Interview with John Salter (Thames talk 6)
Interview with John Salter in Kidlington, 20 December 2011
(This is one of eight ‘Thames talk’ interviews with those working on the river from the mid-twentieth century onwards).
This lengthy and far-reaching interview provides a very different perspective on the Thames from someone in charge of a business. In it, he describes some of the many challenges the firm faced, as well as some of the key personalities involved over the years. He also talks about the changing nature of leisure activities and many of the business arrangements that they relied upon at the firm. There is also a description of some of the tensions in the employment market and the difficulties of retaining certain members of staff, as well as some of the attempts to keep them. He also offers a window into the demise of certain areas of the business, including racing boat building and the end of renting out holiday cruisers and camping craft. He also describes the differing attitudes towards property and how it ended up being very important for the long term success of the business, which included developing the likes of Arthur Salter Court (pictured). The interview contained some sensitive details that have been omitted, as well as some references that have been curtailed as they related to other areas.
[Interview starts with Simon Wenham explaining the nature of his work and that he is looking at how leisure has changed and how the business influenced this and was affected by it. John Salter then offers some reflections on how it has changed:]
John: I only started getting involved in the 1960s/early 1970s, so I can give sort of chapter and verse for what people were like then. I did actually work school holidays and things like that, even in the late 1960s. There’s been a lot of things changed, yeah, but when I started one of our biggest customers was British Rail and this had been going on for years and this was really responsible for the building of the passenger boat fleet…and we also had some fairly big coach operators Evans and Frains[?]. So people were a lot more day-trip orientated in those days. Obviously we didn’t have the package holidays. You couldn’t travel abroad for the sort of money you could travel abroad to now. So British Rail had a whole department specialising in day-trips and they’d really plan out at the end of the season what would happen in the following season and they would promote a large number of trips from all sorts of places, from up north, Wales particularly. They were very keen on day trips, they’d send us train loads. That’s why the steamers used to have this design, instead of having the side bench seating, it was all tables and benches and that was basically to cater for these groups – they did tea in the package. My Grandfather was very involved in that side of things – you know Thames Catering.
Simon: When did the rail groups stop?
Well, it was in the Beecher era when it all started going wrong (the leisure side of the railways). I can remember it was starting to die when I started in the business and there was one or two… there was a train driver’s strike and that messed things up and what happened, basically, is the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, but they still had a sales team in place, but they couldn’t get any rolling stock to do the jobs and very quickly it all sort of rolled over and within a few years we lost the business.
Do you know when that was?
It would have been… late sixties, early seventies.
I’m going to start with some questions on boat building. Did Salters’ design their own craft and who did this?
Very much so, yeah. We had a chap called Bill [or Frank?] Gillams. When I got to know him, he was a very… they always used to say that he’d build the boat and design it afterwards. He was like that. He was a very talented man. He actually lived at Wharf House, where the Head of the River [pub] is. I can remember, because we had a 100 year lease on these premises, which expired around when I joined the company, it was just renewed on an annual basis and when the brewery got planning permission we got booted out. That was another huge story…
Great! I’ll come to property side in a second, but did Gillams design any particular craft?
Yes, well, everything we built, he designed. He was a naval architect – or claimed to be – And he also did boat building as well. He was a very hard man – pious, I suppose, really. He had actually retired, but the firm let him have a house, when he retired. He was very fond of Canadian canoes and I can remember him giving me – I’m not sure where it is now to be honest with you – he gave me a Canadian canoe paddle, he’s been on all sorts of adventures, he’d been up the Amazon – he was a very interesting man. [He then muses about whether it was Bill or Frank Gillams, as they were brothers – he wasn’t 100% sure]
And when did he stop working for the firm?
I think when I first met him he was about 90 and I think he lived to nearly 100. His wife died first. He went back quite a long way.
Once he went, did other people take up the mantel?
Well, things had changed. He was very much involved during the war years when we built Landing Craft – and my father worked on landing craft and all sorts of other Admiralty requirements. And the Admiralty carried it through the war years as the other side can’t have done very well. But we employed so many river families. And my father was an apprentice boat builder and he finished his apprenticeship and he got his call up. And I don’t know about the ones we built, but he ended up going over on the landing craft!
Are you aware of the firm patenting anything?
The only thing that I know we patented was the life-rafts. The patent laws – I’ve had a little bit of involvement with it – we actually employed a naval architect for a period of time and one of his jobs was to get this patented. And you can’t really patent an idea, you have to patent a feature. And the feature was how the rope went through the unit and you can only patent something for 10 years and then after that you’re on your own. Whereas in design, it’s slightly different and therefore better. We had an incident when Dad and I were going round the Caravan show at Birmingham and we came across one of our skiffs and when we looked close at it this guy had actually chopped it about a bit, and so we went for him and threatened him with this that or the other and it turned out he was at Redditch – and Redditch council was one of our customers and we found he’d taken one of these skiffs, the Redditch council ones, he was quite a skilled mould maker and he chopped and it was his – but it wasn’t for long.
Do you know who designed the life rafts?
