Monkey Island has been in use since at least the twelfth century. Monks resided at Merton Priory at Amerden Bank, a moated site on Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire bank of the river, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century. The monks used the island during their fishing activities from 1197. According to some accounts, they leased the island from the Whiteknights estate, which now includes the site of Reading University.
Bray Court Rolls later recorded that John Casse and John Tylehurst used the island for pasturage in 1361 at a charge of two shillings and sixpence per annum. At some point in the fourteenth century, the island passed into the hands of the Canonesses of Burnham Abbey, situated a mile to the north. There are various records of the island dating from that time using various names including Bournhames Eyte and Burnham Ayt, both eyte and ayt being Old English words for island.
The Englefield family acquired Monkey Island in 1606. The foundations of the island were strengthened in 1666 following The Great Fire of London when Oxfordshire stone was shipped downstream to help rebuild the capital. Returning from London, the barges carried rubble, which they offloaded onto several islands in the Thames, thus providing Monkey Island with a solid base, raising its level above the river and thus eliminating the risk of serious flooding.
The Duke’s Island
Perhaps most important in the history of the Monkey Island we know today was its purchase by Charles Spencer, the third Duke of Marlborough. He bought the island from Sir Francis Englefield in 1723 after seeing it while attending meetings of the notorious Kit-Kat Club at nearby Down Place. The Club, which met from 1720, purported to be a gathering of “men of wit and pleasure about town.” But beneath this sociable façade, there were in fact covert objectives concerned with the defence of the House of Hanover.
The Duke was a well-known angler, and it was he that erected the first two buildings on the island to indulge his hobby. The fishing lodge and the fishing temple, as they were then described, are still there today as part of the hotel and are known as the Pavilion and the Temple, respectively.
Palladian architect Robert Morris was enlisted to design and build both buildings at a cost of £8,756. The ninth Earl of Pembroke was also involved in the design of the Temple; the Duke paid him £2,277 for his work between 1745 and 1748.
Reflecting the craftsmanship of the time, the Duke had the Pavilion built out of wood blocks cut to look like stone – an original feature that can be seen today. Inside the Pavilion, the most intriguing feature is the suite of delightful Singerie paintings in the Monkey Room.
These captivating scenes of monkeys engaged in rather human-like activities – shooting, fishing, smoking – were commissioned from the French artist Andieu de Clermont. They were completed some time before 1738. Andieu de Clermont is also known for his paintings in Langley Hall in Norfolk.
The curious nature of the Duke’s décor later led some to call the island “Marlborough’s Folly.” Indeed, Lady Hertford described the Pavilion soon after it was finished with both a hint of admiration and amazement:
The parlour, which is the only room in it except the kitchen, is painted upon the ceiling in grotesque, with monkeys fishing, shooting etc., and its sides are hung with paper. When a person sits in this room he cannot see the water though the island is not above a stone’s cast over: nor is he prevented from this by shade: for, except for six or eight walnut trees and a few orange trees in tubs there is not a leaf upon the island; it arises entirely from the river running very much below its banks.
The Temple, built some hundred yards from the Pavilion, was originally open on the ground floor like a market stall.
The Duke’s fine and eclectic decorative taste is again evident in the first-floor room that was once a billiard room. Its grand ceiling – with Neptune, shells and mermaids in high relief plasterwork of Wedgwood style – is said to be the work of Roberts of Oxford circa 1725, though some accounts attribute it to the carver William Perritt.
The Duke of Marlborough died in 1758. Monkey Island was later purchased in 1787 by Henry Townley Ward, Esq., who later bequeathed it to P.C. Bruce, Esq., of Taplow.
A Riverside Retreat
By 1840, the Pavilion had become a riverside inn, welcoming guests via a ferry that docked on the island’s south bank. The island began to attract attention, and was mentioned in a variety of publications that mused over happenings and sights along the Thames. As James Thorne described in “Rambles by Rivers: The Thames” in 1849: “Below Bray our river brightens more and more till we reach Windsor. On the way are not many notable things. The first we come to is an island at which pleasure-parties usually land, and which is often visited by the angler.”
