Interview with Bill Dunckley (Thames talk 2)

Interview with William (Bill) Dunckley in Oxford, 21 August 2004

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

This interview was one of the first that was conducted, when a lot of information was still new to the researcher! It features Bill talking about his many experiences at the firm, when he started at the business at the age of 13 or 14 years of age (he was unsure how old he was). It includes him talking about the enjoyable working environment on the steamers, the camaraderie and rivalry between crews, the sleeping arrangements, the persistent complaints about low wages and some of the ruses to encourage tips. He also mentions landing craft being built during the Second World War, the steel construction at the firm, being in the steam shop, the building and maintenance of Oxford University college barges, catering on the boats (including the production of Salter’s ice cream and crisps) and the need to foster good relationships with tug drivers and lockkeepers. The latter gave the firm’s steamers preferential treatment and Salters’ even gave a bonus to them in return. He also touches upon some of the history that predated him, such as the Iffley yard being burned down and the reputation of some of Salter family members. He also mentions some of the ways in which the owners looked after their staff, as well as some poignant memories, such as accidents at the firm and one occasion when a barge sank because he was given conflicting orders!

Simon Wenham: When did you start working for Salters?

Bill Dunckley: When did I start work? I started in…Actually I started when I was still at school, which would’ve been ’44… Yeah. I used to do weekends on the little launches down to Iffley lock. You know they had two boats then: Iffley and Leander, which was quite busy…

How old were you when you started?

Fourteen. Everyone left school at fourteen. Yeah, but…Oh you mean when I first started on…

At Salters…

Oh, yeah! Well, I must’ve been thirteen, I suppose. Yeah, about a year before I actually came to work. Yeah. Now, one minute coz. When I started I was with Albert (Albert Andrews) that’s before he went in the navy. So it could’ve been before that. Coz he was the skipper and I was the mate.

What were you doing then, you were…

I was mate on the Iffley. Two crew it needs. So yeah. It was still a Board of Trade boat then.

Which Salters were in charge at that time?

Yeah, Mr George Salter. Yeah, he was in his late, well…well, I don’t k,now his age. He was an old man to me – must’ve been in his eighties. There were never any Salters who retired. They always worked until they dropped.

Were there other Salters on the scene at that stage or was it just George…?

No, there was George. There was Hubert Salter, who was the cousin of Arthur Salter. And he used to look after the hire cruiser side of it. You know, the motor boats and things like that. And then there was Arnold Salter, which was Arthur’s…He was his uncle, I think. Yeah, and he lived at Kidlington. He ran a chicken farm and he used to supply all the food for the Abingdon crews/Queen’s restaurant.

There was a Lord Salter. Was he around at all?

No, I don’t remember Lord Salter. No, well, if he was around I don’t remember.

And there was John Frank Salter. Did you see him?

Oh, Frank Salter. Yeah, he played an active part in the company at that time, as well. I think he was slightly subordinate to George Salter (the elder one). But Frank was more with it, coz George Salter was sort of…well, being that sort of age, he was sort of fading out, but he was still very active, you know. Yeah.

Did you see the Salters much? When you working were they about?

Oh yeah, yeah! Oh yes. They used to talk to you. Yeah. Always very approachable, yeah. Yeah, they were very…any problems at all…

Was one [family member] in charge then or…?

Well, they were in charge of different bits. As I say, the oldest…yeah, he seemed to be more interested in the hire…the punts and skiffs side of it. And course Arthur Salter, he wasn’t really in charge when I knew him. He was um…I didn’t really know him ‘til he came out of the navy. Then he sort of slowly took over from the elder Salters, yeah.

Did people work on Sundays at that stage?

Sundays? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, if you look at the early timetables, they never ran a steamer service on a Sunday. But what I don’t know is whether they ever let small boats and things on Sunday.

Do you know when or why they started running on Sundays?

