Interview with Bill Dunckley in Oxford, 3 March 2010
(This is one of eight ‘Thames talk’ interviews with those working on the river from the mid-twentieth century onwards).
This follow-up interview with Bill involved filling in some of the gaps from the previous discussion, as well as reflecting on some of the changes that had occurred during his time with the business. He describes, amongst many things, the popularity of the Oxford-Abingdon service doing the war (and Admiralty work), the problem of storing racing eights, the delivery of punts to other boat hirers on the Cherwell, the use of Morris engines in the craft, his pride in never having an accident on the boats, and some more of the ruses for making income, including selling vegetables on the steamers. He also mentions some of the less usual activities for staff, including leafletting in Thames locations and boat builders even constructing sheds in Reading. He also describes some of the interesting social dynamics within the business, such as the importance of staying on good terms with the coalman, the closure of a social club, because of drinking on the premises, and the tensions caused by staff being ill and therefore depleting the Christmas bonus for everyone else from the sick fund.
Simon Wenham: What are the main differences from now from when you started?
Bill Dunckley: The main differences? I suppose the firm has slowly shrunk over the years and the type of business has altered. Where the trips were all day-people, now they only want perhaps an hour or two on the river. That’s the main thing I have noticed.
When you started, were the passenger boats the main part of the business?
No, I would…it was part of the business. It wasn’t the main part. I mean the main part was boat building: punts, eights, skiffs. That was just as big a part as any other part.
Looking at the finances of the firm, they seem to suggest the passenger boats picked up during the war. Do you know why that might have been?
What during the war? Well, coz people couldn’t take holidays away from Oxford basically. I mean all the beaches – the seaside places – they all closed. They had barbed wire along the beaches, so they basically had to holiday at home. I mean, when I first started – that was just at the tail end of the war – the queues to get on the steamers were right over Folly Bridge. And see, you had to walk and count the people and say after this, you wouldn’t be able to get on. And they were running not one boat, but two boats to Abingdon – a relief boat as well and sometimes two relief boats! The only problem we had at one point is we ran out of coal and they would give us these briquets to burn instead of coal. Which were a bit of a… I mean, it worked but not very well.
And were there more and more passengers towards the end of the war?
Well, yeah. I noticed it. I would say that as the war progressed the passenger numbers grew. They definitely did.
Was the coal being used for the war effort?
I suppose it was, but it was only a temporary blip, because I remember basically we didn’t have a problem getting coal all through the war. But it was one of those blips, when we didn’t get any and we had to use briquets. But there was never a shortage to my knowledge – only this temporary thing.
Were they using horses at that stage?
No, no. The stables were still there when I started, but there were no horses for the firm. I think the horses disappeared at the beginning of the war, as far as I know.
Did you notice a decline in the boat building?
As your skilled boat-builders died off, no-one sort of took their place. There was no one sort of apprenticeship to carry on and the type of boat they built were… I mean, the skiffs and what they tended to call corporation skiffs – which is the same type of skiff but rougher built – they were mainly for council lakes. I mean all the nice boats were built in the twenties and thirties and after that they slowly… [indicates a decline]
Did you notice disciplinary problems getting worse for the firm over the year?
No, no not really. Everybody who worked here seemed to be happy. I mean basically all the steamer staff were seasonal expect for a very small amount.
Has the standard of driving changed?
No, I don’t think so, no. I can’t recall any major accidents. Not as far as I know.
Do you know when they stopped sleeping onboard?
I would say mid-60s.
Do you know why that was?
Let me think… No, I don’t really know why they… Well, oh yes, well one of the reasons was they were modernising the boats. Diesel in the boats and they were slightly modernising them. They were doing away with the crew’s quarters basically and that was the main reason. Because the front deck used to be taken up by the crew’s quarters, which protruded above the deck and therefore it took up a lot of deck space. So they were very keen to flatten the deck.1
Were you aware of any financial problems at the firm at any stage?
I think it was in the eighties there was a bit of financial difficulties, because we had people coming round to value the steamers. I couldn’t put an exact date on it. I would say it was in the 80s.2
Did you know anything about Salters’ selling off property?
I mean they had several streets of houses all in the Brook Street and Grandpont area. They were all sold off for peanuts basically. I think the chap they employed to do it, he wasn’t top of the range. But then again property was cheap in those days.
Did they always have a pension when you were working or were they introduced at a certain point?
As far as I know they always had a pension, yeah.
Were you aware of any employees leaving to work at the Morris Motor Works?
