24
Apr
2020
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Interview with Peter Herbert (Thames talk 9)

Interview with Peter Herbert, 4 May 2019

(This is one of the ‘Thames talk’ interviews with those working on the river from the mid-twentieth century onwards).

Simon Wenham: Can I start by checking when you started at Hobbs? It was 1974? Is that right?

Peter Herbert: Full-time, yes.

Were you part-time before that?

I was, yes. My father bought a boat from Hobbs in 1969. I remember that well, because we were standing on the bridge and it was in June – when the men landed on the moon. And I worked during the summer – I was at uni at Southampton.

What was your job?

Just on the boat front. Helping to hire boats. Getting the boats out. Just a summer job.

You did a degree in Yacht and Boatyard management. Did that help your cause (getting a job) or were you doing a job unrelated… Were you managing anything when you started…?

No, it might have helped me at Hobbs a little bit. But we bought the boat and we moored it at Hobbs and I used to work on the boat front and stay on the boat – we were living on it. My father was an airforce pilot and he was based at Lyneham and I used to work and stay on the boat and then I got a job at the Two Brewers, which was across the road and worked there in the evenings and worked at the boatyard in the day-time.

So both at the same time. Why? Was that for more pay? Did you need it or…?

No, but I was a student, you know, anything during the summer. I would go off to uni in the winter.

Would you have known of Hobbs had it not been for this boat sale?

No, it purely happened to be for sale in Henley and we came down to look at it, bought the boat and it all developed from there.

What kind of boat was it?

It was a Dolphin 19. A little plywood cruiser. State of the art for its time in the late sixties.

What did you initially do at the firm and how did that change over time?

When I finished at Southampton, I had come back for three summers in a row. I also went to Portugal and worked in a drawing office for a boatyard that was building trawler yachts. I also worked in Catherine Nicolson’s for a short while, one summer as well, on the sales side. But I used to come back to Hobbs and work July and August (regatta time) until the end of the season. When I finished at Southampton, a couple of friends and I bought a Land Rover and we drove to South Africa – we drove across Africa. So that was in November ‘72 and wherever we got to on the way, I sent a postcard back to Hobbs saying, you know, we’re in Algiers or in Lagos or Nairobi or wherever I ended up. And I ended up in the Seychelles, where I stayed for six months crewing on yachts. And I sent a postcard or two back and I had a letter back from Tony saying if you want to come back in time for the regatta, I can give you a job. And I didn’t really fancy sitting in a drawing office drawing bits of boats, so it appealed to me. So I came back and I started in June 1974. I think one of the first jobs I got (in the first couple of days), Tony said we’ve got some people here and they want to go to the Compleat Angler at Marlow and they want a driver and launch to take them. And we got one of the old umpire launches, the Enchantress, and it was Barbra Streisand and her young companion. She wasn’t in a very good mood. I think she had just had an operation and she was recuperating and didn’t want any publicity. And someone tried to take a photo of her and she pulled her black hoodie over her face.

I used to do a bit of everything. We had a reasonable hire cruiser fleet at the time, day-boats, rowing boats – all the usual stuff.

Did they have any camping skiffs at that time?

There probably were some around, as I remember hiring out wooden skiffs, but they were on their way out. In fact, one of the summers I was there from Southampton, we did a project using an old wooden rowing boat as a plug to make a mould to make some fibreglass rowing boats for Hobbs.

What were your working hours?

Half past 8 in the summer time, it was seven days a week, like now. Half past 8 or earlier if something special was happening, until the last boats came home usually 6 or half past 6. But we had that very hot summer in 1976 and we found that after a few weeks of the hot weather people were going indoors in the afternoon and coming out late in the afternoon. So boats were going out at 4 or 5 o clock and coming back at 7 or 8 o clock.

Was that a deliberate policy to allow for that?

Yes, for those few weeks we did that. We found that they would be queueing up in the morning at half past 9 and 10 and they’d come back in at the middle of the day and go out again in the evening.

Is it still seven days a week?

