It’s my standard line — “I did a survey there”

It’s become a bit of a clichéed joke in my family that whenever we’re out and about I can point casually out of the car window and claim “I’ve done a survey there, you know”. Part of the reason for the hiatus in this blog is that I have been busy out on field survey visits since April. This year I found myself at a site that I had not surveyed before, nevertheless, I knew of the place, in a reverse sort of way, from almost forgotten family history.

Travelling by train to Hampton Court Station to visit nearby Hurst Park, I see from the map that this block of land, next to the Thames, opposite Hampton Court Palace is called Cigarette Island, named, so the interpretation boards tell, after a large and impressive houseboat so called, which used to be moored here. I know that boat. My Dad used to live aboard.

Dad was always rather quiet about his past. He wasn’t one to regale us with tales of when he was a boy. I knew he’d lived on a houseboat at one point, but the exact details were sketchy until he wrote a short autobiography — a prelude to an explanation of his botanical records, diaries and notebooks which were to go to the Library of the Natural History Museum on his death. It was in this brief document that he described and named the boat.

“My mother was Henriette Lucy Jones neé Luxton who came from Yorkshire and my father Reginald Bernard Jones described as ‘blacksmith (journeyman)’ on my birth certificate, although as this was the time of the slump I gathered he did any jobs he could find. We were poorly off and at one stage my father, mother and I lived on a long houseboat called The Cigarette described as ‘Dr Walford Bodie’s Floating Palace Houseboat, The Lawns, Thames Ditton, Surrey (opposite Hampton Court Palace)’ on a post-card that I have.”

“My father was in some way a caretaker on board whilst it was empty, presumably temporarily. It had, as far as I can remember, kitchen, dining room, about five bedrooms and a long lounge/ conservatory and had bridges connecting it to the land at each end. Unfortunately this was my father’s undoing for in March 1934 he went out on the ledge that went all the way round the houseboat to get a loaf out of the River Thames with a broom for the swans and must have fallen in. I gave the alarm (at the age of four and a half) “Daddy’s in the water”. He drowned.”

“My sister was born two days later. From then onwards we were even poorer, with my mother going out to do office cleaning, supplemented by a government widow’s pension of 18 shillings a week. Sometimes we lived in one room (three of us, always in London). I looked after myself from the age of 6, with a front-door key. I think someone looked after my sister. They were hard times, but we knew no other.”

Apparently The Cigarette, was originally owned by Sir Henry Foreman (1852-1924), Member of Parliament and Mayor of Hammersmith. According to the Molesey History Society website, it and the other boats were given notice to quit in October 1931 and this is presumably when it took up its new mooring a few hundred metres away downriver at The Lawns in Thames Ditton. When he was alive my father never mentioned Walford Bodie (1869-1939), but the inernet is awash with his exploits as celebrity, showman, hypnotist, entrepreneur, and quack doctor who mock-electrocuted people on stage and made all sorts of medicinal claims about his galvanizing ‘treatment’. According to the Wikipedia entry on Bodie, his houseboat was actually called La Belle Electra, a name also used by his glamorous onstage assistant, who may or may not have been his sister-in-law. Who knows, maybe the boats were one and the same, renamed under new ownership?

Today there are still expensive houseboats on the River, but these are a kilometre further upstream opposite Hurst Park. I cannot find the post-card Dad mentions but have a vague memory of a black and white image of a vessel something like a smaller version of the Mississippi paddle steamers you sometimes see in westerns. Today The Lawns offer gentle views across the River Thames to Hampton Court Palace. A place of quiet reflection, to contemplate times gone, things half remembered, and people never met.

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