The 'cursed' island on the Thames where several owners went bankrupt


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Grant Braban bought his current houseboat in 2019

Grant Braban bought his current houseboat in 2019 after the previous one was destroyed in a fire (Image: Dave Bradshaw / SurreyLive)

Tagg’s Island, a long mass of land in the middle of the waterway near Hampton Court Palace, is a thriving community of houseboats in a truly charming setting – but some of the residents still debate whether the place is subject to an old curse. Once part of the Crown Estate, the island was reportedly bought in around 1850 by a property speculator named Francis Jackson Kent who wished to develop the land and evicted several squatters from it. According to legend, one of those evicted was a Gypsy who placed a curse on the island such that those who owned the land would be doomed to go bankrupt.

According to SurreyLive, the first alleged victim came in 1852: a local businessman named Joseph Harvey built a beer house and skittle alley on the island, thinking he could make a profit because the area was popular with fishermen. However, the business failed within a decade. 

Next came Thomas George Tagg, a boat-builder who turned part of the island into a pleasure resort in the latter part of the 19th century.

Tagg, from whom the island takes its modern name, made the island famous thanks to this resort, where the houseboats were lit up at night with fairy lights and apparently made for a breathtaking sight. However, soon after Tagg’s son George took over upon his death in 1897, the business was beset by a series of unfortunate occurrences including floods, the onset of the Boer War, and the death of Queen Victoria – all of these things helped to cause a downturn in business, and he too ran out of money.

Next came theatre producer Fred Karno, who is perhaps most famous for discovering a young Charlie Chaplin. Karno opened yet another hotel on the island – this time a luxury getaway called the Karsino with a glamorous ballroom and croquet facilities.

Chaplin apparently performed at the venue before going off to make his name in America, and Peter Pan author JM Barrie also stayed on the island at around this time, but the hotel itself had only been open for about a year when World War One broke out. It too went out of business.

Afternoon tea at the Karsino resort in June 1913

Afternoon tea at the Karsino resort in June 1913 (Image: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

For the next several decades the island fell into disrepair and had a number of owners. The current majority owner is Grant Braban, 48, whose family has the freehold for all but six of the 62 moorings on the island. Grant told SurreyLive that his parents first moved to the island in 1969 when his dad was bankrupt, and they rented a houseboat for around £6 per month. Initially only planning to stay for six months, they fell in love with the place and the family has been present ever since.

Grant’s parents were able to get a houseboat valued at £20,000 for just £6,000 because of an owner who was eager to sell. According to Grant, the boat his parents bought had a funky interior that had been used for a photo shoot in Penthouse magazine. From that quirky home they eventually bought almost all of the island in 1980 when Grant was a child, added the footbridge that provides access to the island in 1981, and dug out the charming lagoon in the middle of the island in 1982 where several houseboats are now moored.

Having spent his childhood on the island, Grant moved to Australia after university and spent 13 years there working as a helicopter pilot. A trip back to visit his mum in 2011 made him remember how charming he finds life in England, and he has been back ever since. He says that since his childhood the island has become a more expensive and more fashionable place to live, but it still attracts a diverse group of inhabitants. A group of resident musicians even held their own music festival – ‘Taggstock’ – about four years ago.

Grant said: “It just languished for a bit as an unnoticed little island, until about 20 years ago at around the time when Kevin McCloud was doing [the TV show] Grand Designs. Suddenly people wanted to live in a nuclear bunker or up a chimney somewhere or down a coal mine, so the island was the perfect thing because houseboats didn’t seem so extreme.

The remains of Grant Braban's old houseboat following the 2019 fire

The remains of Grant Braban’s old houseboat following the 2019 fire (Image: London Fire Brigade)

“The detachment is what I love about the place – we’re close to London, Kingston and Hampton but people just drive past and no one sees us. The river is kind of like a third dimension because water stops most people, but if you have a boat you can access all the pubs and shops without dealing with the traffic. There’s also a great sense of community – there probably isn’t a street in London where you know your 30 nearest neighbours on each side, but you do here.”

Other longtime residents seem to agree. Jane Harte-Lovelace, who first moved to the island 38 years ago, said: “When I first drove over the bridge I knew I had arrived home. The island has wonderful energy. It’s a very eclectic group of people, our youngest resident is two, and our oldest is 88.”

Indeed, both Grant and Jane have had to rely on the community spirit after losing their homes in unconnected disasters in 2019. In Jane’s case, the rusted hull of her home gave way in November that year and she lost almost all of her possessions, but thanks to the generosity of her neighbours she was given refuge on a nearby boat for 14 months while she got back on her feet. That incident took place just three months after Grant’s own boat had burned down in August.

“I think it was a lithium ion battery in something I was charging that caught fire,” he said. “I had gone for a barbecue seven boats down in just my shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops. Then my girlfriend called me and said there was something going on with the boat, she could hear a popping noise. It was a wooden structure and it completely burned, so I lost everything and I was badly under-insured.”

Luckily for Grant, his mother’s property, which was adjacent to his, was mostly undamaged so he was able to live there while he found a new boat for himself. In the meantime, he too relied on the goodwill of his fellow islanders. Despite his misfortune he says he doesn’t think the supposed curse was to blame.

“I heard someone had the curse lifted at some point,” he said. “But anyway, the two previous owners before my family both retired happily, so I don’t really believe there’s a curse anyway.”


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