Thameside Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989

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On 7 October The Times announced: 'Mr. Fred Karno, the music-hall artist, who for some years had a houseboat moored to Tagg's Island, East Molesey, has arranged to take over the island. He proposes to run free ferries to it from the shore, and to provide entertainments and illuminations in the evening'. It is perhaps with thoughts in mind of the type of entertainment that Karno might provide if left to his own devices, that the owners, still the Kent family, wrote a clause into the lease specifically prohibiting any 'theatre, music-hall, swing, roundabout, switchback, railway, toboggan run, cocoa nut shy, or any other such erection' on the island. Neither was there to be any advertising. We can visualise his rather more aristocratic neighbours insisting on these stipulations. They wanted an increase in the number of people using the hotel, but what they did not want was Southend or Blackpool transferred to Molesey on Thames. It was to be very discreet and very middle class.

In spite of the enthusiasm with which Fred Karno took up his new venture, he must soon have had misgivings. He poured money into it, but even he had no bottomless purse. On 5 November, after he had just learned that vet more expense would be incurred in bringing the sewerage across the river, we find him writing to C.W. Kent, 'I am just beginning to realise the enormous magnitude of the task I have undertaken with regard to the island. . . I fear it will not be a profitable investment by any means'. If only he could have realised how prophetic his words were to prove!

The first thing was to rebuild the hotel and, as it was still nominally under the control of Mr George Tagg at least until Christmas 1912, he presented plans to the magistrates for approval, saying that the then premises were somewhat out of date. Consent was, therefore, given for 'important alterations and improvements', the contemplated outlay for which was estimated at about £7,000. Before long the site was given over to an army of workmen, who did somewhat more than 'alterations and improvements'. The old building was, in fact, completely demolished and a magnificent new one started to rise in its place. In the true Karno style of having nothing but the biggest and best in everything, it had to be much larger, much grander, and much more up to date than its predecessor, with every known innovation. Instead of the paltry £7,000 suggested to the sessions, the eventual bill for the hotel alone was something like £40,000.

The Karsino

the Karsino

As architect for the new hotel, Karno employed Frank Matcham, perhaps the most outstanding exponent of 'theatrical baroque', which reached its zenith in the Edwardian era. Matcham's commissions include such masterpieces as the London Hippodrome (now the Talk of the Town), the London Coliseum, the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square, the Victoria Palace and Richmond Theatre. All of these are ornate, flamboyant, and rococco, but show a genuine love of the theatre, a sort of playhouse panache. In designing the Island Hotel, however, Matcham was much more constrained, and thereby showed his genius, for the building he produced, although ornamental, was neither gaudy nor over-decorated. It mingled unobtrusively with its delightful backcloth of trees and river.

Even its construction was novel. The site, being confined and water-logged, required a new approach. Many tons of concrete had to he poured into the foundations and, to make the structure light but strong, the large building was fabricated from a steel framework with walls of concrete slabs, one of the first buildings in this country to be so erected, and so revolutionary that no such construction was catered for in the local building bye-laws, which had to he specially amended to permit its being built at all. This held up operations for a time, but the plans were finally passed at a meeting of the Hampton UDC on Tuesday 14 January 1913, and work commenced right away.

In a newspaper interview Karno claimed that the new hotel would be 'a sumptuous place, with all the comforts of home and a good many more too'; it would be 'the finest and most luxurious river hotel in Europe' and 'there is going to he nothing vulgar about the place', he added; 'we are doing our best to keep the place refined'.

The demise of the old hotel, however, was something not entirely applauded by everyone. The Surrey Comet, for instance, said 'the passing of the old Tagg's Island, with its modest charming appearance, is in some senses to be deplored'. They balanced this by noting 'the handsome appearance of the grand new hotel'.

