End of an era for the houseboats at Watermans Park in Brentford

The last remaining houseboat owners at Watermans Park in Brentford are packing up and leaving this week, having lost their appeal in June to remain at the moorings. The scenario is being replicated up and down the river as the riverside is being developed, houseboat living is becoming more popular and the lucrative possibilities in the gentrification of the riverside are recognized. Susan Penhaligon, the actor who lives in a houseboat in Chiswick, says the time has come for river dwellers to have some rights in law. What the Brentford example highlights is that unlike land-dwellers, a community which has been established for decades can be evicted with no legal redress if they don’t own the land on which their boats are moored.

Photograph above: Houseboat owner Paul Mendoza, preparing to leave his mooring at Watermans Park


Photographs above: the few remaining houseboats at Watermans Park in Brentford, fenced off from the land and surrounded by abandoned and rotting boats

A long and bitter fight

In the case of Watermans Park there are legitimate arguments on both sides. The protracted legal battle which is reputed to have cost Hounslow £750,000 of our council tax money can be presented as the story of a bunch of squatters trespassing on council owned property and holding up the development of the whole area with their fight to stay there with their scruffy looking boats, or as the decimation of a legitimate community who have lived there for decades in their houseboats, made homeless by a heartless council.

The fight has been long and bitter. As far as the boat owners were concerned they were there quite legally, as they had been for years, and they were subjected to a campaign of harassment by the council only after it had decided to create a £5.45m new marina. The council took action to evict 25 houseboat owners initially. Most decided to move on rather than face a court battle. The case went ahead against eight, the decision going against the houseboat owners last November. Five of them decided to appeal and on some points the judge agreed with them, but not enough to avoid eviction. The key point was that the council was held to own the River Wall and the land on which the boats were moored.

The great moorings grab

Who owns river moorings is often ambiguous. The riverbank is often unregistered. The Port of London Authority has registered a lot of land in the last few years along the length of the tidal Thames in order to clarify what is owned by them. Successive court cases have shown that it can be quite hard to prove. Even defining what is land and what is river can be tricky. (Anything above mean high water of medium tides is considered land, everything below that as river).

House boat owners have to have a license from the PLA to moor and communities which have lived peaceably on the river for decades are realizing that they have very little in the way of  legal rights, whether they pay the Port Authority for a license to moor or not. If the landowner decides to take back the land and use it differently, it’s time to sling your hook.

Chelsea houseboats given notice

River dwellers in Chelsea, whose colourful boats have been a part of the landscape for many years, recently found their community under threat when 15 houseboat owners received termination notices on the basis that they had failed to carry out dry docking safety inspections, after the Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company was acquired by property developers. “It’s a bit like a village being bought and suddenly you’ve got a new landowner” said one.

The major difference is that river dwellers have fewer rights than people living in a static caravan on land. Susan Penhaligon (known best for TV series A Bouquet of Barbed Wire and A Fine Romance and films such as Count Dracula) says that’s because a boat is considered to be a ‘chattel’. She thinks it’s time the law was changed. She sold a  house twenty years ago which would be worth more than a million pounds now, to move to a Dutch barge. “It’s a lifestyle choice” she says, “it’s joyful, peaceful.” She enjoys the constant changes with the tide and the weather, fish jumping; the spiritual nature of living by water and being surrounded by nature, as does Pepper, her Patterdale terrier rescue dog.

Photographs above: Susan Penhaligon aboard her boat, rowing on the River Fal in Cornwall as a child and her dog Pepper enjoying the view

The gentrification of the riverside a ‘moral issue’ says Susan Penhaligon

She rejects the characterization of river dwellers as a bunch of hippies and ne’er-do-wells and loves being part of a community which includes both million pound boats and tiny narrow boats. “For me the gentrification of the river is a moral issue” she says. Many residents like Susan don’t see why the council could not have come to an arrangement with the houseboat community at Watermans rather than evicting them. A Labour council turfing out people who have chosen to live on the river as a low cost option, in the middle of a housing crisis, does not sit well with her.

The river is more popular she says, there are some hugely expensive boats upwards of a million pounds and the councils and the PLA have noticed that they can get more money for mooring rights. Because houseboat owners have very few legal rights it is far too easy to throw them off their moorings. “I believe that houseboats which don’t have an engine should at least have the same mooring rights as a static caravan” she says. Living on the river is “evolving” she says and it’s time for improvement in their situation.

Meanwhile the last few houseboat owners, including Paul Mendoza, one of those who appealed the decision at Watermans Park, are spending their last few days preparing to leave, separated off from the riverside walk way and public park by huge fences and surrounded by the rotting debris of boats abandoned by those who gave up the unequal struggle a year ago. A sad way for a community to end.