Baskets and willow hurdles for sheltering plants from wind and frost were an essential part of the gardener’s equipment. Willow basketwork came in many shapes and sizes: river fish traps, garden seats and arbours, bird cages, containers for for various fruits to protect them in transit, fine baskets for shopping and needlework. Willow growing and basket making in a few Thames-side parishes were once a major part of the local economy, particularly in the market town of Brentford. Unlike most articles on this website this one continues into the 20th century until the trade died out.

Osier willows were being grown on Brentford islands or eyots in 1397 [1]. They were established in Chiswick by 1590 [2] and 71 acres of osier beds were recorded in the parish in 1846 [3]. Several varieties of salix viminalis were planted along the Thames; both the variety and the way they were processed provided willows for different purposes.

John Davidson & Tommy Odell loading bundles of withies, Chiswick Eyot, 1927 (Daily Mirror)

Growing willows

Short twigs of willow, planted 15-18 inches apart with a few buds above ground in the spring [4]  in the spring, sprout 6 to 8 branches 8 feet long in one season. Cutting back the first year’s growth provided more withies for new planting. From October to February the branches were harvested with a sharp bill-hook, either cut back almost to ground level – coppicing – or to a 3 or 4 foot stump – pollarding – from which the next year’s crop emerged. Both techniques were used in Chiswick. The cut osiers were bound in bundles with a flexible willow tie and sorted by size before being stored. Some were used fresh and green, some were woven with the bark on. Others were stripped and sun-bleached, some were boiled to enhance their colour. Stored twigs were soaked before use to make them pliable and easier to handle, while for fine work they were split lengthways.

J T Smith, wrote [5] in 1839 that he had seen basket-makers’ huts along the Thames from Fulham to Staines. These were probably for storage under-cover rather than manufacture, as weaving needed fingers that had a little warmth and shelter. The year’s cycle saw spring planting and autumn/winter cutting with the manufacture of baskets going on alongside; family involvement ensured that many hands with different skills were available for work ranging from the heavier labour of planting, cutting and carting  to nimble-fingered weaving of small fruit and domestic baskets (often women’s work) and training for children and apprentices.

Many beds were owned or leased by basket-making families, while small-scale makers bought in willow from the growers. Some nursery gardeners also grew willow.  Matthew  Bowden, whose Brentford family became a major supplier of baskets to London in the 19th century, had a number of beds and was recorded as saying his family had maintained the oldest of these for 70 years in 1855 [6].  In his experience the most luxuriant growth occurred in rich alluvial soils by the river, in ground that was under water at virtually every high tide.

He had seen greatly improved tidal flows over his beds after the demolition of Old London Bridge, while the introduction of steam packet boats kept the water turbid, ensuring regular deposits of rich mud. For size and bulk of crop, he said, nothing surpassed osiers grown between Chelsea and Richmond bridges but, as demand increased, London’s willow supplies came increasingly from the Thames and the Kennet in Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

Where were the local osier beds?

The marshy fringes of the river and most of the eyots were overwhelmed regularly at high tides, providing perfect osier beds. For example, narrow plots of low-lying land parallel to Chiswick’s river- bank became part of the field pattern. Leigh’s Thames Panorama shows coppiced osiers all along the Chiswick bank from The Grove to Corney House in 1829. And when The Grove estate was offered for sale in 1831, the particulars included ’15 acres of well-stocked osier ground’. These lay, in part, along a narrow strip outside its walled grounds where Hartington Road’s riverside houses now stand. Jacob Knyff recorded small islands and a bed against the bank with rows of osiers, both coppiced and pollarded, in his 1676 painting of Corney House from the river [7]. Only Chiswick Eyot, the largest at about 3 acres, survives – its willows are still coppiced and help hold the island together.

A 1590 manorial survey [8] describes a field called Cornehithe Acre adjoining  a ‘wythy’ at its downstream end, with ‘Sir William Russell’s Pond Yard or Moorey Close’ to the north.  Moorey means marshy and the wythy is an osier bed, identifying the very wet area where the Common Sewer, a narrow water-course flowing from Strand on the Green, met the Thames downstream of Russell’s Corney House near St Nicholas Church.  The same stream watered another  marshy area at Little Sutton, still supporting osier beds in 1846 [9].

