Interview with Bryan Dunckley in Oxford, 17 August 2004
This interview was the first of the series to be conducted, when a lot of information was still new to the researcher! Bryan provides a broad-ranging and entertaining glimpse into the enjoyable world of working on the steamers as a young bachelor in the 1940s onwards.He describes the ‘fatal’ attraction of women at the different ports of call, the elderly steam engineers who came from another age, some of the ruses to encourage tips, as well as the racing of steamers and some of the accidents that occurred. He also describes the important role of local managers, some of the interaction he had with Salter family members, as well as the decision to end sleeping on board the steamers. Other recollections include moving engines off the boats in Oxford, collecting logs from the London docks and the firm’s early computer, which resembled a Wurlizer organ. He also mentions an art company connected with Salters’ and – perhaps the most amusing part of the interview – his account of his ill-fated attempt to sell paraffin in the firm’s tanker one winter. This is one of ten ‘Thames talk’ interviews with individuals who were on the river in the mid-twentieth century.
When did you start working for Salters then?
1950… Well, before that, funnily enough, I was working for ‘em at school. So, you could say I started in ‘ere in 1947.
And what age were you then, if you started whilst at school?
I started, well… one minute. Let me get this right. 1934: I was born. So I’d have been exactly… Ok, alright – 13. Yeah.
What work did you start doing at that point?
Putting leaflets in, you know, like they goes around doing leaflets an’ that. Putting leaflets in the office and then in the afternoon I was going out with, you know, whoever was driving the launch – the Iffley launch.
Did you then go on to working on the boats full-time or… how did that work?
What did I do? No, in 1950, when I started full-time, I was painting and varnishing and then the first [summer] season I started with Bill on the Streatley.
Were the boats based in one place? Did you work a certain section of the river?
Oh, yeah. The boat was in Windsor
And would you move up and down the river quite a lot – like, nowadays, when boats are moved to different places quite a bit – or were you largely in one place?
Oh no, no. They moved all over the river.
So did you stay on the boat?
Yeah, that’s the cabin. Yeah, yeah. That was like the skipper, which was Bill, and you had a steam engineer and then you’d have me as a crew.
That was on which boat?
On the Streatley.
If you were moving up and down the river did that put a strain on relationships or…?
No! Enjoyed it. It was better weren’t it [laughs]. Different faces.
Was it hard work or was it…?
No! It was a piece of cake, really. Yeah, but then again you were used to hard work, scrubbing and whatever. It was natural.
Were most of the workers seasonal or…?
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, most of your engineers like, come from off the Royal Navy or else off the trawlers up in Yarmouth.
And what did they do in the winter, were most of them struck or did they…?
No! No! Coz we had a full, you know, where the ‘Head of the River’ [pub] is? Well, that was the boiler shop. All the steam engineers was there doing all the steam – you know, stripping boats. And our side of it – like Bill and me – we was either varnishing or doing engines, coz we had a set of cruisers then. And so we was taking heads off of engines and we even, in them days, the diesels used to go on an old trolley with no steering…going up to just past the police station and up an alley there. We used to do ‘em up there. Well, that was another laugh, coz there was a café up there and we used to leave the diesels on a trolley outside the café. Which is, you know, where the central courts are now. There was a cafe just before that. So we used to tow the engine up there, leave it in the middle of the road and all go in the café. That’s how George Andrews met his wife. She was behind the bar.
So were there seasonal staff too?
You had the odd steam engineer who was seasonal, but most of the lads was from Southampton or Wales, funny enough. They were seasonal. But the likes of us stopped off.
I don’t know if you know so much about the boat building side, but if they got a contract would they bring in staff or did they just have such a large workforce they…?
What for the boatbuilding? Oh no, they had such a staff, they were on full-time. Yeah, I mean all these shops that we goes to, were where all these were built on Folly Bridge. That was all there was. We had a full-time saw mill sawing our own logs up. Then on the other side was the boat building shop. So you had the likes of these. They’re now working as college bargemen, but you had the likes of those working for you full-time, building boats.
So we had a saw mill, we had a boat building shop, what else did we have in the…?
