Charles Dickens and Hounslow 3

Dickens' Journalism (continued)

As the Crow Flies, written in 1868 for All the Year RoundAs the Crow Flies:
Due West:
Hounslow Heath

Dickens was familiar with the Great Western Road out of London, through Chiswick, Brentford and Hounslow.



His article As the Crow Flies, written in 1868 for All the Year Round, describes this journey to Hounslow Heath as it might have been made in earlier times.



The road through Brentford, Hounslow and over Hounslow Heath
Faden’s map of 1788– Andrew Macnair’s digital edition, 2009

Faden’s map of 1788– Andrew Macnair’s digital edition, 2009

Copyright Andrew MacNair - for this and other images please go to
Crow silhouette from

Brentford High Street in the eighteenth centuryBrentford High Street in the eighteenth century

[Hounslow Library Service]






“Swift in a phantom mail coach, the ghosts of four ‘spankers’ whirl us along the Great West Road. The phantom guard blows a faint blast on his phantom horn as we dash down the long dingy street of Brentford, and sweep on with whizzing wheels between the broad nursery gardens… Faster… where the ghosts of Hogarth’s time seem forever grouped around the doorway of that quaint inn, The London Apprentice. On past the river almshouses and the little garden by which the dark barge sails flit; on between the rows of shops and the gables of the small town at the Duke’s Gate, and we are at Hounslow and on legendary ground.”   As the Crow Flies, by Charles Dickens (1868)

The Old Prince Regent, High Street, Hounslow in 1870.The Old Prince Regent, High Street, Hounslow in 1870.

[Hounslow Library Service]


The Comet

The Comet





“In Charles I’s time Hounslow contained 120 houses, chiefly inns and ale-houses relying on travellers. It was always dependent on the coaches of the Great West Road. Every third house is still an inn or a beer shop. Ruined stables and faded signs ... still testify to the old prosperity of the place, when the Comet used to come flashing in, five minutes under the hour from Piccadilly.”    As the Crow Flies, by Charles Dickens (1868)

Hounslow Heath: the gibbetsHounslow Heath: the gibbets.                                              

Faden’s map of 1788 showing (in red) today’s Hounslow Heath Local Nature Reserve – formerly the Barracks’ training ground.

Faden’s map of 1788








“If any highwayman who galloped to the gallows a century ago, could see Hounslow Heath now, he would wonder where the four thousand acres that covered fourteen parishes had shrunk to. He would find only a few dozen acres of grass field enclosed for the cavalry reviews on one side of the road, and a few dozen acres of rough furze and bramble on the other for cavalry drill.”   As the Crow Flies, by Charles Dickens (1868)

A visit to Hounslow Gunpowder Works

Written by Dickens’ friend and Household Words staff writer, Richard H. Horne, Published in Household Words, 7th February 1852
“The mills of Messrs. Curtis of Hounslow are among the largest works of the kind in Europe.”

Gunpowder wrapper

Gunpowder wrapper [The Faversham Society, Faversham Museum]

“These works are distributed over some hundred and fifty acres… water-wheels keep the mills in action… the river meanders through the whole of these grounds, partly by nature but also by art…  A man comes down the river in a small, covered barge, carrying the powder from one house to another.”     Household Words, 7th February 1852

The Mill-head reservoir at Hounslow Powder Mills, around 1795

The Mill-head reservoir at Hounslow Powder Mills, around 1795.
The site’s landmark Shot Tower was not built until 1828.  [Hounslow Library Service]

“A gunpowder mill is a series of mills and other work places, distributed over a large space of ground, each some distance from the next one… There are 97 different buildings. By these means not only is the danger divided, but the loss, by an explosion, is reduced to the one ‘house’ in which the accident occurs.”

Hounslow Powder Mills on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map

Hounslow Powder Mills on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map. [Crown Copyright]

“There was an explosion last year. Six houses blew up. The poor fellows who were killed were horribly mutilated… There are immense gaps in the fir groves, trees are reduced to half their height, some have been flayed of their bark all down one side. Several trees are strangely distorted, and the entire trunk of one large fir has been twisted like a corkscrew.”

Scene of the explosion at Hounslow Powder Mills, 1850

Scene of the explosion at Hounslow Powder Mills, 1850. [Hounslow Library Service]

The Hounslow Powder Mills Shot Tower, Crane Park“The song of a thrush gives a touching sadness to this isolated scene of human labours… the end of which is the destruction of numbers of our species, which may, or may not, be necessary to the progress of civilisation, and the liberty of mankind.”

‘Gunpowder’; published in Charles Dickens’ weekly journal, Household Words, 7th February 1852.




The Hounslow Powder Mills Shot Tower, Crane Park.
[Mary Blyth, Hounslow Library Service]



FORCE [Friends of the River Crane Environment] volunteers open the Crane Park Shot Tower Visitor Centre on Sundays from 13.30 - 16.30. Come along and meet FORCE in the Shot Tower. FORCE is seeking further volunteers to man the tower. No skills required other than a willingness to chat to visitors.
Please e-mail: if you are interested.


Charles Dickens was a passenger on the Folkestone to London express train that crashed near Staplehurst, Kent, on the 9th June 1865. He distinguished himself, assisting and caring for injured passengers. In November of that year he ended his novel Our Mutual Friend with the following words:

“I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have closed this book:-- THE END”

stagecoachSteam train






Charles Dickens was a young man in the era of stagecoaches. He grew old in the age of the train. He died on the 9th June 1870, the fifth anniversary of the Staplehurst train crash. He is buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.


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