photograph © Chris Parry 2004


A Short History

At first glance, Marlow has the allure of a modern town, although further investigation brings to light the fine period (mainly Georgian) buildings of the High Street and West Street.

In the 11th century, Marlow was ringed by monastic foundations, and the remains of a 12th century chapel and crypt still exist at Widmer Farm. In St. Peter Street you will find The Old Parsonage and Deanery, which form part of the finest 14th century house in Buckinghamshire. Marlow Place, which dates from 1721, formed part of the Royal Military College before it moved to Sandhurst in 1812.

The town's fine suspension bridge was built from 1829-1832 and just along the river is the superb 18th century Court Garden House, now part of a leisure complex. The real growth in Marlow, however, has been since World War II when commuters mainly from the South discovered the delights of this rural town and many businesses now have offices here. The population has trebled since then.

Those of you interested in family histories might like to consult the Buckinghamshire Genealogical Society's website.

In Detail

In 1085 King William I sent out his men, rating officers, and let them find out about the country; they came to Marlow. The Domesday Book entry is translated as follows:

"LAND OF QUEEN MAUD IN DESBOROUGH HUNDRED. Queen Maud held Marlow at fifteen hides. There were 26 curucates in the demesne, five hides and two ploughs and 35 villeins, with twenty three copy-holders having twenty four ploughs; one serf and one mill worth twenty shillings. Twenty six curucates of pasture, pannage for 1,000 hogs, and a fishery which yields 1,000 eels.

Altogether worth 25 pounds when the Queen first received 10 pounds and the same when Earl Algar held it."

Around this period Marlow was centred in a ring of monastic foundations. Medmenham had a Cistercian Abbey, Little Marlow had a Nunnery, and the Knight Templars and Knight Hospitallers had houses at Temple and Widmer. The Knights helped to build the first bridge across the river at Marlow.

The oldest building in the parish of Marlow is most likely the early 12th-century Chapel and Crypt at Widmer Farm, which is an undercroft consisting of a room about twenty feet square with columns supporting the chapel above.

The Old Parsonage

A tour of Marlow should start from the oldest building which must be the "Old Parsonage" situated at the top of St. Peter Street. The house, together with the adjoining residence, "The Deanery" was part of an original 14th-century house, described by some archaeologists as the finest Mediaeval survival in Buckinghamshire. Not a great deal is known of its early history but it was probably the Rectory until 1494. The house contains some fine panelled rooms, and two fine decorated windows. Facing the top of the street we see Marlow Place, one of the most interesting and historic buildings in the town. It is a fine piece of architecture, built circa 1721 for John Wallop, First Earl of Portsmouth, of a type unique in Buckinghamshire, and has been ascribed to Thomas Archer. Marlow Place was obtained by the Royal Military Academy as an annex to house the overflow from the junior department at Remnantz in West Street whilst it was located in Marlow. It has recently been restored and is now used as company offices. Offices built next door where the Regal Cinema used to be were once the stables of Marlow Place.

Further down the street is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter. It was designed in the Gothic Manner by the elder Pugin in 1846. Here is preserved an interesting relic said to be the mummified hand of St. James the Apostle. This relic had been in the keeping of the Reading Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. It passed through many vicissitudes after that, until it was purchased by Mr. Scott Murray in 1856 for his private chapel at Danesfield, and was finally brought to the church of St. Peter when the estate was sold.

After a row of delightful cottages is a row of new houses, formerly the Fitzroy Club (once the Fisherman's Retreat). Marlow was famous for its fine needlework as well as for its lace, and part of the trousseau for Queen Victoria's eldest daughter was made here. "Thames Lawn" at the end of the street is currently being rebuilt, having been damaged by fire. This 18th century building originally had three storeys. It was once in the possession of Captain J. Nichol Morris, who commanded H.M.S. Colossus, a three-decker ship of the line at Trafalgar. "Thames Lawn's" other claim to fame was as home to James Bond's 'M' in the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Intersecting its gardens at the back, and continuing Church Passage to Mill Road, is a narrow high-walled alley rejoicing in the name of Seven Corner Alley. This was the path used formerly by the barge horses as there was no towpath at this point. The towpath, which continues to Bourne End, begins again below Marlow Lock and in the Lock backwater can be seen the modern homes "Marlow Mills" built on the site of the old corn, paper, thimble and oil mills which were first established circa 1086 (just 20 years after the Norman conquest). The mills have since been demolished.