The 'Karsino', as the new hotel was christened, bad a double verandah on three sides, on which visitors could take lunch, tea or dinner, or just lounge and admire the scenery. It also boasted twenty-six bedrooms, each with hot and cold running water, and each commanding its own view of the river. There were lifts to all floors, and electric lights were fitted throughout. Fred's policy of being first and foremost in everything is even reflected in the telephone — its number was Molesey 1. The telephone was the cause of some excitement soon after the hotel opened; the wires across to the mainland were struck by lightning, and three men working underneath were slightly dazed, though not hurt. The commotion of the affair, however, was too much for one of the lady guests — she promptly fainted.

The pièce-de-résistance of the hotel was the Palm Court. It was large enough to seat some eight hundred people, with a maple dancing floor, under an extensive dome, and with the ceiling painted with a number of scenes of the river between Hampton Court and Windsor. It was truly a magnificent ballroom. Even thirty years later, when the present writer used to dance there with the lady who was to become his wife, it still retained a noble atmosphere — or was it because we were young and so full of romance? The stage was cunningly constructed with two prosceniums, one facing into the ballroom, the other at the back, facing the lawn outside. As Karno himself explained: 'In cold or wet weather we shall give concerts and entertainments in the Palm Court, and in fine weather the same stage will be used, but the audience will sit outside on the lawn. You see, if it rains, all we have to do is to fetch the audience inside, draw up one backcloth and lower the other, turn the artists
round, and get on with the show'.

The concerts were given twice daily throughout the season by some of the leading entertainers, orchestras and military bands of the day. The prices of admission were something which will surely bring torrents of nostalgia flooding back to those who can remember such days — 6d, 1s and 2s.

There was also a resident orchestra, and here again Karno showed his inborn genius for discovering unknown talent; he employed as leader a young musician named Jack Hylton, who was to become a household name, leader of his own dance band, one of the most popular in the inter-war years, and eventually a theatrical impresario almost as well-known as Karno himself.

The hotel, however, was not the only attraction of Karsino. The whole island was now given over to diversions for its patrons. The grounds were laid out in a lavish scale by one of the most eminent landscape gardeners. There was a lawn over six hundred feet long, with various walks and terraces 'arranged in floral profusion', and a pergola which stretched right athwart the island, with a bandstand in the middle. There was a Dutch garden and a German beer garden. 'I have' said Mr Karno 'tried my best to bring the Continental atmosphere up-river'. There were tennis, croquet, bowls and badminton courts, and a 'quainly-pretty' new boat-house, from which visitors could hire boats or launches, and moor their own boats while dining in the restaurant or patronising the theatre. 'At each up-river corner of the boat-house two artistic little kiosks face the Molesey and Hampton sides of the stream', said a contemporary description, 'one of which is the office of the Karsino manager, Mr John Daly'.

As Karsino had no direct communication with the mainland, all visitors had to he ferried over, and for this purpose there was a fleet of 'large and artistic' punts, commuting between the island and both banks, and a landing stage was constructed near the end of what is now called 'Graburn Way'. A most modern innovation, considering that this was 1913, was that on both sides there was a larger punt for ferrying over guests' motor cars, and a garage capable of accommodating forty cars was erected on the island, where petrol and accessories could he obtained and repairs carried out. At first all the ferries were free but, in order to keep down the thousands of sightseers who just came over to stare or to wander around the grounds without spending any money, Karno instituted a system whereby patrons were charged a shilling to be ferried over, deducted from the bill when paid.

At dusk during the season Karsino probably looked its finest. All the grounds and terraces were illuminated 'with myriads of coloured electric lights in the foliage' which, together with the Chinese lanterns and glittering facades of the houseboats still ringing the island, must have appeared a veritable fairyland. Even Karno himself said it was to be 'regarded as something unique'. And to add to the enchantment, a large captive balloon, with the letters KARSINO painted on the sides, was flown above, whilst a searchlight positioned on the roof of the hotel focussed a stream of light upon it.

No expense was spared in advertising the venture, and luring patrons to the island. All the latest innovations were pressed into service. The people of London looked up into the sky amazed as an aeroplane circled above them, trailing behind it a huge streamer announcing its attractions.