The Brent delta and Thames eyots from John Rocque’s map of the Environs of London, 1746

John Rocque’s 1746 map of London and Environs depicts the islands upstream of today’s Kew Bridge as well as a complex delta at the confluence of the Brent and the Thames. The Brent channels divided the delta land into low-lying plots which were known as eyots or eights.

Leigh’s Panorama, 1829, detail with osiers on islands in foreground near basket manufactory

Nearly 80 years later, Leigh’s Panorama of the Thames shows the distinctive planting of the Brentford islands and bank with coppiced willow. Bowden’s basket manufactory is marked beside the Brewery which owned the old windmill, by then without sails. The largest island,  immediately upstream of Kew Bridge, stood higher in the river so was rarely under water. For much of the 18th century the West family ran a pleasure resort there but, even after this closed, the island was not considered suitable for willow cultivation. Downstream of the Bridge, between Kew and Strand on the Green, lay Oliver’s Island, another rarely inundated eyot on which a barge house stood.

Types of baskets

Most baskets were made for specific purposes. They were essential equipment for nursery-and market- gardeners. Bulky vegetables like cabbages were packed into loades, round baskets with handles and lids, about  2ft high and 3ft wide, tapering towards the base. Bushells and half-bushells were large round baskets without lids and a barge was a rectangular basket for bundled items which might be vegetables or plants. A skilled basket-maker could make a bushell in about an hour.

After George Masters, a Strand on the Green nurseryman, died in 1734 an inventory [10] of his goods was prepared, including bushells and half-bushells, 16 maunds (two-handled baskets) at 6d each and 3 barges at 2s.0d each. The 1748 inventory [11]of Brentford gardener James Asslett’s property included ‘a parcel of Basketts and Basket Cloths in the garrett’ and ’12 Basketts, 12 sieves and 12 half-sieves’ (another size of basket) in his yard, stable and seed shop.

Loading pottles of mulberries into marnes, Thomas Rowlandson c1790, Yale CBA B2001.2.1159

Reading University’s  Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) has some 19th century fruit baskets, including pottles. These small conical baskets carried strawberries, grown in Brentford, Chiswick and Isleworth, and raspberries, a speciality of Isleworth and Twickenham. Their tapering shape distributed the weight to avoid crushing the lower fruits. For the trip to market pottles were packed upright in wide shallow baskets called marnes. Early in the day women porters walked the 8-9 miles to Covent Garden market carrying the marnes on their heads, sometimes twice in the same day for a fee per journey of sixpence [12].

Fruit baskets from the MERL collection: left to right, a nectarine or peach pad, a strawberry pottle and a greengage or plum basket

The accounts [13] of William Murfin, Chiswick House head gardener, provide a glimpse of his basket purchases. In January 1798 he spent £3.3s.6d on baskets from Matthew Bowden and £1.7s.6d-worth on pottle baskets from Dell of Brentford. He bought more baskets from Bowden in July 1799. The following January he bought another 3 gross of pottles from Dell at £1.4s and a further batch of Bowden baskets for £2.10s.6d. Given these quantities it is surprising that the Dell family has proved hard to find. The 1780s New Brentford Land Tax lists only Dell’s occupation of a property valued at £1, probably a shed.

The quantities of pottles purchased testify to the scale of Murfin’s strawberry cultivation for the Duke of Devonshire, while the price underlines the fact that, despite being skilled work, pottle-making was poorly paid at under a penny apiece.  Indeed, in 1843 Mr E W Lobjoit’s account book [14] mentions pottle baskets made by Brentford girls at even lower prices  – 3s.9d per gross for fine cones and 3.3d for coarse cones. Maria Gomm, and Anne, wife of James Gomm were pottle basket makers living  in Brentford High Street in 1841 and could have been among  Lobjoit’s ‘Brentford girls’.

Willow growers and basket-makers

Wills, land transactions and taxation records reveal that basket-makers owned, leased or shared osier beds. A number of Brentford basket-makers can be identified from the 1690s onwards but, though Brentford families were growing willow on Chiswick eyots, only one Chiswick basket-maker has been traced by name.

