town and yet Kent County Council’s county town was Maidstone, there was NEVER a Sussex County Council but one for the East and one for the West – there are instances of this all over the country. There is NO rigid criterion for what is a county town. Brentford’s position as the historic County Town of Middlesex is potent, correct and accurate than many other places that hold the same honour in their own shire or county.

Ladies and Gentleman be proud to tell all who travel to and visit your ancient town that Brentford holds a unique position and title as the Historic County Town of Middlesex. Oyez!

What do you think? Please answer quick poll below.

Should visitors to Brentford be greeted by signs recognising "The historic county town of Middlesex"?
Not Sure free polls

Russell researched Brentford in over 50 books. Here are the top 6:
1) Victoria County History of Middlesex
2) Cambridge University Counties Histories: Middlesex
3) All Brentford & Chiswick Borough Guides including the Charter Brochure
4) Faulkner's History of Brentford
5) 2000 Years of Brentford by Roy Canham
6) Nikolas Pevsner - Middlesex

September 2, 2010

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