The River Thames island that's said to be plagued by an evil gypsy curse that makes everything go very wrong

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The River Thames is ever changing.

Constantly flowing down stream it shifts the shape of the banks and islands that are dotted along its course, causing them to flood, disappear and resurface.

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The River Thames islands therefore are not always stable safe places to live and many are prone to flooding.

Yet one of them is unstable for a very different – very human – reason.

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It’s said to be haunted by a gypsy curse, meaning that anyone who tries to do anything worthwhile on the island will be doomed to failure – and until the 1980s at least, this largely seemed to be true.

The story of the island is told in Miranda Sykes’ excellent book, Eyots and Aits, Islands of the River Thames.

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Situated just upstream from Hampton Court Bridge, the island was once called Garrick Lower Eyot.

By the 1830s though, it had become known as Walnut Tree Island and was deserted apart from the flourishing wildlife, which included otters.

Then, in 1850, it was bought by a local property developer Francis Kent and renamed Kent’s Ait.

It’s here the roots of the island’s curse have their beginnings.

It’s said that Kent evicted a group of squatters and gypsies who lived on the island with a hand-to-mouth existence from weaving baskets.

Apparently they cursed him – declaring that no one associated with the islands would ever prosper.

In the 1850s the island was becoming popular with visitors, and local businessman Joseph Harvey set up a beer house and island hotel.

But true to form, it didn’t succeed and he left in 1862.

Eventually in 1868 a boatbuilder called Tom George Tagg leased the whole island.

He rebuilt the hotel and the island soon became a popular pleasure resort.

Royalty, actors, artists and musicians liked to stay and chill out in the tranquil surroundings.

In the evenings they would relax in houseboats covered in flowers and fairy lights.

But in 1897 the curse struck again. Tom Tagg caught a sudden cold and died within three days.

His son tried to carry on with the business but soon there was a terrible flood – the worst in Hampton’s history – and it went into administration.

In 1911 music hall entertainer and producer Fred Karno (real name Westcott) bought the hotel and hoped his new venture called the Karsino Hotel would be a spectacular success.

No expense was spared. There were beer gardens, tennis courts and croquet lawns, as well as the luxury hotel.

For a while it was a huge success. Fred’s massive advertising campaign attracted thousands to the islands – so much so that at times people could hardly move.

It was billed as the finest river hotel in all of Europe, and everyone wanted to hang out in its beautiful surroundings.

Using his money though, Fred began to show signs of hubris.

He had a huge house boat called the Astoria built, which was bigger and better than anything else on the river.

But Fred entered into a disastrous insurance policy to protect him from losing money from bad weather – the insurers made a tidy sum from it.

Then one of his employees ran of with all his takings.

Then in 1914 the First World War broke out threatening to wreck the life of luxury and glamour he had set up on the island.

The hotel stayed open but always ran at a loss.

Three terrible summers of bad weather between 1922 and 1925 were too much – and Fred was finally declared bankrupt.

In 1926 a new owner, Mr Alexander Beaumont took over the island and revamped the hotel yet again, bringing in sand to create a beach, but once again the gypsy curse struck and his business quickly sank.

Herbert Cyril tried again and was bankrupt within six months.

Yet another owner, MR A E Bundy took on the island and built a skating rink and an undercover tennis court.

Again like all the others he held a grand opening that promised to be grander than any before – but again he went bankrupt- this time within weeks.

Then in the 1950s a series of business deals saw the island caught up in legal complications and the bridge to the island suddenly collapsed. The gypsy curse was just not letting go.

The old hotel was finally demolished in 1971 when Richmond Council gave American businessman Leon Bronesky approval to build a new five-storey hotel with swimming pools, a marina and a new two-lane bridge.

But guess what, Leon’s plans also fell through and he too was soon declared bankrupt.

By the 1970s the island was a dilapidated mess apart from the few houseboats that were moored around it.

Finally Gerry and Gillian Braban, who lived on one of the boats managed to buy the freehold, set up a company called Tagg’s Island Limited in a bid to rescue the island.

They managed to create a huge new lagoon in the middle of it where houseboats would be moored that would fund the building of a new road bridge.

It was an incredibly ambitious scheme and the Brabans were real visionaries.

They built a new vacuum sewage system, and installed new water pipes and electric mains and a TV aerial.

Although Gerry died in 1993, his vision has stayed on the island.

The houseboats have been replaced by spacious floating homes and the island is home to a happy creative community led by Gerry’s son, Grant.

It seems the gypsy curse has finally lifted and the island can finally move on.

One wonders if there’s more to this story and if the local gypsies who had “cursed” the island were somehow responsible for wrecking the businesses that tried to dominate it.

Whatever the truth, now though it seems that lucky heather has replaced the dark curse that held the island in its grip.

Do you have a fascinating London story you think we should be telling. Do you know ordinary Londoners who’ve lived through extraordinary things? Email

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