Archaeological fragments unearthed during the building of Hammersmith Bridge in 1825 indicate a second century Roman settlement had existed at this part of the Thames, but it was many years before a hamlet established itself on the willowy banks of the slow moving river. In the 11th century, the Domesday Book records a small settlement near today’s Furnival Gardens where a tributary of what came to be called Stamford Brook flowed into the Thames.
The first record of the name Hammersmyth appears in 1294, the name possibly derived from a combination of the Old English words of Hamor (a hammer) and Smyththe (smithy). The land was part of the Manor of Fulham,owned by the Bishop of London whose country palace lay downstream on the river’s bend at Putney. The original topography featured heavily forested land which provided acorns and beechnuts to feed pigs whilst the river was a valuable source of food including eels, salmon and wild fowl as well as providing a means of transport to the City of London.
By the 17th century the forests were being cleared for farmland and the thousand inhabitants included some wealthy merchants such as The Earl of Mulgrave, a veteran of the Spanish Armada, who owned the Butterwick Estate, today the somewhat less glamorous Hammersmith Broadway bus station, whilst the Riverside Studios in Crisp Street were originally owned by Sir Nicholas Crisp, a loyal supporter of King Charles I, who built his country house on the bend in the river “in sweet and wholesome air”.
Until the consecration in 1631 of a chapel-of-ease near Hammersmith Creek which ran from the east end of King Street to the river, residents had a long muddy walk to Fulham parish church in Putney. By 1883, at the height of churchgoing, the chapel dedicated to St. Paul was replaced by the larger church which now sits adjacent to the A4 flyover, marooned in a sea of busy roads. There was a strong Catholic presence in the area following the decision of Queen Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese widow, to build a country house in Hammersmith. By 1677 Quakers had their Meeting House near Hammersmith Creek and in 1875 Methodists found a permanent home in their King Street church whilst Rev. William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army and a resident of Ravenscourt Road, established a Christian Mission in Dalling Road.
During the 19th century a considerable amount of farmland was turned over to the creation of brickfields as the clay soil provided good building materials for London as it continued to expand westwards. Many ponds and lakes were formed as a result of this activity and Lakeside Road near Brook Green is a reminder of this extremely profitable business. Nearer to the river, the good soil enabled farmers to grow soft fruits such as gooseberries, red currants, raspberries and strawberries which were taken by boat or carried in panniers made by osiers from riverside willows to sell at Covent Garden market.
Hammersmith is renowned for its fantastic schools. Edward Latymer’s bequest of 1642 enabled a boys’ school to be founded which still bears his name. He later provided additional funds to amalgamate with Sir William Godolphin’s 17th century school to form Godolphin & Latymer. St. Paul’s Boys’ School moved from the City’s cathedral to healthier Hammersmith in 1884 occupying buildings designed by Alfred Waterhouse until the school decamped again in 1968 across the river to Barnes. During the Second World War, Waterhouse’s buildings were the headquarters of the 21st Army Group under the command of former pupil, General Bernard Montgomery. St. Paul’s Girls’ School, founded by the Mercers, opened in 1904 and has had several distinguished directors of music including Herbert Howells and Gustav Holst, the latter composing his St. Paul’s and Brook Green suites for his pupils.
King Street, once known as the King’s Highway, formed part of the main route from London to Windsor and The Swan on the Broadway was a popular booking house for stage coaches. Among the many taverns along King Street, a notable example was the Hampshire Hog, which in 1741 stood in half an acre of ground and had its own stabling and butchers shop. Initially independent bakers, butchers and grocers shops served the local population, but by the 1930s King Street had expanded to include Palmer’s Department Store, Marks & Spencer, Boots and Woolworths some of which still remain and exist alongside a shopping mall and other major chains including H&M, TKMaxx and Primark.
The lure of the riverside attracted a wonderful variety residents including J.M.W. Turner who established a summer house and studio near the Old Ship and it was whilst he lived here in 1811 that he submitted “Apollo and the Python” to the Royal Academy. William Morris lived at Kelmscott House and described the location as being “certainly the prettiest in London”. As well as being an influential writer and designer of fabrics and wall papers he was a founding member, together with Karl Marx’s daughter, of the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League. The writer and humourist, A.P. Herbert, who served as MP for the University of Oxford for 15 years, delighted in travelling in his boat, The Water Gypsy, from his home in Hammersmith Terrace to the House of Commons.
The opening of the Metropolitan line from Paddington to Hammersmith in 1864 followed seven years later by the District Line made the area very attractive to those seeking work in the City and between 1881 and 1901 the population soared from 72,000 to 112,00. This growth triggered an explosion in house building and the market gardens disappeared under terraces of houses. Businesses flourished too including builders merchant Sankey who unloaded materials at their wharf at Hammersmith Creek until the 1920s when it was filled in. The Town Hall now acts as a marker to its location. George Wimpey opened his stonemason’s yard in Hammersmith Grove in 1896 and the company’s headquarters remained there for over a hundred years.
During the First World War, the local Home Guard dug trenches in Ravenscourt Park and held band practice under the railway arches whilst during the Second World War Belgian refugees from Dunkirk were accommodated at Upper Latymer School. Hammersmith did not escape the bombs and at the height of the Blitz, the King and Queen visited areas stricken by the assault. After the King’s death, the Queen Mother kept her promise and returned to see the opening of the Spring Vale Estate.
One of the biggest changes to the face of Hammersmith was the opening of the A4 flyover in 1961 and the development of the Broadway itself which saw the last Victorian shop terraces swept away and replaced with glazed office blocks, apart from the facade of Bradmore House. In the 1980s The Ark, an innovative office building which resembles an ocean liner, rose beside the flyover and in recent years Lyric Square has been revitalized and the flourishing weekly market stalls act a vibrant reminder of Hammersmith’s village past.
c.c. Caroline MacMillan 2014