What We Did In The Days Before Computers and TV

Local historian Gillian Clegg on how Chiswick residents kept themselves entertained

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The History of Chiswick

The Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society


Compiled by Gillian Clegg, author of Chiswick Past (1995), The Chiswick Book (2004) and Brentford and Chiswick Pubs (2005), all available at local bookshops

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Chiswick's much-loved live theatre was opened in 1912 and closed in 1959. When Oswald Stoll first proposed building a music hall in Chiswick in 1910, the idea was opposed vehemently by locals who claimed that it would lower the tone and 'drive away the better class inhabitants'. Stoll persevered, the opposition was overcome, and the theatre opened at 414 Chiswick High Road on 2 September 1912.

It was designed by Frank Matcham, who also designed the London Palladium, and could seat nearly 2,000 people. The decor was mainly electric blue and terracotta and it had a sliding roof. This proved a mixed blessing since it was rarely opened, and when it was, a cloud of dust would descend on the audience! Less than a year after its completion, the Empire suffered a dreadful fire which destroyed the stage and damaged the auditorium. However, it re-opened after only three months with the decor now pale cream and old gold with bottle green upholstery.

The Empire became one of the most prominent variety houses in the London suburbs, staging plays, concerts, revues, music hall turns, also sometimes opera and ballet. Particularly popular was the annual pantomime. Stars who appeared at the Empire before World War II included Marie Lloyd, Clara Butt, George Formby and Sybil Thorndyke. Like most theatres it closed at the beginning of the War but re-opened in 1941 and famous performers in the ‘40s and ‘50s included Laurel and Hardy, Vera Lynn, Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, Terry Thomas and Alma Cogan.

In 1959 the Middlesex County Council approved plans to build a 120ft, 11- storey office block on the site of the Chiswick Empire. The news that the theatre was to close came as a complete bombshell to the 30-strong staff since the theatre had been playing to capacity audiences. The Empire 'died with dignity' on 20 June 1959 when a lamé jacketed Liberace played to a full house. 'A night of sadness at the Empire' was the headline in the Brentford & Chiswick Times the following week. The theatre was demolished a month later and the office block known as Empire House erected on its site.

In 1883 the 7th Duke of Devonshire leased a piece of land for a nominal rent to Chiswick residents who wished to form a sports club. This sports ground was bounded on the north by Fauconberg Road, Grove Park Terrace on the west, Sutton Court Road on the east and the railway line on the south. Cricket, football, lawn tennis and bowls were played at the Club, all by women as well as men. Chiswick Park Lawn Tennis Club was for many years the scene of the annual Middlesex Open Tennis Championships, making the venue second only to Wimbledon in importance.

From 1897 St Thomas's Hospital Medical School was leasing eight and three quarter acres of the ground as the St Thomas's Sports Ground. On expiry of the lease from the Duke of Devonshire in 1925, the land was sold to the Chiswick Cricket and Lawn Tennis Company but in 1946 it was the subject of compulsory purchase by Brentford & Chiswick Urban District Council which built the St Thomas's housing estate on the site.

Chiswick's much loved open air swimming pool opened in Edensor Road in 1910. The Council constructed it 'as relief work for the unemployed'. Initially the sexes were strictly segregated with mixed bathing only allowed at weekends. A second pool was added in 1931. In 1981 the Council closed the baths, claiming that repairing and updating them was too costly. This caused howls of protest which continued for ten years until the Council came to an agreement with a private developer to build the indoor New Chiswick Pool as part of a housing development. The New Chiswick Pool was refurbished in 2001 when a gym was added.

Like most areas of the country, Chiswick embraced the new phenomenon of moving pictures at the beginning of the 20th century. Chiswick's first purpose-built, but shortest-lived, cinema was the Palais at No 365 Chiswick High Road (the site is now occupied by Woolworths). This opened in October 1909, was fined in 1914 for Sunday opening and closed in 1916. It re-opened briefly in 1919 with a name change to the Palace of Entertainments.

The Electric Theatre was opened in 1911 on the corner of Duke Road and Chiswick High Road. Various proprietors came and went - mainly into liquidation - which caused the cinema to close periodically. In 1927 its name was changed to the Coliseum and in 1929 it was converted for sound, but closed in 1932. It re-opened the same year specialising in newsreels when it was known as the Tatler but its licence was finally revoked in 1933. The emporium known as Old Cinema Antiques at 160 Chiswick High Road was formerly the Cinema Royal, but more affectionately known as the Cave because of its decor and narrow entrance. At one time it sported a flashing electric stalagmite outside. The building was originally the Chiswick Hall, which was licensed for music and dancing in 1888. It opened as a cinema in May 1912 but closed in August 1933. Part of the screen surround remains as well as an ornate interior dome.