Yeah, a chap called Ian Cullingworth. He’d actually just finished at college and we took him on and he worked for us for a few years. He also designed that 13ft runabout – that was one of his.
So he was naval architect?
In the 1970s Salters’ suddenly got good again at building racing boats. Do you know why that was?
Yes, we took on a chap called Ted Wilde, who worked for Sims – there’s two Sims, Sims of Putney and Eel Pie island… now which was it?… Anyway, we pinched him and we also took on another guy, who was one of his apprentices.
Was that Jarvis?
No, Jarvis was from Oxford. I can’t think of the man’s name – he came from Monkton Combe… No, he went to Monkton Combe. At that time we bought some houses in Kidlington and we contacted these guys. And Wilde built the 1976 boat, which held the record [in the boat race] for a number of years.
And what happened to him?
He died in our employment.
And how did you get him?
Well, we had one or two boatmen. I think it was probably something to do with George Andrews – he sort of tapped him up.
Why did you go back into racing boats?
It was one of my father’s decisions. Well, being an apprentice in the workshop where all this happened. My father did his apprenticeship there.
What happened to finish the racing boat business?
Carbon fibre is the short answer. But before that we had a chap called Bill Weller who went to work for Radley School. It was very difficult keeping racing boat building going, because what would happen is you would apprentice the lad for five years, he’d cost money in the first year or two and soon as he got his indentures, the colleges would instantly offer them more money for doing next to no work and all the other perks that went with it. Bill Weller got tempted away by Radley College. He had a house in Oxford, which he could rent and then he lived in the Bungalow – that bungalow you’ve passed many times [on the river]. So we were left without anybody. At that stage we were getting quite into more general boat building – you know the 14ft skiffs we were manufacturing in timber, but the problem was with the general boat building. First of all, customers were looking to cut costs. And if you have a fleet of rowing boats it costs money to maintain, so we decided – my father and I – I was partly involved and I was partly involved in making the first mould tools too, we decided that all of what my Dad would call the ‘rough’ boat building, would be manufactured in glass fibre, like the skiffs, etc. And the other problem was the cost, getting decent quality wood, to make one skiff it was 4 weeks work for a man and an apprentice. I think we did have one guy who could do them in 3 and if you get an order for a dozen boats you’ve got a problem really, as you need an army of men to carry out the work. Whereas Steve can turn out a skiff in a few days, it would take a man four weeks. That’s why we decided to specialise in racing boat building and that’s why we went after Ted Wilde.
Were you or your father involved with the rowing scene in Oxford?
My father wasn’t. I mean I used to row a bit, but my father was never into rowing.
What about the organising of events, etc?
No, no, no… Because when I first started my Grandfather was the managing director and my father was a Director and my father’s cousin had recently died (Hubert who lived in Isis House). He was quite an eccentric! His daughter is still a shareholder.
Did the firm lose contact with the rowing scene?
We did quite well for a number of years then we lost Terry… Terry White? Terry somebody. I can’t remember his name… After Ted Wilde died, a chap called Humphries took over from Ted Wilde and he was related to…not the Humphris car people… but he married – that’s right – the guy over in Eynsham did car body work, van body work and he got tempted away. But it was dying… We were not getting work, because a lot of the leading rowing names, people like Aylings, the oar makers and [inaudible], they were pushing this carbon fibre and it got to a stage when you couldn’t give them away, because everyone wanted carbon fibre. It’s a bit like bicycles, everybody wants a super-light job and you’re still making steel-framed bikes – you’re not going to sell them.
Did you know there are still some Salters’ boats around?
Oh there’s loads of them. Every time I go into a pub and see one strung up somehow, I always go and have a look at the name. I see them all over the place, you know. Unfortunately some of them haven’t got name plates, but my Dad was quite good. He could always tell just by look at it if it was one of ours. And the same with punts. Every boat builder who built punts – my dad built quite a few punts… punts have what they call ‘knees’, which are the sort of wooden bits, and one builder would keep them upright and another would keep them at another angle, so they could sort of tell… [there are various knees on punts and they are wooden supports that run from the base to the side of he craft]
In terms of boat building, was investing in new technology difficult?
Well, I mean, getting mould tools made, we did a lot of that in house. You know, we did try and develop some stuff… When that side was dying the holiday side was picking up, and that’s another thing, this Cullingworth guy designed a top to go on a broom hull, which we called a sedan, which he did all the design work for that. We didn’t make those mould tools, another company made the mould tools. Again, when I first started we had a fairly motley fleet of holiday boats, because I went in on the engineering side, I was quite interesting in that sort of thing and… I mean, we used to have these camping punts and they were getting a bigger and bigger disaster, because everything was getting worn out and there was no investment. I mean the company has had its real financial struggles over the years. If you look back at some of the records of the borrowings, if you talk about a million quid today, it’s a lot of money, but if you talk of a million quid a few years ago, it was a hell of a lot of money.
So what happened to the camping boats?