Karno said 'I have put up a splendid affair, I shall revive the glories of fetes such as Vauxhall saw in its palmiest days, a glittering palace of delight, the most beautiful pleasure resort on the Thames'. This palace of delight was opened on Sunday 22 June 1913. At the celebration lunch party Sir Thomas Dewar of the whisky distilling family, later Lord Dewar, proposed a toast of 'success to the Karsino and the new Island Hotel'. He said that he hoped sincerely that Mr Karno's venture would be crowned with success. The Karsino was just such a place as London wanted, and it would no doubt become a distinct feature in its social life.

The Karno publicity machine went to work with a will, plastering the whole metropolis with posters, so that no Londoner was left in any doubt as to what was taking place on Tagg's island in the glorious river Thames. It was confidently expected that some hundreds would turn up, and a suitable store of food and drink was got in to cater for them. In the event many thousands packed onto the island. At one time it was almost impossible to move. The ferry boats, which were operated for the day by a bevy of beautiful actresses, wearing dresses of white and Wedgwood blue, had to stop conveying any more people across, and so many thousands were left to line the banks on either side of the river, most of whom never did get into Karsino. Those who did found that the catering department had gone haywire trying to provide for such a vast unexpected crowd. Never in his wildest dreams did Karno expect such a turn-out, and very soon the food ran out. Men were sent out to scour the district, knocking up tradesmen from their Sunday rest, and rushing back with whatever they could muster. By evening not a morsel was to be had for miles around. Karno had chosen a Sunday for the opening so that all his performers could come along and lend a hand; they were quickly pressed into service. Actresses went into the kitchens and prepared food. Knockabout comedians served as waiters. By some miracle it all seemed to come right. It looked as if Karsino was definitely set on a prosperous course.

For a time it seemed successful enough. On a fine summer Sunday the swells would come down from London, the river was packed with flannelled and boatered young men and parasolled young ladies, and the tills might ring up a four-figure sum. There was also a regular clientele from the social set — royalty, politicians, businessmen, and the like.

Unfortunately, soon after Karsino opened its doors, the sunshine of success was overcast by the gathering clouds of world war. Some of its best customers were Continentals, mostly German and French, and those quickly vanished; for a while the prospect looked bleak. However, the very darkness of the time helped. It became a little oasis of glamour and gaiety amid the sombre reality of war and sorrow. Young servicemen home on leave from the front brought their wives and sweethearts for a last wild spree before returning to an uncertain fate. And when Hurst Park racecourse became a training airfield for the Royal Flying Corps, the numbers increased. Even those poor lads who changed their battle khaki for hospital blue found refuge on the island, as they were invited to parties by various organisations. In May 1917, although the war had been grinding on for almost three years, the Surrey Comet reported that 'Arrangements for the river season at the Karsino on Tagg's Island are now almost completed, and everything points to a successful summer term notwithstanding the serious handicap due to the war. The Karsino has become a very popular venue for entertaining wounded soldiers and numerous parties of men from London and other places have recently enjoyed the quiet and seclusion of the island'.

As soon as peace was declared, however, the glitter and tinsel began to tarnish. Karno opened up again with enthusiasm, expecting the same patrons as before the war, but enthusiasm was not enough. The boom had gone. Public taste had changed. Things were more sophisticated, and most of all the motor car was here to stay. The river was losing its pull. There is no doubt, in spite of Karno's advertisement of 'popular prices', that Karsino was expensive, its clients had been socialites of the upper and upper-middle classes, the sort of people who now sought their pleasures further afield.

Karno had sunk some £70,000 in the venture, perhaps a million pounds in modern terms, but the money so liberally spent was not backed by receipts at the cash desk. The entertainment trade has known many grand enterprises, and there are few other business pursuits in which the capital is gobbled up so quickly and the returns so hazardous. In addition, an undertaking centred on an island, relying on river trade, is of course most susceptible to the vagaries of the English climate. The season is in any case a short one; just one poor year could be calamity and several in succession were indeed a catastrophe.