Oh yeah, quite a few left. I mean I’m not talking about half the workforce, but several did leave to go to Morris, yeah.
Were you aware of the firm being run differently because of religious convictions?
Well, yeah, up to quite late, although they ran a service on a Sunday, they wouldn’t do any evening work on a Sunday. This came in quite late. I suppose the end of the seventies around about that right up to then they never took evening trips on the Sunday.3
Do you know when they started serving alcohol on the passenger boats?
I can’t remember them not selling alcohol. Ever since I remember they’ve always served alcohol.
Did the passenger boats have significant competition from other firms?
Yeah, in the service point of view, they didn’t really have any competitors there, but some of the like Windsor boats, they started taking over a lot of the party work and their boats were slightly more upmarket than ours, because our boats were never sort of designed for that kind of work. Whereas their boats were built later to accommodate evening trips and discos and things like that and they had top deck covers, which made a big difference.4
Moving onto the job itself, do you know what watermen did for Salters?
Yes, they used to hire out watermen to look after the barges – the college barges
And then did these jobs eventually go to the university?
That’s right, yeah. Well, in the early days, you see, the colleges didn’t have their own racing boats. Salters’ had a big stock of racing boats which they used to rent out to the colleges. And they used to go from our yard and they were taken down to the different college barges for the students to row in and then they were all brought back to Salters’, because they had big problems in those days storing them. Coz they had what they called the eight yard, which was a great big yard full of racks where they used to put all the eights.
Where was that?
Behind the Head of the River [pub, as it is now]. That’s what they called the eight yard. And they had so many boats at one time they tried to devise… they were going to build a big tower and sort of store them with the bows up in the air to take up less space. But it wasn’t practical. And it was the same with punts. We used to let punts to different punt letters for the season. We used to tow some up the Cherwell. There were two or three boat letters up there. They used to hire perhaps 20 or 30 of our punts. That was in the late 1940s.
What about upstream (where Bossom’s is now)?
No, we never had any connection with that, as far as I know. Most of our stuff went up the Cherwell.
So Howard and Sons (current boat letters) weren’t there?
We used to take them above that, above the rollers. That’s where we used to take them.
When did we stop doing that?
Ooh… Again, late 1970s, I suppose.
I notice we built different types of racing boats. Do you know anything about that?
Well, the clinker boats were built for training purposes, mainly because they were stronger and took more knocking about. Yeah, I can remember gigs being built. Not many, but they were built for the sea.
So did the university clubs use a lot of Salters’ boats?
Yeah… I don’t really know. Well, I’d say, our hiring business slowly died out because the colleges started having their own boats built. They weren’t necessarily all built by Salters’, because there was Phelps and different firms downriver that used to build most of the boats.
Salters’ built the 1976 Oxford boat [used in the boat race] and the records mention a foreman called David Jarvis. Do you why Salters’ became good at racing boat building at that point?5
I know whathisname – is it Jarvis you say his name was – he earned quite a reputation for building good boats.6
Did they ever build other boats for the boat race?
Not for the boat race. But I mean they were always building general eights for the colleges. I mean a lot of the colleges used to put orders into Salters’ for racing eights. But then again, as I say, there were other firms coming into the ascendency from down river. But then, I say, of course carbon fibre came in and fibre glass and that was basically the end of it.7
Do you know if working for Salters was considered a good job to have?
I think, yeah, people considered it was a good job. They thought it was a safe job. It was a job for life, basically. Not in wages terms. No, no, definitely not. From all other aspects, yeah.
Do you know if the staff were held in high regard [from others]?
Oh, I think so. I’ve never heard anything derogatory against them.
Were there any other businesses that did well out of Salters?
Well, the only places that did good… Like, we used to take parties to Marlow and the parties always booked up lunches and say teas in the towns, so we used to bring a lot of customers into places like Marlow and Maidenhead.
Were there any businesses that did well out the staff?
Well, I mean the only thing they used mainly was pubs in the evenings, you know. Because when you look at it, they were working seven days a week and they had very little free time. I mean they used to finish at say 8 or 7 o’clock, perhaps half past 7, before they got off the boat at the earliest. So all the ones that could, went for the pub.
Was there a hierarchy of boats? Were the Maple[durham] and Cliveden considered the best boats to drive?
Oh yeah. If you were the skipper of the Maple or Cliveden or any of the bigger boats, you were always sort of held in high regard. Yeah, definitely.
And did you work up from the smaller boats?
Yes, they thought it was an honour, but there was very little difference in wages.
