Parr’s Ditch, Hammersmith (Part 1)

In the process of researching the history of London’s formeost manmade stream, the New River, it came to my attention that said watercourse came to function as a boundary line between parishes. This holds true for smaller streams in the capital, such as Parr’s (or Black Bull) Ditch in W6, which was, it appears, custom built as a border between the Parishes of Hammersmith and Fulham around 1000 years ago. There’s nothing there now and the only evidence is the appearance of the stream on old maps, its mention in the odd book and the name of a present day street. Parfrey Street. Although most maps I have suggest otherwise, I believe it ran along where Parfrey Street now lies, and as it appears in my 1851 Tallis map of London, which is looking a bit dogeared at the corners.

I loved living in Hammersmith. It sounds like a character from the Marvel Thor comics. Due to the proximity of the river, Hammersmith enjoys some of the most beautful skies in the world. Really. The sky in Hammersmith daily goes from blue to grey to grey-orange to purple-grey to blue-grey-orange to brown-grey to milkywhite-pink. Then, as if I magic, it goes to blue-black with liitle white dots. All this is reflected in the silver river. Looking out from my study in the Parfrey Street flat, I used to look across what was Parr’s Ditch and observe the life and actions of the chubby bloke with specs who lived at no. 40. He was forever out and about on his bike, going ‘fast’. I used to have a bit of a rivalry thing going with the bloke from no. 40. We were like a mirror image of each other. Maybe he would watch me. I had an email newsletter called The Smoke which was based around my observations of the Speccy Bloke at no. 40. Speccy Bloke gets on his bike. Speccy bloke comes back from the shops. Speccy bloke talks to the neighbour.

Then it occured to me that it was entirely possible that Speccy bloke had been watching me for ages and had put together his own online magazine called In the City, or something, about my crap non-escapades. Chunky Blond Bloke staggers home from the pub. Chunky Blond Bloke staggers buys mils. Like a parallel universe Rear Window. And if my theory is correct, we were looking out at each other over an ancient border post.

Why were the inhabitants of these two London villages so keen to show where the borders lay that they had to build a stream? After all, there were parishes all over London which didn’t need water borders. Was there some kind of dispute? Or were one set of people threatening to over-run the other? The histories of Fulham and Hammsmith are pretty much like all the small settlements of London, except being near the Thames gives them more chance of an ancient history. Archaelogical work in the 1970s around where Parr’s Ditch hits the Thames found Neolithic flint tools and pottery (circa 3,000BC), late Iron Age pottery and an isolated Roman coin of the 4th century AD. There is a dry sandbank here along the edge of the Thames and there may have been a ford across the Thames in earlier times that connected with what is now Crabtree Lane and Lillie Road. Until the area was built up in the 19th Century there was evidence of man-made earthworks, possibly Celtic, along the riverside. Perhaps new arrivals to the area had uspet the locals, hence the border line. Perhaps there had been a battle and the borders ahd been redrawn (like the First World War). At Hammersmith library I pored through some old books and maps but there was no record of any dispute.

There’s no doubt in the minds of historians that Fulham (‘river bend land of a saxon man called Fulla) is the older of the two settlements. Unlike Hammersmith it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book (as Fuleham) of 1086, but goes back even further. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle in AD900 called in Fullanhamme and there is an even older reference from an Anglo-Saxon charter of which refers to Fulanham. Hammermsith (‘place with a hammer smith or forge’ – unsurprisingly) is not mentioned until 1294 as Hamersmyth. It was actually part of the Bishop of London’s Manor of Fulham until 1834.

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