Nevertheless, Karno struggled on, hoping that fortune would change, but in 1926 the creditors started knocking on the door, and the man who had brought the music-hall to millions was forced to face the music himself. To stave them off, he started selling his assets, Astoria went for a mere fraction of its original cost. All this coincided with the slump in the music-hall, hit by the growth of cinema and wireless, a blow from which it never recovered. Had it not been so, Fred might have been able to carry on. As it was, everything seemed to conspire to go awry at the same time, and the strain was too much for his resources.

In April 1926 he sold the tenancy rights for three years, with an option to purchase at the end of the term, to the New Princes Restaurant of Picadilly, for £2,500. This, however, was not enough to satisfy his debts, a judgement for £6,000 was levied against his goods and chattels on the island, and eventually the mortgagees took over Karsino entirely. Fred was finally declared bankrupt in the autumn of 1927, and it is rather ironical, in view of the large sums involved, that the order against him was for the relatively paltry amount of £141, the outstanding debt on a loan of £200 he had obtained from a moneylender, which he was unable to repay, although it was reported that there were some forty other actions pending against the estate. At his examination, Karno attributed his troubles entirely to having been persuaded to take over Tagg's Island, assessing his losses on the venture at about £100,000. Soon afterwards he retired to the West Country. He took a wine shop at Poole in Dorset, where he died on 17 September 1941, leaving £42 7s 4d.

Some people have tried to blame Karno's losses entirely on wet weather, but the years 1920 to 1924 were in fact some of the finest on record. Indeed, 1921 was the driest year in over a century of meteorological recording, and one of the sunniest too. His fault seems really to lie in that he failed to perceive the changed circumstances which ruled in post-war times. He sighed nostalgically for his former clients and to keep the place 'refined'. Unfortunately the 'refined' of the 1920s no longer wished to patronise the island. Edwardian upper crust gaiety had become one of the casualties of the war, and the slump which followed did nothing to revive it. Had Fred recognised this trend and cast his net wider, Karsino might have been with us yet.

When the New Princes' Restaurant took over from Fred Karno, its Managing Director was a Mr Beaumont Alexander, a young man full of new ideas and full of new enthusiasm. Undaunted by Karno's recent experience, the company plunged straight in with a scheme of expansion which promised 'scenes of festivity on a scale never witnessed before, not even under Mr Karno'. Their intention was to convert this island into a miniature Palm Beach, Or, as Mr Alexander explained, 'a resemblance of America's most exclusive resort in Florida, thousands of tons of sand are to be placed on the island and hundreds of palms will be planted. There will be large sunshades, beach chairs, provision for the enjoyment of mixed bathing, and other items of amusement and relaxation generally associated with the fashionable resorts. A fleet of motor-boats, punts and canoes will be provided for river merrymakers'. He went on: 'We have not in London an original road house, such as are to be found in the neighbourhood of Paris and the principal centres throughout America, and we intend to make the Karsino a rendezvous of that description'.

A grand opening gala was held on 8 May 1926, when Jack Smith, known as 'the whispering baritone', one of the idols of the day, was engaged as the star attraction, to back up the resident cabaret company, 'the New Princes' Frivolities', and Alfredo and his band, later a well-known broadcaster.

It was a doughty start to a doughty project, but again still not enough to ensure its success. In less than two years Mr Alexander and the New Princes' were broken.

In April 1928, when it was obvious that the Palm Beach venture was going to fold, Charles Pearce-Brown, who had been an assistant manager, borrowed enough money to persuade the leaseholder to convey the island to him. Pearce-Brown was one of those interesting characters who have tried many things in their life. He started in musical comedy and vaudeville with a touring company, which eventually went to America. We next find him as a salesman for various companies, selling all sorts of things from oil to steel wire, and as a professional heavy-weight boxer being groomed as the 'White hope' to meet Jack Johnson. In 1913 he began to deal in shares on the New York Stock Exchange, but he crashed in 1915, due (he said) to the sinking of the Lusitania, and he was then employed by the US Shipping Board on war work. After the war he returned to this country and became interested in theatrical advertising; he started up a business under the name Herbert Cyril & Co. In conjunction with some others he opened the Embassy Theatre in Oxford Street — which was a financial flop; in 1925 he branched out as an impresario, assisting in the production of revues — which were also financial flops. So he came to be on Tagg's Island using the name Herbert Cyril.

