The history of boating on the Thames

By European standards the river Thames is seemingly insignificant. At only 215 miles (346km) from source to mouth, it is not only dwarfed by the major waterways of the continent, but it is not even the longest river in the United Kingdom.[1] Nevertheless, its location has ensured that it has held unparalleled importance to the country, as it flows through key places of national influence, such as the university city of Oxford to the west, the capital of London on the tidal section to the east, and the royal castle at Windsor, located between the two. It is not without reason that it has been dubbed ‘the shortest famous river in the world’[2] , ‘an open-air museum of English culture’[3] and even ‘liquid history’.[4]

This article provides a brief historical overview of the evolution of boating on the non-tidal Thames, which also shows how the river’s governance changed over time and how the waterway developed as it became used primarily for leisure.[5] Firstly, it shows how the river was already a contested resource in the medieval period and how different users affected the waterway. Early mills are thought to have accidentally helped boats initially, by making the river easier to navigate, until they became so numerous that they became a hindrance, resulting in part of the river falling into disrepair and the need to create a waterway authority in order to maintain it. Secondly, it shows how the arrival of the railway was important for transforming the river into a place of leisure, by destroying much of the barge trade and leading to a new stronger river authority being formed. Thirdly, it examines why the waterway became so popular at the end of the nineteenth century (the so-called ‘golden age of the Thames’), which led to the Thames Preservation Act of 1885 to try to protect the river for leisure. Many factors influenced the change, but the expansion of both London and the railway network were particularly important. Fourthly, it explores the first half of the twentieth century, when pleasure boating as a whole largely declined, despite a short-term rise at the end of the Edwardian period and resurgences, after an initial fall, during both world wars. Fifthly, it describes the post-war boom in pleasure boating (particularly the use of motorboats), which culminated in the 1970s, when traffic on the river reached unprecedented levels. The growing economy encouraged more leisure on the Thames, although the peak came during a time of recession when fewer people holidayed abroad. Lastly, it examines the modern era (from the 1980s onwards), when pleasure boating declined, but was still vibrant, and when the waterway’s governance was influenced by wider concerns about the environment.

The needs of boat operators played an important part in the creation of the first river authority and the subsequent strengthening of it and its successors’ powers. Once the railway transformed the waterway for leisure uses, pleasure boating was shaped by the policies of the river authorities, the uses of different groups, as well as wider societal changes to the transport network, riverside populations, technological advances and leisure fashions. Different craft became popular at different times for a whole host of reasons, including the type of waterway at a particular location, services provided by rental operators, design innovations, personal preferences of boat-builders and customers, the impact of enthusiasts (and clubs), lock charges, changing leisure fashions, and the costs of building, maintaining and/or renting out different types of craft.

The taming of the Thames (c. 950 onwards)

The water of the river Thames has been utilised by settlers since Palaeolithic times and there is an on-going discussion about how the complex processes of silting, geomorphological change, and human intervention impacted its use.[6] Although widespread canal-building (mainly in coastal areas) occurred in Britain during Roman times,[7] it was the building of mills from c. 950 onwards that is thought to have accidentally encouraged trade further inland, as they required the construction of dams and weirs with flash locks. These were built on the steeper section of the waterway below Oxford and helped to break up the river into a succession of deep slow-flowing pools, which made travelling on the river by boat easier (and in both directions).[8] By the eleventh century the Thames was an important transport artery, as is shown by the network of landing places (hythes) and salt ways that punctuated it, as well artificial channels that were built for trade on or by it, most notably a section by Abingdon dug in the 1050s to by-pass a section of the river that was difficult to navigates.[9]

Boats would have been used for both local and long-distance transportation and it is thought that the medieval heyday of the latter, which would have been much cheaper than travelling by road,[10] was between 1100 and 1300.[11] Certain carrying goods, like grain, wool, cloth and minerals, were transported to London – presumably with passengers occasionally conveyed too – whilst some items, such as pottery and herrings, would have been taken back on the more difficult and laborious upstream journey.[12]

The Thames was a contested resource though, as mill-owners, boat operators and fisherman all wanted to use the water for different purposes (and according to different seasonal rhythms), whilst local populations also needed to be able to cross the waterway on fords, ferries or bridges.[13] Indeed, from 1100 onwards, the building of new bridges and causeways also altered the physical appearance of the Thames. Furthermore, these human activities could be affected by natural processes like drought and flooding. The latter could have a damaging effect on property, but it could also protect the river from development, thereby helping to maintain the river’s appearance.