Then over this side where these flats are now, you had a rope shop, so you had two in there and an apprentice making ropes, doing canvassing, all your awnings was sewn up there as well. And then alongside it – this is on the top – was the woodworking shop. So you’d have a foreman in there and two blokes and maybe apprentices, as well, doing woodwork. They were full-time.
So do you know roughly how many there were?
Ooh… Bill’d tell you. Lots and lots. You had like twelve to sixteen down the slip full-time.
At Donnington bridge?
When was that?
Well, they were there for the winter mainly. But now I don’t know what they done in the summer. I mean a lot of them I s’pose went on the boats, coz they were crews. You work on your own boat.
Do you know where most of the workforce came from? Were they local or were they from all over?
In Oxford, if it was winter working, it was all locals. In the summer we relied upon Wales or Southampton.
And was it mainly single guys or a mixture of all sorts?
Well, mainly younger, if it was crews, yeah, but, mainly it was the older blokes that had either left the Mrs or they wanted a holiday from them, yeah. I mean the, point is, in those days, you had a hot dinner, both the ways, you had people in the kitchens up at Oxford here making a hot dinner and down at Windsor. So you had a good cooked dinner. You had enough tea onboard, so you know you were fully…even if you had no wages, you were made up really.
So the wages weren’t that good but you…?
Oh no. That’s right. So you had your bed and board and the rest. You had tips, funny enough, in them days. Yeah, you had. And there was a lot of other little wrinkles you could do. Like at Windsor, we had catering where the office is, we had another catering, the other side: Thames catering. Well, I used to use their trolley and take the American cases up to the hotel. There was always a few bob there.
I know the Dunckleys and Andrews. Were there other families involved in the firm?
Spriggs. Yeah, Jack Spriggs. Ron Spriggs.
And who were they? Did they work on the boats?
Yeah, they were on the Cliveden. He was the skipper of the Cliveden
Were there many husband and wives, as well, working for the firm or was it…?
Er. Westells. Yeah, there was Westell and his wife. Coz she was the cook up ere.
Did people tend to know everyone? Was there quite a community or did…?
Oh, yeah! Quite a cliquey lot really.
Was the term ‘Salter’s navy’ ever used?
Yeah! It was. Everybody used it. Oh, it’s always gone on.
Were there any particularly interesting characters that you can remember?
Yeah, really it was the steam engineers that was the characters, coz they were quite old. Always quite old and, I mean, they’d had another life. I mean either off the trawlers or else they’d been on steam fairs. And that Jack Spriggs, he came off the old steam…John Allen. We used to have a John Allen firm going around repairing the roads, but they all had steam ploughs and steam everything. So I mean they had another life before Salters’ really. And they were finishing their days here… But at least they knew all the wrinkles, you know. If you work with steam all your life, it was nice to know you know in the winter, you could strip ‘em down. It’s not hard, but you gotta know what you were doing.
Was it in the sixties that they were all turned to steam?1
Yeah, it was. But I think the Maple[durham] was about ’56, when she went. I remember her.
You eventually skippered boats. When was that?
That was… Well, I done the army in ‘53 ‘til ‘55. When I come out, in ’55, I had the River Queen. Yeah, I started off on the River Queen an’ then this George Waverley, he still comes down. He had the Hampton Court and he was knocking this nurse off and he wanted to end in Windsor. The Hampton Court was doing the Kingston run, so we switched over and I started on the Hampton Court then. And then I worked off the Hampton Court and Bill got married or summat happened and I took the Maple[durham] then.
How did the management work? Who would tell you what to do on a daily basis?
Oh, well, we had whatsiname…Ted Simms at Oxford. I mean he was a bachelor similar to Neil [Kinch – the present Director at Oxford], but he was getting on in his old age and he never did marry. Well, I mean he loved it, you see. But he was always there. I mean he had lodgings in Slough. He never slept on the boats and he was there every day of the week. Yeah, Ted Simms.
What happened to him?
Oh he died, yeah. Died at 88. But he was a natural.
So he would keep order and tell…?
Oh, he done the lot and a lot of them were saying if they done what he done to you lot [the current employees], he would’ve been sacked weeks ago. They wouldn’t handle that. Coz he used to say, ‘If you can’t do that, Bryan, you’re no good to me.’
Was he was a loud character?
