The Crane Valley Partnership


The following information has been compiled by Chris Hern (Hounslow & District History Society) and Rob Gray (Chair or FORCE)

Early History

There is little known about the earliest human history of the river corridor.  There is however some archaeological evidence for pre-historic and Roman use of the river corridor, probably as a water supply and fishery.

The first known mention of the town of Twickenham is in a Charter of AD704, referred to as “Tuican hom”.  This may possibly be translated as “the village between two rivers”, those rivers being the Crane and the Thames, both subject to flooding – although there are several other possible meanings.  Going upstream, there was no settlement at the Staines Rd crossing, and the main part of the village of Cranford is set back to the east of the Bath Rd crossing, relating more to Cranford House and Park. Apart from the extensive expanse of Hounslow Heath this is the only park within the Crane Valley area.

There is little evidence however of much productive development of the Crane corridor as a whole up until the 16th Century.  For example there are no records of Crane valley mills or fish catches in the Domesday Book.  A large part of the wider catchment of the lower Crane comprised Hounslow Heath, then the King’s hunting land and much more extensive than at present, whilst the river valley appears to have been marshy and un-cultivated.  There is no evidence of water mills pre-dating the construction of the Duke’s River in 1544, suggesting that the natural river flow was insufficient to power them.

Further upstream, where the River Crane flows as the Yeading Brook, only the hamlet of Yeading within Hayes parish is close to the stream; the other villages including Ruislip, Eastcote and Pinner developed to the north on lighter soils at crossing points over the River Pinn. The two arms of the Yeading Brook flowed sluggishly through a clay vale, wooded and waterlogged in part. Much of this land became open fields for the various parishes with just two N/S linking tracks.

Impact of the Duke's River

A major change came with the construction of two artificial feeder channels, now known collectively as the Duke of Northumberland’s River (or DNR), in 1544.  The upper DNR channel transfers water from the River Colne into the middle Crane at Donkey Wood, and the lower DNR channel bifurcates from the River Crane at Kneller Gardens going north and then turning east to join the course of the Bourne stream and then joining the Thames at Isleworth.  These major water channels were constructed using "80 of the best ditchers from Essex" to power rebuilt water mills in Isleworth, which had fallen into decay because of low flow on the Bourne, and which had come into the possession of the King on the suppression of Syon Abbey in 1539. Local residents were given the task of clearing out the Bourne channel.  In the 18th century a branch of the channel was extended into lakes within the estate for the Earl of Northumberland.

In 1635, Moses Glover produced his famous map for the then Earl of Northumberland, which features both the Crane and the DNR.  This map was essentially a visualisation of the Syon Estate to display the status and importance of the Earl, and it would also have been used to quantify asset value and calculate potential incomes to the Earl.  

There are four water mills shown on the Glover map;
A sword mill on the upper DNR  and a paper mill at its junction with the Crane, both taking advantage of the water power available from 2m drop down to the River Crane level.  A further two mills on the lower DNR in Isleworth were a flour mill close to the outlet to the Thames and a copper mill further upstream, which had been a paper mill in 1607 and in the early 18th century became used to grind brazil wood for dye.  The sword mill converted to a gunpowder mill in 1655, sword making transferring to a site on the Crane below Baber bridge, those premises also later converting to gunpowder manufacture. Other later mills related to calico (Worton), Linseed oil (Fulwell), flax, and in the 19th century cartridge manufacture below Baber bridge.

The River Crane is a major feature of the Glover map, winding around the border of the map, and probably marking a boundary to the Earl’s land ownership.  Much of the catchment is shown as undeveloped, consisting largely of heath and wet woodland, with small areas of managed pasture and meadow.  Cranford House is the only significant riverside property on the map and this is located near the Bath Road crossing of the river.  Other features of note include managed rabbit warrens along the lower Crane, and the Cole Brewery on the Crane at Twickenham.

The lower DNR is shown as the main channel of the Crane whereas the natural channel, marked as the Old River, is a narrow offshoot.  This may indicate the relative values of the two rivers at the time, certainly as perceived by the Earl.

Expansion of gunpowder production in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The demand for gunpowder in the seven years war against France led to the establishment of a gunpowder manufactoring in 1757 along the north bank of the Crane to the east of the Hounslow/Hanworth Rd.  Although in Twickenham parish, it became known as Hounslow powdermills because of the location on Hounslow Heath and the easier access to Hounslow  - notables resident in Twickenham were also reluctant for the town to be associated with the industry.  An extensive system of leats and millstreams was created around a central large mill head pond; water flowing down channels from the higher level pond and leats into the River Crane turned water wheels powering the working of the various processes in the flanking mills.

In 1820 the firm of Curtis’s and Harvey became owner of the mills and carried out a programme of improvement and expansion, including the construction of the Mill Head tower in 1828, probably built as a windmill powering a scoop water wheel used to replenish the higher level leat in the lower part of the works, and in 1833 the acquisition of the Bedfont mills at Baber bridge.  The two mills together employed 300-400 people in the second half of the 19th century, by far the most significant local employer.