A symbiotic relationship developed between the different groups using the river that was ‘normally contentious’ and ‘occasionally creative’.[14] Travelling by boat on the river was a slow process, as craft not only had to be towed by horses that had to evade any obstacles on land, but passing through the locks could be dangerous. Boats had to wait for the miller to come to draw his paddles (for a fee), which produced a rapid release (‘flash’) of water, which enabled the boat to pass through, either by ‘shooting’ through with the flow (see the image at the top of this article)[15] or being hauled up against the stream (once the water levels were close to one another). The release of water could be so great that sometimes a boat operator travelling upstream had to wait until the levels of water had built up again and they would sometimes face charges from the riparian landowners.

Although the weirs are believed to have initially helped the passage of boats, they could also potentially cause difficulties, because (1) they could obstruct the river, (2) they could adversely affect the level of the water and (3) they could be both slow and costly to pass through. Indeed, we know that the former was a persistent problem, as there were recurring legal attempts to try to keep the waterway clear of obstructions from the twelfth century onwards, such as the Magna Carta’s injunction to clear fish weirs from the waterway.[16]

Although control of the river was sold by the Crown to the City of London in 1197, there was no effective management of the river above Staines, where the new jurisdiction extended to. Furthermore, the number of weirs on the river above Henley grew to such a number that it became increasingly time-consuming and less cost-effective to travel on it. This led to a ‘spiral of decay’ that eventually led to the section between Oxford and Burcot becoming unnavigable for larger craft by the end of the sixteenth century.[17]

The need to reopen the river led to the creation of the first – albeit temporary – designated river authority in 1604. Although it had no power over the private weirs (either how much water was extracted or what charges the owners made for passing through them), by 1635 the Oxford and Burcot Commission had achieved its mission of making that section of the waterway navigable again, partly through the building of the first three more efficient pound locks.[18]

Although Justices of the Peace were granted some powers as ‘Commissioners’ to regulate travel on the waterway in 1695, it was not until 1751 that the first permanent general authority was created to manage the waterway above Staines.[19] The Thames Navigation Commission, which originally had around 600 members (representing landowners and riverside locations), introduced a number of important reforms, some of which were the result of its powers being increased over time. It was responsible for standardising both the size of locks and the charges made at them (thereby creating uniformity and preventing spiralling costs),[20] coordinating twice-daily water flashes from the locks (thereby controlling the amount of water better),[21] dividing the river into administrative sections (making the management of the river more efficient) and replacing many of the old flash locks with pound locks from the 1770s onwards (which were both safer and better for controlling the water).[22] These initiatives also catered for the new trade coming onto the waterway, as a result of the canals being linked to the Thames from the 1780s onwards.

Although the water authorities had little interest in facilitating leisure, pleasure boating coexisted in certain places, such as in Oxford where it was said to be ‘well-established’ amongst students in the seventeenth century.[23] The activity was widespread enough for the Commissioners to set separate charges for recreational use in 1771,[24] although these were not consistently applied on some of the higher parts of the river, as they were viewed simply as a ‘perquisite to the lockkeepers to compensate them for the extra labour it involved’.[25]

Over the course of this lengthy period, one can see how the competing needs of boat operators, local communities and landowners eventually required the creation of river authorities. Nevertheless, although the Commission accumulated greater powers, these were still limited, as private landowners still retained their seeming ‘immemorial veto’ over the flow of the water through their weirs.[26]

The railway age and transition of the Thames (c. 1838-c. 1866)

The second third of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid transition on the river above London, because of the impact that the railway had on the Thames Valley. The construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1830s initially contributed money to the Commissioners, because some building materials had to be sent by water. Nevertheless, as soon as the trains started running from a number of key locations, such as Reading and Oxford (in 1840 and 1844 respectively),[27] trade soon switched from river to rail, causing the demise of many barge operators,[28] and confining the majority of commercial freight to the lowest part of the non-tidal Thames.[29] Indeed, the resultant closure of commercial wharves meant that there was more waterside property potentially available for other uses, such as leisure, particularly in locations easily accessible from London.

The Thames Commissioners tried a number of initiatives to arrest the decline in commerce,[30] but with falling income they were unable to maintain the river adequately,[31] which eventually led to them being stripped of their control of part of the waterway (between Staines and London) in 1857. This section was given to a newly created, Thames Conservancy, which was a smaller and more efficient organisation that was subsequently granted control over the rest of the waterway above Staines in 1866.[32] This was an important development, as it was not only granted greater powers than its predecessor, most notably control of all weirs and the water up to 10 miles into the tributaries, but it also had more secure sources of funding, as well as a wider remit, which included being able to prevent pollution.[33]

These changes coincided with a rise in pleasure boating in many locations, some of the reasons for which are mentioned below. The centre of gravity for such pursuits appears to have been moving upstream from London, aided by some businesses relocating, as a result of certain river-based trades declining, as well as increasing numbers of visitors travelling from the capital to a number of burgeoning riverside resorts.