The Universal British Directory for 1792 listed 2 Brentford basket-makers:  George Dobson – perhaps related to Henry Dobson, making baskets with his sons in Hounslow in the 1860s –  and Matthew Bowden, whose business is described below.  An 1826 directory [15] lists 6 basket-makers:  William Barnsby, Matthew Bowden, John Cooke and Thomas Farrow in Old Brentford, with Charles Butt (in the Market Place) and Richard Widmer, both in New Brentford. Though Mr Barnsby held a £4 property [16] in the early 1800s, this was not an osier bed. By the mid 1820s William Barnsby had a £12 house in Old Brentford; he must have been reputable as he witnessed the 1841 will of prosperous market gardener Allen Malcolm. William’s son John, born 1827, made baskets in Isleworth in 1861. From 1867 John Cooke was making baskets in Hounslow, but Charles Butt and Thomas Farrow seem not to have continued for long.

Mason’s 1853 Directory lists basket-makers Robert Cole and George Wheatley of Brentford End, Elizabeth Dawes of Ealing Lane, James Humphries, Jacob Long (succeeded by Charles Long, near Albany Chapel) and James Nash (described as both a basket-maker and marine store dealer) all in Old Brentford. In 1861 George Wheatley was making baskets with his sons James and Thomas in the High Street. Jackson & Morris’ 1872 Directory lists the sons in New North Road continuing the business. Eliza Wheatley married Edwin Stevens, from another basket-making family which owned 4 cottages in New Road. In 1878 they took over John Mills’ basket shop [17] in Hounslow High Street, running it until Edwin retired in 1902.

While directory entries list named makers, the scale of the business in the town can best be gauged from the number of workers involved. The 1851 Census records 75 basket-makers there – 29 were men, average age 40, and 46 women, average age 30. A further 23 were pottle-makers, of whom 21 were women. [18]

Making punnets, small square fruit baskets, became increasingly important as local garden grounds went over from nursery gardening (growing plants) to market gardening (producing food crops) and Brentford’s fruit and vegetable market expanded. This small-scale craft was easily undertaken at home using willow bought in from a grower. Sarah Moles [19] or Moulds, a waterman’s wife, was a basket-maker in the 1841 Census. The 1872 directory lists her as a punnet-maker in the High Street and that for 1874 describes her as a fruit-basket maker. She continued her trade until her death at 75 in 1875 when her grandson’s wife took over her business.

The 1872 directory also lists punnet-makers William Edmonds, near the gasworks, and A Green in Ealing Lane, conveniently near George Moles’ nursery and Beach’s fruit preserve manufactory. Sarah Hildreth was a dealer in punnets; born in Warwickshire, she lived at Alma Cottage, Drum Lane (now Ealing Road) and died in 1877. Though by the early 1900s wooden boxes were replacing baskets, punnets were still being made by women like Maria Dawes, a widow, and Annie White, the wife of a gasworks stoker, in Pottery Road [20] in 1901.

Four Brentford families about whom more information is available are described below.

The Goodwins

When she died in 1728 Judith Goodwin, widow of Thomas, a prosperous New Brentford basket-maker, bequeathed [21] her freehold ‘twigg eight situate in or by the River of Thames near or adjoining to New Brentford Town Mead on the North’. She had continued the family business, growing her own osiers, after her husband’s death in 1711; basket-maker Francis Goodwin,  perhaps her son, took on an apprentice [22] in New Brentford in 1716. Judith’s bequests included a freehold cottage, her New Brentford home, as well as a copyhold cottage with 3 acres of adjoining garden ground in neighbouring Old Brentford. Elizabeth, her kinswoman and the daughter of John Taylor, a London cooper, inherited the copyhold property.

The New Brentford cottage and eyot went to Richard, son of John Bissell, both Mortlake apothecaries and also Judith’s kinsmen. Richard’s will of 1736 reveals that in Mortlake he owned 4 adjoining houses of which one was his home. Besides the New Brentford property he held land in Hillingdon, Heston and Isleworth and eyots in Egham. The Brentford cottage and osier bed, left to him by Judith Goodwin, were both occupied by John Shotter and James Grimsdell in 1736. As Judith  bequeathed clothing to Elizabeth, wife of James Grimsell, an Old Brentford basket-maker, the Grims(d)ells were perhaps family friends and possibly already her tenants.

The Bowdens

This family’s basket-making business grew from a rural craft in the 1780s to a small industrial concern in the 1850s. Matthew Bowden, widower, married Ann Ederup at St Mary’s Ealing in April 1763, where all their children were baptised over the next 14 years.