No, you’d have to check… No, I don’t…It must’ve been – let me guess – before the war. Thirties I suppose. Yeah, thirties. Coz competition was coming in then. Other firms were running on a Sunday. I think the reason they didn’t is they were chapel people.1

Did that [their religion] affect the way it was run?

No, not really. No, they didn’t make you go to church or anything. No, they didn’t force the religion on you or anything, but I think they were very religious.

Do you know what disciplinary procedures there were? Was there any trouble?

No, there was not… The only trouble that ever happened was people complaining about low wages. That was the main trouble. But, yeah, if anyone brought it up, they were very keen to find out who started it. Coz I remember one time when I was on the steamers at Windsor and the skippers, in those days, they got six pounds ten shillings a week. And they were after seven pounds. They wanted a pound a day basically, as they worked seven days a week. So they all signed this letter and they signed it in a circle, so they couldn’t see who signed it first! [laughs]

So when was that?

That was when I first started skippering, The would’ve been…before I went to the army. ’47 I suppose, yeah.

So you worked at Salters while you were at school and, sorry, you went to the army for how long?

Oh ’47 to ’49 (two years).

And then were you back at the firm after that?

Yeah, back at the firm. Yeah.

I guess you only started when you were young, but do you know if the war affected how they ran the business? Were they building a lot of…?

They were building a lot of boats. No photos ever survived of them, you know.2 They built a tremendous lot of boats. They built what they call the LCAs [Landing Craft Assault], which were 40ft landing craft where the front dropped down. I remember those being built, coz they used to take ‘em on trials down at Nuneham Courtenay.

Do you know how they were transported from there?

Well they… yeah. They built steam tugs. They went down the river, but they were very deep draft. They used to get stuck down Clifton Hampden way. But they, yes, they went, but the landing craft, they went by road, as I remember it. I don’t remember them going down the river – they may’ve done. Then they also built 30ft motor boats. Motor boats to on what d’ya call ‘em: destroyers and things, yeah. Yeah, they built quite a few of those.

Where were they built?

They were built in two places. You know opposite where I used to live in Brook Street [the present Jean Salter court]. They had what they used to call the red shops. We had slipways in there and a lot were built in there and some were built behind the Head of the River Pub [which wasn’t a pub at the time]. You know where we got our boat letting station now? They were built on that slope there and then launched down the river there.

Was that both the landing craft and the motor boats?

No, it was mainly motor boats. The only thing I remember ‘bout…I think the landing craft were built behind Brook Street and I remember them being fitted out in the dock. You know, where we keep the Leila [current tripping boat that is kept in the channel running through the present Hertford College accommodation block, which used to be the firm’s Grandpont Yard]. That’s where they used to fit the boats out. Because that dock used to open right the way through almost to the road and there was like a big shed-like building and they used to have a big light blue sheet that used to come down, coz it was the blackout then. Coz they used to work quite late and I remember that.

Were the boats reinforced?

Oh, yeah. Well, the landing craft had armour plating on the side – they were wooden boats. Yeah, with armour plates. All the boats they built here were all wood, even the steam tugs – they were wood.

Was that because of a lack of materials?

No, I think it was because, I mean, Salters didn’t have the skills that they had earlier, when they built the steamers. They were more used to building wooden boats than steel boats. Coz the steel boats, they weren’t built by Salters. Well, I mean they were supervised by Salters’, but when they built a steel boat they hired a gang in from up north. They used to come in and build a boat and then they weren’t re-employed again

Do you know where these guys came from?

No, no, I don’t. All I know is they came from up north. No, I don’t know.

I heard there was a Baker?

Yeah, well, he was the foreman to do with the slipway. No, I don’t remember him. He was before my time. But he was, yeah, he had very high standards, yeah, yeah. So, well, he knew how to build a boat, but he didn’t have the men to do it. So all these bods used to come in from…so a gang would be hired in to build a boat and when the boat was built, they weren’t permanently employed. They must’ve come…All I know is they came from the north with all the shipbuilding skills.