No, he was a quiet sort of a bloke. He got the job done and I was gonna say…I said…we used to…coz I was in the army in ’53. Well, I used to come up weekends and work on the boats at Windsor. You had the bed and breakfast. He used to employ anybody like that. We had this Clarrie Breen and he worked on the Queen of the Thames of all things. Anyway, he fell off the bloody boat and got drowned! But they were going up the lock there and when they got to the second lock at Bray (after Boveney) somebody went up to the old skipper there which was Harry Reynolds. You’ll see it in that book. It’s in that other book. Well, he said, ‘One of your mates fell in back there”. He said, ‘Where?’ ‘Well, when we come out the other lock.’ So they had to go back. He was on leave from the RAF and he drowned. Clarrie Breen. He came up a few days later.
Presumably that was very uncommon.
Well, yeah, but it ain’t like health and safety today, is it? I mean you just got another crew! [laughs]
So Ted Simms was in Windsor, so who was in Oxford?
Well, Salter wasn’t ‘ere. He was in the navy when I first started and there was a bloke…
Which Salter was that?
That was Arthur Salter…John was only a pea in his eye, weren’t it. Yeah, I’m just trying to think who run it. Oh, Cox – the Cox family. They were involved. But I mean they were involved with this Thames Valley Art. You know, you ‘eard of Thames Valley Art?
You know where Alice’s shop is? [present shop on St Aldates]
Well, they had a board there. They used to ‘ave them there. That was their headquarters for Thames Valley Art production. And so they printed their own, all their own magazines, you know. Well, I expect you’ll see some of the old books in the office.
Yeah I’ve seen…
Thames Valley Art was all done by the Coxes. There was the Cox, the old boy. ‘e employed me when I first started ‘ere. So I never did see the Salter. He was in the navy then.
Was it quite strict or was it…?
Yeah, yeah, but it was, you know, I mean it was a good life. I think you accepted more in them days. You never had days off – nothing like that. You know it was weird, because if you had… Living on a boat down at Windsor and you’d been cut off from society and all of a sudden you’d come out in the traffic. It was like being in another world. Coz, we used to get our washing done at Staines. These two women used to take all the washing for us. So we never used to come ashore really. Didn’t read papers, so you didn’t know what the other side of the world was doing! It was a life of its own!
So you had no days off at all, you literally worked through the whole season?
You could have the odd day off, but you didn’t very often. Yeah, and I said, when you was on that Kingston run, I mean you started off at 9 in the morning, if you’re coming up from Kingston – that was sixteen locks a day and back. You wouldn’t be getting back there ‘til about ‘alf 7 or 8, sometimes 9 o’clock at night!
And then what did you do?
Well, these two waitresses on the Kingston run on a Sunday night, they used to take us back to their place and they used to have a pub with sort of cabaret on. So we all used to sleep in the beds together you know! [laughs]
Was there some kind of hierarchy? Were certain boats thought to be better than others or…?
Not really, no. But what you did have in them days, which you don’t have now, is you ‘ad one boat, one crew. You know you didn’t sort of muck about. It was quite…the only bloke that might move about was a weekender [staff member].
Was there rivalry between the boats or was it all fairly…?
No, it was pretty good. A lot of racing. Yeah. There was always this get in a lock and chase the other boat you know.
Which were the fastest boats?
I think the Sonning. We always said the Sonning was the fastest.
Because it was a small one or…?
Yeah, like the Reading.
Was steam faster than diesel?
Well, there wasn’t a lot in it. I mean the trouble with any boat that’s real fast. You can’t get by it [to overtake], in theory, because you suck ‘em, can’t you. Coz we used to do that with the Maple[durham]. When we used to be down on the day service from Windsor to Kingston, you gotta be in there for ‘alf 12 or ‘alf 1 (whatever) for the Americans’ dinner and always when you come up from Hampton Court. This boat from Thames Launches, which is the London boat, used to come and then Bill used to race with the Maple[durham]. But if one got away, you just went together, so you never done it.
Were there many accidents?
No. We used to stop top side of Molesey, because there was sailing boats there. We were racing down there one day and he got past one of them and ‘it the other one… But, no, you didn’t have too many.
Did people get promoted or did you just stay on your boat and that was it?
