'Entrance to Chiswick’, Church Street in the 19th century
St Nicholas Church as it appeared
in the the 18th century
Flint axes, dating to very early times, found in various parts of Chiswick, suggest that people have been living here since the last Ice Age, and tools and pottery found on Chiswick Eyot imply that the first people to have a settled lifestyle made a home on the island. A later settlement, dating to the 9th-8thc BC, was excavated opposite Gunnersbury Station and over 100 skulls dredged from the Thames opposite Strand-on-the-Green are believed to have been river burials made by Iron Age people (650BC-43AD), maybe as offerings to their Gods.
The Romans were here too – they built two Roman roads through Chiswick which probably converged at Turnham Green and Roman building material and pottery has been found by the river near St Nicholas Church. There is less evidence for the Saxons, although they were undoubtedly in Chiswick (`Chiswick’ is a Saxon word meaning `cheese farm’). A Saxon skeleton was found by the river at Corney Reach, and Saxon objects such as spearheads, a sword pommel, scraps of armour and the remains of a shield have been found near the river. Perhaps the fact that the finds are of a military nature is hardly surprising since the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that, in 1016, King Edmund of England chased Canute and the invading Danes across the Thames at Brentford.
MEDIEVAL (12th to 15th centuries)
The place we know today as Chiswick was formed from five separate areas. Old Chiswick, which nestled around St Nicholas Church and along Chiswick Mall; Strand-on-the-Green, a fishing village on the water’s edge; Turnham Green, which grew up along the main road to the west of England; Little Sutton, a small hamlet clustered around Sutton Manor, and Stamford Brook which straddled the border with Hammersmith near the ford over the brook (the word `Stamford’ means `stone ford’).
Sutton Manor was one of two manors in Chiswick, the other being the Prebendal Manor with its manor house on Chiswick Mall. Both belonged to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral. During the 14th and 15th centuries, though, Sutton Manor was held by the Crown and King Richard II built a house at Sutton in 1396, using timbers from the temporary parliament building in Westminster. It was pulled down in 1415 but another house must have been erected shortly after as King Henry VI issued state papers from Chiswick in 1441 and 1444.
St Nicholas Church is thought to have been on its site by at least 1181. The present tower was added between 1416 and 1435 but the church itself has been rebuilt many times. The church would have been the centre of community life – a place of worship, a theatre for mystery plays, a school and a social club.
The main occupations of Chiswick residents were fishing, transporting people and goods by water, boat building and farming. The barley grown in Chiswick was said to have been `exceptionally fine’, which meant that malting and brewing were important activities. Osiers (willows) were cultivated along the riverside and used for making baskets. The Thames was a major highway before there were adequate roads and there would have been a continual stream of traffic - wherries, fishing boats and grander craft. Royalty, in sumptuous velvets and brocades, gliding down the river in magnificent barges to their palaces at Richmond, Sheen and Hampton Court were no doubt a familiar sight to Chiswick people. The ferry beside St Nicholas Church probably did a brisk business with traders and pilgrims.
TUDOR TO RESTORATION (16th and 17th centuries)
`The sweet air and situation of Chiswick’ was now attracting wealthy Londoners and large mansions began to be built – Grove House, which stood where Kinnaird Avenue is today, and was not demolished until 1928, is recorded as early as 1412, although it was rebuilt. It was home to the Barker family for 200 years from 1540. Corney House, on the marshy riverside now Corney Reach, was built sometime before 1542 when it became the home of John Russell, later 1st Earl of Bedford. The Russell’s entertained Queen Elizabeth I here in 1602. The house (rebuilt) was demolished by the Duke of Devonshire in 1837. The large Jacobean Chiswick House, the property of the 4th Duke of Devonshire from 1753, was built around 1611.
In 1570 the Prebendal manor house on Chiswick Mall was conveyed to the Dean of Westminster who decided to use it as a refuge for pupils of Westminster School `in times of sickness and plague’. A new stone building was erected next to the manor house; this became known as College House
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, an important skirmish took place on Turnham Green which was then much larger than it is today. The royalist army, victorious the previous day at the Battle of Brentford, was marching on London in an attempt to wrest it from parliamentarian control. But they were halted at Turnham Green by a large parliamentarian force and fighting broke out. Outnumbered, the royalists retreated and Charles I never came so close to taking the capital again. The two armies at Turnham Green numbered around 36,000 men, making it one of the largest engagements in British history.
It is possible that the headless body of Oliver Cromwell is buried in a vault in St Nicholas Church. Cromwell was just an army captain at the battle of Turnham Green, not becoming England’s Protector until 1653. When Charles II regained the throne, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and hung on the gallows at Tyburn. The head was hacked off and the body supposedly buried in a deep pit below the gallows. However, there were persistent rumours that it was spirited away by his family. No one knows where it was taken but, when the vaults were opened in St Nicholas Church during its rebuilding, the vicar’s son claims that the vault containing the bodies of Cromwell’s two daughters also contained a third, unidentified, coffin. The vaults have now been covered in concrete so we may never learn whether Cromwell lies in Chiswick. Cromwell’s daughter Mary had married the Earl of Fauconberg and they moved to Sutton Court in 1676.
The newly-restored king purchased the Jacobean Chiswick House in 1664 for his son the Duke of Monmouth, and the king’s one time mistress Barbara Villiers ended her days in Walpole House on Chiswick Mall in 1709. Sir Stephen Fox, statesman and one time financial manager to the king purchased the house next door to Chiswick House and in 1682 built himself a splendid mansion, later called Moreton Hall. This was purchased by the Duke of Devonshire in 1812, the mansion demolished and the Chiswick House conservatory and Italian Garden laid out on its site.