Before the new suspension bridge was built, the only bridge was an old wooden one starting from the end of St Peter Street and ending on the opposite side by the Compleat Angler. A picture of this end of the street, with its huddle of old cottages, pulled down when the Old Bridge House was built in the 19th century, can be seen in the "Two Brewers", an attractive old hostelry at the opposite side of the street. It is interesting to record that St. Peter Street was also called "Duck Lane" because the old Ducking Stool was situated at the bottom of it, on the river bank. History does not record when it was last used.

From the bottom of St. Peter Street, a beautiful view of the Weir with the magnificent backdrop of Quarry Woods is a sight to see against a glorious sun-shot sky. Continuing our tour round Marlow, walk through the Church Passage to the Parish Church.

The Parish Church, dedicated to All Saints was erected in 1835 on the site of one (demolished in 1802) which dated from the 12th century. There are records to prove that one existed here in 1070, when St. Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, visited the town. According to William of Malmesbury, despite the fact that it was raining heavily and the church consequently surrounded by mire, the good Saint insisted on going there to celebrate Mass, although he lost one of his shoes in the mud on his way from the Clergy House.

This state of constant mud and damp was due to flooding and prevailed through the centuries. In the churchwarden's accounts for 1777 the payment of six guineas to Richard Darby "for the Cast Iron Brazier wherein to make a large Charcoal Fire to warm the Church in cold damp weather" is recorded. Finally it was found that the foundations were decayed, having been sapped by the constant flooding and it was decided to demolish the church and build a new one. Unfortunately during the rebuilding much that was of interest was lost, valuable carving being broken up for road metalling, and the ancient monumental brasses being sold for scrap metal. The present church is built in a quasi-Perpendicular style. The chancel was added in 1867, the galleries removed in 1882, and a new three-span roof added in 1889. The spire, which is 170 feet high and was rebuilt from designs by J.O. Scott, contains a peal of eight bells.

Of the old stone monuments incorporated in the present church the most interesting is that of Sir Miles Hobart (ob. 1632) which can be found in the porch to the left of the door. He was M.P. for Marlow in 1628, and was famous for locking the door to the House of Commons against the King's Messenger during the debate on the "illegal imposition of Tonnage and Poundage". For this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shortly after his liberation he was killed through an accident to his coach on Holborn Hill, and this monument depicting the event was erected by Parliament at Public Expense in 1646. It is the first example of a public memorial. On the south wall is a fine marble monument to Sir William Willoughby and Lady Katherine, his wife (ob. 1597), and the carving depicts the deceased and their children. Lord Willoughby was Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and the first benefactor of the poor of Marlow.

Of special interest to American visitors is the monument to William Horsepoole (ob. 1624) who married Mary Washington, daughter of Laurence Washington, Chief Registrar to the Court of Chancery, and of the same family as George Washington.

In the vestry can be seen a large oil painting, attributed to Coventry, of the famous "Spotted Boy", a native of the Caribbean islands, who was sold at the cost of 1,000 guineas to John Richardson, the most celebrated showman of his day. Richardson, who was himself a native of Marlow, having been born at the Old Workhouse, took a great fancy to the boy and had him christened George Alexander Gratton. But the English climate proved too much for the poor child, who died in 1813 at the age of four. Richardson had him buried in Marlow Churchyard with much pomp and ceremony. He was himself interred in the same vault on his death in 1836. Two headstones back to back bearing long inscriptions mark the grave, which is on the north side of the churchyard. The inscription on the child's is almost weathered away, it included the lines:

"Know that beneath his humble stone
A child of colour, haply not thine own,
This parents born of Afric's sun burnt race.
The white and black were blended in his face
To Britain brought, which made his parents free,
And showed the world great nature's prodigy."

The painting was given by Richardson to the town and originally hung in the vestry of the old church.

Also in the vestry is an interesting model of the old Church made in 1811 by George Skegmond, Professor of Drawing at the Royal Military College, which was then at Marlow. The Parish Registers date back to 1592, and the churchwardens' accounts from the same year. There is a complete list of Vicars of the church going back to 1204.

Among the church plate are two Elizabethan chalices and patens which were presented to the church in the 17th century.