Well, the trouble is the wages was the same for the Marlow, like the Streatley boat, the Reading [smaller boats] as the Maple[durham]. So weren’t much incentive. But, I mean, we liked the kick of a big boat. And on top of that, if you’ve got a boat like the Maple[durham] or the Clivy [Cliveden], you got better parties. You had some good, real good, parties, so some good parties, then you’d get the tips. But a lot wouldn’t move up, because the wages was the same.
Did you have much contact with the Salter family? Did you see them much?
No. Oh, well no. If I was in there in the winter, I mean, they was all up there. There was a Frank Salter and they all had chauffeur-driven cars – the lot. You know. They’d all look out and coz Graham’s dad Len [Andrews], they all called him ‘Lenny’ then. Lenny was the sort of boy, he done anything. Jack of all trades. He was a brilliant bloke, old Len. He could do anything. [In posher voice] ‘Is Leonard about?’, the old boy used to get out of his car. And Frank Salter was the one who always wore a blue pinstripe suit. If you was on the Abingdon run, the only thing you ever always did was clean the toilets out. It’s the only thing. He used to come down and ‘ave a look at the toilets. Coz, this bloke, when it was a steam boat, he put a box on it, and it was dead posh on this boat. That was when the Oxford always used to be where the Goring does now. And he had a lovely wooden box there for the crew for cleaning, then he went on: ‘We don’t accept bribes’ and chucked the tips. ‘Well, we won’t have this. This was Frank and he took the box straight away with them. ‘We’re not going to take gratuities’. [laughs]
You saw Frank Salter? Did you see much of Arthur Salter or…were there any other Salters?
Arthur? No, Arthur wasn’t about in them days. I mean in the later days I see ‘im. But in the early days, it was like Frank. It was another little old boy. These all lived in big ‘ouses up Boars Hill. I mean chauffeur-driven – they done the lot in them days. And I’d say the Coxes were running the company there. And then at Reading, we had this bloke named Blagrove. He was another ‘ero – another bachelor. Tom Blagrove. He used to run Reading and he was the same. And he used to run different wages. Lower if you worked out at Reading. We saw the Reading payslips one day and they were on lower wages than Windsor [laughs]. So ‘e was a good ’un.
Was the relationship between the Slaters and the workforce good or bad?
Yeah. I think it was okay. Coz if, especially when Arthur come round, I mean if they wanted anything he’d have you in the office. I think generally it was a good atmosphere. But life was a lot simpler, wasn’t it?
Did different Salters do different things or…?
Well, I didn’t seem to see ‘em for what they were involved in.
Did the religion of the Salters affect the firm because…?
Well, Bill’d tell you more about that. Because they didn’t used to run on Sunday for a long time, but that was before my time.2 They was running on Sunday when I was there. So that must’ve been way back.
What impressions have you of the firm changing over time?
Well, maybe. It would be my angle is that you ain’t got the life, that, you know, coz you gets older and you gets set in the groove. You’re not in the groove any more – you’re moving around too much. [A comment in relation to the chopping and changing of crews and boats]
When did they stop sleeping on the boats and why did they do that?
John wanted it all the time. It was John Salter’s idea. I remember coming down from Rover one day, coz you know when I finished here in ’62, I left it for about five years and then I come back and I was doing night parties and weekends. And John had said then, you know, ‘Ah! I got rid of them cabins’. I said, ‘You’ll regret it’. I said, ‘Coz you’re gonna get bloody vandalism’, but I mean that was the way he always thought of the crew. Coz they had property, when you went up the Windsor bridge, and you ‘ad your office there. If you went up those steps all that side of the building was Salters’ and they were going to make accommodation instead of having people on the boats. They were going to have ‘em there, but it never materialised. But he didn’t like the idea of crews together, I don’t think. Too much womanising and whatever. Well, I reckon that’s the idea. But, yeah, it was a good atmosphere, so really that’s a sort of changing times, aren’t they?
Did we own a lot of property?
Oh God, yeah!
Was that all over the river?
Yeah, but I mean you had houses everywhere. I s’pose they paid a lot of death duties in the old days and they were fiddled left right and centre. They were a bit silly [laughs]
I think I’m about there with all of my questions.