Yeah. From Easter until October.

Is that problematic with staff? What about if they want a holiday or is the deal you stay the whole season?

No, we arrange it now so, as long as there’s cover, a person can have time off in the summer. We always used to say that people with school children could have a couple of weeks off in the summer, but most of the holiday was taken out of season.

What are the working hours in winter?

8:30 to 5:30 five days a week. When I first started at Hobbs we had a much bigger workforce we had three boatbuilders, two marine engineers and an apprentice (looking after the hire fleet and doing private work), an outboard motor engineer, a person on the chandlery, we had the piling gang (of four that increased to eight, when they did the regatta course). We did a lot more things and the piling gang always started at about half past 7, so they could get a full day in.

What were the boatbuilders building?

Before I started they built several of their own hire fleet (hire cruisers). When I arrived they stopped building hire cruisers, but we did fit out a few boats. We fitted out two or three narrow boats and a couple of private cruisers. We bought the fibreglass hulls and fitted them out to the owner’s specifications in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Why did the boatbuilding stop?

I think the focus changed from building craft and renovating craft – and fibreglass was coming in big time – to operating a hire cruiser fleet and day boats.

What would you consider the working conditions like? Were you out and about…

Out and about, yeah. It was all good fun. It was a small workforce… The marine store, the sale and chandlery side was quite a big thing. In those days Ray Gardiner, he ran the sales, and he was selling, I think, one year he sold nearly forty Shetland and Hardy boats, and there was the fitting up of the motors on them and whatever extras the owners wanted, steps and shelves and cupboards and things to put in the boats.

Do you know in financial terms what the most important areas of income were for the business?

In those days it was always split into four. There was the piling gang, there was the holiday cruisers, moorings and storages and then day-hire with a little bit of service work (outboard motor repairs, inboard engine repairs, a bit of painting and repairs).

In terms of numbers, how did the workforce change in the winter and summer?

Well, the piling gang dropped back to four. The marine engineers, Jim and Pat retired, so we just had one young lad and then another young lad. The outboard motor side of it was fairly buoyant, so we had Colin Hitchen, the outboard engineer and he had an apprentice.

And who is that doing work for?

External clients. Maintaining the company hire fleet outboards and doing private service work.

Given you said you are doing seven-day weeks and quite long hours did that put a strain on relationships or anything like that?

It can do. It’s a way of life more than anything. You get used to working weekends and having a day off or two in the week.

You said in your email about families. You know, ever since I have been there. Bill Hinton was a marine engineer before I arrived. His son Colin went from school virtually to Hobbs. Andrew Truss came from school. His father had worked at Parrot’s and he came and joined. Now we have Kim Clifford and his three sons have all worked at the boatyard.

What can you tell me about the dynamics of the Hobbs family members. When you started Tony had already started had he by that stage?

I arrived in Henley just after his father died – I never met his father. He died early in 1969 or ‘68. We came to Henley in June ‘69 or whenever it was. Tony was the Managing Director, his cousin, Ron Drury worked in the office. Jackie Hobbs worked in the office as well, doing the invoices (Tony’s wife). I started to do some of the office work, taking over some of the work from Tony gradually over the years and Ron Drury’s daughter, Pamela, worked for several years in the office doing the accounts and that sort of thing.

Are there any from the Drury family still there?

No, Ron died and Pamela left long before Ron died. Ron retired and then he died.

You obviously became Managing Director. Was the idea that you were going to be Tony’s successor?

No, I don’t think so. He was hoping Jonathan was going to come into the business. Jonny wasn’t sure what to do. He went to the University of Kent and studied the history of cinema and a couple of other things. I think he was keen at one stage to get into film production of some sort. He went on a few jobs. We knew the Turk family. They were quite big into film and boating and he got a few jobs that way. So Tony was hoping he’d come into the business and he did. His daughter, Melanie, Jonathan’s older sister, also worked for a couple of years, when we first got the New Orleans in the early nineties. Melanie worked for a couple of years and she helped to get the New Orleans off the ground and doing a bit of marketing and developing brochures and menus and that sort of thing. She became a BA flight attendant.