Once more the same procedure was gone through, and a considerable slice of the borrowed money was expended on improvements. Mr Alexander's theme had been an American Palm Beach; Mr Cyril's was to be a Continental Riviera. Again there was a total transformation and, to perfect the theme, the name was also changed. No longer was it to be the ill-fated 'Karsino', now it was to be the 'Thames Riviera'. In order to open in time for the summer season, within nine weeks there had been built a completely covered tennis court with a battery of arc lamps producing artificial sunlight to enable it to be used day and night, and a magnificent skating rink with a then brand new process of producing ice chemically, of which Mr Cyril held the patent rights throughout Great Britain, the Colonies, America and France. As these were situated away from the hotel, a covered way was constructed to enable them to be used at any time.

Like all its predecessors, Thames Riviera had to start off with a grander than grand opening celebration, and on Friday 22 June 1928, as the Surrey Comet reported, 'a changed and brightened Tagg's Island opened with an inaugural dinner on Friday to a large and merry gathering that celebrated the event with such goodwill as to inspire hopes of its popularity and success. The efforts that have been made to ensure the appeal of this new riverside playground have been marked by the exercise of taste and enterprise on the part of Mr Herbert Cyril, the proprietor, and certainly every comfort was provided for the guests so hospitably received on Friday'.

The dinner was served to the accompaniment of music by Jack Hylton's Riviera Band, there was dancing in the world-famous ballroom, a display of acrobatic skating and ice dancing on the new rink, and d'Amato's Venetian Orchestra played from a gondola on the river. The floodlit tennis court proved so popular that play was still going on at midnight.

Herbert Cyril tried hard to find a ballet of ice-skaters in this country to perform in his new rink, but at that time there were no English professionals performing this type of entertainment. As a result he was forced to employ a troupe of German skaters. The rink was a terrific success but, after the second week, he was informed by the Government that he must send the company back to Germany, and accordingly he was compelled to close the skating at a dead loss of £10,000. Undoubtedly he was the first British impresario to realise the potentialities of ice-entertainment, and the elaborate pantomimes on ice which were now put on are in some way the culmination of his foresight.

Perhaps it was thought that changing the name of the island would reflect in a change of fortune. But the only effect it seemed to have was to bring the pains on earlier. Thames Riviera's first reign was, in fact, to be the shortest on record. Within six weeks of opening it had gone the way of its predecessors. The mortgagee put in a receiver and the luckless Mr Cyril found himself appearing in Bankruptcy Buildings, with debts of over £76,000, and assets of only £16,000.

The mortgagee was a firm called the United Kingdom Advertising Company, who had advanced some £11,000. Seeing their money fast disappearing, and the possibility of the lease being forfeited, which was the only security they possessed, they persuaded the receiver to allow them to take over the lease and run it themselves.

In 1930 Thames Riviera was opened up again, and it was the same old story told once again. A lot of money was spent in smartening up the island. 'The sumptuously appointed hotel', it was reported, 'the charmingly appointed ballroom and theatre, with what is regarded as one of the finest floors in Europe, cosy alcoves for suppers and a restful balcony; the covered tennis courts, badminton courts, putting greens, sea sand beach, pretty lawns and gardens, and facilities for bathing and boating, have all been overhauled and brought into perfect condition, and access to the island for cars is made simple by a huge electrically-driven ferry'.

The project was again launched with a splendid first night. This time there was a blend of banquet, ball, cabaret and cinema, allegedly the first time that such a concoction had ever been put on in Britain. Even the films shown were somewhat of a mixture: Mickey Mouse, a newsreel of the Football Cup Final, and several other small films, and to startle the assembled guests, Mr A.E. Bundy, the chairman and prime mover of the company, appeared on the screen himself, talking about the new venture. He emphasised that the comfort of patrons would receive the closest personal attention, and went on 'I am sensible of the difficulties I am confronted with, but I am not without hope that I shall be successful'. Even when chided with the island's past history he was full of optimism. 'When Bundy pulls the strings', he rejoined, 'they are the strings of success'. How far that optimistic boast was to go we shall see.

