Memories of a Thames institution
Salters has run a passenger-boat service on the the Royal River for over 160 years. Sam Jefferson shares his recollections of being at the helm
I have one proud boast from the six or so years I worked full-time for Salter Brothers – during my entire period of employment I never once fell in the Thames.
I must admit, though, I often felt thoroughly immersed. It was impossible not to. As a skipper for this fleet of historical passenger-boats you worked six days and several nights a week, chugging along the shimmering waters and lush green banks of the upper reaches of the Thames. Hemmed in by tall bulrushes, overhanging trees and quaint riverside towns, the river somehow seeps into your subconscious until you find, heading to bed after a long day on the water, that you dream of it through the night. Some ten years after I turned my back on the Thames, I find my mind wanders ever more often back to the riverbank.
Boatbuilding in Wonderland
Based on Folly Bridge, Oxford, directly overlooking the river, Salters was founded in 1858 and initially made its name producing racing sculls, supplying top class rowing eights to Oxford and Cambridge universities for the annual Boat Race.
Such boatbuilding expertise enabled the company to tap into the demands of the leisured class. This was an expanding market in mid-Victorian Britain as wealth began to filter down to the middle classes. It wasn’t long before rowing skiffs and punts were being produced, sold or hired out in huge quantities.
One of the company’s likely clients was Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, who, accompanied by Alice Liddell, regularly rented a skiff from Folly Bridge in 1862, the trips providing the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
With business booming, boatbuilding projects became increasingly exotic, perhaps culminating with Endeavour in 1904. This paddle-steamer was launched and tested on the Thames before being carefully disassembled and shipped out to the Congo where she plied her trade for many years in this ‘Heart of Darkness’, as Conrad described it.
Yet Salters’ greatest fame arguably lies with its scheduled services up and down the non-tidal Thames. These were inaugurated in 1888 when the company purchased Alaska, a 60ft steam-driven launch constructed of double diagonal teak over oak frames. The sturdy little vessel initiated a service which ran between Oxford and Kingston, stopping overnight at hotels along the route. The trip took two days going downriver and three days to return. The towns of Abingdon, Wallingford, Reading, Henley, Marlow, Windsor and Staines provided excellent stopping off points on the way and passengers were able to choose how far they wished to travel along the route. The concept was a hit and the passenger fleet began to expand.
Impressively, Alaska survived the rigours of being in regular daily service year upon year and is still plying the river today under the ownership of Thames Steamers Ltd, having been sold off by Salters in 1939.
With the passenger service up and running, the next logical step for Salters was to build its own passenger vessel and this was Reading, completed in 1901. Eighty-five-foot long, with an elegant raking clipper bow and long, sweeping counter, she was extremely elegant and handled beautifully, setting the pattern for later models.
Dozens of these steamers were built by Salters until production ended in 1931. Over the years, the size of the vessels expanded with the last great monster passenger vessels, Mapledurham and the Cliveden, barely fitting into some of the smaller locks of the upper Thames.
Salters also built passenger vessels for rival companies and many, such as Royalty, can be seen plying their trade on the lower Thames. Perhaps the most infamous of these tideway steamers is Marchioness, built by Salters in 1923 and tragically lost in a fatal collision with the barge Bowbelle in 1989 while under the ownership of Tidal Cruises.
Despite this loss, most Salters-built boats are notable for their incredible longevity. Reading operates under the Salters flag some 115 years since she was launched and, in all, Salters still runs six of this original fleet alongside more modern craft. The original steam engines were removed in the 1950s and ’60s but the boats still retain many original features and, unlike the vessels on the tideway that have been uglified with added superstructure, they remain sleek and elegant.
Handling a piece of history
During my time working at Salters, I was generally in charge of either Reading, Goring or Wargrave. All of them pre-date World War I and you might think that handling a piece of history would be a delicate job. Not a bit of it. These boats were extremely well built and withstand knocks and bangs on a daily basis. Yet the most notable thing about them is the ease with which they handle. Unlike many modern vessels, the elegant steamers were built to operate in harmony with the river.
Of course, they do take a bit of getting used to; the Goring is 95ft in length and, at points, is longer than the river is wide. Turning can often be a tight affair and it is vital that you work with the prop wash or ‘kick’ in order to get around. Work against the kick and you are on a hiding to nothing.
The boats can also be a caution in a strong breeze as they draw only 3ft or so at the stern and next to nothing at the bow. In a strong wind, and with no bowthrusters, things can get a bit fraught. I recall the skipper of the massive (and now defunct) Mapledurham resorting to using a punt pole to turn the boat around on a particularly gusty day.
