History and Features

The name Railshead was applied to this area as early as 1408. It is a small Thamesside area (later part of the grounds of Gordon House and the still later Maria Grey College) forming part of the parish of Isleworth in Middlesex just upstream of the mouth of the River Crane where it enters the Thames.

The medieval lords of Isleworth owned weirs in the Thames, of which one at least was in this stretch of the river. It was called Isleworth Weir, and the stakes (or rails) at its upper end gave their name to the Railshead. This weir was broken down by 1538, but in the reign of Edward VI the Duke of Somerset (then Lord Protector of England) set up another one. In 1549, local fishermen petitioned the City of London’s Court of Aldermen to remove this weir “lately” set up by the Duke of Somerset. They were recommended to make their humble suit to His Grace “and in case they were not holpen thereby that they should repair hither again for their further aid”. Meanwhile Somerset was officially reminded of the statutes against his encroachment.

There was also a great deal of complaint during Elizabeth 1st’s reign about illegal weirs for the supply of lampreys, including in 1578 the one at Isleworth built by the Duke of Somerset. At this time, a yearly rent of £10 on it was being paid to Sir Francis Knowles by Thomas Honeyball and William Knight, farmers of Isleworth. These weirs were a hindrance to the passage of river craft due to the yearly driving in of

great pules or postes with great hurdells into the ground within the said weirs

Ralph Treswell’s map of 1607 shows a semi-circle of stakes across the river but by 1630 the weir had been destroyed again and there were reported to be only a few stakes left. In Moses Glover’s map of 1635 no weir is shown but the name “Rayles Head” is clearly marked. In the early 20th Century there were still a few stakes embedded in the river which had probably once been part of the old weir.

Railshead Bridge

The first bridge over the Crane at Railshead, carrying the road to Twickenham, seems to have been a footbridge. In 1670 Charles II gave £50 to one “Baker, Justice of the Peace for Middlesex” towards the erection of a coach bridge of brick “at a place called the Rails Head, Thistleworth, on the way to Richmond Ferry”. This bridge was frequently rebuilt in the 18th century.

Railshead Ferry

Railshead Ferry (now closed) dated from the reign of George III. It “crossed [the Thames] from an ancient landing place”. Glover’s map of 1635 shows boats being towed by horses, but later on barges were towed by men. Until 1773-4 the Surrey towpath ended opposite the Railshead ferry. Then the barges were towed on the Middlesex bank up to Twickenham Ait where the towpath switched again to the Surrey side. By the 19th century the ferry at Railshead was diverting some traffic from Richmond Bridge.

Before 1720 there was an Inn called the Swan near Railshead, which is mentioned in a list of properties pulled down during the laying out of the gardens of Gordon House.

Sources: “Thames Highway: General History” by Fred S Thacker, 1920, pp.48,490 Victoria County History, Vol.III: Middlesex, pp.85-113 “Rails Head Isleworth” by A. Urwin, Hounslow & District History Soc 1974