This large area of open space, now occupied by playing fields and sports clubs, was once meadowland belonging to the Duke of Devonshire. The fact that this 'lung for London', as it was once described, has been preserved as such is something of a miracle. In 1902 it was set to be included in a large modern village called Burlingwick but the scheme never materialised. In 1914 the Brentford Gas Company planned to purchase 80 acres of its land on which to build a gasworks. This unpopular plan was scuppered by Chiswick residents who succeeded in getting the Bill to enable the gasworks to go ahead thrown out of Parliament.

In 1923 Chiswick Urban District Council acquired the land from the Duke of Devonshire for £150,000. The Council designated the land for private and public playing fields and public use, building a riverside promenade, pergolas of roses, a bandstand and a children's playground. But in 1926 Dukes Meadows was threatened again when the London & Home Counties Electrical Authority offered the Council Chiswick House and its grounds (the Authority had negotiated the purchase of these from the Duke of Devonshire) in exchange for 45 acres of land in Duke's Meadows on which to erect a large generating station, similar to Battersea Power Station. This unwelcome scheme was dropped in 1928.

Sadly, Duke's Meadows with its public access to the river hasn't enjoyed the popularity and patronage it deserves. But now a voluntary body the Dukes Meadows Trust (www.dukesmeadowstrust.org) is working to restore the area to something like its former glory.

In September 1892 a 12-hole golf course was opened on the fields surrounding Chiswick Park Farm which stood where Staveley Road is today. In 1894 the farmhouse was converted to a club house and the club was given a renewable yearly lease by H T Tubbs, a developer who owned the land. Pressure for new building led to Tubbs increasingly whittling away the course by selling off plots of land, and in 1907, the club was forced to close. Golfing Magazine reported that 'the builder, after casting greedy eyes for a long time upon Chiswick's pretty course, has at last made his swoop and golf will be played there no more'. Members of the Chiswick Club merged with Fulwell Golf Club and two of the original Chiswick trophies, the Castle Cup and the Chiswick Cup, are still played for by that club.

In 1930 a miniature 'Tom Thumb' golf course was opened behind the Chiswick Empire. Tom Thumb courses were an American invention and this was the first one in London. The nine hole 'pay and play' golf course in Duke's Meadows opened in 1995.

Started in 1829, the Boat Race was always a great day in Chiswick with throngs of visitors descending on the area to watch the gruelling four and a half mile event. Special (first class only) trains from Waterloo stopped on Barnes Bridge to give spectators a bird's eye view.
The Boat Race runs from Putney to Mortlake but the crews actually disembark at a Chiswick boat house on the Middlesex bank.

Chiswick's public library was opened in 1890 in a house on the corner of Duke Road and Bourne Place. It was run by a librarian with one assistant and was open seven days a week and from 9am to 10pm every weekday except Wednesday. Readers were only allowed to borrow one book at a time which they selected from a catalogue (open access to the bookshelves was not introduced until 1921). As the library became progressively busier, the space became increasingly cramped. The Council began to examine alternative sites but was limited by the fact that no more than the product of a penny rate was allowed to be spent on the library.

Then came a stroke of good fortune: in October 1897, wallpaper manufacturer, Arthur Sanderson, wrote to the Council offering 'to give our house, Number One Duke's Avenue, to the parish for use as a public library. We thought it would be a fitting way of celebrating the [Queen Victoria's Diamond] Jubilee'. The Council gratefully accepted, describing it as 'one of the noblest gifts the parish had ever received’. After work to convert the house, which had been built in 1882 for the Sanderson family, the library moved into its new home in September 1898.
Between 1921 and World War II the public library contained a small museum. This displayed local objects such as Hogarth prints, Chiswick trader's tokens and books produced by the Chiswick Press. Some of the museum's collection was transferred to Gunnersbury Park Museum in 1958.
In 1928 the library was badly damaged by the fire at the Sanderson factory and, while it was being repaired, the library service operated from temporary premises in in huts and an annex around Belmont School. The library was re-opened in 1931 with a new extension added on the south side.

The Q Theatre (the name is a pun on Kew) stood opposite Kew Bridge Station on the site of what is now the block of flats called Rivers House. The theatre was converted from the Prince's Hall which at various times had been a beer garden, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink, a dance hall, a cinema and finally a film studio. When the film company went into liquidation, the building reverted to its owners, Fuller Smith and Turner, which leased it in 1924 to Jack de Leon and his sister Delia. It was the ambition of the young Jack de Leon and his actress wife Beatie, spurred on by Beatie's mother Lydia Lewisohn, to create a theatre in the mould of Hampstead's Everyman. Jack was a trainee solicitor who abandoned his studies to become a playwright and director while Beatie gave up acting to concentrate on theatrical management.

The theatre, advertised as a 'Bright, Cosy Theatre for the Presentation of West End Plays', opened on Boxing Day 1924 with a play by Gertrude Jennings entitled The Young Person in Pink. Plays normally ran for one to two weeks. The theatre also had a Club Room, a snack counter, a large lounge and a bar. Between 1933 and 1935 the frontage and offices were redesigned by Charles Reading.