Two Bowden sons, Matthew, born in 1765 and John, born in 1777, became basket-makers, probably trained by their father. He had been well-established enough to take James Tolley as apprentice [23] in 1775 and Jeffery Bissell [24] in 1781. No further record of James Tolley has been found in Brentford but Jeffery, perhaps related to Richard Bissell the apothecary, set up in business in the town and remained until his death, aged 71 in 1837. He married [25] Mary Widmer from another local basket-making family. His grand-daughter, Sarah Bissell, aged 50, was a pottle-maker in 1841.

From 1780 onwards Bowdens appeared annually in the Land Tax assessments associated with eyots, sheds or houses in Isleworth, New Brentford, Old Brentford and Chiswick. It is often unclear whether ‘Matthew Bowden’ refers to father or son.  A Mr Bowden paid Land Tax on a New Brentford eyot, valued at £2 in 1789. In 1792 Matthew Bowden leased [26] a stable and warehouse in Old Brentford, valued at £4, from Thomas Turner and  insured [27] property in Bull Yard and Running Horse Yard in the same year. A Matthew Bowden owned freehold land in Old Brentford in 1802 [28] and in 1803 occupied a £2 eyot, a shed near the Brewery valued at £4, and other properties valued at almost £90. He was both owner and occupier of a house, workshop and warehouses worth £15, recently purchased from Thomas Hope. The latter may be the property sold for £815 in 1855 and described in sale particulars [29] as a dwelling-house with a 96-foot river frontage, a yard, sheds and warehouses formerly in the occupation of Matthew Bowden. John, brother of Matthew the younger, wrote his will a few days before he died in 1800 [30] leaving his wife Elizabeth land in Lots Eyot ‘lying in the Thames opposite to a house occupied by  –– Rowe Timber Merchant’ and 25 shillings to Matthew for a mourning ring.

The younger Matthew Bowden married [31] Sarah Howe at St Mary Somerset in London in late March 1797; their first child, George, was baptised early that June, just over 2 months later, at St Mary’s Ealing, which may explain their marrying in a poor City church. Another son, Thomas Matthew, was born in 1800 and 2 daughters in 1803 and 1805. Thomas never married but continued the business after his father died in 1837. The 1851 Census records him living near Brentford Brewery with his widowed mother, Sarah, his unmarried sister, Mary Ann, and a servant; his occupation was ‘basket-maker employing 10 men’. Ten years later, Sarah had died and Matthew and his sister had moved to one of four houses called Seagrave Place in Boston Road; now he was described as ‘basket-maker employing  5 men’.

The reduced scale of this business by 1861 may be explained by Thomas Matthew’s bankruptcy announced in The London Gazette  in 1853. He was described then as Basket-Maker, Dealer and Chapman, suggesting that he had already diversified his business. Papers from Chancery proceedings in 1854-5 mention [32] an osier bed opposite Goat Wharf, show that his father had obtained mortgages against property in 1818 for £400 and in 1824 for £300 [33] and reveal a dispute over ownership of a property sold by Miss Eliza Challens to the Brentford Gas Light Company. That he still operated as a basket-maker in 1861 suggests he had been discharged from bankruptcy, but by 1872 his business had moved to Catherine Wheel Yard. His death that summer meant the end of the Bowdens’ business.

The Dawes family

The Dawes family [34] made baskets in Brentford from the 1880s. William John Dawes, born in 1860, married Alice Meen in Brentford in 1884 and they had 8 children. The 1887 Electoral Register shows William as owner of 26 Orchard Road, near Brentford Station, but by 1890 he owned 306 High Street, a 3-storey house with cellar on the north side near the Ealing Road junction.

W J Dawes in the doorway at 306 Brentford High Street, about 1910, with his sons Alfred (left), Bertie (right) & Arthur John on the step.
Courtesy of Andy Dawes via bhsproject.co.uk

By 1910 William’s sons, Bertie, Alfred and Arthur, were making a variety of baskets together. Even their shop sign was woven willow.

Family support enabled William to serve as a volunteer orderly at Percy House Auxiliary Military Hospital in Isleworth from its opening in September 1915 until it closed in December 1918. Bertie moved next door in 1928 and by 1939 William had retired from business.