In 1933 the island hit the headlines again. One of the Sunday newspapers had run a series of articles concerning the river, and how it had become a place for hilarious groups of young people from London. Referring to 'gay mixed parties of men and girls to the more secluded reaches of the Thames', and saying that the 'regular devotees of the all night parties are those who, still unsatiated in their lust for excitement when London's West End restaurants and clubs close their doors soon after midnight, turn to the Thames to carry on their amusement'. Although they specifically spoke of the Thames from Sunbury to Henley, unfortunately they referred to it as the 'Thames Riviera'. Mr Bundy quickly seized on these words and brought an action against the paper, alleging that the words libelled them, and inferred that Tagg's Island was a place frequented by immoral persons where scandalous bathing and dancing took place. It was an opinion with which the judge apparently concurred, for he awarded the company damages of £1,000.

Still, even this bonus was not enough to keep the Thames Riviera solvent, and in 1935 the island was taken over by a further company, the managing director of which was Mr Charles Clore. This was one of the first enterprises of a man whose name was to become synonymous with property speculation. The company was registered with a nominal capital of £3,000, but only two £1 shares were issued. A considerable sum of money had to be spent on redecorating the hotel but, as the company had no money itself, it had to rely on loans. The hotel was re-opened on 4 June, under the new title 'Casino Hotel'; again the change of name did nothing to help its success; again within six months the company was compulsorily wound up. According to The Times 'Mr Clore attributed the insolvency of the company to the failure of the public to accord its patronage to the hotel, but in the opinion of the Official Receiver, it was due in no small measure to the fact that it was allowed to embark on a speculative business without the provision of any working capital'.

Casino Hotel and Ballroom

The Hotel and Ballroom at Tagg's Island, when it had become the Casino.

The lease was then acquired by a firm called Taggs Island Properties Ltd, who continued to run the hotel, still called 'Casino', until the Second World War came along. In 1941 it was acquired by Mr William Hurlock, of AC Cars Ltd of Thames Ditton who, in the following year, also purchased the freehold from Mr C.W. Kent, thereby terminating a connection which the Kent family had had with the island for almost a century. The buildings now took on a wartime aspect. The magnificent skating rink and the covered tennis courts were adapted as a factory, with a manufacturing floor area of about 26,000 square feet. For the rest of the war it did yeoman service in the production of munitions. A road bridge was supplied and constructed by the Ministry of Supply, connecting the island with the Middlesex bank, to ease access for delivery of material.

When peace came, the Casino Hotel was reconditioned and opened up to visitors, although the other buildings still carried out for a number of years useful national work in the manufacture of AC's renowned three-wheeled invalid carriages for the Ministry of Pensions. They also manufactured other types of cars. For instance, on the island were produced the four de-luxe trains which carried passengers along the mile-long pier at Southend.

The next few years were probably the most tranquil in the island's history. In 1956, however, it was sold, and since that time its story has been one of continuing strife. The ownership has changed hands several times, each time with a stiff escalation of the selling price; in 1956 it was £75,000; by 1967, £90,000; and in 1970 £120,000. There have been lawsuits, bankruptcies, proposals, and planning applications ad nauseum. In 1965 a scheme to open a gambling casino was stopped by a court action at the eleventh hour, after another £2,200 had been spent, and 300 guests had been invited to 'a bit of a flourish'. A few years later a Mr Ramsawak Doon Pandit proposed to build 'the finest hotel in Southern England', but it came to nought.

In 1965 the bridge was declared unsafe and, just three days before Christmas, the supports gave way and it settled down into the river, to the aggravation of the houseboat dwellers and AC Cars, who were still using the island, all of whom had to use the ferry again. There were all sorts of rumours about the bridge, accusations and counter accusations, and denial of responsibility. It was finally reconstructed by the owners.

