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Brentford takes its name from the little river Brent, which, after pursuing its vagrant course for many miles, here falls into the Thames. The bridge that crosses it at Brentford was in early times maintained by an imposition, which strikingly marks the condition of the Israelitish race in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the 9th year of the reign of Edward I. a toll was granted for three years in aid of the bridge of “ Braynford.” 66 All Jews and Jewesses who passed over it on horseback, were to pay a penny; on foot, a halfpenny; other passengers were exempted. A toll for the like term was granted 5 Edward III.; another for five years, 43 Edward III.” (Lysons.) If Jews were as plentiful in Brentford then, as they now are, such a tax might yield a tolerable revenue.
The town has not much historical interest; it is chiefly mentioned on account of its two battles.
In 1016, Edmund Ironsides defeated the Danes, and drove them out of London, compelling them to seek safety in their ships. " And then, two days afterwards," says the Saxon Chronicle," the King went over the river at Brentford, and there fought against the army, and put them to flight.” Many of the English, it is added, lost their lives, through their carelessness in crossing the ford. The ford here seems to have been a usual passage at this time ; a little later, we find Ironsides again carrying his soldiers across the river at Brentford. The encounter generally known as the Battle of Brentford happened on the 12th of November, 1642, shortly after the more important Battle of Edgehill. Brentford was held by Colonel Hollis with his regiment for the Parliament. Prince Rupert, taking advantage of a thick fog, succeeded with the main body of the royal army in surprising the town; Hollis's regiment was routed, but Hampden's and other troops came up and held the Royalists in check till the arrival of Essex, who had heard the cannonading in the House of Lords, and hastened westward with such troops as he could collect. London was at first thrown into a panic, but soldiers and citizens alike turned out with alacrity, and Essex was speedily at the head of an army some 30,000 strong. Rupert's object was to force his way through Brentford before the Parliament could draw their forces together to oppose him ; seize the parliamentary artillery, which lay at Hammersmith-which he expected to capture with little difficulty ; and then, if matters seemed favourable, to march on to London. In this he completely failed; but the victory, of which the utmost was made, greatly raised the spirits of the party; by the parliamentary scribes, on the other hand, it was studiously depreciated. More than one account of “ Brentford fight” was issued both by Cavaliers and Roundheads.
The town has some literary or poetic as well as historical fame :—and that not merely, as is often the case with such local celebrity, “ To those that dwell therein well known,” but of general notoriety. Every one will recollect how serviceable the “ Two Kings of Brentford” have been to poets and poetasters of every class and grade, from William Cowper down to Tom D’Urfey : by the last of whom two Brentford Queens were also made to play their part on the stage. In the days of Shakspere and Ben Jonson, a Brentford inn with its host was almost as useful as the Brentford sovereigns were to later writers.
“We will turn our courage to Braynford westward, My bird of the night, to the Pigeons”
says one of the characters in Ben Jonson's - Alchemist. The landlord of the Three Pigeons at that time was John Lowin, a celebrated performer, and one of Shakspere's own company. Lowin played tragic parts; but he was famous for his performance of Sir John Falstaff. His portrait shows him to have looked the part well; and there is a proper social turn about the corners of his mouth and eyes, that lets it be understood he could play equally well his part as mine host of the Pigeons, in the days when much of the character and success of such a house depended on the companionable qualities of its chief. According to fame Lowin was, in the words of the old play, "admi. rably suited for the Three Pigeons ;”—and his hostel was honoured by not infrequent visits of Ben Jonson and others his worthy compeers.* The Falcon is gone, the Mermaid is gone—and perhaps every other place in the great city is gone where this most clubable' company met. The Three Pigeons, however, is still standing. It will be found on the north side of the street, at the corner of the market-place. But it is not likely to be found there much longer. For some time past it has been condemned, in order to make way for a new town-hall and some projected improvements in the market-place.
* Shakspere is also said to have been a visitant; but if, as is believed, Lowin held the house late in life, it must have been after Shakspere's time. Lowin was probably unsuccessful in the three Pigeons, as he died, according to Malone, in London at an advanced age and in poor circumstances. Mr. Collier has not been able to learn any particulars of his last years.
The mention of Shakspere and the old dramatists will have reminded the reader of the “ Brentford Witches” so often alluded to by them. Before and long after the days of the Merry Wives of Windsor “ the old women of Brentford” were notorious for their bewitching qualities and more than once in person met with rougher handling than Falstaff endured as their proxy. Lysons, among the " singular entries” he extracted from the parish register, has one under the year 1634, which would seem to show that an effort was then made by the Brentford people to rid themselves of their society : “ Paid Robert Warden, the constable, which he disbursed for conveying away the witches, lls." Where they were conveyed ” is not recorded. Whether any infested the good town afterwards I do not remember to have noticed.
As the county town, Brentford is the place of nomination for the Middlesex elections. When it was the only polling-place, and the poll used to be kept open as long as voters could be found, Brentford was often the scene of unimaginable riot. Then, and indeed when the polling time was limited to a fortnight, a Middlesex election was one of the English" sights.” The elections of Wilkes, during the struggle between the electors and the House of Commons, are matters of history; and the tumultuous proceedings at those in which Burdett and Mainwaring figured somewhat later, are hardly less memorable. Of late years they have passed off quite peaceably, as well as speedily.
. But generally Brentford has always been notorious for its turbulence, as well as for its dirt. Brentford Fair, for example, had considerable notoriety that way—though in this, as in other matters, the town has grown quieter and graver. What it was in olden times will perhaps recur to the memory in the description of those doings wherein Sir Hudibras got so sorely moiled.
Just by the church is an old half-timber house which is believed to have been the residence of Serjeant Noy of Ship-money celebrity. That this was his house is not improbable : at any rate he lived in Brentford, and the house must have been standing in his day. The fact of Noy having resided in it, if it be so, will probably not add much to its interest, but it is worth noticing on its own account.
The Market-house, which is shortly to be pulled down, is a quaint crazy structure, looking not a little picturesque in its half-ruinous condition. On market-days the market-place with the marketpeople has a much more rustic character than would be anticipated from its nearness to London.
In returning to the river, we may notice that the river-side houses—a miserable collection—are happily hidden from the view of the passengers along the Thames by means of the ait, which extends nearly the whole length of this part of the town, and is judiciously planted with tall trees. Brentford, from its position by the confluence of the Brent with the Thames, and the lowness of its site, is very subject to be inundated.