By the time Mrs Plummer was running the hotel from the late 1800s to 1910, the island had already become a fashionable spot, thanks in part to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra taking tea on the lawns. As the river became increasingly used for pleasure, so the island became popular with river users who enjoyed refreshments there after an afternoon of rowing. In summer, Mrs Plummer would serve meals on the lawn, and drinks were served through a window of the bar beside the Monkey Room.
In addition to royalty, many well-known people frequented the island in the early days of the twentieth century. Edward Elgar composed his violin concerto in 1910 in the Hut, a house on the riverbank facing Monkey Island. Musical stars Clara Butt and Nellie Melba entertained the island’s guests. From 1912, H.G. Wells and Rebecca West often visited the island. And it was here that West set her first novel, “Return of the Soldier,” the heroine being the daughter of the innkeeper.
The middle of the twentieth century saw extensive additions and refurbishment to the island.
The footbridge that connects it to shore was added by the then owner Lawrence Bratt in 1949. His wife was pregnant and it was too dangerous for her to navigate the punt which then provided the only access to the island.
Lawrence Bratt died in 1954 and the island was sold to Patch Gibbings and then to Christopher Reynolds in 1956. In 1963 the dining area was increased with the addition of the River Room, a large glass-walled building jutting out over the Thames.
The Marlborough Room, its walls painted with battle scenes, was added at the upstream end in 1970. In the same year, the Temple building was extended to provide twenty-seven bedrooms.
Monkey Island enjoyed continued popularity: in 1964 it played host to a ball in aid of Oxfam, which was covered by the Tatler with the headline “Oxfam-on-Thames.”
In 1967 Monkey Island had its own journal, “The Islander.” The first number told of the popularity of the island’s Club Suppers, Island Luncheon Club for Ladies, and entertainment provided by Jimmy Fraser and Mike Allen.
With such a long and rich history, Monkey Island has been subject to many anecdotes and theories. Monkeys, of course, dominate the island’s folklore. There is an amusing story about a monkey called Jacko, who was purportedly chained to a walnut tree to promote the hotel, only to escape and terrorise the residents of Bray. It is also rumoured that George III brought his pet monkey to the island when he was banished there during his fits of madness.
Several theories surround the island’s name. Most popular is that Monkey Island is derived from Andieu de Clermont’s paintings in the Monkey Room. However, the name most probably evolved from the original name Monks’ Eyot, after the monks who first used the island. Eyot, like eyte and ayt, is an Old English word for island.
Life on the River
Fishing, both as livelihood and sport, is an important part of Monkey Island’s history. The monks used the island for their fisheries, and angling along the Thames had long provided levies and tithes to the sovereign and the local clergy. Fish weirs existed at several places along the river, including Monkey Island. Further evidence of fishing at the island includes a built-up carp pool that could be seen when water levels were low.
The Thames later became host to more leisurely pursuits. When Maidenhead Rowing Club was founded in 1876, nearby Bray Beach was in constant use for training, and later the annual Bray Regatta was introduced. In the last century, the principal leisure activity was boating. With plenty of moorings, a stop at Monkey Island for luncheon or a cream tea was a favourite attraction.
The swans that have called the Thames home since the fifteenth century belong to either the Crown, The Worshipful Company of Dyers, or The Worshipful Company of Vintners. The annual Swan Upping ceremony, which passes Monkey Island each July under the watchful eye of the Queen’s Swan Marker, was created to count, check and mark the swans. Today the swans’ legs are ringed each year during this delightful centuries-old tradition which still takes place in July. The Queen’s Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers of the Vinters’ and Dyers’ livery companies use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs on their five-day journey upstream as far as Abingdon. By tradition, scarlet uniforms are worn by The Queen’s Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers, and each boat flies appropriate flags and pennants.