Were there other family members as Directors?

There was Eddie Hobbs. He was a bank manager. He must have had some shares and he hadn’t anything to do with [running] the business. He came over a few times and came visiting.

He didn’t have any children, did he?

No.

What about non-family members other than the Hobbs?

There were a couple of other minor shareholders. There was a Reverend somebody – Tony will know these details – and a lady who had some shares as well. I think Audrey had some shares too. Audrey was the wife of Cyril Hobbs and she had some shares at some point.

What appealed/appeals to you about the job?

Well, it’s always good fun – it still is. I mean, I’m supposed to be retired, but I still go in three or four times a week and it’s good fun. I didn’t fancy a life sat in a drawing office or whatever. I was out and about doing all the jobs the young boys do now.

When you moved to more of an office role, did you still get out on the boats?

Yeah. Oh yeah.

What else is the appeal?

Well, the love of the river. I’ve always been interested in boats. My father always had a boat, living and working in Henley. I mean, it’s never going to earn you a million, but it’s a lovely job and a lovely lifestyle. You know, I know friends who are earning three or four times as much as me, but they go off to London at six o’clock in the morning and don’t get back until nine. I used to walk down to work – I still do. Stroll along and, you know, meet people on the way and talk about their boats, before you’ve got to the boatyard.

Would you say it’s hard work?

Not hard work, but occasionally it gets stressful and there’s a big job on or film job or Henley Regatta week and you have to make sure the boats are ready.

What do you mean film jobs?

Supplying launches for all sorts of things. We had two or three days with the crew of the Stephen Hawking film. They filmed some of the riverside scenes which were supposed to be in Cambridge just below Hambleden Lock. So we had a launch down there and health and safety and all the rest of it. Taking the camera crews around and pop videos and that sort of thing.

Going back to the lifestyle point. I don’t know so much about the Henley job market, but how did the job compare to other options?

Well, it was probably lower basic pay than many of the jobs, but you had the opportunity to work longer hours and weekends and in the evenings. When we got the passenger boats going then that was a great opportunity to work longer hours and have time off in lieu – and having time off at other times of the year: a longer holiday in the winter. I went off New Zealand three times, adding a Christmas holiday to three more weeks I had accrued in the year and had five weeks in New Zealand.

What did the staff think about in terms of less revenue in the quieter winter months?

I think back then we didn’t really think about it. We were paid a wage and we earned a bit extra weekend work and evening work and you enjoyed the job and if you didn’t feel it was enough money, then you left and went somewhere else. Having said that in the twenty-odd odd years from the mid-seventies until the nineties, very few people left unless they retired and died. There was a very very small turnover of staff.

Why was that?

Because people liked the job. They liked working for Tony – he was a superb boss and a lovely man.

What was it about him?

He is just a very nice chap. Very fair-minded. He would always help you, you know. It was a little bit feudal/baronial (the Lord of the manor) and you didn’t get paid an awful lot, but you had a lot of perks to make up for it: if you wanted to borrow a boat or the firm’s truck. They were always very helpful – and they still are.

Were the family always around the whole time?

Tony was much more hands-on. He’d get out there. Tony served an apprenticeship as a boatbuilder, so he was much more hands-on. When we had the hire cruiser fleet, we worked together. We had eight or nine boats to turn around on a Friday and Saturday and we’d both muck in and empty the toilets, and fill the water tanks, and help with the cleaning – and he’d be out there doing it.

What income streams are there over the winter?

It has changed a bit now, because the passenger boats keep going apart from probably the quietest months of January and February. We do Christmas parties, whereas in the old days the boat hire would stop at the end of September/early October and that was it – you’d be putting boats away. We did have the income from servicing and painting and defouling boats during the winter and storage.

Is that all still there?

That’s all there, yeah.

They have some rental property, like the restaurant. Do they have property in terms of accommodation?