Due to the de Leon's astute management, the Q became one of the most important of London's small theatres (it could seat 492 people) staging many plays that went on to become West End hits. The first works of aspiring playwrights such as Terence Rattigan and William Douglas Home were performed at the Q and mega stars such as Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh, Margaret Lockwood, Joan Collins, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery and Dirk Bogarde trod the boards here early in their careers. The young Dirk (then Derek van den Bogaerde) began his career helping backstage at the Q before being given a small acting part in 1940. In a letter the de Leon's daughter Jean many years later, he says of Beatie: 'she taught me that acting is a job for those who are prepared to go on learning. I've learned quite a lot since then; about half of what I need I suppose.'

After more than 30 years, the de Leon's decided that it was no longer feasible to run the Q Theatre the way it had been run: audiences were falling due in no small part to the advent of television, the building was decaying and Jack de Leon was unwell. The Q closed on 19 February 1956 although the theatre was used as a drama school until early 1958 after which the building was demolished.

The fêtes (forerunners of the Chelsea Flower Show) held at the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick gardens were one of the main events of the London 'season' with carriages to Turnham Green lining the road from Hyde Park Corner. The first fête was held in 1827 and by the 1840s there were three fêtes a year in May, June and July (the last fête in Chiswick was in 1857). Produce from the garden was displayed in a long line of large marquees; refreshments were provided and regimental bands entertained visitors throughout the day.

The Horticultural Society (it didn’t receive the Royal Charter until 1861) had its experimental gardens in Chiswick from 1822 to 1904. They occupied the land now covered by Alwyn Avenue, Barrowgate Road, Hadley Gardens and Wavendon Avenue. The Society leased the 33 acres from the Duke of Devonshire. They adjoined the grounds of Chiswick House so a private gate was inserted between the two properties to enable the Duke to enter the gardens whenever he chose. Half the gardens were allocated to fruit and vegetables; 13 acres to flowers and shrubs and there was an eight-acre arboretum. This was the heyday of plant collecting and hot houses were built for the exotic plants now being brought back from the Far East, the Americas and other places. The Society also ran conferences and a training scheme for young would-be gardeners and this is where Joseph Paxton, later to build the Crystal Palace, was trained. Dr John Lindley, who lived in Chiswick, became Assistant Secretary of the gardens in 1822, and was the Secretary between 1858 and 1863. In 1870 the Royal Horticultural Society reduced its Chiswick acreage to just 11 acres (it had opened additional gardens in Kensington in 1861). The glasshouses were demolished and the arboretum swept away. By 1900 with Chiswick becoming built over the Society was looking for new land. In 1903 the Society was presented with an estate in Wisley, Surrey and moved its experimental gardens there in 1904. The cul-de-sac called Horticultural Place is the only reminder we have of what must have been an oasis in the heart of Chiswick

There have been numerous clubs and other sports facilities in Chiswick over the years. One of the earliest known is a bowling alley in Devonshire Road, shown on a map of 1746.
Turnham Green Cricket Club was formed in 1853 as the Turnham Green Devonshire cricket club, so called because the Duke of Devonshire was its patron. It was playing on Turnham Green Common by 1856 and called the Turnham Green Cricket Club by 1884. The Chiswick Park Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club was started in 1884; the short-lived golf club in 1892.

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a tennis club for Bedford Park residents, a football club at Sutton Court, tennis and bowling club at Fairlawn Park. Grove Park had its own football club and later a cricket, lawn tennis club and putting green. The Chiswick Bowling Club (later the West London Bowling and Tennis club) opened in Airedale Avenue in 1909 and is now the Hogarth Health Club. There were at least three cycling clubs, one for ladies, and a rifle club. Large local firms ran their own sports clubs on land in and around Duke's Meadows, as did bodies such as the (Regent Street) Polytechnic, the Civil Service and Prudential Assurance. The Civil Service still have a large sports club there as do Fuller's Brewery.

The Polytechnic's sports ground in Hartington Road, known as the Quintin Hogg Memorial Ground, opened in 1906. Its stadium, opened in 1938, was designed by Joseph Addison, the Polytechnic’s Head of Architecture and is now a listed building. The Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) also built a boathouse at the end of Ibis Lane on land acquired in 1888. The Ibis boat house next door, now the Mortlake Anglian and Alpha Boat Club was put up in 1890. These are just two of six boathouses along the river's edge. The University of London boathouse, in Hartington Road was built in 1936 and is now a listed building. As well as rowing clubs there is a sailing club at Strand-on-the-Green. The Riverside Club in Duke's Meadows opened in 1987 and has been run by Esporta since 2001. There is another Esporta Club in Chiswick (business) Park.

Compiled by Gillian Clegg, author of Chiswick Past (1995), The Chiswick Book (2004) and Brentford and Chiswick Pubs (2005), all available at local bookshops.

The full article can be read on the Chiswick History website.

March 13, 2009