Richmond half tide lock

When the old London Bridge was demolished in 1832, with its 19 cramped piers and protective palisades, it resulted in the tides on the Thames rising and falling far more rapidly than they had done before. With the old bridge no longer holding the river back water levels at Teddington dropped by 30 inches. The river flowing through Twickenham and Richmond became a stream running between mud banks. For much of the time the upper river was unnavigable by anything but the smallest craft.

It is hard to imagine but there once was a time when the main concern in St Margarets wasn’t about swollen rivers and tidal surges but the direct opposite – a river so dry that it was possible to cross it dry-shod, a river so dry that people played cricket and enjoyed champagne suppers in the middle of it…

“If any Richmond or Twickenham patriot desires to be in a melancholy mood, let him spend a sad quarter of an hour on the Middlesex side of Richmond Bridge. If, on arrival, he be in exuberant spirits he may rely on a spectacle warranted to tone him down. What little water still remains in the Thames is then a foot below the bottom of the river bed of the near Middlesex arch, which is high and dry, long before the time of low tide arrives.”

ACROSS THE WALNUTS – Richmond and Twickenham Times 21st June 1884

“The Thames about Richmond and Twickenham seems to be rapidly approaching the condition of those tropical streams which disappear altogether in the summer months. Anyone who has found it his duty to steer a boat between Richmond Bridge and Teddington Lock must have often been sorely perplexed by the deviousness and scantiness of the navigable channel.”

ST. JAMES’S GAZETTE – London Evening Paper June 1884

According to hydrologists water levels in the river were not helped by the over enthusiastic ‘canalisation’ of the river by the Thames Conservancy Board and the removal of natural obstacles like sand banks. It was generally agreed by one and all that the only answer was to build a lock downstream to hold the water back…

“I entertain no doubt whatsoever that a lock at Isleworth…would secure to us what would be practically a fresh water lake with a light but cleansing current of water perpetually passing through it. Just fancy what this would mean to Richmond!”

CHARLES AITKEN Richmond and Twickenham Times 21st June 1884

Meanwhile, back in Twickenham, riverbed cricketers and picnickers were having fun…

“It has been reserved for this generation to dine where the Thames used to be, as a party did near Eel Pie Island the other day, spreading their cloth on the bed of the river and drinking ‘Prosperity to the new lock which is, or is not, to be. That is the question.’”

THE GLOBE – London Newspaper

“The culminating point came at ten o’clock, nearly four hours before the flood, when people were walking across to Eel Pie Island. At half-past one a repast was spread on the centre of the river and Mr. Andy Anderson proposed prosperity to the new lock in champagne… and a game of cricket was played to the delight of the watersiders.”

THE SPORTSMAN – Magazine

“It is interesting to know that people have dined and played cricket matches on the bed of the stream, and waggish persons have affixed notices with the legend ’Land to be let for building purposes. Apply to the Thames Conservancy.” But this state of things is not good for trade or for anything else…A remedy will certainly have to be found; whether by means of the long-talked of lock or otherwise."

ST. JAMES GAZETTE

On Saturday 25th June 1884 the prestigious magazine ‘The Illustrated London News’ was so excited by the novelty of ‘river bed cricket’ that carried an etching showing the scene in Twickenham on its front page …

Cricket on river bed

Although locals were cracking jokes along the lines of “Take your holiday up the Thames on a bicycle” or “For health and vigour a dusty tramp up the river bed is recommended” there was growing anxiety not only about the lack of trade on the river but also about general health and hygiene. With the river providing an important sluice for sewage and waste water the stench from the dried-out bed was overpowering. House prices along the river were tumbling and boating people were moving their craft further up stream where they could be guaranteed a decent head of water. Action needed to be taken. Twickenham Local Board urged the Thames Conservancy to provide “a lock or some other means for keeping the water from running away as it now did” and a ‘Lock and Weir Committee’ was established to pursue the subject, commenting that…

“The present condition of things, there being no water, simply meant ruination to boat owners and fishermen. The health of the inhabitants was also endangered in consequence of the bed of the river being so much exposed.”

Ten years later, in 1894, after some dispute whether it should be at Isleworth or further upstream at St Margarets, Richmond Half Lock was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York to the acclaim and general approval of all… apart from the river bed cricketers and picnickers. As for the fish…

“We have not heard from the fishes as to how they are getting on, but it is currently reported that the chairman of the Thames Angling Preservation Society has gone into the matter thoroughly.”

THE SPORTSMAN

You can read a fuller account of the building of Richmond Lock in the St Margarets Community Website here

— from Martyn Day