The tourist Thames (c. 1867-1900)

The late Victorian period is sometimes called ‘the golden age of the Thames’, as by this period many activities had become hugely popular, such as boat outings, steam launch trips, Venetian fairs, houseboat holidays, regattas, picnics and carnivals. Although the statistics by which pleasure boating on the Thames (above Staines) can be measured tend to underestimate the numbers,[34] they suggest that the most notable rise occurred between 1879 and 1887. This is when lock receipts for pleasure boats more than doubled (see Figure 1),[35] and when they overtook barge receipts as the main source of income for the river authorities.[36] By 1889 there were approximately 12,000 pleasure boats, 300 steamers and probably around 150 houseboats registered on the waterway.

Amount collected (£)
1867 1,020
1879 1,647
1887 3,805
1906 4,552

Figure 1: Pleasure boat toll receipts[37]

Although this ‘minor revolution’[38] transformed the river from a ‘great commercial highway’[39] into a ‘vast pleasure-stream’,[40] there were certain parts of it that were particularly busy in the summer, as well as others that enjoyed short periods of busyness during key events, such as regattas. The section bordering west London was the busiest during the warmest months, with Molesey Lock (by Hampton Court Palace) ‘the headquarters of the carnival on the river’.[41] Further upstream, it was Boulter’s Lock that became the ‘Piccadilly Circus’[42] of the waterway, with Ascot Sunday being a particularly popular day to go boating.[43]

By contrast, the higher reaches, as well as some of the more rural sections between Oxford and Reading, remained relatively quiet. Walter Jerrold summed this up in his tripartite depiction of the Thames (1904): ‘From the Nore to London it is the highway of commerce, from London to Oxford it is the stream of Pleasure, from Oxford to the Cotswolds it is the stream of quiet.’[44] There were many reasons why the highest part of the Thames was not as popular,[45] including the obstructions caused by antiquated weirs, the comparative distance (and difficulty) of reaching it from London, the absence of major attractions by its banks, and the facts that it was suitable only for smaller craft, and was largely ignored by many of the guidebooks to the Thames.[46]

The reasons for the section between Oxford and Richmond becoming a favoured destination for pleasure boating, included the rapid growth of London (and the western suburbs) outwards in the late nineteenth century, a romanticism surrounding the natural charm of the Thames Valley, a burgeoning appreciation for ‘manly’ exercise, the rising popularity of the sport of rowing, the appeal and development of waterside resorts, the facilities provided by rental operators (some of whom had been forced to change their occupation to focus on the leisure market), changing social attitudes to boating in the capital, the expansion of the railway, the ease of navigating the waterway and a reduction in the cost of travelling through locks in 1870.[47] Furthermore, these changes, and the attention given to the river by writers and painters, ensured that the Thames became a highly fashionable place to visit, which, in turn, drew more people to it.[48] As one author put it in 1889, ‘it is the boating throng which has made the Thames the rival of any water-way in the world and given it a character all of its own’.[49]

One fashionable activity that was connected to pleasure boating was recreational camping, which was first popularised on the river.[50] There were a number of reasons for this, most notably that the equipment was initially very heavy and therefore ideal for transporting by boat. Another important development was the introduction of boats that converted into floating tents. Salters’ of Oxford, one of the largest rental companies on the river that produced a number of these craft, also encouraged the activity by offering a free delivery or retrieval service on the Thames, which was subsequently expanded to any river in the UK and then any one in Europe.[51] This not only enabled people to take longer one-way trips, but it also made travelling more straightforward and flexible. Different craft became popular at different times for a whole host of different reasons, including the type of waterway at a particular location, services provided by rental operators, design innovations, personal preferences of boat-builders and customers, the impact of enthusiasts (and clubs), lock toll charges, changing leisure fashions, and the costs of building, maintaining and/or renting out different types of craft.

Another notable development was the widespread introduction of passenger boat services on the river by the 1880s. This was much later than on the tidal Thames, where trips from London to eastern resorts were already popular in the early nineteenth century,[52] and the main reason appears to have the restrictions imposed on operators by the locks (in terms of both the time and cost of passing through them). One of the most important services to be launched was the Oxford-to-Kingston service of Salters’, which was started in 1888. The firm collaborated with the Great Western Railway in 1890 to provide ‘circular tours’ for excursionists, which not only enabled it to build up its fleet, but also enabled it to establish a monopoly on the long distance journey, which ensured that it became a ‘one-stop-shop’ for many tour operators.[53]

Passenger boat trips appealed because they could cover longer distances in a shorter time than manually-powered boats (also making them more suitable for day trips), they provided better views (from a more elevated position), they required little exertion (and were therefore more suitable for older groups), they were safer than smaller craft, more comfortable (some provided refreshments, on board entertainment and cover from the elements), they could accommodate large groups together, and they could be linked into excursion tours.