The biggest worry, however, is when the river starts to flow. This is not an issue when you are heading upstream, but coming downriver with a 5-knot current behind you is rather like driving a HGV with no brakes. This becomes quite alarming when you are faced with bridges with particularly narrow arches such as Clifton Hampden Bridge. Here, with the river up, it sometimes feels like the boat is larger than the arch itself as you speed towards it.
Night parties can also be a trial as the boats can be laden with anything up to 200 revellers and a DJ who decides the only sensible place to put his strobe light is where it points directly into your eye. These parties generally last for three or four hours and can be disorientating on an inky summer’s night. I have vivid memories of spending at least ten minutes desperately trying to avoid the lights of a combine harvester that was working in an adjacent field.
As the summer months meander by, you tend to slip into a sort of mesmeric rhythm. A couple of weeks working on the river and it feels as if the tall rushes that line the banks close in, your horizons contract and for a few months you are lost to the world outside of the Thames. Gradually the pace slows and you enter a sort of languid, dreamy state – possibly because you are so tired – but it has a certain charm all of its own. Lock-keepers and their obscure habits become objects of fascination.
My first two summers at Salters were particularly hypnotic. The first was spent largely crewing on boats downriver. My main memory is hiding from customers at the very tip of the long counter of Hampton Court, sister to Marchioness. Hunkered down with my feet hanging off the stern, I would snooze or read, my feet dipping in the water every time the skipper accelerated the boat. Meanwhile, the Thames rolled out behind me; murky green waters, lush banks and rolling hillocks beyond luminous with oil seed rape, golden corn, blood-red poppies and blue flax. A bucolic idyll unfurled like a Constable painting and rolled past with the sonorous thrum of the propeller. A few miles in any direction motorways roared, people queued in shops and bickered at traffic lights. Down by the river we were a century out of time.
My second summer was perhaps the most rewarding as I was given command of Reading and worked on the Oxford-to-Abingdon service. In common with many skippers, I felt a lot of pride in my command and was most fastidious about keeping the boat clean. Decks had to glow white, which was generally achieved with a lot of scrubbing and quite a lot of bleach (not very good for the river now I think back on it). Brass also got special attention with many hours devoted to the huge cleats. This was a time-consuming job and had to be frequently repeated once the dew got on them. I spoke to one ex-skipper about this and he agreed that he had found this infuriating and had come up with the solution of coating the cleats with Vaseline to keep the water off. Apparently this worked a treat except that the cleats became so slippery you could barely secure a rope on them!
I used to love the last run up to Oxford after a hot, busy day. Generally, by that time there were barely any passengers and, in the coolness of early evening, you would shove off from Nags Head Island at Abingdon and putter back towards home as the shadows lengthened; slicing your way past Culham Racecourse, menacing young rowers off Radley and taking care not to touch the bottom as you threaded the shallows below Sandford. Approaching Iffley, you would see the waters bubble up as the lock-keeper pulled the sluices and you knew you were almost home. Another day nearing its end.
1858: The brothers John and Stephen Salter relocate their boatbuilding business from Wandsworth in London to Folly Bridge, Oxford. They initially construct a mixture of racing eights, sculls, skiffs and punts. By the 1870s the company is building well over 150 boats a year.
1887: Regular passenger service between Oxford and Kingston inaugurated by the steam launch Alaska. A single fare was 18s. The fleet expands rapidly and by 1892 the company is offering return trips from Monday through to Saturday from both Oxford and Kingston (the Salter family were Wesleyan Methodists, so Sunday was strictly observed).
WWI: Salters build a range of landing craft, cutters, launches and motor-boats for the Admiralty.
1931: The 105ft Cliveden is launched. She is to be the last passenger launch built by Salters.
1933: Salters finally relent and commence operating on a Sunday. Alcohol is also allowed to be served aboard for the first time.
WWII: Salters’ three largest vessels, Mapledurham, Cliveden and Grand Duchess are requisitioned by the Admiralty and used as hospital ships on the tideway.
1956: Salters’ passenger fleet reaches its peak, with 17 boats carrying an estimated 350,000 people a year. During this period the company begins converting vessels from steam to diesel power.
1964: The last steamship is converted to diesel. In later years, two Salters boats, Nuneham and the Streatley will be sold off and converted back to steam.
Thanks to Dr Simon Wenham for supplying the facts and figures.
Travelling on the Thames with Salters
Salters still runs a service between May and September and, over a number of days, it is still possible to get all the way from Oxford to Staines. The runs these days are slightly shorter and can generally be taken as a day return. They break down as follows: Oxford to Abingdon, Abingdon to Wallingford, Wallingford to Reading, Reading to Henley, Henley to Marlow, Marlow to Windsor and Windsor to Staines.
There are more services and short trips available. For full details seet www.salterssteamers.co.uk.
This article is from in Waterways World April 2016