The Twickenham Museum
Places : Twickenham

Twickenham's Riverside
A twenty-three year wait for regeneration
1980 - 2003

Twickenham riverside in 1775 from John Harrison's History of London

Twickenham's open air swimming baths on the riverside were closed in 1980. The main building and the land have remained derelict ever since, a substantial blot on the local environment. Argument raged about suitable uses for a piece of land regarded as pivotal for the health of the town.

It is fashionable to state the need for the regeneration of Twickenham, often citing the smarter reputation of Richmond. Although welcoming the idea, Twickenham people resent what they see as a specious comparison between settlements which are quite different in culture and history. Richmond is smart, fashionable and raffish; the core of Twickenham remains, beneath the modern veneer, earthy and tribal. Although these two communities underwent a "shotgun" union in the 1965 local government reorganisation, the shared river divides rather than unites.

Twickenham's history

Scotts painting of the riverside

Twickenham is not what it used to be: it has been the victim of its earlier social pre-eminence. During the 17th and 18th Centuries moneyed landowners maintained or assembled large estates in the original parish. Much of the land was taken by comparatively few land holdings: Twickenham Park, Cambridge House (including Meadowbank), Marble Hill, Orleans House (as it came to be called), Mount Lebanon, York House, The Manor House with its park, Richmond House, Heath Lane Lodge, Radnor House, Strawberry Hill and Fulwell Lodge (later Park). Between these estates there were a number of smaller though substantial properties: The Grove, Poulett Lodge, Cross Deep, Shirley House (later Riversdale), Popes Villa, Cross Deep House, Copt Hall, Laurel Lodge, Grove House, Heath House, Havelock House, Lismore Lodge, Savile House, Twickenham House, Gifford Lodge, The Grange, Brook House, Neville House, Heatham House and Grosvenor House.

About 15 of all these properties lined the north bank of the Thames between Teddington and Richmond.

Twickenham Riverside, c1817 - watercolour after Thomas Girtin

At the heart of all this was the ancient village settlement itself, bordering the river and partly confined by the patrician estates: Richmond House, The Manor, York House, and to the north the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin where everybody shared a common roof on Sundays spiritually and physically if not socially. Here lived the dynastic core of the trading and artisan community, generation after generation of intermarrying families, some for up to 400 years. It was, of course, the surrounding open fields in which they had worked for so long, as copyholders of the manor, that were enclosed progressively as the various estates were put together. Once the land had been sold its erstwhile owners had to seek other sources of sustenance, and for many it was not easy: during the 19th Century there was poverty and squalor in the heart of the old village.

Starting in the 19th and accelerating during the first years of the 20th Century enough of the land occupied by the large properties was sold off for housing and commercial development to change the environment of Twickenham entirely. Additionally, market gardens and open common were built over. Five new parishes were formed with their own churches to accommodate the huge increase in population*. No longer was Twickenham "the classic village" set in an arcadian landscape on the banks of the River Thames.

*Whitton, then still a part of the ancient parish had mainly consisted of Kneller Hall, Whitton Park and Whitton Place and a few smaller properties. It was made into a separate parish in 1862.

The 20th Century

Today, of the larger estates, only Marble Hill, Strawberry Hill and York House remain. Marble Hill was saved from the predatory Cunard family when the grounds were already laid out to receive roads and public drainage for a housing estate in 1901. York House with its grounds was bought for Council Offices in 1924 and the Strawberry Hill estate, much reduced by peripheral housing became a Catholic Teacher Training College in 1925. Both these latter properties have suffered from excessive new building which has compromised their original setting.

Of the lesser estates, only the house known as Cross Deep survives in private hands today; all the others have succumbed to development, mainly housing or commercial. Orleans House suffered a different fate; it was sold and demolished in 1926 and much of the land excavated for gravel. Private intervention saved the 18th Century Octagon from demolition and later, public need took land for a large school.

Radnor House was acquired by the Council in 1902. The extensive landward gardens (around 10 acres) were sold for housing to finance the purchase. Nevertheless, maintaining the house became an embarrassment and when it was destroyed by a German bomb in 1940 cheers were said to have been heard in the Council chamber of York House.

All this reads as a melancholy catalogue: commercial avarice and corporate naivety have gone hand in hand to produce the environment which we see today, and the process has not been altogether arrested.

Richmond House came into Council ownership in 1924 following an unsuccessful bid at auction, a fumbled attempt at compulsory purchase and a Public Inquiry. There was opposition to the purchase; people feared that demolition would follow and the land developed with public buildings. In fact, this was just the intention: the council wanted the land for "…road improvements, public offices, a fire station, baths and washhouses and sanitary conveniences". While Richmond House might have had a future as a Town Hall, York House was chosen instead.

Built in 1816 to replace an earlier house from the 17th century, Richmond House was demolished and its purchase funded by the sale of the north-western swathe of the land for commercial development along King Street. However, a substantial area survived as open space and later accommodated the open air baths on the embankment. A building of inappropriate design was constructed to service the baths which opened in 1935.

Closure of the Swimming Baths

The baths were closed for financial reasons in 1980 and there followed a number of ambitious redevelopment proposals to build over most of the land.

This land, facing the River Thames, is important for Twickenham. Adjoining the rear of the modern centre of the town, it is next to the ancient village, now in relatively good heart, itself a reminder of Twickenham's history. It is also the termination of a popular riverside walk from Richmond.

The first proposal for development, submitted by Marks & Spencer, led to a Public Inquiry in 1991. Recommending rejection, the Inspector held that contiguity with the village and the river should determine the nature and scale of any future development of this land. Commercial ambitions were to be kept subordinate. However, the reverse was proposed, twice. A major scheme of mainly commercial development was published in 1999 and abandoned in the face of public hostility. Then, claiming to be an opportunity for the "regeneration" of Twickenham a further scheme was proposed. This took the form of a health club incorporating a small swimming pool, and a cinema complex. Although commercial, these could not succeed without additional funding from the building and sale of 46 flats, some restaurants and shops.

The third project was abandoned.

Postscript: The Future

This article is concerned only with the history up to 2002. However, following the local elections that year, the new Council proposed a short term scheme involving demolition of the old swimming bath building to provide public open space on the Embankment with the addition of an adventure playground and a cafe. This work was carried out.

For the longer term consultants were appointed to examine proposals to be advanced by local community groups as part of the Twickenham Riverside Challenge. This reprieve has given the opportunity for fresh proposals to be brought forward and for long term schemes to be developed.

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