Although this era is often depicted as a ‘golden’ age of boating, as was often the case with popular destinations, the large number of visitors caused considerable damage to the environment. Camping parties were a particular concern for those living by the water, especially in locations near London, where many congregated. The situation on the river as a whole got so bad that the government was forced to intervene and after much lobbying,[54] the Thames Preservation Act of 1885 was passed, which sought to define more clearly the rights of different users of the river, in order to protect it for leisure.[55] Although this helped to restore order, there were already some who agreed with the sentiment espoused in the Pall Mall Gazette’s in 1886, which was that the Thames was so overrun that it was ‘no longer the place for a holiday’.[56] It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that pleasure boating subsequently went into a period of stagnation and then decline.

Over the course of the last third of the nineteenth century, the non-tidal river became firmly established as a pleasure highway, which was important for its future, as the funds it provided ensured that the new river authorities could keep the waterway adequately maintained. Nevertheless, the huge popularity of the Thames required new laws to be passed in order to protect the waterway for its new use.

Declining leisure and two World Wars (1900 – 1945)

One of the most important changes affecting the river at the start of the twentieth century was the creation of the Port of London Authority, which was given jurisdiction of the river below Teddington in 1909. This resulted in a new downsized Thames Conservancy being formed to focus solely on the non-tidal river.[57] In order to raise additional funds it raised lock tolls slightly in 1910 (for steamboats and houseboats) and significantly (for all boats) in 1920.[58] The additional charges appear to have been an important factor that contributed to the decline in pleasure boating after 1921, after traffic on the river had risen just prior and after the First World War.[59] During the conflict, pleasure boating inevitably reduced in the short term, although in 1917 and 1918 there was a notable resurgence, as the river became a convenient outlet for recreation.

The overall decline in pleasure boating in the interwar period did not affect all types of leisure evenly, however, as the number of rental boats increased in the mid-1920s, for example, only to decline from the middle of the decade onwards.[60] The number of small boats registered on the waterway declined in the 1920s only to increase again in the 1930s, even though one-way long-distance trips in them were becoming less popular.[61] By contrast, the number of launches steadily increased throughout this period and one such type of craft that was introduced in the 1920s was the self-drive cabin cruiser.[62] The largest passenger boat operator on the non-tidal Thames (Salters’ of Oxford) experienced declining income from its long-distance service between Oxford and Kingston, but increasing money from private hires, as well as a greater demand for circular tours (some of which included combining bus transportation in the late 1930s too).

Again, the distribution of boats was not even across the waterway with the traffic on the river tending to be heavier the closer you got to London.[63] Molesey Lock was the busiest location on the non-tidal river for small boats and Teddington was the busiest for launches, whilst the most popular for both on the higher reaches was Boulter’s lock.[64]

Although pleasure boating, as a whole, slowly declined during this period, it was a mixed picture, as some forms of transportation increased, such as the use of launches and private trips on passenger boats. As in the previous conflict, leisure traffic on the Thames suffered a further short-term reduction during the early stages of the Second World War, although there was a notable resurgence from 1941 onwards, as many people took to the water the river, as way of holidaying locally.

Post-war boom (1945 – 1980)

The third quarter of the twentieth century was a period of rapid growth in pleasure boating on the Thames. Between 1956 and 1973, the number of both ‘locks made’[65] and registered vessels operating on the river more than doubled, whilst the number of craft travelling through the locks more than tripled (Figure 2).[66]

Year Registered vessels Locks made Craft through the locks
1956 11,881 206,714 358,855
1966 17,345 297,276 642,587
1973 25,213 447,196 1,080,938

Figure 2: The number of boats on the river and the traffic through the locks[67]

The busiest period in the history of the Upper Thames, in terms of traffic on the waterway, was from 1973 to 1981, when the number of craft passing through the locks remained over one million per year.[68] As this suggests, the river was busier than during the earlier so-called ‘golden age of the Thames’. There are a number of reasons why the third quarter of the twentieth century was a particularly busy time on the river, including the impact of sustained economic and population growth in the 1950s and 1960s (with a rise in average incomes and a decline in working hours),[69] the growing popularity of outdoor recreation (and water sports),[70] a notable increase in the number of foreigners visiting the country (prompting the government to improve facilities),[71] and a reduction in the number of British people taking package holidays abroad during the 1970s, owing to the oil crisis and the recession.[72]

A number of notable changes occurred in the post-war era, including the widespread replacement of steam propulsion, a further decline in the number of manually powered craft, road-based transportation replacing rail-based conveyance as the principle way in which people travelled to the river (with coach operators becoming increasingly important for passenger boat operators). From the 1960s onwards many new (more enclosed) modern passenger boats were built (more suited to inclement weather and private functions), which led to the introduction of night parties (and some out of season trips) in the following decade,[73] whilst the appearance of many boats changed with the widespread adoption of fibreglass construction. By the 1970s, cabin cruisers (and narrowboats) had become a particularly popular form of holidaying on the waterways,[74] which contributed to the demise of camping trips in manually powered craft, whilst the little commercial freight that remained declined sharply (Figure 3).