Did the Salters help out the workforce if there were any problems or…?

Oh, yes. If you had any financial problems or anything. Yeah, yeah oh yeah. They’d give you a loan or they even got people out of prison sometimes. Old Ted Simms at Windsor. Yeah, he used to bail people out…drunken things. Oh yeah!

If you had problems would you go to the Salters themselves?

Oh yes, yes. Oh yeah.

You said the wages were quite low. Did you get a pay rise every year or how did it increase? How did that work?

Yes, it…I wouldn’t say every year, but every so often I’d get a pay rise. The only thing you gotta remember in those days is that the tips were very good. In my early days I could live on my tips without touching my wages. They were very good.

Oh yeah, that’s what Bryan [Bill’s brother] was saying. It paid well for tips particularly on the bigger boats.

Then they had the unofficial taking the hat round on public trips. But certain boats, you had problems with that, because the skipper used to skim off [laughs]…In actual fact, I was very friendly with one of these steam engineers and on the boat a while – it was the Queen of the Thames – it comes to the share and it was always copper. There was no silver [laughs]. So when the hat went round, the engineer put two shillings in. When it came to sharing it, it wasn’t there. So it went to the skipper [laughs] skimming the cream off the top [laughs].

How was it working on the boats? Was it…?

Oh, it was great. Yeah, yeah, couldn’t get enough of it. Still can’t. No, it was alright. Yeah, yeah. We lived aboard, then you see then, yeah…When I first went to Windsor. Coz I was on the…the first boat I drove was the Leander and it went to Windsor for a couple of seasons and I ‘ad to take lodgings at Windsor, coz you obviously couldn’t sleep on it – although I have done it at times, yeah. I used to take lodgings with one of the waitresses that lived over at Slough.

And you were Bryan [brother] quite a bit?

Yeah, Bryan came in. Yes, coz ‘e’s slightly younger than me. When ‘e left school ‘e sort of started. ‘e was my mate for a bit on the Streatley.

And in the winter… What did they have you doing?

Well, when I left school my first job was cabin boy on the Streatley. That was July-time. I say we left school. I worked on there ‘til the end of the season and then they put me in the steam shop. That was coz they were all steamers in those days. So your first job was at the end of the season. Everything had to be dismantled. All the pipes. The engines used to have to come out. The boilers used to have to come out and then it was a case of cleaning the bilges, which they don’t do now, which is a shame. So, yeah, so all my winters were then spent at the end of the season basically back at the steam shop at the edge of the riverside.

Did you move around much to different jobs?

Oh yeah. I worked in basically all of them. Wherever you were needed, you sort of went. Yeah, I finished up actually working on motor boat engines. They needed to repaired in the winter, as well.

Did Salters’ build engines as well?

No, we used to repair our own engines in those days, which we don’t now. I mean there was quite a large workforce in those days.

Do you know how big a workforce it was?

Off the top of my head… Well, down the slip. Well I suppose probably staff down the winter was twelve or fourteen. Then in the steam shop, there was four. Then we had a blacksmith’s shop, which had a permanent blacksmith and a permanent rigger – a chap which made hand rails for rowing boats and also made riggers, you know, like for racing boats. We had a plumber’s shop. We had a plumber and a plumber’s mate. Pretty self-contained in those days – sort of anything came along, we did it.

When you were working on the maintenance side of things, did you look forward to going back on the boats or were you quite happy doing either?

No, I’d say we looked forward to going on the boats. Basically, what it did was split the year up. Sort of half the year you were down the river and half the year you were in… Time seemed to go very quickly then.

Was the work quite hard work or quite laid back?

No, it wasn’t hard. It was very dirty in the winter. You know, very dirty work.

And in the summer, quite hard or laid back?

