A History of Middlesex




THE key to the prehistory of Middlesex lies in the River Thames and, to a less extent, in its tributaries: only with the foundation of the city of London by the Romans did there begin the process which concentrated the life of the lower Thames valley upon a very limited area.

This is true in a sense even of the remotest periods, when the face of what is now Middlesex presented a very different appearance. The lower Thames valley is one of the most important regions in Europe for the study of man of the Old Stone Age, by reason of the fact that flanking the modern streams there are extensive deposits of gravel and other materials laid down by the river which have produced the typical flint implements in large numbers. Geologically the period is that of the great Pleistocene Ice Age, in which phases of arctic climate alternated with milder spells during which the much swollen rivers carried and deposited vast quantities of material eroded by the melting glaciers of the north. These events were taking place over a very long time which began 250,000 years or more ago, and the subject is too complicated for more than the briefest reference here: it must suffice to say that these first men hunted, in very small groups, a country whose landscape at the different phases varied from tropical to sub-arctic, with broad rivers extending far beyond their present boundaries and with many changes of contour and level; and that the gravels which produce their flint implements also yield the bones and teeth of the extinct animals which were their prey.

From about 8000 B.C., however, with the Middle Stone Age, something resembling modern conditions had come into existence. From then on prehistory is made up of a succession of movements both of traders and of settlers, most of whom used the River Thames as a highway, tending at all periods to avoid the interior because with the damper, milder climate it had become heavily forest- and marsh-covered. It was not until quite a late date that early man developed the organization and equipment for dealing with such obstacles. In the meantime his settlements were concentrated on the gravel-beds which were more open and drier than the clay-lands.

Thus it is that so many finds of pottery, implements and weapons of all periods have been made in the river or along its banks. We must visualize the inhabitants of these times living in small villages of light thatched huts, probably stockaded in most cases, through a succession of periods in which stone gave way to bronze and bronze to iron. They depended for their livelihood partly upon fishing and hunting, partly upon the exploitation of the clearings in the land round their settlements, and partly upon the river-trade. The earliest of these settlements yet to be definitely recognized belong to the dawn of the Iron Age (about 500 B.C.): there is evidence of one such at Brentford (Old England) and the so-called Caesar’s Camp at Heathrow (destroyed in making London Airport) was also occupied at this time. There are, however, a few earlier sites, of burials in particular: the so-called Boadicea’s Grave on Parliament Hill, Hampstead, is no doubt a Bronze Age burial-mound and there were other such mounds at Sunbury and probably elsewhere. Late Bronze Age burials from Littleton Reservoir and from Ashford also imply settlement in the neighbourhood, but always on a small scale; and if there        was any pre-Roman occupation of the site of London itself it would probably have been yet another village: certainly nothing to suggest a large town or stronghold has yet been revealed in or near the area of the city.

The latter part of the 1st century B.C. saw the establishment in S.E. England of powerful tribes of Belgic peoples whose kings ruled from centres of sufficient size and importance to justify the title of “city “. The modern geographical county of Middlesex formed part of the territory of the Catuvellauni, but their chief centre lay across the border at Wheathampstead near St. Albans. This was probably the Oppidum Cassivellauni, the “stronghold of Cassivellaunus “, which Caesar attacked when in 54 B.C. he penetrated well into the country. There can be no doubt that on this occasion the Roman armies marched through “Middlesex” and it may be that the Roman road later to be called Watling Street goes back in origin to this time. But the exact route taken by Caesar is still the subject of controversy: in particular it is still undecided whether he crossed the Thames at Westminster or at Brentford. Here it can only be said that Westminster seems the more probable, for at least it fits into the Roman road-pattern as an early crossing which would have lost much of its importance when the Romans built the first London Bridge. A crossing of the Thames at Brentford, on the other hand, does not lie on or near any road approaching the river from either north or south.