Tons carried
1938 273,695
1944 606,580
1948 169,141
1956 235,992
1966 88,556
1973 10,923

Figure 3: Amount of freight carried (in tons)[75]

As with the earlier age, the increased traffic caused a number of problems. Around two thirds of the craft on the river were motorboats (15,871 of 25,213 in 1973) and these inevitably caused bottlenecks, because fewer of these larger boats could fit into the locks.[76] Although the river was busiest around Marsh Lock in Henley,[77] the famous Oxford-to-Kingston passenger boat service was the most notable casualty of the traffic (in 1973), as it was unable to run the through service to a timetable, partly because the firm was no longer given preferential treatment at the locks. Indeed, the increased traffic, combined with a culture of visitors wanting to spend less time on the river, led to passenger boat operators focusing more heavily on shorter round trips (avoiding locks) from locations that attracted tourists, as well as private charters, although longer outings were still favoured by coach parties.

The peak in river activity also coincided with the first major change in the governance of the river since the beginning of the century, with the creation of the Thames Water Authority in 1974. Reform was required, because it was becoming increasingly difficult to implement policies over the 180 bodies that owned the water and wastewater services of the country.

The Thames Water Authority was the largest of ten regional public authorities created to manage the rivers, water supply, flood control, pollution and sewage treatment (in addition to twenty-eight water-only companies).[78]

Over the course of this period, pleasure boating on the Thames grew to unprecedented levels. Although this helped many businesses on the river, some forms of leisure declined, such as long-distance trips on either manually powered boats or passenger craft.

The Modern Era (1980 onwards)

Pleasure boating steadily declined on the river after the 1970s peak and by 2004, the number of both craft passing through the locks and the registered private boats had fallen considerably (by approximately 40% and 25% respectively). Holiday boats were particularly badly affected, as the number on the river had fallen to 123 from the peak of 815 in 1980.[79] Nevertheless, the river still accounted for 16% of traffic on the nation’s inland waterways. A short term cause of the decline was the economic revival of the 1980s and a doubling of people travelling abroad for holidays during the decade,[80] although longer-term reasons, included a reaction against the cost and time commitments of pleasure boating, as well as a lack of awareness of the Thames as a destination.

Visitors continued to favour shorter trips (in passenger boats or small rental craft) over long journeys, whilst passenger boat operators maintained their focus on coach parties and private groups. The major event affecting the latter in this period was the sinking of the Marchioness by the dredger Bowbelle in London in 1989. Fifty-one people died in what was the worst disaster of its kind since 1865, which led to a number of safety reforms.[81]

Whilst many businesses focused on modernising their services at this time, some made efforts to reintroduce ‘traditional’ forms of pleasure boating.[82] Initiatives to tap into the ‘heritage tourism’ market, included the conversion of a number of passenger boats back to steam,[83] as well as the formation of a company offering camping holidays in ‘classic’ skiffs.[84]

Boat operators were also affected in a more indirect way by the sharply rising cost of housing in the South-East from the mid-1990s onwards. Waterside property could command high prices and there was a pressure on owners to redevelop boatyards for other purposes. This could potentially reduce the amount of land used for boating, although it also revitalised a number of Thames businesses that were able to tap into this potentially highly lucrative source of revenue.[85]

There were major changes in the governance of the river too, in order to facilitate the greater levels of investment needed as a result of European Union legislation. The Thames was placed under the control of two new organisations that had a country-wide mandate, the National Rivers Authority in 1989 (with supply and sewerage being transferred to a privatised water company), and the Environment Agency seven years later. The latter, formed by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was a non-departmental public body with responsibilities for water, air and land in England and Wales. Although a series of major floods in the first decade of its existence forced the Agency to focus a lot of its attention on flood prevention and drainage, it successfully launched the River Thames Alliance, which in 2005 produced a comprehensive plan to promote the ‘healthy growth in the use of the freshwater Thames for communities, wildlife, leisure and business’. It sought to do this by increasing the use of the river and its corridor, enhancing and promoting access to the waterway, improving and maintaining the river infrastructure, facilities and services, as well as contributing to better biodiversity, heritage and landscape value.[86] This initiative contributed to and coincided with a growing appreciation for environmental concerns and seeing the river as a natural and historic asset that needed to be protected and celebrated. Indeed, other initiatives that contributed to this included the opening of the Thames Path (in 1997) and the Queen’s Thames Jubilee Pageant (2012).