Long days. Long days, but of course we didn’t do any evening work then. But what we used to have to do was we had to do a lot of boat movements over night. Like old Ted Simms – the manager down there – you’d get in… The only thing then, in those days, you had loads of fore-warning, They told you a week before what you were doing. Like on the Monday, they’d give you a sheet of paper with the whole week’s work every day, so you knew exactly what you were going to do, which was quite good. But I mean you could say, I mean sometimes you’d come in off the service from Henley at say seven o’clock and he’d say I want you in Oxford the next day, midday. So that meant you had to steam overnight to be in Oxford, yeah. So you had some quite long empty boat movements.

Is that when you had to wind locks or were they electric then?

No, they were [wind locks]. Yeah, but they were a lot easier. Coz they were the old…yeah. So working locks in those days was quite easy. Like if you’re going upstream, you could push open the locks with your bows, coz there was no hydraulics. So you got easier working ‘em. In fact, when you working locks on your own it was much easier working old fashion locks than it is with the modern ones. So you could make good progress. But the best progress I ever did was Oxford to Windsor in 12 hours. Now, I don’t think you could do that today. It takes a lot of beating that. That was on the Streatley. Yeah, the engineer was nearly…that was steam..[laughs]…he was flaked out after that!

Were most of the workforce local or did they come from all over?

Some who worked for us were all casuals. They mainly came from…They used to advertise in places like Southampton and in Wales…either Wales or Southampton and they only worked the season mostly. There were only a small amount of people that worked in the summer that stayed on. In fact, they took the line at one time…they dismissed you at the end of the season and started you on again to work the winter. In other words, you were permanently employed. That didn’t last very long. They almost treated you like casual labour at one time.

Were they mainly single or was it a mixture of families…?

No, all single. Absolutely. I mean all the boat crews I ever knew were all single. I mean a lot of them used to get entwined in the process! [laughs]

I assume it must’ve been difficult if you had a family [with all the travelling]…

Yeah, yeah. I never faced a problem when I got married. I mean I still worked at Windsor, but then slowly I worked myself up at Oxford.

I know about the Andrews and the Dunckleys. Were there other families in the firm?

In the firm? Well the Tulls. The Tulls – they came from reading. They were very good watermen. They were three brothers. They were very good, but they were based in Reading. But they were a very old river family. I don’t know if any of them survive at the moment.

Were there many husbands and wives?

What working together?

Yeah, or just working for the firm?

Not really, no. Not that I recall.

Was the firm close-knit?

Oh yeah, yeah. A little bit of rivalry between some boats. Oh yeah, skippers used to fall out and when they passed each other they used to get very close in and skim each other’s gunwhales. Things like that.

Was that just between different personalities or from thinking they had better boats?

Oh no, no. The boats were kept in very high standards in those days. The decks were all scrubbed nice and clean the brass was all polished.

Was the term ‘Salters’ navy’ used then?

Oh yes. Oh yeah. Very much, yeah.

Has that always been the case? Does that go back a long way?

More so in those day than now really. Coz we had a lot of boats. We had about sixteen boats in those days.

Obviously the Salters were in charge, but who would tell you what to do on a day-to-day basis?

Oh well, yeah. At Windsor we had a chap called Ted Simms. He was absolutely brilliant. He was a seven-day-a-week man. Basically he started in May, when the season started and worked all the way through to September and never had a day off – didn’t even think of having a day off. Yeah, he was dedicated.

Was he a local?

Yeah, he lived down Vicarage Road. Yeah. A single man.

Were they fairly strict over the workforce (people like Ted Simms)?

No, he was easy going. Yeah, he was very easy going. I mean everyone liked ‘im and basically they did what he asked. I mean whatever he asked for, they did. Yeah. He didn’t do it by dictatorial methods.

Len mentioned there were inspectors. Did you ever meet any inspectors on the boats?