But was it right that you get more tips on the bigger boats?
Well, the thing is, what you tried to do was get on a boat that did more party boats. Because there weren’t a lot of tips in the general service work, but if you could get on parties, you were always sure of a tip.
Does that mean certain boats were doing the service and…
Well, basically in the Windsor area, you had certain boats that were always party boats on the weekends with like the Mapledurham, Hampton Court, Cliveden – boats like that – always you could rely they were going to be parties on the weekend. That was when you tried to go on them, if you could.
Was there a hierarchy of boats with those of other companies?
I don’t think so. I mean, they didn’t tend to mix very much. We’d never mix with Goldings(?) or any of the other firms. They kept themselves very much to themselves, basically. There was always a certain rivalry between the firms.
Were there other ways of making money if you were an employee (things you were allowed to do)?
Well, not in a general way. I mean, we had the odd people doing the odd thing. I mean, some used to make sandwiches and sell to the passengers off their own bat, you know. And we had one chap – an engineer – he used to sell them green grocery, you know, like carrots, potatoes and stuff like that.
And was that allowed?
Well, it was sort of a blind eye turned to it.
I remember Bryan [Bill’s brother] mentioning him taking people’s bags up to hotels for people…
Well, you were expected to do that at one time.
At the quieter periods were the employees made to do other things?
Oh yes, yes. Well, the main thing at Windsor was you went out leafleting. You had to catch a train to say Staines or Hounslow or somewhere with a bloody great suitcase of leaflets and put through the doors.
What would happen if they had a spare boat [doing nothing]?
Yes, they’d put short trips on. Like up here [in Oxford], they’d put a trip down to Rose Island or something like that. And afternoon trips, yeah. They never sort of laid people off. Some firms used to lay people off if the boat didn’t work. I’ve never known Salters’ to do that.
And were the boatbuilders ever used to build anything else when boat orders were low?
Well, they got very short of orders at one time and they went into building sheds at Reading.
Do you know when that was?
I think that would have been the late seventies, I suppose. Because they had the old Cawston’s yard. They used to build quite a few punts down there, but when the orders got very low, they were built these sheds. I always remember that.
Did Salters have any social clubs?
Yes, they did. It died out just after I started on the firm. It was at Folly Bridge in one of the top rooms, but it folded, because they wouldn’t let them drink alcohol there, because of their religious convictions, yeah. So after that nobody went there. But I remember it wasn’t running when I started, but they talked about it.
Were there any sports clubs or outing clubs?
No, I don’t know of any sports club they ever had. No.
Were you aware of a sick club?
Oh, we used to have a sick club, yeah. Oh yes, that was very big. I mean they went for years. I can’t remember when it finished. Because everybody used to get very annoyed if anyone went sick, because the proceeds were always shared out at Christmas as a bonus and if anybody had been sick during the year it reduced the money. You used to have regulars who went sick, you know, and we said ‘He’s bloody sick…’
Do you know when that stopped?
80s, I suppose it stopped. It slowly tailed off, you know. What happened, first of all it was Salters’ paid it – this sick club – and then they decided that the employees would pay half and they’d pay half and it would bolster the funds, which it did. As I say, it got abused by some people, but everybody used to look forward to the pay-out at Christmas.
Did the management have a close relationship to the staff?
Oh yes, they’d come and talk to you. They always paid regular visits and you could always go and talk to them. Yes, they never cut themselves off from the staff
Did they look after the staff in other ways?
Oh yes, as far as I know they did.
Do you know if any of the engines came from Cowley [the Morris works]?
The diesels? No, the only boat engines that we used from Cowley were for the hire fleet – the cruisers. A lot of them had Morris petrol engines in them. In fact, they all did. But the diesel engines for the steamers were built in the Midlands somewhere: Dormans. So I would say in the boom of the motor boats, we built all of our engines came from Morris at Cowley. So they built quite a few marine engines at one time, Cowley did.
Were there challenges for the staff when the steamers were converted to diesel?
No, it was fairly straight forward. I was involved. There was a firm called T.G. West. They were also involved with it. They used to overhaul the engines over for us in those days. When we first had diesels, the Board of Trade were very strict. Every year the engine had to be stripped down completely to every last nut and bolt and reassembled again. And that was beyond Salters’ capability, but this firm TG West came and helped out
Where were they based?
They were based up in St Aldates: Clark’s row. I don’t know if you know it. On the left, opposite Christ Church Meadows. You see, it’s still there: Clark’s row. There used to be an engineer’s shop there. They used to do a lot of work for us
Did the change to diesel cause any problems with the staff or passengers?
