London 1977

Peter MARSHALL


River Thames, Brentford, Middx, 1977
13e44: Hounslow, Middx, river, lighters

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Lighters moored alongside the former gas works site on Brentford High St. The gas works was demolished around 1964 and the area became public open space, Watermans Park. Hounslow Council had for some years been attempting to evict the 25 boats moored there - some since the 1960s - to build a 5.4 million marina to gentrify the area and won their legal case last November, with the eight remaining boat owners having to pay over 300,000 in legal costs and given 21 days to move.
 
The Thames Steam Tug and Lighterage Company was taken established in 1856 it set up a yard on Lots Ait a few yards upstream from here in 1904 which repaired and built barges and tugs for use on the Thames. At that time the company owned 340 barges and five tugs. At its peak the Lots Ait yard employed around 150 men and 2 women.
 
In 1961 although business was beginning to fall the company still employed over 400 lightermen when it was taken over by the Transport Development Group, and later amalgamated with he General Lighterage Company in the 1960s to form the Thames and General Lighterage Company. Around 1979 this was bought by William Cory Ltd, who moved away from coal and oil transport to waste disposal.
 
Lighters like this were made from 10mm thick steel, and slowly rust both from the outside and often from the inside, eventually becoming unusable as the steel remaining gets too thin. But there are still quite a few around as this may take a couple of hundred years - and small areas that get too thin can be repaired.
 
Brentford was where traffic on the canals met the river Thames, with goods being transhipped between large barges like these and narrow boats. The company operated Brentford Dock together with the Great Western Railway, with a line from the main line at Southall which brought Welsh coal, and for some time also had a passenger service with a station on the London Road in New Brentford where you can still see the remains of the bridge which took the line across, and a part of the line further south is now Augustus Close, leading to the private Brentford Dock housing estate with its notices 'Private Property Residents Only No Public Right of Way'.
 
As with the railways, it was Dr Beeching, a man deeply in thrall to the road lobby, that did for the river traffic and canals, and in 1963 he recommended that waterborne traffic be moved to the roads; the the Lots Ait yard closed in 1980.
 
In 2005 the Ait was sold to investors and a retired solicitor, John Watson, decided he could open a new yard there. A new footbridge to the island was built and John's Boat Works opened there in 2012. Occasionally the island is opened for conducted tours, though I've never managed to go on one.
 
Brentford was another place we sometimes took photography students, and if the tide was right many of them would wade onto the mud bank opposite Lots Ait and sometimes most of the way across. I don't recall seeing any great pictures that they took, but they seemed to enjoy getting covered in mud.