Oh, you mean ticket inspectors. Yeah, ticket inspectors. Well, they had a rash of ‘em. I mean in those days they had quite a big crew on the boat. You had a purser and a skipper, a steam engineer and a boy – just the Maple[durham] had two boys. Plus you had a waitress. So, yes, I mean it was…Some of these pursers, they got a bit ambitious. We even had one who bought his own ticket machine. Yeah, coz they all had machines in those days. And they used to skim a bit of money off (issue tickets in pencil coz they could alter the prices). Yeah, so then they started bringing in the inspectors. But the only problem was that you got to know them. I mean it did help.

Did you know what they were checking for, was it just tickets?

Only tickets basically. Nothing else.

They weren’t checking the boats?

No, no. Coz the boats, as I say, were all kept so good. People used to take pride in them. That’s another thing. The skipper in those days, he had the same boat every year. I mean one skipper had it, the same boat for about thirty years. So he took a personal interest in keeping it clean and tidy, you see. I mean he might change his engineer and his mate, but he was basically with that boat for…you know.

Did people get promoted much or did they generally stick to the same kind of thing?

No, no. They never moved from being boat people to office people. No, no. There was no sort of progress that way. If you were a boat person, you were a boat person.

One thing Bryan said you might know more about was whether buildings around here were built either by Salters’ or for Salters’?

Built by Salters’. But they were built before my time. As I understand coz it was during the depression. They done a lot of work for the workforce. So they put them on building houses. I mean Brook street was developed. That was all built by Salters’ and owned by Salters’.

Was it for Salters’ or built by them?

No, they were built and owned by Salters’. Salters’ used to let them out. And this road here, which is not Brook St…

Buckingham Street

Buckingham street, yeah. They built the houses on the south side of that.

Also I heard the slipway burnt down at some stage…

No, that was before my time. The rumours was that it was a wooden building. The rumours was that it was the suffragettes, but it was never proved.3 Apparently it was one hot Sunday afternoon. Thing about wooden buildings, they’re prone to it. So I don’t know.

So you don’t know when that happened?

No. It’s recorded. I’ve read about it in in a book somewhere. But I don’t know. Early 20s? But I don’t know.

Going back to the topic of wages, did you have to go to a Salter directly to get a pay rise?

Yeah, basically if you were at all stuck, you know you could go see Mr Salter and ask if he could…any way of upping your…which some of the time they did.

Did they keep the wages fairly equal?

Oh yeah, yeah. Everybody’s was.

Do you remember a Jack Salter. What was he doing for the firm?

What was he doing? He was on the catering side. He used to run a Salters’ crisp factor and ice-cream factory.

Did they literally say ‘Salters’ crisps’ on the side?

Yes, Salters’ crisps. Pity a packet didn’t survive really. And Salters ice-cream.

And they were based at Wallingford and Reading? Is that right?

Yeah, the crisp factory was at Wallingford in the old chapel. If you go down to Wallingford towards Reading, you go down past the town hall on the left hand side and there’s the old chapel building. It still looks like a chapel. It was in there. That’s where Salters crisps were.

And an ice-cream factory at Reading?

At Reading. And also Jack Salter used to do hot dogs. They used to send all these motorised vehicles out at night. Like vans with the backs cut off. Selling hot dogs.

Where was that?

The Reading area.

Where they made in Reading?

Oh yeah, yeah. They had quite a few buildings there and he had a big marquee there where he’d do weddings and catering for the boats.

So was he connected to the boats other than being used for the food?

No, no. He was a bit of a ‘black sheep’ of the family in a way. I think he cost Salters’ a lot of money. After that he became a farmer. He died fairly young. Why he died I don’t know.

Do you know how long they were making crisps and ice cream for?

Not more than about 3 or 4 years.

Was that because it was not good?

No, They didn’t supervise the thing properly and people used to take advantage of that. So it went down in the end. Belly up basically. The other thing he used to supply… We used to do a lot of children down to Runnymede – it was tied in with a tour of the castle, London airport or Hampton Court. And he used to supply snacks to go on the boats. One of his favourites was cherries in them days. And course all the skippers used to dread these cherry, because they used to…all their nice clean decks! They used to tread all these [laughs] and yes, so they weren’t very happy and that. Yeah, he used to do chocolate but it wasn’t a well-known make of chocolate. It was when chocolate was in short supply [laughs].