They did. They had Goring premises. They own the first house on the redevelop of the boathouse in Henley. They had that for a while. That’s been sold now.

What ways were the Hobbs family trying to keep the workforce happy? When you said the wages were low did you mean in comparison to Henley…?

In comparison to other professions and jobs, but reasonably well paid for a boating business. The conditions were pretty good. I have been to other boatyards… You know, Freebody’s, for instance, where they’d be in welly boats painting boats with water all around them. We were always a bit better off than that.

What other ways did Hobbs try to keep the workforce happy? Any clubs for example?

No. No.

Outings?

Yeah, we haven’t done quite so much recently, but we did have a period in the nineties of going off and doing things. We all went to Guernsey for the 125th anniversary and that sort of thing. We always have a Christmas party.

What about pensions for certain staff (before it was a legal requirement)?

It was done for the more senior long-stay staff.

What about healthcare?

Yeah, again, the more senior longer-term employees did have a private health service.

You mentioned getting use of the boats? How did that work?

If you wanted to go out on the river one evening with your friends and family, we’d ask Tony or Jonny and they always say ‘Yes – and look after the boat [obviously].’

What kind of boat would that be?

It could be anything. Kim and his family have gone up-river for a week in one of the Linssen boats. I have done as well. Or one of the day-boats if you want to go up to the George and Dragon [in Wargrave] and have some beers with some friends. It’s always on the cards. If there’s a special do and you want to have a party, they’re allowed to use a passenger boat, as long as they pay for the cleaning and staff.

How would you describe the atmosphere amongst the workforce?

It’s always been very good. There’s a few niggles and things crop up from time to time, but there would be anywhere. It’s always been very good. With Tony he was always one of the chaps and everyone respected him.

So it was quite close-knit?

Yeah.

Because you’re all based here now. You don’t operations further afield…?

Not anymore, apart from Wargrave Road, which is the yard up the river.

A problem Salters’ had is that the work attracts staff who just want a nice life. Has that been a problem, in terms of having someone who wants to just relax by the river instead of…?

Well, you get some people who work harder than others – obviously – but I think basically the lads that are there at the moment realise it’s a nice working environment and it’s a nice way of life.

Would you say the wage is not so important for that reason?

No, it’s not so important, although it probably is becoming more so, because Henley’s getting so expensive that youngsters can’t afford to live in Henley anymore. So that’s a factor.

Do the workforce largely live in Henley?

Pretty close to it, yeah. Kim lives in Caversham. Colin lives in Caversham. James has a flat in Twyford.

Are they driving in then?

Yeah.

And do they then park on the premises?

Yeah.

I was wondering how you would rank Hobbs in terms of a hierarchy of jobs within Henley?

Well, it’s an old established company. It has been here for many years. You’ve probably read that in certain periods Hobbs probably owned half of Henley. They owned the Red Lion Hotel; they owned Higgs for a little while (the printer); they owned Thamesfield.

Do they still own Thamesfield?

No.

But they kept the Wargrave Road site?

Yes.

What do you think the firm’s reputation is like in Henley?

Pretty good. They are always very helpful to Henley Town Council. Henley in Bloom – they always ask us to take the judges down the river, which we do. Tony was awarded the town medal, which is a pretty high award, so he’s well respected. Jonathan is moving in different circles. Tony was much more of a shy reticent person. Jonny has skipped a generation and is more like his grandfather, who was Mayor and chairman of the football club and chairman of this and all the rest of it. And Jonny is like that as well.

But Tony was quite significant in terms of running all kinds of things as well, but do you mean socially?

Yeah, he loved rugby, so he got involved with the rugby club and the RNLI and he used to do other things as well, but not quite in the same way as his father and Jonathan did. Slightly more reserved.

Are there any industries in Henley that were rivals that you might have been susceptible to losing employees to?

There were two or three rival companies. Stuart Turner. But I think that worked in our favour, I think we got two or three lads that had done apprentices at Stuart’s there and came to Hobbs.

Where are they?