In 1970 an application for planning permission for a one million pound development was submitted to pull down the old hotel, which, with only just over thirty bedrooms, was considered uneconomic, and to build a new one five storeys high, with 244 bedrooms, two swimming pools, sauna bath, floating restaurants, sports centre and parking for 250 cars. In spite of opposition from the Surrey side of the river and from the houseboat dwellers threatened with eviction, this plan was approved by Richmond Council in February 1971.

Within a month of having the plans passed the hotel was demolished. Before the bulldozers moved in, however, there was an orgy of nostalgia from a band of old music hall stars, who held a party of farewell. The hotel was already rotting from having been left idle, and through the battered dome water dripped onto the gilded mouldings, painted ceilings, and famous dancing floor. Nevertheless, old stagers spent a sentimental day reminiscing on Karsino in its palmy days — performers like Jack Melville, who joined Karno's company in 1904 and had trodden these boards almost sixty years before, and who that very day was celebrating his 88th birthday. The celebrated stage was ripped up and ceremoniously cut into portions to be given to the famous pupils from Karno's school and, as few of them could come to the celebrations themselves, their pieces were accepted on their behalf by other stars. The gift for Charlie Chaplin was given to Jimmy Jewell, who said he would send it on to the great comedian. Billy Russell, another of Karno's company, accepted a piece for Sandy Powell. Roy Hudd received Fred Emney's souvenir, and Ethel Revnell, who herself lived on a houseboat moored to the island, and was well-known in Molesey, especially for the work she performed for the Welcome Club, took a piece for Jimmy Nervo. Jack Melville proposed a toast to Karno, 'the man who put more laughs into Britain than anybody else', and the BBC made a film of the whole occasion.

So what The Times described as 'one of the strangest buildings in Britain', came tumbling down, and an era of British catering and entertainment history was but a pile of rubble.

However, in spite of planning permission, and in spite of having razed the old hotel to the ground, the proposed new hotel and sports centre was never proceeded with, and in 1974 fresh plans were submitted for a different type of development. This envisaged the building of blocks of flats up to four storeys high, surrounded by maisonettes and houses, some of them overhanging the river on the Molesey side, a total of 138 homes. A scheme of such intensive development was bound to cause considerable controversy and bitter opposition. In 1976 the developer went bankrupt, but new proposals were made.

With its future in doubt, in the 1970s the island's forthcoming history looked likely to be just as disputatious as its past. Then it remained desolate and overgrown, a bleak descendant of the glory it once was, with absolutely nothing to show for the millions of pounds which had been poured into it. As one stood and surveyed the ravaged scene, it was just possible that we might catch a glimpse of a group of shadowy figures, and among them recognise the features of Harvey and Kent, of Barrie, Tagg, Karno, Alexander, Cyril, Bundy, Charlie Clore and Leon Bronesky, all standing around and dropping fivers into a bottomless pit. For this surely was the most expensive piece of devastation in the whole world. It was constructed out of the debris of men's hopes and fortunes. And if we are prone to believe in legends we could even have seen circling above, the spirit of an evicted squatter, still cursing the men, the island, and all who were responsible for its being dispossessed of home and hearth many years ago. However, by 1988, Tagg's Island had become a paradise for houseboats and wildlife — almost a return to its idyllic past of long ago.


The Casino ballroom

The Casino ballroom, Tagg's Island.

The Karsino

A quite corner in the Karsino.

The Karsino grounds

A continental atmosphere pervaded the grounds in 1930.

Jack Hylton's Riviera Band

Jack Hylton's Riviera Band at the Karsino, 22 June 1928 — the Karsino was to be the Thames Riviera.

Karsino ad

Karno advertises Karsino.

ISBN 0 86023 414 2

Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.

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  • Molesey Residents Association: Ernest Mallett, 20 Walton Road, East Molesey, Tel 020-8979-6446
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  • Molesey Library, The Forum, Walton Road, West Molesey 020-8979-6348
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