It is hard to imagine but there was a time when St Margarets, with its streets and houses, shops and schools, was part of a vast royal hunting ground strictly preserved for the King and his nobles. It stretched from Windsor in the west, eastwards across Hounslow Heath towards the fringes of London and northwards into Hertfordshire. Its popularity as a Royal Chase was due in part to it being almost equidistant from London and Windsor, with Kew Palace and Hampton Court both adjacent. Long before estate agents started describing St Margarets as “the village” (oh, the horror!) our home was woodland and open heath echoing with cries of “View Halloa” and “Tally Ho!” as the wealthy went hawking, shooting, fishing and hunting stags and wild boars, deer and foxes…
August 1734 - Yesterday their Majesties the Prince of Wales (Prince Frederick) and the eldest Princesses went to Hounslow Heath, where a stag afforded them a pleasant chase for several hours. Their Majesties followed as far as Harrow-on-the-Hill and then back to Kensington, which they did without their attendants having lost them in the chase.
September 1734 -Yesterday their Majesties went to Hounslow Heath where the stag ran directly to Staines, but being turned back to Brentford, where he crossed the Thames, and re-crossing at Hampton, ran through Staines and was finally killed near Windsor.
THE EVENING POST 1734
King George 3rd (1738-1820) was another keen huntsman and the subject of an amusing incident recorded in “The Book of the Court”, published in 1838…
Many days since a man named Feltham rented Hampton Court Bridge. One morning the Royal hunt came across Hounslow Heath to the bridge where the stag swam across. The hounds passed the gate without ceremony, followed by a large company crying “The King!” Feltham opened his gate and closed it when they had gone through without paying, when a more numerous party came up vociferating more loudly “The King.” Feltham stood with the gate in his hand though menaced with horse whips. “Hang me, if I open my gate again till I see your money. I’ve let King George through, God bless him, and I know of no other king of England; if you had brought the King of France, hang me if I let him through without paying!”
Suddenly the King appeared; Feltham made his reverence and opened the gate. On His Majesty enquiring the cause of the delay he at once sent back an equerry to give the old man a guinea. Soon afterwards George 3rd was crossing the bridge in his carriage, when he pulled down the window, and laughing heartily said to the toll-keeper, “No fear of the King of France coming today, eh, Feltham! What! What!”
Hunting stories are also recorded in “The Victoria County History of Middlesex”.
“Owning to the proximity of London the runs were sometimes attended with amazing results, such as the one in which the stag from Hounslow Heath headed for Twickenham, Isleworth and Brentford. Of this run Lord Alvanley is said to have given the following description: “Devilish good run; but the asparagus beds went awfully heavy and the grass all through was up to one’s hocks; the only thing wanted was a landing net, for the deer got into the Thames and Berkeley (Hon. George Grantley Berkeley) had not the means to get him ashore!”” The Hon. George Grantley Berkely, and the master of a large pack of hounds kennelled at Cranford, appears in many of these stories…
“On another occasion the stag was run to bay in Lady Mary Hussey’s drawing-room at Hillingdon; and on a third it entered the kitchen of a house, the wrathful owner of which said in reply to Grantley Berkeley’s apologies: “Your stag, sir, not content with walking through every office has been here, sir, here in my drawing room, sir, whence he proceeded upstairs to the nursery, and damn me, sir, he’s now in my wife’s boudoir!”
It is all gone now. The Royal Chase, Hounslow Heath and the wild life that once abounded there is lost under suburbia. We’re here instead, us West Londoners, and we probably shed no tears that the hunting is ended, nor care too much about the change in landscape even though one small part of us will always yearn for that which is no more…
“Ask for the old paths, where there is a good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.”
– from Martyn Day
CREDIT: The Portrait of King George 3rd is by Sir William Beechey. The print of Grantley Berkeley is by James Greenwood (1862)