Stuart Turner is the engine manufacturer – they just do pumps now – and they’re in Greys road. They are still here, but they don’t make anything in Henley anymore. But they used to make engines. Stuart Turner motors. And pumps – all sorts of pumps for the marine industry. A couple of the lads who joined Hobbs did apprenticeships at Stuart’s and there was another company called Aubrey Watson that used to do piling work and drilling for water and all that sort of thing.

What about competition in terms of boating firms?

Bushnell’s of Wargrave. Swan Craft of Wargrave. Turk’s down river. Freebody’s.

What about here?

No one else really. There was Alf Parrot. We took a couple of people from them, but no one from Hobbs ever went the other way.

When did Alf Parrott stop?

Probably late seventies.

Have you had any significant disciplinary issues (or general problems)?

Not really, no. A few of the youngsters who have been here have left. In the last five or six/seven years, there has been more of a turnover staff, than there has been for many years.

What do you put that down to?

Well, I think it was just the hours. When you’re a young chap and you’re skipper of a passenger boat it’s all great fun, but when you try and settle down with a family to be working in the summer time five nights a week until midnight, you know.

Are people required to work those hours? For example, if you are the skipper of the New Orleans, are you expected to work all of the jobs that the New Orleans does?

Yeah. We do have relief skippers. If you need the time off or if you can’t do the job then you obviously make arrangements for one of the relief skippers to take it, then that’s fine. We’ve always operated that the skipper has a boat. Some yards like maybe French Brothers have a crew of skippers and they drive any old boat and we always thought that the boats suffer because of that, because it’s not ‘their baby’ – they don’t care. If something’s not working, the other chap will fix it. So we’ve always had one skipper, one boat.

What about the crews? Are they the same?

Yeah, in the summer time. We have been lucky in the last few years as we’ve had some young lads – students and ex-students or whatever – who have been permanent crews on the boats and they have stayed with us.

Have you had many accidents (as the river is a dangerous environment)?

We’ve had the odd thing. We’ve had a few drownings. Not our fault, I wouldn’t say, but we have had drownings. We’ve had a couple of boats blow up on the petrol stage and that sort of thing.

There was a fire at the yard at some point. Do you know when that was?

There was a big fire in 2005. That was the Wargrave Yard. One of the sheds we rented to a chap who had a camping exhibition there. He left a drinks machine on and it shorted out and caught fire and unbeknown to us he used to make a bit of money on the side by taking in Calor Gas bottles. And he had several stored in the shed and of course they started to blow up. They were firing across the river even!

Did he get into trouble?

Well, his business was wiped out and he sort of left and that was the end of it.

Was that all covered by insurance?

Yeah.

Do you know what connections the firm has now with the rowing scene?

Well, not so much, because (a) we don’t build the regatta course anymore and (b) we don’t supply the umpire launches any more. We used to help with drivers, so there is a slight connection. We’re on quite good terms with the regatta committee. Steve Redgrave is the Chairman now. He keeps a boat with us. Matthew Pinsent keeps a boat with us.

What do you mean keeps a boat? Just moor it up?

Yeah, they have slipper launches they moor with us. We store them and look after them. We’ve always been quite friendly with James Cracknell, who lives in Henley – or he did. I am not sure what’s happening with him now. So yeah, we’re on good terms with Henley Rowing Club.

What about people themselves rowing, have any employees done so or been on committees?

Tony used to row, but no one else has rowed. I think Jonathan did when he was at school at the Oratory, but no one else has. I had a few goes in a sculler.

Any good?

No, I fell out twice [laughs]

Who was that for [what club]?

Just borrowed Tony’s sculling boat. He’d keep it in the boathouse.

The Family used to be connected with Henley rowing clubs at a management level, so I wondered if any of that had continued?

Tony is a life-long Trustee of the Town and Visitor’s Regatta. I’m sure he has connections with Henley Rowing Club. He obviously knows everybody and everyone knows him.

What do you think the main changes have been in your time in terms of the business?