That wasn’t Salters’ chocolate?

No, it wasn’t. No, no. They used to do a hell of a lot of school children in those days and mothers’ meeting outings – parties, you know, outings. They used to do a lot of going round in the winter. They used to have two or three people going round to schools handing out savings cards, so they could go in trips saving so much a week. A big thing in those days. Going to mothers’ guilds giving talks on the steamers. Most of those people used to come in on trains from Wales and up north. But we used to get loads of people, but coz they weren’t paid a very high price. Certainly a lot of people in those days. If you look in the old photographs, you know brimming over the side [of the boats]. Wonder how they all got on there!

It was when they were licensed for more

Well, yeah. I mean when you see a boat like the Wargrave licensed for 300 people [now licensed for 199]. I mean where are they going to go?

There was a Hubert Salter. Do you know anything about him?

He was a cousin. I don’t quite know whose cousin he was. He lived in Isis House [on the river by Folly Bridge]. I think he was Reverent Salter’s son.

So he was Arthur’s and Jack’s cousin?

That would be it then. Yeah. And he was in…He had more modern ideas. And I say he used to run the hire fleet side of it. We used to let motor boats. Well, hire cruisers.

And Arnold Salter?

He had this chicken farm in Kidlington and he used to supply basically the food for the boats. Yeah, but he used to visit. He used to visit Windsor quite often to check…He used to check on what was going on. But I never actually seen him take an active part in running the steam side of it.

And Arthur Salter. John’s father?

Oh yeah. He was very. Oh yeah, he was a big wheel, Yeah, yeah. Yeah, he was a very nice chap, yeah.

When he was around who else ran it with him or was it just him?

No, it was just him. Then John [his son] slowly came up the ladder.

And so the other family members died and it was left to him?

Yeah, he… No, so it was all down to Arthur Salter.

[Looking at family tree] So George died in 1950 and then we have Lord Salter. So that leaves Frank and Arnold…

Oh yeah, Frank Salter was very involved. And then it basically went to Arthur and then John. Coz Arthur was the first that used to drive himself. Frank always to have a chauffeur,

Did they all have chauffeurs?

No, he was the only one that I knew had a chauffeur. Oh, Arnold had a chauffeur as well. Sorry, yeah. Yeah, but I say we didn’t see so much of Arnold as we did of Frank.

And what was Hubert like as a person?

He was a bit stuffy. You couldn’t get on with him quite as well as the others. I mean I never had problems with him. I think Bryan fell out with him a couple of times. But I thought he was alright.

Leonard mentioned that when he started, he had an argument with Hubert because one of the older Salters told him what to do and then Hubert gave him another order. He said the eldest one that had the authority…

Well, yeah, there was quite a lot of that that went on. If you had two Salters and one is telling you do one thing and the other telling you to do something else… With, where was it…one of the Salters. I think it was Frank. Mr Frank, yeah. I was on the winter work as I always was, you know, working. And we had a big old barge down the slipway, an old college barge and It leaked and every week I had to keep it pumped out. And then I was sent down river by Mr Arthur when the season started. Course the barge didn’t get pumped out and it sank! And I was hauled up in the office to ask me why the barge sank. I said well the reason it sank is you took me off the job! [laughs]

Did we build a lot of the barges?

Oh yeah. We built quite a few college barges. In fact, there’s a book. Just, hasn’t been out long. Albert lent it me. It’s a book on college barges and gives you a list of all the barges and who built them [by Claire Sherrif]. The last barge Salters’ built was in about 1930. That’s the one sat in the old ditch [by Donnington Bridge].

Yeah, for Corpus Christi College.

That’s the last barge that Salters built. Corpus Christi.