Well, as I say, if you question Bill, you’d probably get a bit more history from him. But, yeah, he’d probably tell you more about the factories, you know. But you can’t believe we’re making crisps. I mean they was bloody awful! It’s like doing ‘em in diesel. Errr! It was bloody vile. Salter’s crisps [laughs]
So they were oily?
Yeah! ‘What’ve we got? Cheese an… No, oily!’ [laughs]. With the ice-creams, you can imagine what that was like. Like eating a bar of soap it was!
Yeah, that doesn’t sound ideal! In the winter, what did you end up doing? Would they find you jobs or would they send you out…?
Oh, well… Well, whatever happened, I mean, we had a fleet of cruisers in them days. So when you take the Head of the River, you got your…you had your boiler shop down ‘ere, then you had the shop 13 and we had all the cruisers engines out the boats. Bill and Len would be doing all the good stuff and I’d been winding valves, then a bit of hand drying, a bit of everything really. And then we was up Surrey Commercial and West India docks in London getting logs. Coz we used to take…we had a big lorry there then. We used to take the lorry up and get a whole tree and bring it back and then we fetched our own diesel engines from Stratford. I done that as well. And then we had racing boats – now they’re sectional – in them days, a racing eight was the full length. So we had a big lorry with double frames, so you could carry four of them and you used to cart them about, as well. So there was enough work, if you wanted it.
Did you say once you used to go around selling paraffin?
Well, you know the tanker. You know the tanker down the slip? Well, I couldn’t believe it. So I comes back one winter and I went up to him and I said, ‘We ain’t got enough money’. I said, ‘Got any Saturdays?’ ‘I’ve thought of an idea’ – this is Arthur Salter. He says, ‘Take the tanker down the slip. Take the covers off the top, you know all the bolts, and clean the tank out.’ ‘Why?’ He says, ‘We’re gonna sell paraffin in it’ and that’s genuine! So ‘ere we goes down the slip and they was all laughing see and I takes it off and washes it all out and then we went up to Long Lane, Littlemore and it’s Regent there. You stuck these stickers on the side: ‘Regent Green, Super Clean’ – and that’s genuine! I’m not making these stories up – you couldn’t! So where the big bolt is – where you put the pipes on the back – we screwed that on two taps Bill made and me and this bloke called Jim Rordine on a Saturday morning used to go around Blackbird Leys and even over to Garden City Kidlington selling it. On a 900 gallon! And they sold pink paraffin over there, so they used to leave their cans and money underneath and we filled it up. We got a telling off from the old man. He said, ‘You went round and filled old…’ I think it was Possiter or sommat – some bloke over there. He said, ‘You filled it up and took their money’. I said, ‘Well, it’s fair play aint it!’ Well, don’t go over there no more.
There was Lord Salter, Arthur’s brother. Did you see much of him?
Yeah, I didn’t know. I’d read a lot about ‘im though. But no, I don’t think I saw ‘em. I ‘eard a lot about ‘im. I mean, yeah, I mean ‘e must’ve been quite helpful to ‘em. Yeah. If there were ever any wrinkles there to be done.
And there was a Reverend Salter as well, and Hubert…?
Yeah, there was weren’t there? Oh Hubert. Now, you know Isis House [on the towpath just down from Folly Bridge]. Well, see ‘e gets married and his family and they lives in Isis House and in them days you seen the boat down the slip. The big long boat the Coquette?
Well, we used to use that, coz the saw mill used to make that much sawdust, we used to fill the whole boat, coz it’s nearly as long as the room. Fill it up with sacks and I used a big yankee engine in there and a big long exhaust, but for the first couple of minutes it was pure smoke and ‘Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang’. And I used to come out the dock about 8 in the morning, coz we used to start at 8 and ‘e comes down to me. ‘Bryan, I think you’re just doing it to annoy me’, he said. ‘I don’t want that bloody row in the morning’. I used to fall out with him regular. He accused me of forgery one day. Bill come in. Well, I used to live on the houseboat for the first three years over ‘ere, by the ‘Head of the River’ [pub] – that bridge. Pushed it up there. He’d had the houseboat before me, so I ends up over there and Bill comes over one night he says ‘We’ve gotta drop a shaft in down the slip’. And we used to clock off at half past 5. So I clocked off. Anyway, I didn’t take no notice there. So I goes down the slipway with Bill. I used to finish at about 8 o’clock, so I goes over, it’s over this side, where we used to clock in. Hubert Salter’s there. He said, ‘I was looking at your card Dunckley. It said you’d clocked out at half past five, yet your’re just clocking out.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we got called away.’ ‘Well, how come you clocked out, if you was down the slip? How could you do that?’ I says, ‘Well, somebody else done it for me, didn’t they?’ ‘That’s forgery. I shall see my – coz he called him his cousin – I shall see my cousin in the morning’. Course he has me in there and he says. ‘You’re always winding ‘im up ent you’. But me and ‘im never got on: Hubert Salter.
