Charles Dickens and Hounslow 2

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Dick Turpin, from ‘Half-hours with the Highwaymen’ by Charles G. HarperSet in 1775, the first chapter’s description of “the best of times, the worst of times” includes these lines:

“That magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue.”



Dick Turpin, from ‘Half-hours with the Highwaymen’ by Charles G. Harper, 1908


Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) Book 1, Chapter 16

Old Betty Higden, lived in Brentford where she cared for foster children.
“At length, tidings were received by the Reverend Frank of a charming orphan to be found at Brentford. One of the deceased parents (late his parishioners) had a poor widowed grandmother in that agreeable town, and she, Mrs Betty Higden, had carried off the orphan with maternal care, but could not afford to keep him...

The abode of Mrs Betty Higden was not easy to find, lying in such complicated back settlements of muddy Brentford that they left their equipage at the sign of the Three Magpies, and went in search of it on foot. After many inquiries and defeats, there was pointed out to them in a lane, a very small cottage residence, with a board across the open doorway…”

The Three Pigeons at Brentford was the model for Dickens’ Three Magpies, in Our Mutual Friend.
The inn stood on the High Street, seen in the distance in the centre of this picture.

Old stabling of the Three Pigeons

Old stabling of the Three Pigeons, Brentford Market Place - drawn and etched by W.N.Wilkins, 1848.

Hounslow Borough in the time of Charles Dickens

1855 map by Davies

1855 map by Davies   [Hounslow Library Service]

Turnham Green, Chiswick

Turnham Green, about 1840

Turnham Green, about 1840. [Oil painting in Chiswick Library]

Kew Bridge, Brentford

The Quicksilver mail coach passing the Star and Garter, c.1835

The Quicksilver mail coach passing the Star and Garter, c.1835


All traffic from London to the West Country passed through the market town of Brentford.

Brentford High Street, 1819  Brentford High Street, 1892

Brentford High Street, 1819                                                                ...and 1892               [Hounslow Library Service]

Toll gates at The Bell, Hounslow, in 1864

Toll gates at The Bell, Hounslow, in 1864

Here the road divided – for Staines to the left, and Bath to the right.   [Hounslow Library Service]

Dickens' Journalism

Dickens' Journalism

Mirror of Parliament 1831
Morning Herald 1832
Morning Chronicle 1835
Bentley’s Miscellany 1837- early 1840’s
Daily News 1845 onwards
Household Words 1850-1858
All the Year Round 1859-1870

The Troubled Water Question (1850)

Household Words, April 13th 1850

Dickens published an article on public water supply and Kew Bridge Water Works (now Kew Bridge Steam Museum) in Household Words, April 13th 1850.

Visiting Kew Bridge Water Works

Charles Dickens, about 1850

Dickens and his friend Lyttleton hired a hansom cab. “The order to ‘drive to Kew Bridge’ was obeyed in capital style…”

a hansom cab





Charles Dickens, about 1850 





After inspecting the dirty water of the Thames from the Kew bank, they crossed Kew Bridge to Brentford, and entered the waterworks.

Crossing Kew Bridge, with its tollgate, 1874

Crossing Kew Bridge, with its tollgate, 1874    [Chiswick Library Local Collection]

The brick-built campanile-style tower 1867The iron lattice-work standpipe tower seen beyond Kew Bridge, about 1850

The iron lattice-work standpipe tower seen beyond Kew Bridge, about 1850.            [Kew Bridge Steam Museum]



When Dickens saw the waterworks, the tall standpipe tower was supported by an open iron lattice. The brick-built campanile-style tower, housing a new standpipe, dates from 1867.


[Chiswick Library Collection]

Dickens’ Description of the Waterworks
(adapted from Household Words)

The Standpipe: “An immensely tall thin column that shoots up into the air like an iron mast unable to support itself, and seems to require four smaller, thinner props to keep it upright. This, with the engine- houses, is all [that can be seen] of the waterworks from the road. It is only when one gets inside, that the whole extent of the aquatic apparatus is revealed.”

The Great Engine: “What a monster! Imagine an enormous see- saw, with a steam engine at one end, and a pump at the other… See, with what earnest deliberation the ‘see’… pulls up the ‘saw’ … which then comes down … with the ferocious aplomb of 49 tons, sending 400 gallons of water in one tremendous squirt nearly the twentieth part of a mile high ... to the top of the stand-pipe … I marvelled that so much power can be exercised with so little noise and vibration. ‘That’s owing to the patent valves’ said the Stoker.”

The Grand Junction Waterworks pumping engine

The Grand Junction Waterworks pumping engine that Charles Dickens called “The Monster”

You can see The Monster for yourself at Kew Bridge Steam Museum. The museum is open from 11 am to 4pm every Tuesday to Sunday. It is closed on Mondays, except Bank Holidays.

The Cornish Engines are run once a month on Giants of Steam Weekends.
Web site


[Kew Bridge Steam Museum]

Dickens’ Description of the Waterworks (continued)

The Filter Beds: “Passing out of the building… we saw before us an expanse of water covering 3 1/2 acres…the pump delivers water so the impurity may be precipitated. It then slowly glides into a huge filter…whence it is pumped up so as to commence its travels [7 1/2 miles to supply the homes and factories of West London] through the conduit pipe.”

Kew Bridge Works 1909The site was much smaller when Dickens saw it. Most of the filter beds and reservoirs shown on this plan were added in the fifteen years following his visit.

[Kew Bridge Steam Museum]

Grand Junction Water Works, Brentford, in 1865

Grand Junction Water Works, Brentford, in 1865

The water works is now Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Brentford Towers Estate stands on the old filter beds. [Map: Crown Copyright]

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