I’ve seen some quotes in the office for work for maintenance and for building the whole thing…

I mean, I don’t remember any barges being built here, but I remember we used to on a regular basis pull out a barge at the slipway and repair them down at Donnington. That was a regular thing in the summer. Used to do it is the summer coz in the winter course the slipway was full of boats.

I mean…the thing about the wages. Really everybody was on low wages in those days.  In fact, Salters’ wages, I mean the skippers’. Although it wasn’t very much, they got paid more than the lockkeepers. OF course the lockkeepers had the house. In fact, at the end of the season Salters’ always used to give the lockkeepers a little bonus. If you were trusted you’d get all these envelopes to give out to all the lockkeepers.4 They used to look forward to it you know!

Len was saying they always used to let the steamers through first

Yes, they weren’t supposed to. But we never ever did have preference. It was only at the ‘nod and the wink’ of the lockkeeper. That’s why you never fall out with a lockkeeper. Coz, you can’t win! [laughs]

Graham [Andrews] was saying you blew the whistle, so they knew you were coming? Was that right?

Yeah, they used to appreciate that years ago. And they’d get the lock ready for you. Course the traffic was very heavy in those days. Basically, when I first started on the steamers there were no hire cruisers…not in great numbers. In fact, there’s not many now, but there was a boom about 20 years ago [1970s], weren’t there, when the river was solid… I mean that’s why the main services packed up towards Kingston and Henley, because you just couldn’t keep the time. I mean you’d lose up to three hours. You were due in at 7 and you were getting in at 10, half past 10 at night. It just wasn’t viable you know. I mean, I remember turning up at Kingston you know 10:30, quarter to 11 at night, when you were supposed to be at 7. I mean people are going squirmy. It just got untenable. I mean the timings were very tight to start with. Yeah, I mean you’re looking at, I think, it was at 9:20 from Windsor to go to Kingston and you were due in Kingston at half past 1. I mean it was very tight timings. You only had to miss one lock and you were late.

That’s another thing you never felt out with: tug drivers in those days. Tugs were your main problems. Coz tugs were towing barges in the Kingston area. There was quite heavy barge traffic up to just below Shepperton. They weren’t just towing one barge, they’re towing three barges. So if you got stuck behind one of those.5 The tug would work through one barge, then the other barge had to go through, then the other barge. Three quarters of an hour delay. You’d get to the next lock and what’s he doing? He’s doing the same thing again! [laughs] Nod and a wink and he’d let you by. you see, but if you fell out with him. You just didn’t do it!

How do think Salters’ has changed? Do you see it as decline, given that the number of boats has gone down?

Yes, declined in that way. And they seem to run the boats in a different fashion today, don’t they? I think they’ve gone away from a skipper having a boat, which in a way is detrimental, coz the boat doesn’t get looked after quite so much as it used to in the old days. I think if you change the skippers daily or weekly you’ve got to have a better maintenance programme on the boats. You’ve gotta have someone going round checked on the boats, coz obviously the skipper’s not going to. So I mean you can’t really go back to the old days really.

Do you know when they stopped sleeping on the boats and do you know why that was?

I suppose it was better for the wives in the end. Coz more and more skippers were married and they started converting the boats [after WW2], taking away the forward cabins, for a start, where you lived to give you more deck room. The other thing is when they were steam the cabins were nice and warm, but when they were diesel they were very damp and they weren’t the nice place to sleep in. So a bit of both, I suppose. But I suppose the idea of sleeping on board slowly fell out of fashion in a way. Yeah, I mean when I was on the boats it was the best thing since sliced bread, you know. It was brilliant! But, as I say, when I got married the pressure was on to come ashore, basically.

Were the crews well known in the local areas where you stopped?

Oh yeah, we always used to use the local pub – one right by the landing stage which isn’t there any more. But, yeah, oh yeah. Basically it was all pub at night. Everybody used to go. There was the Kings Arms, just up the road. I mean, when you think of it, I mean, they were only there in the evenings. I mean, then course you didn’t get in ‘til 7 o’clock at night, so you didn’t have that long, by the time you’d tidied up it was 8 o’clock, in the pub for a couple of hours then you’d go. Coz everyone was up fairly early in the morning. The engineer was up at 5 to light the fire. You never used to keep the fire in over night. You used to clean the whole thing out and start again.

