A peninsula in a bend in the River, Barnes was apparently once part of Mortlake, but Mortlake eventually became part of Barnes.
Both Barnes and Mortlake are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Barnes appears as “Berne” (not to be confused with the one in Switzerland), while Mortlake goes by “Mortelaga”, apparently meaning a stream (laga) full of young salmon (morts supposedly, although we have not found any confirmation of this). So Mortlake does not, as you might think, mean “Lake of the Dead” (great though that would be as the title of a locally set zombie flick), but it does have a cemetery – two in fact. One source claims that Barnes was so called because it was where the manor of Mortlake had barns for storing grain. According to the Domesday Book, however, Mortlake belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, while Barnes belonged to the canons (priests) of St Paul’s Cathedral, a present to them, it seems, from England’s founder King Athelstan back in 925 AD. Until the 1920s, the area was mostly dedicated to growing fruit and veg.
Barnes’s manor house, at Barn Elms, hosted all sorts of historical dignitaries, not least Good Queen Bess (Elizabeth I, a frequent visitor to Mortlake), who was royally entertained at the Elms by her court favourite and spymaster Francis Walsingham when she stopped by on three occasions, the last in 1589. Walsingham no doubt made sure the royal face was well and truly stuffed. 1589 also saw Barnes square up against neighbouring Putney in a battle over grazing rights on the common. Men from Barnes refused to let Putneyites graze their cattle on the common and seized any they found. The dispute ended with the parishes and commons of Barnes and Putney being officially demarcated, and that 1589 boundary still divides Barnes Common from Putney Common (and the Borough of Richmond from the Borough of Wandsworth) to this day.
The manor house at Barn Elms no longer stands, and nor do Barnes’s elms. The manor house lasted until 1954, when it burnt down and had to be demolished. The elms must have been decimated when the Dutch elm disease (which isn’t really Dutch, but American in origin) ravaged London’s elm trees in the 1970s. But Barn Elms’s most famous tree is not an elm but a London plane (which we have written about elsewhere) called Barney, which has been growing there since 1685, and can be seen from Rocks Lane.
Also on Rocks Lane, the former Elm Guest House at #27 featured in a full-on Pizzagate-style conspiracy theory in which it was supposedly used by leading politicians in the 1970s and 1980s to abuse young boys. Various newspapers repeated the allegations, and even the police were taken in, till it all turned out to be a hoax based on claims made up by an attention-seeking fantasist and a fraudster. The guest house seems to have been chosen as a venue in the story because at one time adult rent boys used to take their adult clients there, but their activities were strictly adult, and no child-abuse ever went on. Web pages repeating the story are still on line, but none of it is true.
As a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the River and on its fourth by a boggy common, Barnes was reasonably isolated. It was joined to Mortlake only by The Terrace, which runs along the river. Then, in 1827, Hammersmith Bridge opened, giving Barnes a through route to (as it then was) Middlesex. After that, there was no stopping it. The railway arrived in 1846, along with a cross-river rail bridge, and the original station building and ticket office still stand (though now a private house).
We have written elsewhere of Hammersmith Bridge and its problems. With the latest closure, Barnes’s then-MP Zac Goldsmith (who had a wafer-thin 45-vote majority) appeared on Twitter in 2019 with transport minister Grant Shapps to promise a temporary replacement pending repairs... so long as Zac was re-elected. The good people of Barnes and Richmond declined to submit to this extortion, and gave Zac the boot, so England’s Tory regime punished them by abandoning its alleged plans for a temporary crossing and leaving them to go the long way round. But all that isolation even now makes Barnes something of a village, whose atmosphere is lauded by tourists from as far away as New Zealand.
The Terrace was very popular in the eighteenth century. Comedy playwright and Foxite (radical Whig) politician Richard Sheridan briefly had a house there, and in 1812, the opera star Antoinette Saint-Huberty was murdered in her home at #27, along with her husband, by a disgruntled servant. Nor was Saint-Huberty the street’s only musical resident. Planets composer Gustav Holst lived at #10 from 1908 to 1913, ballet star Ninette de Valois lived at #14 from 1962 to 1982, and Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy once lived at #26, but was not living there when it later collapsed during basement extension work.
Local musical connections go further too. The Olympic Sound Studios on Church Road, now a cinema, was one of London’s most famous recording venues, where the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin have all been known to engrave their tracks on vinyl. The Bull’s Head at 373 Lonsdale Road, originally a seventeenth-century coaching inn, became so well-known as a jazz venue that it was dubbed “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s”. Less happily, T Rex frontman Marc Bolan died in a 1977 car crash on Barnes Common; a shrine now marks the spot.
In 1894, Barnes officially became an urban district of the county of Surrey, taking in Mortlake and East Sheen. In 1932, it was upgraded from an urban district to a full-fledged borough, and in 1965 was incorporated into the London Borough of Richmond. The annual Easter Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race ends at Mortlake, where a Boat Race Stone marks the finishing line. On their way round the Barnes peninsula, the rowers pass the London Wetland Centre, London's most important reserve for waterfowl and all sorts of other unlikely urban wildlife.