Although pleasure boating in this period had declined from the peak of the 1970s, it remained vibrant with some traditional forms making a comeback. It was also a time when there was a growing appreciation – reflected in the waterway’s management and the wider attitudes of the public – of the Thames as being seen an environmental asset that needed to be protected for a whole variety of uses.


This article has shown how the use of the Thames has been shaped by the many different groups using it for hundreds of years and how boats played a particularly important role in the changes that occurred. It was the desire to keep the river open (and maintained) for those transporting goods on the waterway that first led to the creation of a designated river authority. Although it was the railway that was largely responsible for transforming the Thames into a place of recreation, pleasure boating was important in preventing the river from falling into disrepair, as it ensured that the waterway continued to be used and maintained. The competing uses for the Thames led to the authorities being given stronger powers and greater responsibilities, as well as managing it on behalf of a wider range of people. Indeed, the river’s history shows us how the waterway came to be used and managed as an environmental resource serving more than just a small number of stakeholders.

Pleasure boating was shaped by, amongst other things, the policies of the river authorities, the uses of different groups, as well as wider societal changes to the transport network, riverside populations, technological advances and leisure fashions. Different craft became popular at different times for a whole host of reasons, including the type of waterway at a particular location, services provided by rental operators, design innovations, personal preferences of boat-builders and customers, the impact of enthusiasts (and clubs), lock charges, changing leisure fashions, and the costs of building, maintaining and/or renting out different types of craft.



[1] The Severn river is officially the longest in Britain (approximately 220 miles).

[2] A. Wykes, An Eye on the Thames (London, 1966), p. 15.

[3] E. de Maré, Time on the Thames (London, 1952), p. 41.

[4] Daily Mail, 25 January 1943 (quotation from John Burns MP).

[5] Many of the arguments in this article are taken from the author’s academic thesis: S. M. Wenham, ‘Oxford, the Thames and Leisure: a History of Salter Bros, 1858-2010’ (Oxford University DPhil thesis, Michaelmas 2012). They can also be read in the updated version of the book: S. Wenham, Pleasure Boating on the Thames: a History of Salter Bros, 1858-Present Day (Stroud, 2017).

[6] J. Blair, ‘Transport and Canal-Building on the Upper Thames, 1000-1300’, in J. Blair (ed.), Waterways and Canal Building in Medieval England (Oxford, 2007), p. 255.

[7] J. Bond, ‘Canal Construction in the Early Middle Ages: An Introductory Review, in J. Blair (ed.), Waterways and Canal Building in Medieval England (Oxford, 2007), pp. 158 – 175.

[8] R. H. C. Davis, ‘The Ford, the River and the City’, Oxoniensia, vol. 38 (1973), pp. 258-67.

[9] S. Townley, Henley-on-Thames: Town, Trade and River (London, 2009), p. 23.

[10] Ibid., p. 22.

[11] R. B. Peberdy, ‘Navigation on the River Thames between London and Oxford in the Late Middle Ages: A Reconsideration’, Oxoniensia LXI (1996), pp. 311-40.

[12] Townley, Henley-on-Thames, p. 23.

[13] This article does not focus on ferrying, which was a very important form of boating. There were still many ferries operating in the twentieth century in locations that lacked bridges.

[14] Blair, Waterways, p. 9.

[15] Mrs and Mrs S. C. Hall, The Book of the Thames (London, 1859), p. 56.

[16] R. H. C. Davis, ‘The Ford, the River and the City’, Oxoniensia, vol. 38 (1973), pp. 258-67. The Magna Carta’s decree related to fish-weirs,

[17] Townley, Henley, p. 28. This helped the economy of both Henley and Burcot,

[18] F. S. Thacker, The Thames Highway: Volume I: General History (London, 1914), pp. 12-121

[19] This was the first designated general river authority, although the Justices of the Peace had been granted some powers as ‘Commissioners’ to regulate travel in 1695.

[20] Thacker, Thames Highway: Volume I, pp. 115-198. One reason for creating the Commission was in response to rising charges being levied at the locks.

[21] Although in 1826, it still took seventy hours for the water to pass from Lechlade to Sonning.

[22] Although not much towpath was acquired at this point.  The authorities gained some power over the water in 1750, but this was ceded again in 1770.

[23] N. Selwyn, ‘Social and Cultural Activities’, in A. Crossley (ed.), The Victoria History of the County of Oxford, vol. 4 (Oxford, 1979), p. 428.

[24] The toll was 1 shilling for four-oared pleasure boats to pass through the new locks, whilst two-oared craft skiffs and punts were charged 6d (with free return on the same day).

[25] Thacker, The Thames Highway: Volume I, p. 179.