Bordering the Causeway, which stretches from the church to the High Street, is a green enclosure which contains the War Memorial in the shape of a stone cross. The names of those who fell in the 1914-18 War are inscribed on oak panels beneath the memorial window in the church. Near the enclosure is a graceful drinking fountain erected to the memory of Charles Frohman, the well-known theatrical manager, who perished in the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7th, 1915. He loved Marlow better than any place in the world, and all his holidays were spent here. The Stocks and Whipping Post, which formerly stood on this green, have been moved to the County Museum at Aylesbury. Opposite the green stands the "George and Dragon" built near the site of "Ye Swan", a 16th-century inn long since demolished, but which apparently did good trade from soldiers quartered nearby during the Civil War.

Lining the High Street are many interesting old houses dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Many of these houses have been refronted or had shop fronts superimposed at various times. Among the houses of chief architectural interest are, on the west side, Little Stone House, once an inn, which has a vaulted cellar or crypt of some antiquity, The Brewery House and White House adjoining and further up the street and a gabled gateway (now a butcher's shop) all of which are of 16th-century origin.

A plaque on Bampton House (100 High Street) commemorates internationally acclaimed artist Edward J Gregory, who lived there for the last three years of his life until 1909. Mr Gregory's best know oil painting, Boulters Lock - Sunday Afternoon, took seven years to complete. He was also a skilled watercolour artist and became the president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1898. He was also honoured in Paris, Brussels and Munich.

It is interesting to note that the Lloyds Bank was built on the site of the old "Crown", a coaching inn, from which in the 18th and early 19th century "The Marlow Flier" started its twice daily service to London, completing the journey from Marlow to Hatchetts in Piccadilly in three hours.

On the opposite side of the street is Cromwell House, once the former Post Office, an imposing 18th century edifice, though it probably had an older foundation. Note the round entrance to the "pigeon loft" in the gable. Edwin Clark (1814-1894), a local boy and an eminent Victorian engineer, lived here during his retirement from 1879 to 1894. He was consulting engineer to the Great Marlow Railway which opened in 1873. The house next door to Cromwell House was, until 1865, the Vicarage and incorporates a fine 16th-century brick and timber wall at the rear. Below it is the Chequers, a picturesque inn dating back to the 16th century. Note the heavy beams of ship's timbering.

At the top of the town facing down the High Street are two buildings, The Crown (now rHome) and to the east a large 18th-century house, the ground floor of which has been gutted and turned into shops. Originally, the latter building was the "Crown and Broad Arrow", an important coaching inn where it is reputed, among other interesting visitors, Dick Turpin used to bait his horse when operating in the district. The present Crown was originally the Market House, which was erected in 1807 by a prominent townsman, Thomas Williams, to take the place of the old timber and plaster market house which had stood in the road where the obelisk is now. It consists of an assembly room with musicians' gallery, supported on what were originally three open arches, which, as well as the market stalls, contained the lock-up and fire engine. The 17th-century clock of the old Market House was removed to a wooden cupola on the new building, and surmounted by a weather vane incorporating the Williams' representing badge, a crow. William Wyatt, the architect, also built Temple House (burnt to the ground), the residence of Thomas Williams.

In West Street, The Ship is worthy of notice, being a 16th-century building with original ship's timbers which can still be seen. The Old House and the residence adjoining (once the old Post Office) are both 17th-century buildings of great charm. Remnantz (which originally had another wing and was three-storeyed) is of great interest, because from 1802 it housed the junior department of the Royal Military College. This college expanded so rapidly that it was removed to Sandhurst in 1812/13. The stables and cupola were designed in the style of Sir Christopher Wren as is Western House, a fine building with a gazebo at the end of the street.

West Street also has many literary associations of which the name of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is best known. The house which he occupied is adjoining Sir William Borlase's School and bears a plaque stating that the poet and his wife lived here from March 1817 to February 1818. It was during this time that Shelley wrote his Revolt to Islam, while Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein, which is probably more well known as one of the first science fiction books.

The name Shelley should not be mentioned without that of Thomas Love Peacock, his close friend for several years, particularly during the time when they were both living in West Street. It was Peacock who found the house for the poet, and in many other ways was of great help and assistance to Shelley. He continued to live in Marlow for some time after the Shelley household had gone to Italy and wrote to the still young poet on July 19th 1818, as follows: "I have changed my habitation, having been literally besieged out of the other by horses and children. It is cheap and exceedingly comfortable. It is the one where Major Kelly lived when you were here, facing the Quoiting Place in West Street. The weather continues dry and sultry. I have been very late on the River for several evenings".

Peacock wrote several very witty and erudite novels, satirising many of the foibles of human nature.