No, it didn’t cause any problems, as far as I know. It made them noisier – a lot noisier. It was definitely better for the staff, because you didn’t have to put any coal in. I mean that was the biggest bugbear: getting the coal in the boat. I mean coz when you get into Oxford after…we used to do Wallingford-Henley then Wallingford-Oxford and every time you got into Oxford, you had to coal up. So you get into Oxford at 7 o’clock and there’d be fourteen twenty bags of coal to be put on the boat and after that you’ve got to clean the boat down too
Where was the coal stored?
It was kept… Well, the main store was in where the Head of the River [pub] is now, where they’ve got all their outside table and chairs – up against the wall they had a great big stack of coal there. But also do you remember where the old fibreglass boats used to be?
The old boat yard where the Hertford college accommodation block is?
Yeah, where Hertford College is. Well, next to the towpath [down the lock hole] there was a big hording and behind the hording there was a big coal dump there. And they had an access gate half way along and they used to bring the coal in and stand it on the towpath ready for the boats.
Where was it stored in the boats?
Where was it on the boats? They had coal bunkers each side of the engine – the boiler. Under the deck in the engine room, basically. And you had to keep in with the chap who filled the bags. Coz if you fell out with him, he used to fill the bag full of slack and put knobs on top. So you think you’ve got a bag of coal and you haven’t!
Were there any highlights for you in your career?
Oh, I think, yeah, my time at Windsor was the highlight. It was free and easy. There was loads of tips about and the money – you didn’t need to touch your wages. Well, I think I told you this before.
Did that mean you were quite well off?
That’s right. The other thing is they provided a lunch-time meal for you – a cooked meal and also tea at night. Yeah, and of course you see you had your accommodation and also all your money and especially if you had the tips, you were rolling basically.
What did the steamer staff do for housing, if they worked on boats in the summer?
Well, mainly the people that worked for Salters’ full-time lived in Oxford. All the other seasonal people, they tended to live in Southampton, Wales – places like that. They always come back in the summer. What they did in between, I haven’t a clue! A lot of the skippers were married in those days and of course some of their wives lived at home, like Bryan’s did, you see. Yeah, this is partly why the living on the boats packed up and they started providing transport to take you back to Oxford in the evening. They’d run a van for you and take you back home.
Did you ever know of Salters’ lending staff to other businesses such as the gas works?
I don’t know of that happening, no. But I mean when the season stopped, basically the people who were full-time – I mean in the slipway here there were about 25 people working here in the winter and of course during the summer it was empty, there was no one who worked there. So there was a lot of maintenance that went on. The only boat building that was done here is they used to build some steel canoes for councils at one time. I was involved with building some of those at one time.
What about contract work for others?
Contract work? Oh yes, they did a lot of work for the Admiralty during the war. Well, you’ve seen some of the pictures of the boats they built, haven’t you? Landing craft. Steam tugs – I know they built a couple of steam tugs during the war for the Admiralty. And a lot of 30 foot Pinnaces. But I mean basically when the war ended that all finished. They didn’t do anything after that, yeah.
Were there particularly difficult times for you or hard days?
Not really. I mean I was happy with all types of work really. None of it bothered me.
Did you have a particular proudest moment?
Proud of? Well, the only thing I’m proud of is that I never injured anybody or had a bad accident!
[The interview finishes and he later mentions having to pull boats up by hand up to Folly Bridge (with a tow rope)]
1: They also stopped sleeping on board because of disciplinary concerns, i.e. to reduce the amount of time in the evenings that the crew spent unsupervised.
2: The firm did have financial difficulties in the nineties, although the assets would have had to be valued from time-to-time.
3: It is not clear why this was or when the practice changed, although Sunday evenings were often less popular, because of Monday being a work-day. Bill was one of the most important sources of information for my study, although he understandably didn’t know exactly when something had started – and a number of times he referred to the 1970s, as that was a period quite a long time back, but not right when he started.
4: Many of the Salter boats had top decks too, but the reference here is probably in relation to larger top decks and/or covered ones.
5: Salters’ had been the country’s leading racing boat builders in the 1860s, but then lost the ascendency after that, although they built a range of other types of racing boat. They then experienced a brief resurgence in the 1970s.
6: The person who revolutionised the racing boat building department was actually Ted Wilde, which was discovered in a later interview.
7: The boat Salters’ built for the university boat race (in 1976) was actually the last wooden-hulled boat, before carbon fibre replaced it the following year.