Well, going from the holiday cruisers to the passengers boats and then recently in the last two or three years going online. People book our boats online, which is something that was unheard of ten years ago.

Do you think you have been ahead of the game in terms of innovating in that way?

I think we are, yeah.

Are there other rental companies in Henley?

Not anymore. There used to be Parrot’s and there used to be John Hooper. There haven’t been for ten or fifteen years now.

Do you know how Hobbs dealt with them when they were here? Was there much focus on them?

No, not really. Hobbs were the bigger player. Parrot’s tried to keep up, but they didn’t quite. And John Hooper used to dabble…

What happened to the Parrot’s in the end?

Well, Maurice Parrot died and his son, who didn’t really like working, sold off the business.

So what happened to the actual property?

Well, the boathouse is where the café is, just around the corner with the green front (Chocolate café).

Has water frontage been an issue? I have noticed Hobbs has been particularly good at gaining water frontage and even buying property and keeping the water frontage and then selling the property. I noticed there was a tension recently between Hobbs getting exclusive use of the Red Lion lawn.

In the last few years there have been a few instances where town councillors have been a little bit anti-Hobbs. In other words, ‘Hobbs can do anything on the river’, which we don’t, and we’ve never set out to, but because we’re the bigger player.

How do you police the use of your moorings, if someone tried to moor up? During the regatta there must be folks trying to moor up the whole time…

Well, there are and if we’re about and we see something, we shoo them away. If we’re not there, it’s left to the natural [laughs]…

What do you think the key to Hobbs’ success/longevity has been?

I think changing emphasis of what they do. I think other boating companies that have been around for a long, long time tried to stick with one thing and it didn’t work. Hobbs went from piling work to holiday cruisers. When that started to decline, we went into passenger boats. When passenger boats sort of steadied – not quite the heyday there was in the 90s – but now we’re going back into day-hire boats. And we’ve got some beautiful new books, some really upmarket boats that people can hire out. We’ve gone back into a couple of holiday cruisers, with these two Linssen boats, which don’t look like holiday boats and that’s attractive to people, as they can go on the river and it’s not obvious they’re in a hire boat. So it’s quite a nice look, like a private boat.

Has the Henley Boat Club been successful?

Yeah.

Do you know how many members you have?

We’ve got about fifteen now. We can’t go for many more, because we just don’t have the boats. If they all wanted to go out on the same day we’re snookered.

What areas do you think have been challenging or have there been particularly challenging times?

No, I think the worst thing for us is if we have a really bad summer. 

Do you know what financial difference that would make?

Well, a lot. If you think the day-hire must be £3/400,000 now, so if the weather was really bad that would drop by half. It’s a little bit easier now, because people book online and they pay when they book. So if it rains and they don’t come, we’ve got the money, whereas, before, they’d phone up and we’d reserve the boat and they’d pay when they came. So if they didn’t come, we didn’t get the money. So that’s changed a little bit.

Do you know how much property the firm has now?

Well we’ve got the two Henley yards (Wargrave Yard and Station Road). Goring is something separate now – it’s part of Millpool. And that’s all now.  

Was the end section of Station Road developed and then the market crashed and it didn’t quite work out?

Yeah, it wasn’t quite as successful as they thought it was going to be. It’s all been sold off, yeah. They did keep one house for many years, but that was sold three or four years ago.

Has property become an important part of the business model now?

It’s not so important now. It did used to help keep things going.

How has the firm marketed itself, what sort of…?

Well, Jonathan’s the innovator of that and his wife Suzy does that.

When did she come on?

Four or five years ago and of course they have developed the gin side of things. That is going well.

I don’t know if you have touched on the marine store, the chandlery store and the sales. That was a very big thing in the seventies and eighties. People would come and hire a boat, like it and then buy a boat and then they would come back and get a bigger boat. That was a really big thing for twenty years or so. It started to decline in the late nineties. Ray Gardiner retired. He ran it from the start and he retired. We tried to get another chandler in and no one really came up with anything.