In more recent years West Street was also chosen by another poet, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), who lived at No. 31 with his first wife from 1918 to the spring of 1919. This was during the end of the first World War, they moved to Marlow owing to the bombing in London. He used to cycle to Maidenhead taking the train to London daily and returning at night. The house where he lived is now called "The Old Post Office House".

It is not very widely known how many writers have made their homes in Marlow, a little research would reveal that though very small it has attracted a very large number of writers who wished to find a peaceful milieu in which to work. In addition to those already mentioned we should add Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat celebrated the wonderful inn by the bridge, The Compleat Angler. Now a hotel, it was named after the famous work on fishing by Izaak Walton who stayed ther to write. Frank Smedley also lived in Marlow.

Still in West Street, a plaque on Sir William Borlase's Grammar School honours former jazz artist Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson. Guyana born Mr Johnson attended the school between 1929 and 1931.He went on to become one of the country's best-known dance band leaders. After leaving Borase's he studied medicine at Edinburgh University before turning to tap dancing. He appeared in the 1934 film "Oh Daddy". He gained his 'Snakehips' nickname because of his hip swinging abilities when performing. Mr Johnson and his band were tragically wiped out on March 8, 1941 when The Cafe de Paris in London, where they were playing, took a direct hit from a German bomb. Mr Johnson was only 26. His ashes are interred in the school chapel.

Beyond West Street in Henley Road, we find an interesting old house standing opposite the junction of Spinfield Lane. This house, formerly known as Gyldernscroft, was often visited by Royalty. Queen Mary planted an oak tree in the garden on one of her visits. At the time it was the home of General Sir George Higginson, Marlow's famous centenarian, who, on his hundredth birthday in 1926 was presented with the deeds of Court Garden, which he later handed over to the town.

A little further on is the Hare and Hounds, a delightful old 16th-century inn with some fine oak beams. It has been an Ale House for some 250 years, and once had its own hop fields when presumably the owner brewed his own beer. At one time the lead-horse for Redpits Hill used to be stabled in what is now the public bar.

Returning to the town, we come to Quoiting Square where within living memory quoits were actually played. Behind it can be seen the United Reformed Church, built in 1840 as the Congregational Church, on a foundation that dates back to 1693.

A little higher up Oxford Road is "Quoitings" which was in the 1830's the home of G.P.R. James who today is almost entirely forgotten but who in the middle of the 19th century was one of the best known, if not the best known, writer of his day since he was both popular and prolific. His father had been physician to George IV and all his life James remembered and longed for the gay days of youth which he so often described in his books. Blameless and moral as his own life was, his father's patron and patient, the Prince Regent, was a much greater figure to him than the Prince Consort, while Byron represented quality and style in a way Tennyson could never rival. Thus James was never at heart a Victorian, although he held the appointment of Historiographer Royal to William IV and Queen Victoria. In all he wrote some 90 novels - romantic, historical and political - and additionally published several histories and biographies, writing in 1838 what was then the standard work on the life of Louis XIV. His two sons were born at "Quoitings".

James (1801-60) was friends with all the great authors and poets of his age and in particular with Walter Scott, Dickens, Harrison Ainsworth, Bulmer Lytton and Leigh Hunt. Whilst in America where he travelled extensively he was on very intimate terms with Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. He was also acquainted with Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor and, when a boy, had been introduced to Byron . Byron called him his "little devil" and was so attracted to him that he wanted to take young James abroad as his companion, but here apparently parental duty was roused to action and the voyage called off. James, though he subsequently wrote that his boyhood friend, Byron, fulfilled every conception of what a romantic poet should be, was not immediately impressed by his hero. At their first meeting in 1814, he found him "writing and chewing tobacco to keep his fat down, dressed in white duck trousers and a green baize jacket. A damned ugly, fat, pasty-faced man. A great disappointment to me!"

When James lived here the house was known as "The Cottage", Marlow, an address by which it had already been identified for at least 180 years and it was not until about 1900 that the name was changed to Quoitings, probably on account of the house being enlarged and the thatched roof replaced with slates. The building dates back to the 17th century and was originally a farm house.

Moving on to Spittal Street, this was once the site of the Hospital of St. Thomas (hence "Spittal" Street), which was a lodging for needy wayfarers, probably run by the Knights of St. John (or Hospitallers) in the 12th century, and of which no authentic traces remain.

Off Spittal Street is Dean Street, once known as the City, because of the three inns there, named the Royal Exchange, The Mint and the Bank of England. The latter is the only one remaining today, but the original inn has now been demolished to make way for more modern premises.

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