So what did he do what was his role in the business?
He had his own office there. Done a lot of office work, where you go up the side, where you [the firm] let ‘em. All looks over the river. He ‘ad the first big one with a big computer in his office. Wurlizer organ. It was that big. It looked just like a Wurlizer in there. So he had… Coz I went out with a bird there. This Janet was his secretary I was going out with his secretary at the time, so I used to get quite a few little jobs. Yeah, so he never did cotton onto me and I didn’t cotton onto ‘im. But in the end, he bought an old house out at, where was it, anyway, it was a gated road and we went over there one Christmas. ‘e wanted something took over there and he showed us it. It had a cold flagstone floor. It was bloody freezing and ‘e had a big like, you know, it’s a dartboard – you know where you played darts. Well, when you open this, there was a window. ‘Do you know this was where the monks used to look out in the old days’. You know, one of those sort of houses. He was a case. He fell off a ladder and had a brain haemorrhage. Yeah. So had a run in with him, but the others I didn’t sort of work with much. He’s the only one, coz he lived so near I s’pose I run into him.
Jack Salter, what did he do?
Well, he was a bit of a whatsername, a bit of an Arthur Daley, basically, from my angle. I mean he was nothing to do with the firm, I don’t think. I think they paid him off as a black sheep. But he run all these side lines…A womaniser [laughs]. ‘e’s a character. ‘e always had a horde of women round there. It was bloody brilliant at pulling there, at half one or two in the morning. All them cheesy ice-creams and seedy women! [laughs] Oh, It was a life on its own. Probably like these people on travelling fairs in the old days. I bet they’re seeing different people.
Particularly if you are working there the whole time
Oh, you did. Well, you just pick ‘em up. Like at Staines, these girls come from Feltham, which isn’t too far away from Staines. Never went to Feltham – never even got off the boat – but we got ‘em on there one day and give ‘em a trip and they started doing our washing. Bloody brilliant. And, as I say, the waitresses and daughters, as well. So when we got in at…coz Kingston aint a very good place at night. It’s very busy in the day and it’s dead at night. So we used to go back with the waitresses. But mainly you saw Windsor, coz that’s where I picked up my first bird. Coz when you pull in at Windsor, if you come there where them offices are – not by our offices, but there’s another lot of offices – that was Denny’s bakery. Well, I pokes me head in there one day, coz I was smellin’ it and got knowing the old women there. We had the cakes – the lot. And in the end I’m courting one of these girls. Yeah, so…but I mean it was the life of Riley. [see featured image of steamers moored at Windsor]
Did that happen quite a lot as presumably you must’ve stopped at quite a lot of places?
Oh, everywhere: Marlow, Reading. It was fatal! It was a young man’s paradise!
Did you get well known in the area, if you were always stopping at places?
Oh yeah. That’s right. It’s an attraction there. Boats and women. I think it would still go on, if they lived [on the boats]. It’s fatal. But, as I say, it was a brilliant life. But I mean, if you was in Oxford or Windsor, you’d have a cooked dinner, coz there was a kitchen there.
How did they pay you? Was it in cash?
Oh yeah. Little packet – every week. Yeah, yeah. It was great. But, I said, it must’ve been good on tips, because I could put packets without opening them. I used to keep them in a suitcase. So it just shows you it wasn’t a lot of money, but I mean I wasn’t using it. So I must’ve been getting money from somewhere and I wasn’t on the take.
1 It was actually a process that stretched from 1946 to 1966.
2 They started running the Oxford-to-Kingston services in 1933, partly because of the depression.