The Thames from Hampton Court to Sunbury Lock
Tagg’s Island 1
the first hotel
Like most Thames islands, Tagg’s Island had many previous names, including Walnut Tree Island and Garrick’s Upper Eyot.
The island was occupied by squatters when a new owner, Francis Jackson Kent, took it over and evicted them in 1850. Kent was a Hampton lawyer and property developer who bought large amounts of land in East Molesey (the Kent Town area) for housing when the railway arrived in 1849; Kent died in 1885 and there is a stained glass memorial to him in St Paul’s Church, East Molesey; his successors continued to own the freehold of the island until 1941. A pub and skittle alley called The Angler’s Rest was built in 1852 by a Mr Harvey. The island was already called Kent’s Ait on an 1854 map. The pub was not a success, and Harvey left in 1862.
Thomas (Tom) Tagg had leased part of the island in 1841 and set up a boatyard called T.G. Tagg and Son. Mr Kent leased the pub to Tom Tagg, who rebuilt it as the Thames Hotel in 1872.
It was successful, attracting aristocrats, actors, authors and artists. Ripley’s ‘History and Topography of Hampton-on-Thames’ (1884) says “During the season the place represents a very gay and lively appearance, and is much resorted to by literary and theatrical celebrities. Among others, Sarah Bernhardt was a great admirer and frequenter of Tagg’s.” The island also had lots of houseboats moored around it—J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, rented one in 1887.
By this time, this stretch of the river had become much more accessible and popular with the arrival of the railway—the Hampton Court line opened in 1849, and the Shepperton line with a station at Hampton—in 1864.
At some stage the Tagg’s business hit hard times. One legend says Tom Tagg lost the island in a card game, but the dates don’t support this: Tom died in 1897 and the business passed to his son George Tagg (1862-1952), who sold the hotel lease in 1903—but George stayed on as hotel manager until it was sold again in 1912. The boatbuilding, storage and hire business continued to be operated by Tom Tagg & Son on Tagg’s Island for at least another 10 years.
By that date, another rich and famous person had discovered the pleasures of Tagg’s Island. Click Fred Karno.
Fred Karno bought the whole island in 1912, and he demolished and rebuilt the hotel as The Karsino & New Island Hotel. He claimed it cost £60,000—equivalent to £2.7 million at 2005 prices. Its ballroom had a capacity of 350. There was a Palm Court Concert Pavilion that could hold almost 1,000 people. The island was reached by passenger punts and car ferries from the Middlesex and Surrey banks—there was a new garage capable of containing 40 cars. There were badminton and tennis courts, croquet and lawns, a billiard room, electric lighting and “a German beer garden run on Munich lines”. And there were 70 staff to run it.
People could visit the island for free, but to go to the entertainments and sports grounds they had to pay at turnstiles on the Surrey and Middlesex banks—tickets were 6d, 1s or 2s—or buy season tickets for one guinea.
The architect was Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who designed over 80 theatres (plus pubs, cinemas and hotels) including Richmond Theatre, the Hackney Empire, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, Glasgow King’s Theatre, Liverpool Olympia Theatre, Blackpool Grand Theatre, Douglas Gaiety Theatre, Portsmouth New Theatre Royal, Southsea King’s Theatre and the Covent Garden Coliseum.
There’s a hotel brochure in the Richmond Local History Collection that says: “Telegrams: Karsino, Hampton Court – Telephone No.: Molesey 1”.
The opening on 22 June 1913 attracted thousands of visitors—so many they had to close the ferries for a couple of hours. Modern local history books list lots of VIPs present at the opening party, but since the Surrey Comet a few days later only mentions a few local members of Hampton & Molesey District Councils, maybe it was just Fred Karno’s hype. Or maybe the people listed below visited the hotel at a later date.
Lord Curzon (1859-1925) had been Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1904, was Chancellor of Oxford University and president of the Anti-Suffrage League which, quite rightly, opposed the granting of votes to women; later, he was Foreign Secretary from 1919 to 1924. One of the things he thought he was good at was re-drawing borders – in 1905 he partitioned the province of Bengal, a decision that polarised Hindus and Muslims. And in 1919 he told the newly independent state of Poland where their eastern border should run—the Poles didn’t listen. This far-seeing genius came up with many memorable quotations—“Personally I do not believe in the likelihood of Persian oil deposits being worked at profit”… “The best work in the world was always done by members of the aristocracy” and, on seeing soldiers in the trenches bathing in old beer kegs,… “I never knew the lower classes had such white skins.”
Another visitor was F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead (1872-1930), who campaigned against Irish Home Rule, then became Attorney-General in 1915 and prosecuted Roger Casement for treason.
Then there was Lady Diana Manners (1892-1986), daughter of the Duke of Rutland and supposedly the most beautiful woman in England; she became a film star, then married Duff Cooper, a cabinet minister under Chamberlain and Churchill; John Julius Norwich was their son. Although beautiful, Diana was about as bright as a bowl of Pot Noodles – in World War II she contacted the War Office suggesting that large magnets should be placed in the London parks to attract the bombs. Her husband wasn’t much brighter—during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941 he proudly announced that the civilian population of Penang had been evacuated, only to be reminded that it was just the European civilians who had been rescued: all the Malay, Indian and Chinese civilians had been left to the tender mercies of the Japanese army.
Other visitors included Sir Edward Clarke—he was a former Solicitor General and had represented Oscar Wilde in his disastrous libel case; Sir Joseph Lyons, who founded the Lyons Corner Shop chain; and Gaby Deslys, an actress who supposedly performed the first striptease on a French stage.
The world-famous pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941) gave a recital at the hotel, which is a strange coincidence because he later became Prime Minister of Poland in 1919, and Lord Curzon tried to tell him where Poland’s eastern border should run. This Curzon Line ended up pretty much as the present post-1945 eastern border of Poland.
Britain’s home-grown fascist, Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), in his memoirs described a boat trip from the Houses of Parliament up to Tagg’s Island, some time after being invalided out of the army in 1916. The boat was skippered by Commander Warden Chilcott MP , and the party also included F.E. Smith. On the return journey Chilcott, clearly drunk, managed to run his boat aground—they had to walk back to the island and get a car to Westminster. By a strange coincidence, Mosley’s first wife was Curzon’s daughter; he also had an affair with Curzon’s second wife.
In those pre-television days Fred Karno tried to make it an entertainment centre. An item in the Surrey Comet, 18 October 1924 mentions the new Winter Club on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, with dances, whist drives and performers, including—”that famous magician, Carlton, Saxon Brown, the world’s strongest Boy Scout who snaps chains and other articles with ease, two clever comedians in Ally Benson and Master David Weir, and other accomplished entertainers”.
Although it was successful at first, the First World War and the uncertain economic climate of the early 1920s pushed Fred into debt.
Bandleader Arthur Rosebery wrote about how his band got an engagement at the Karsino around 1925, but didn’t get paid. Jack Hylton, who was acting as his manager, sued Fred Karno, but Karno never paid up.
Early in 1926 Fred Karno sold the hotel. He stayed on Tagg’s Island for a while—in a court case in May 1926 he was described as drawing mooring rents in respect of 26 houseboats on the island; he sued the seller of a houseboat for unpaid commission of £42 10s for introducing a buyer, and won. He was made bankrupt in October 1926 and must have left soon after.
Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie spent time on a houseboat
French actress and international superstar Sarah Bernhardt loved the Thames Hotel.