[26] Ibid., p. 241.

[27] A further line to Hungerford was also created in 1847.

[28] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 2 March 1853, in M. Prior, Fisher Row: Fishermen, Bargemen and Canal Boatmen in Oxford, 1500-1900 (Oxford, 1982), p. 292.

[29] River and Rowing Museum: Thames Conservancy Duplicate Minute Book 1905, in Stewart-Beardsley, R. Stewart-Beardsley, ‘After the Railway: a Study of Socio-Economic Change in Five Rural Parishes in the Upper Thames Valley, 1830-1901’ (Reading University PhD thesis, 2009), p. 113. By 1905 almost 90% of this (in terms of tonnage) was transported on the lowest section of it (between Teddington and Staines) with only 0.5% carried on the reaches above Reading.

[30] In the 1850s this included reducing lockkeeper wages and experimenting with reduced tolls to stimulate demand.

[31] Thacker, Thames Highway: Volume I, pp. 158-98. They were £90,000 in debt and their £100 shares were worth two shillings.

[32] Thacker, Thames Highway: Volume I, p. 239. This was formed after a protracted dispute between the City of London and the Crown, after the former wanted to start embankment work in the 1840s. , following a dispute between the Crown and the City of London

[33] Thacker, Thames Highway: Volume I, pp. 239-254. The funding from the water companies was increased further in 1878. Its initial priority was to repair the dilapidated locks and weirs and by 1871, over £58,000 had been spent on enhancing the condition of the river.

[34] They only relate to charges collected at the locks, so they can’t account for the amount of pleasure boating occurring that did not go through locks (either in locations where there were no locks for shorter boating or people going over weirs to avoid the charges), nor for any inconsistencies with the charging.

[35] R. R. Bolland, Victorians on the Thames, 3rd edn (Tunbridge Wells, 1994), p. 14, D. G. Wilson, The Thames Record of a Working Waterway, (London, 1987), p. 93 and River and Rowing Museum: Thames Conservancy Duplicate Minute Book 1906, in Stewart-Beardsley, ‘After the Railway, p. 113.

[36] Stewart-Beardsley, ‘After the Railway’, p. 112.

[37] Idem.

[38] Bolland, Victorians on the Thames, p. 14.

[39] P. Burstall, The Golden Age of the Thames (London, 1981), p. 7.

[40] Lock to Lock Times, 25 August 1888, p. 16, in L. Tickner, ‘Messing About in Boats: E. J. Gregory’s Boulter’s Lock: Sunday Afternoon (R. A. 1897)’, Oxford Art Journal, 25 February 2002, p. 21.

[41] J. and E. R. Pennell, The Stream of Pleasure: A Month on the Thames (London, 1891), p. 125

[42] Tickner, ‘Messing About in Boats’ p. 1.

[43] This was the Sunday after the horse racing had finishing, when spectators traditionally took to the water, being particularly busy.

[44] W. Jerrold, The Silvery Thames (London, 1906), p. 1.

[45] Wenham, ‘Oxford, the Thames’, pp. 148-50.

[46] Examples include H. Taunt, A New Map of the River Thames from Oxford to London (1872), C. Dickens, Dickens’ Dictionary of the Thames: From Oxford to the Nore (1880) and W. Senior, The Thames: From Oxford to the Tower (1891).

[47] Wenham, ‘Oxford, the Thames’, pp. 126-24.

[48] There was even a periodical published in 1892 called The Thames Times and Fashionable River Gazette.

[49] E. R. Pennell, ‘The Stream of Pleasure’, in The Century Magazine, vol. 38, no. 4 (August 1889), p. 483.

[50] S. M. Wenham, ‘The River Thames and the Popularisation of Camping, 1860-1980’, Oxoniensia , vol. 80 (2015), pp. 57-74.

[51] Salters’ Archive, Advertisement, 1888.

[52] D.M. Williams and J. Armstrong, ‘The Thames and Recreation, 1815–1840’, The London Journal, vol. 30, no. 2 (November 2005), pp. 25–36.

[53] The service benefited from an unofficial arrangement with the lockkeepers to provide the steamers with preferential treatment at the locks.

[54] Lobbying organisations would play an important role in influencing policy throughout the river’s history. The notable group representing boat interests was the Thames Boat-Builders Protection Agency (later renamed the Thames Boating Trades Association), an organisation that was formed in 1887. Its primary focus was on lobbying for favourable conditions to aid their collective commercial interests, although this also involved considerations about the physical environment and the smooth running of navigation as a whole.

[55] Steamboat regulations were introduced in 1883 (including registration), but the 1885 Act had a wider remit, which included legislating for other types of pleasure boat.

[56] The Pall Mall Gazette, 1 October 1886.

