The River Thames is constantly changing.
Constantly flowing downstream, it shifts the shape of the banks and islands dotted along its course, causing them to overflow, disappear, and reappear.
The islands in the River Thames are therefore not always stable safe places to live and many are prone to flooding.
Yet one of them is unstable for a very different – very human – reason.
READ MORE: ‘I visited Thames Island, which is an ‘oasis of peace’ in the middle of London’
It’s said to be haunted by a gypsy curse, meaning anyone trying to do anything useful on the island is doomed to fail – and up until the 1980s, this seemed to be largely true.
The story of the island is told in Miranda Sykes’ excellent book, Eyots and Aits, Islands of the River Thames.
Located just upstream from the Hampton Court Bridge, the island was once called Garrick Lower Eyot.
By the 1830s, however, it had become known as Walnut Tree Island and was deserted apart from its thriving wildlife, including otters.
Then, in 1850, it was bought by a local property developer Francis Kent and renamed Kent’s Ait.
It is here that the roots of the island’s curse originate.
It is said that Kent expelled a group of squatters and gypsies who lived on the island with a hand-to-mouth existence from weaving baskets.
Apparently they cursed him – declaring that no one associated with the islands would ever prosper.
In the 1850s, the island became popular with visitors, and local businessman Joseph Harvey set up a beer house and island hotel.
But as it should be, it didn’t work out and he left in 1862.
Finally, in 1868, a boat builder named Tom George Tagg rented the entire island.
He rebuilt the hotel and the island quickly became a popular holiday destination.
Royalty, actors, artists and musicians loved to spend time in the peaceful environment.
In the evenings, they would relax in houseboats covered in flowers and fairy lights.
But in 1897, the curse struck again. Tom Tagg suddenly caught a cold and died within three days.
His son tried to continue the business, but soon there was a terrible flood – the worst in Hampton’s history – and it went into administration.
In 1911, music hall entertainer and producer Fred Karno (real name Westcott) bought the hotel and hoped that his new venture, called the Karsino Hotel, would be a spectacular success.
No expense was spared. There were beer gardens, tennis courts and croquet courts, as well as the luxury hotel.
For a while it was a great success. Fred’s massive advertising campaign drew thousands to the islands—so much so that sometimes people could barely move.
It was billed as the best river hotel in all of Europe and everyone wanted to hang out in the beautiful surroundings.
With his money, however, Fred began to show signs of hubris.
He had a huge houseboat built, called the Astoria, that was bigger and better than anything else on the river.
But Fred took out a disastrous insurance policy to protect him from the loss of money due to bad weather – the insurers made a decent amount of money from it.
Then one of his employees ran away with all his earnings.
Then, in 1914, World War I broke out, threatening to destroy the life of luxury and glamor he had built on the island.
The hotel remained open, but always ran at a loss.
Three terrible summers of bad weather between 1922 and 1925 were too many – and Fred was eventually declared bankrupt.
In 1926, a new owner, Mr. Alexander Beaumont, took over the island and renovated the hotel again, adding sand to create a beach, but again the gypsy curse struck and his business quickly sank.
Herbert Cyril tried again and was bankrupt within six months.
Yet another owner, MR AE Bundy, took over the island and built an ice rink and indoor tennis court.
Like everyone else, he held a grand opening that promised to be grander than ever before – but went bankrupt again – this time within weeks.
Then in the 1950s a series of business deals left the island mired in legal complications and the bridge to the island suddenly collapsed. The gypsy curse just wouldn’t let go.
The old hotel was finally demolished in 1971 when the Richmond Council gave American businessman Leon Bronesky permission to build a new five-storey hotel with swimming pools, a marina and a new two-lane bridge.
But guess what, Leon’s plans fell through and he too was soon declared bankrupt.
In the 1970s, the island was a dilapidated mess, save for the few houseboats that surrounded it.
Finally, Gerry and Gillian Braban, who lived on one of the boats, managed to buy the property, setting up a company called Tagg’s Island Limited in an effort to save the island.
They managed to create a huge new lagoon in the middle where houseboats would be moored that would finance the construction of a new road bridge.
It was an incredibly ambitious plan and the Brabans were true visionaries.
They built a new vacuum sewage system and installed new water and electrical lines and a TV antenna.
Although Gerry died in 1993, his vision of the island has remained.
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The houseboats have been replaced by spacious floating houses and the island is home to a happy creative community led by Gerry’s son, Grant.
It looks like the gypsy curse has finally been lifted and the island can finally move on.
One may wonder if there is more to this story and if the local gypsies who had “cursed” the island were somehow responsible for destroying the companies that tried to dominate it.
Whatever the truth may be, now it seems that the happy moors have replaced the dark curse that gripped the island.
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