Why was he so good at it?

He was a good talker and he was a very good mechanic. So he could sell a boat and fit the engine and do all that side of thing. He was very, very successful. He sold a lot of boats.

That was developed into the restaurant. Was the trade going down anyway?

Yeah, and then he retired and we didn’t get anyone to take it on.

What has been the particular highlights for you, personally, in terms of your career?

It’s been good fun, right from day one, really. It still is.

Are there any particular events that…?

Well, so many. Regattas are always great fun. The Henley Festival is great fun. Meeting people…we’ve had all sorts of film stars and pop stars.

Who have you had?

Well, the list is endless. I remember something very funny. I don’t know if you remember him, but Emerson Fittipaldi was a Formula One world champion and he used to come along with his little son and go out in one of our little Pearly boats. To see the Formula One champion sitting behind the wheel of a pearly class! Pop stars, you know, George Harrison used to come and hire a day boat from us occasionally. People like Michael Caine. He came running into the office one day in the summer wearing a blue suit and sweating like mad and saying he’d lost his Grandson or something and could we help look for him!

Did you find him?

Yeah, we did!

You mentioned [in conversation before] about getting the New Orleans and Hibernia going as highlights…

There was a company at Wargrave called Swancraft and they got two passenger boats. They got the Pink Champagne and the Southern Comfort. We decided to go ahead and get a passenger boat and we built our own [fitting it out]. We got the Maratana. We realised that passenger boats were up and coming. Holiday cruisers were in the decline, so we started off in a small way and got the Maratana.

Before that you only had the small launches?

Well you could take people for trips in the umpire launches… So we got Maratana, then we got Consuta. Cashing in on doing river trips (tripping). We did let them out occasionally for a private party. So we got them and they were doing really well. And then Pink Champagne and Southern Comfort were sold and went downriver to Bourne End and we still got phone calls from people saying you know we want to hire a Mississippi-type boat. ‘Sorry, that’s not ours. It’s gone!’ So we got to thinking ‘Let’s get a bigger passenger boat’. So we thought we might as well cash in on the fact that people know there’s one in Henley. ‘Let’s get one!’ So we did. Kim and I persuade Tony that’s what we ought to do. We ought to get a big passenger boat and if we were going to do that, why not have a Mississippi one.

Was that quite controversial, as some might say that’s not a traditional boat?

It didn’t really… No.

Was it simply because you knew the demand was there?

Yeah. But having said that, Mississippi boats or paddlewheelers, stern-wheelers and side-wheelers were built in England and Scotland and shipped to all over the world. There’s a side-wheeler in a lake in New Zealand that was taken by ship to New Zealand and carried in bits overland to the lake in the South Island. Built in Glasgow. There are paddle wheelers in Australia and India that were built in Britain.

So we shouldn’t associate them just with America. That’s a very good point.

Yeah. In fact, near where the New Orleans was built – and the reason we called it the New Orleans – was, I can’t remember the chap’s name now, he was a Scotsman. He worked in the Greenwich Observatory. He went to America about 1810/1812 and he was a great innovator and he came up with the design for a side-wheeler and it was built and it was the first one to operate on the Delaware and it was called the New Orleans.

You weren’t tempted to name it after one of the Hobbs or something?

No, it was after this guy’s boat.

Do you have any funny stories anecdotes that you remember that come to mind?

Well, again, there is so many!

You mentioned Oliver Reed playing poker [in the conversation before the interview started]…

Oh yes, that was another job that I did. They were filming a remake of the film ‘The Big Sleep’ and they were using Hayley Mill’s windmill up in Frieth and they couldn’t film for some reason, because of the weather and so they hired a boat from us. They all came along. Maggie Smith, Oliver Reed, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Hesto,n and I took them up river for the day.

What boat was that on?

It was on one of our holiday boats, Girl Marion, I think it was. And we went upriver to Wargrave and they loaded on cases of lager and they played poker for £50 a point!

[Interview concludes with thanks and a discussion about others I should speak to]

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