[57]  Thacker, Thames Highway: Volume I, p. 18. The Conservancy had already been enlarged and diversified in 1894 (to 38 members), and it included representatives from the Corporation and County Council of London (12), riparian county councils (12), government departments (6) and those with interests in the river, such as ship owners (8). The smaller group numbered 28, but it included an even wider group of interests including riparian councils, the board of trade, the Metropolitan Water Board and the city of London. A further six were added in 1930 when it acquired additional responsibilities to tackle flooding as part of the Land Drainage Act (e.g. four from the ministry of agriculture).

[58] Berkshire Record Office Letter from J. H. Salter to the Conservators of the River Thames, 5 March 1910, in Thames Conservancy Minute Book 1909-1911, reference: D/TC 190 and The Times, 4 February 1920, p. 24.

[59] It was also during this period that the Conservancy completed the replacement of the final flash locks on the river above Oxford.

[60] River and Rowing Museum: Thames Conservancy Annual Reports 1887-1939.

[61] Idem and Thames Conservancy, The Thames Conservancy 1857-1957 (London, 1957), pp. 77-8.

[62] Safety concerns (with a by-law being applied to them in 1906). The lock returns suggest that the amount of use that launches had after the depression dropped considerably, despite the number of registered craft not declining so much.

[63] Berkshire Record Office Classification of Tickets and Tolls received at the Different Locks 1913-1938, reference: D/TC 336/1-18.

[64] Idem.

[65] This refers to the number of times the lock is operated (i.e. filling or emptying).

[66] River and Rowing Museum: Thames Conservancy Finance Committee Letter to Thames Conservancy, 22 April 1965. The Thames Conservancy abolished tolls in 1967 ‘in order to accelerate the passage through locks’.

[67] River and Rowing Museum: Thames Conservancy General Report of the Proceedings of the Conservators of the River Thames during the Year Ending December 1973, p. 4.

[68] Thames Water Statistics 1976, p. B6.1 to 1983, p. C5.1.

[69] J. Burchardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change in England Since 1800 (London, 2002), p. 178.

[70] Idem and M. Dower, ‘Planning for Leisure’, in M. A. Smith, S. Parker and C. S. Smith (eds), Leisure and Society in Britain (London, 1973), pp. 311-2.

[71] M. Dower, ‘Planning for Leisure’, in M. A. Smith, S. Parker and C. S. Smith (eds), Leisure and Society in Britain (London, 1973), pp. 314-5.

[72] R. Bray and V. Raitz, Flight to the Sun: The Story of the Holiday Revolution (London, 2001), pp. 154-98.

[73] Although night parties increased complaints about noise and certain locks were closed for maintenance over the winter, which made year-round parties less of a proposition on the non-tidal Thames.

[74] River Thames Alliance, Thames Waterway Plan 2006-2011 (2005), pp. 56-62.

[75] River and Rowing Museum: General Report of the Proceedings of the Conservators of the River Thames during the Year Ending 31 December 1973, p. 33.

[76] Thames Water Statistics 1976, p. B6.1.

[77] This was despite the mechanisation of locks from the 1950s onwards to speed up the passage through locks.

[78] http://www.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/850_2612.htm (accessed 19 July 2016). The new authority was created in the 1973 Water Act and it also responsibility for aquatic ecology and recreational duties.

[79] River Thames Alliance, Thames Waterway Plan 2006-2011 (2005), pp. 56-62. The number of private boats rose again in the late 1980s, but the use of boats steadily declined throughout this period (apart from a plateau in the mid-1990s)

[80] W. Barnes and R. Smith, ‘Travel Trends’ (Office for National Statistics, 2010), p. 19.

[81] H. Hartley, Exploring Sports and Leisure Disasters  pp. 221-284

[82] The two were not mutually exclusive, as French Brothers of Windsor was one firm that focused on passenger boat trips in modern craft, as well as offering outings in a steamboat. Furthermore, it should be noted that some ‘traditional’ forms of pleasure boating had never died out, such as the popularity of punting in wooden craft in Oxford.

[83] Nuneham, Alaska and Streatley were three passenger boats converted back to steam from the 1980s onwards (by different firms).

[84] Thames Skiff Hire (established in 1986) was one firm offering this service.

[85] Wenham, ‘Oxford, the Thames’, p. 235.

[86] River Thames Alliance, Thames Waterway Plan 2006-2011 (2005).

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1 Response

  1. An interesting read – thank-you. You might enjoy my book ‘Barges and Bread’ (pub.Prospect Books) the story of how London was fed. Also currently working on a new volume about the Thames, ‘Riverfed: A Culinary Journey Down the Thames – from Source to Sea’. Title is pretty self-explanatory; the book essentially covers various towns culinary connections on the Thames, both historically and down to present day..

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