There was a time when the St Margarets that we know didn’t exist. No station. No shops. No pub. No cafes, No streets crammed with cars…nothing. The Thames flowed quietly towards the sea through an open parkland of grand houses, smallholdings and market gardens. Boatmen might stop at Richmond to drop off a passenger or pull into Isleworth to collect a cargo but between the two there was little catch their interest.
The poet James Thomson wrote of this beautiful landscape:
Here let us trace the matchless vale of the Thames, Far winding up to where the muses haunt, To Twitnam’s bowers.
…and it doesn’t get much more syrupy than that.
The land upon which St Margarets now stands was particularly fertile. J. Middleton’s “Survey of Middlesex” in 1807 stated that some of the most productive market gardens in the area were situated on drained marsh lands by the river side, which, while “being richly impregnated by water from the river”, were protected from flooding by raised banks of earth known locally as ‘sea walls’.
“The time or period when these walls were constructed is one of those events on which history is silent. I have heard it said that much of the base and centre of them consists of chalk, which substance was probably made use of for the purpose of keeping out moles, rats and worms.”
Over the last two hundred years the course of the river has been modified. Embankments were built and the tidal flow controlled by lock gates up stream and from 1894 the Richmond Half Tide lock. As more and more houses were built in the area the land upon which they stood was raised and drained to avoid flooding. In the course of all this work the old sea walls disappeared.
The last remaining sea wall in the area ran alongside ‘Ducks Walk’ following the course of the river from Twickenham Bridge to East Twickenham. It finally disappeared when the path was widened and the land raised to allow houses to be built. ‘Ducks Walk’ was well named. Prior to the builders arriving ‘Ducks Walk’ was much lower than it is now and often flooded at high tide. It is hard to imagine that where the houses now stand was once marshland.
In those days the water table was no more than 8 to 10 feet below ground level and accessible by relatively shallow wells. The gardeners raised this water using a device that was described in the 1807 Survey as “for cheapness of machinery and despatch exceeds the pump or roller”.
This ‘machinery’ consisted of a vertical post set firmly in the ground a few feet away from the well. On top of the post was another long post, this time horizontal, pivoting around a strong iron pin. On one end of this horizontal post was a rope and large bucket - on the other end a counterweight to provide balance. The gardener pulled the bucket down and dropped it into the well. When it was full the gardener, assisted by the counterweight, was easily able to raise the bucket to the surface. It was identical to the ‘Shaduf’ - the counterbalanced device that the ‘fellahin’ or peasants in Egypt have been using for over 4000 years to irrigate their fields. Similar devices have been also used in Eastern Europe and India.
The railway came in 1845 and soon modern St Margarets began to fill in around it. Gradually the market gardens, the smallholdings and the seawalls that protected them began to disappear under concrete and landfill. In the 1920’s workmen digging a deep trench in Worple Road in Old Isleworth found a reminder of the area as it once was. At a depth of about 11 feet they came across bundles of blackened twigs tied together and placed there at some time in the past to make a path across swampy ground. The recent history of St Margarets is just beneath our feet… and it’s very, very wet.
– from Martyn Day