Why did you have to fire it up so early?

Yeah, you used to light the fire at 5 and it took about 3 hours to get steam. Quote a long time. They used to try keeping the fire going overnight, but the only trouble then you’d end up with a very dirty fire, so you didn’t get very good steaming the next day. So the fire was always… You see on boats like the Wargrave you had two cabins. The forward cabin, but it was divided into two sections. So the skipper and the engineer slept in the back part nearest to the ladder and the mate slept in the bows in the dark part.

Was that the most uncomfortable bit?

Yeah, it was the narrower, yes. Coz when you went down the ladder there was raised companion where the windows were. You could stand up. You couldn’t stand up at the front.

Were there many accidents at all?

There was Charlie Breen. He fell of f the Queen of the Thames. Hit his head on the way down. We had a passenger killed in Boulter’s lock. I was there. I was below the lock with the Iffley the other side and there were two of our boats in the lock. There was the Grand Duchess, the old wooden boat (steamer) and there was the Hampton Court behind it. So the bow of the Hampton Court were sort of stuck out behind the stern of the steamer and this chap tried to jump from the top deck of the Grand Duchess onto the bows of Hampton Court. I think they were both on the same party I think. There was a bunch of girls on the second. And he had a rain coat on and the Grand Duchess was moving out of the lock slowly and he jumped and he didn’t get back to the bows. Fell in and his legs got caught in the propeller. That was quite…something.

Was there an explosion on board one of the boats?

Did he [Bryan] tell you about that? Funny enough I bought that cutting in [shows the newspaper cutting of the accident]. Behind this, there’s another story. The day this happened I was taking Peter Sellers on the river. It always sticks in my memory. Coz when I got back to one of the locks, he said there’s been a fire on one of your boats.

Did you have other famous people on board?

Not really. Oh, I used to do the old the Thames Conservancy inspection. They used to do the whole river. They used to – from Lechlade down to Teddington. Annual river inspection. We used to have several Lords. They used to use the Iffley and Leander down to Folly bridge. And then they used the Mapledurham from Folly Bridge. The first one was Folly Bridge to Reading, then Reading to Windsor, then Windsor to Teddington. Used to do it in three stages. But it was a bit of a drunk one really. I mean they used to call it a lock inspection. Sort of drinkypoos, yeah.

Did we do much upstream [from Oxford]?

We had a service, yeah. We run a service up to…before my time. It finished before the war what we used to call the Eynsham motor boats service. Used to run the Leander up to Eynsham in the afternoons and catch the bus batch. But, no, no, it didn’t really take off. We’ve got a board somewhere for it. Think it’s down the slipway. It used to set off about 2 o’clock, go up to Eynsham which was about a 2 hour run and then get the bus back

[At the end of the interview shows a bar of soap embossed with the words ‘Salters Steamers’. He also mentions the photos you see of paddle steamers run by a person named Porter [1870s] and says he thinks Salters’ never owned any. Mentions there being a boat before the Alaska – a steel boat that was not a paddle steamer]


1 The firm started running services on a Sunday in 1933, partly because of the depression – and pressure from younger family members. The family were Wesleyan Methodists.

2 Photos of the landing craft were found in the archive.

3 The suffragettes did burn down another boatyard, but not one owned by Salters’.

4 The river authorities did officially give the Oxford-to-Kingston service preferential treatment, but not private parties. The practice of rewarding the lockkeepers ended partly because preferential treatment was no longer officially given at the locks and partly because the river authorities saw this as a conflict of interest (supporting one firm over another for money!).

5 Commercial barges took precedence over other traffic, including the Oxford-to-Kingston service.

Leave a Reply