The Scoggins family

This family lived near The John Bull, opposite Gunnersbury Station. Born in Stowmarket in 1830, Edwin Scoggins was already a basket-maker when his family came to London. His wife, Lavina Walton, was from Bury St Edmunds. During the 1870s they lived in Gower Street where father and son, both Edwin, traded as basket-makers. By 1881 there were 4 children and a servant at home in Chiswick but Lavina died in 1885.  Edwin was declared bankrupt in 1888 and died in 1895, leaving £285.19s.

His sons, Lloyd Edwin and Edwin Harry, sustained the business [35] while their sisters kept house. In 1898 Lloyd married Edith, the daughter of Joseph Jefferys, a prominent local market gardener in Gunnersbury Lane to whom the Scoggins probably supplied baskets as they lived only about 200 yards apart. The 1901 Census shows Lloyd and his wife at the High Road premises where, by 1906, he was calling the business Chiswick Rustic Works. In the same year Edwin, describing himself as ‘teacher (basket making)’ and his sister, Louisa, was living at Clarence Road nearby. Edwin married in 1908; after he died in 1910, his widow Florence and their baby daughter moved to live in Thornton Avenue with her sister [36].

The Scoggins family’s shop and yard, from a card postmarked 1908

Invoices from 1906 show that Leopold de Rothschild purchased their goods for Gunnersbury. The headed paper, with illustrations signed ‘E Scoggins’, reveals their products – flower baskets, brooms, garden furniture and thatched summer-houses. A 1908 postcard shows basket chairs, hampers, rustic arbours and green-houses displayed outside, suggesting a thriving business. Certainly they could employ a servant in 1911. Lloyd died in 1918 [37] at the Middlesex County Asylum in Tooting. The firm continued to appear annually in Kelly’s directories until 1934, but now ‘E Scoggins’ was Edith; she may already have been running the business during Lloyd’s illness while caring for their 3 children.

The premises were empty in 1935 and 1936; Edith must have retired, though she lived until 1954. The firm was acquired by G D Rush and operated briefly from Essex Place, Chiswick, in 1935. The London Gazette reported the bankruptcy of Daniel George Rush of Ravenscourt Park that year and his discharge in 1949, marking the end of basket-making in the area.


[1] Guildhall Ms 11765 f 34 v, quoted in Victoria County History of Middlesex, Vol 7

[2] Guildhall Ms 20685, Survey of Manor of Sutton Court 1590

[3] Tithe Award and Map, 1846

[4] also known as withy beds or holts in other parts of England

[5] quoted in Business & Trade in High Street Hounslow 1803-1982, Susan Higlett, Hounslow & District History Society 1982

[6] A Cyclopedia of Agriculture, Practical and Scientific, vol 2, ed J C Morton, Blackie, Glasgow, 1855 

[7] Museum of London acc no 62.32

[8] Guildhall Ms 20685, Survey of Manor of Sutton Court 1590

[9] Chiswick Tithe Award and Map, 1846

[10] TNA PROB.3/33/73

[11] TNA PROB.3/48/2

[12] A Great and Monstrous Thing, Jerry White, Harvard University Press, 2013

[13] Accounts in Chatsworth archives, Information from Peter Hammond,

[14] quoted in Higlett

[15] contents transcribed on bhsproject.co.uk

[16] Land Tax assessment, Old Brentford 1798

[17] see Higlett

[18] bhsproject.co.uk downloaded 30.01.2017

[19] Kathleen Clark research from bhsproject.co.uk, downloaded 30.01.2017

[20] 1901 Census

[21] TNA PROB 11/625

[22] TNA Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books 1710-1811, Series IR 1 piece 5

[23] TNA Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books 1710-1811, Series IR 1 piece 2,

[24] TNA Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books 1710-1811, Series IR 1 piece 31

[25] LMA St Mary’s Hanwell parish registers, via ancestry.co.uk

[26] Ealing Poor Rate Assessment  DRO/037/D1/2-3 via ancestry.co.uk, downloaded 12.01.2017

[27] LMA CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/382/594444 Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance 4 Jan 1792

[28] LMA 1802 Middlesex Poll Book

[29] LMA Acc/638/234

[30] LMA will no 196, MS 9172/185

[31] St Mary Somerset, Register of marriages, 1789 – 1812, P69/MRY12/A/01/Ms 5712/2

[32] LMA Acc/0638/224

[33] LMA Acc/638/226

[34] Andy Dawes’ research from bhsproject.co.uk downloaded 30.01.2017

[35] 1891 Census

[36] 1911 Census

[37] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966,