Apart from some housing for workers, the immediate surrounding land was sparsely populated and this may be one of the reasons this dangerous industry was able to expand. The villages of Whitton and Hanworth  were a mile away and Hounslow and Twickenham two miles. The many explosions at the works claimed the lives of over 100 workers, causing alarm over a wide area, and anxiety for those with relatives working in these mills. The damage to property extended to Twickenham and Hounslow leading to demands for greater control and closure.  Other developments requiring comparative isolation, such as the Twickenham Fever Hospital, were also located on the lower Crane at this time.

Agriculture and other industries

The river was being used in farming.  Both the Moses Glover map and the Roque map of 1754 indicate the establishment of water meadows to provide for early spring grazing, particularly on the eastern bank of the river in Heston parish.  JMW Turner’s only known drawing of the Crane, from the early 1800’s, shows women collecting watercress from Railshead near the junction of the Crane with the Thames in Isleworth.  Other watercress beds are marked on maps of this time in the Pevensey area of the middle Crane.

As early as 1800, the area of the lower Crane at least was developed for market gardening, with a large part of it covered in orchards. On Thomas Milne’s land use map of 1800, there is a clear western boundary along the Isleworth section of the DNR. Around Hounslow the need to feed the 2,000 horses based there to service the coaching trade, predominated until 1840.  The open fields around the upper Crane were enclosed in 1804 and 1814, becoming grassland, with no settlement apart from a few new farms, and perhaps becoming less productive and more marginal.

The building of the Grand Junction Canal in 1796, facilitated the development of an extensive brick-making industry along the brick earth belt from Hayes to Heston, which then declined in the second half of the 19th century.

The growth of the local railway network, and the beginnings of suburbia, had a more  profound effect on the landscape surrounding  the Crane Valley.  Housing started to spread across the catchment from the late 1800’s and this process accelerated in the early 20th century.  Industrial development lined the railway in the Hayes area.

Planning initiatives in early 20th Century

The first recorded acknowledgement of the importance of the Crane river corridor as a feature in an urban landscape came in the Ruislip and Northwood Town Planning Scheme of 1914, which recognised and protected the green corridor along the Yeading Brook (or upper Crane).  The plan clearly intended the open space to continue into adjoining areas and thus may be the first recognition of the value of a river corridor in any town plan in the country.  The plan was innovative in other ways.  It introduced controls over design and advertisements, and crucially required an express approval for any development, rather than just the submission of a plan.

In 1924 Middlesex County Council published its West Middlesex Plan, incorporating “The West London Green Chain”.  This chain identified much of the River Crane and Yeading Brook corridors as valuable linear green spaces.  Middlesex County Council also introduced an edict around this time, which forbade development within 50 yards of the river, and this had a lasting beneficial effect in preserving the open nature of the corridor.  

The mills and associated industries that had grown up on the river were closing down during this period and, in the years that followed, a number of parks, such as Crane Park and Moormead Park, were set up along the corridor by local councils as civic green spaces.

Late 20th Century decline and recovery in last ten years

In the last sixty years, urban populations have continued to grow and, with the demise of Middlesex County Council in the 1960’s, there was no longer an overarching body to help recognise the overall value of the Crane corridor.  The catchment was divided into five local authority areas; Harrow, Ealing, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond-and there was no longer a focus on the overall value of the corridor.  Nevertheless some work proceeded- Hounslow and Richmond Councils joined with Thames Water to waymark and promote the River Crane Walk from Richmond Lock to Bulls Bridge.  Hillingdon Council had a network of walks which included the upper Crane valley.  The open spaces, however, came under threat, local councils having their own priorities for housing and schools.  The overall value of the river corridor was diminished, and it was resident groups in the various boroughs who argued for the importance of open space along the Crane corridor at subsequent Planning Inquiries.

Friends of the River Crane Environment (FORCE) was set up in the summer of 2003 in response to Richmond Council proposals to remove Metropolitan Open Land status from around half a dozen pieces of riverside open space as a precursor to development.  These spaces were run down and some were abandoned.  FORCE put forward a case for the environmental and social value of these open spaces in their own right, and also as a part of the West London Green Chain, and this was recognised by the Inspector as a key argument at the subsequent Public Inquiry.  Following the Inquiry FORCE have supported the long-term improvement and management of these open spaces as environmental and community assets.

Two years later in 2005, the Crane Valley Partnership was founded - see the About Us  section.  This partnership brought together for the first time Harrow, Ealing, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond councils as the five major public landowners, alongside BAA as owners of Heathrow, The Environment Agency and Thames Water, GLA, London Wildlife Trust and FORCE, among others.  Today there are over 20 groups represented in the partnership and it is the key forum for managing and improving the integrity of the river corridor.

In 2009 FORCE, supported by Hounslow and Richmond councils, launched the Crane Valley Park feasibility study.  This investigated the potential to set up a metropolitan park of 100 hectares for the lower Crane valley by linking together existing disparate green spaces.  The report also identified the potential to create a regional park of some 450 hectares, and noted that bringing together all the green spaces along the Crane valley would create a larger regional park of over 1000 hectares.

A wider appreciation of the value of green corridors across Greater London has been promoted by the GLA, first with the setting up of the East London Green Grid and followed by the launch last year of the All London Green Grid.  The success of the Lea Valley’s regeneration, linked to the 2012 Olympics, and the importance of the Wandle Valley partnership, are further indicators of the increased status of London’s river corridors.