Yeah, I can remember that at the Head of the river site we had some steps down. We had a raft along the front there at the front there and we had another raft at the back, where we had a couple of houseboats and we used to rent these camping skiffs, which were a double 24ft wooden skiff. They were coming to the end of their useful lives, also punts with canvass. I mean in some of the first brochures – we used to produce the brochures ourselves – pretty amateurish thing it was as well. For about 12s a week you could hire a camping boat and you could leave it at Lechlade and we’d bring it back. Well, years ago they used to have a horse and cart that did that and then we had a boat lorry. And that was all just finishing and people were wanting more in the way of comfort. We had a number of wooden boats and then Dad bought a couple of Seamaster glass fibre boats, Seamaster 24 and then a Seamaster 27, and I think we got about four of those in the fleet, but the problem in those days was the cost of advertising, the cost of producing the brochure, the cost of buying the boat and if you got 12 weeks of the year it’d be quite good. And then Hoseseasons came along and it was a licence to print money.
Well, they would say to you, ‘Well, look if you buy one of these Caribbeans [type of fibre glass craft] we can’t guarantee it, but we’ll – I’m trying to think what the cost of them were – they were sort of 5 or 6 thousand pounds – and we can get you two and a half to three thousand pound return per season’. So it was a licence to print money. The problem was that they went around to everybody and did the same thing. And we got on the river to around 1200 holiday boats and now we’re down to about around about 100, I guess.
Do you know when they came along?
Hoseasons came along in the early 70s.
When did that relationship with them stop?
All sorts of things. When we got into the recessions of the 80s. The first thing was that Hoseseason put their commission rate up. We were paying something like 12%. Then we got the VAT. And VAT at one point did actually get to 25% – not a lot of people can remember that, but it did. So a large proportion of our take, we didn’t get. Replacement boat parts going up all the time, the NRA decided to put their prices up, because they weren’t in on the action. Everything was going against it and all the time more people competing. Geoff [Minister] ran about a dozen boats out of the place at Caversham and then all of a sudden at Piper’s Island about…. The sponsored boat was a huge problem and most of the sponsored boat companies have gone wrong …
What do you mean by sponsored?
Well, you advertise a share in a boat – to raise money to buy the boat you would advertise that if you put so many thousand into to it, you get it for a holiday for a week and you get a return. There was a whole mish-mash of how it would work [talks of friend’s syndicate that didn’t work out]
And these were river boats?
Yeah, all sorts. Canal boats. And then canal boats had their day…
Why did the firm move into corporation craft more heavily after the war?
It’s been a political thing. The Labour governments we’ve had and particularly some of the councils up north that had boating lakes were encouraged to provide a service for the local community, so they would run it themselves. They’d put a guy in and the council would have the money to buy the boats. And one of our last big customers of glass fibre boats was Swansea Council, they must have had about 50 boats from us. And then I think really you’ve got to blame Maggie [Thatcher], when everything got tightened up and stuff, then started to get franchised out, so the councils that had fleets of boats would then offer franchises. And of course they’d charge them so much blooming money, they didn’t have any money left to buy new boats – the old story. And that’s what killed that. And they lasted too long – that’s the other thing. I mean we sold some boats to Derby council – some of the first ones. When we started making those boats they were £75 each and then they went to ninety. And Derby council were big customers of ours and I can remember 15 odd years later we re-gunwaled them all. And there’s a new lease of life. So these boats have lasted on hire work, they just keep patching them up. They last too long that’s the problem.
Do you know what the boat builders did in quieter periods?
My father told me that this is where the house building went on – they were put on to building new shuttered concrete housing in Brook Street and Buckingham Street. I mean the company were pretty big employers in their time. My father told me a story going right off the subject that before the national health service the local community if they wanted to see the doctor they had to pay, so I suppose it would have been the second generation would buy what they called ‘turns’ and if you were real you went to see Mr Salter and if he was in a good mood he’d give you a ticket and you’d go see the doctor. Pretty frugal, isn’t it?
So what do you mean by turns?
My ancestors would go to a doctor and buy a book of tickets, if you like, which they called turns, which they’d keep obviously in the office. And then if a local person wasn’t well, they’d obviously get a turn – like giving out luncheon vouchers.
Bill mentioned the Reading staff building sheds at one point…
I know all the workshops at Reading were very much sheds, the slipway was very much a wooden building.
I think he suggested they were building sheds to sell.
My Dad used to do that. I don’t know about the Reading staff, but when we lived High St in Kidlington, we had a sort of barn at the side and Dad used to like to how hard done to he was by the family and they were all paying themselves good money and he wasn’t getting any, so he used to make sheds and sell them.
But that wasn’t with the workforce?
I’ve never heard anything of the workforce. I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened, but I don’t know.
Were there ever any employees just paid on piecework?
I think there was. Well, definitely. That’s how a lot of the steamers were built and I don’t know the man’s name. But the shipwright was brought down from up north and he would be again another pious individual who’d go to church on Sunday [Baker, who was also a nonconformist preacher]. So they can’t have been on piecework doing that, but he was paid a price to build a steamer and then he would employ people and if he thought people had not worked hard enough, he’d knock their money down. And they were built in our slipway, but they were built as a subcontractor to us.
And what about the rest of the staff?
We used to do a lot of piecework. I can remember those houseboats were built by employees, but they were built on piecework, so they built them in their own time. I’m not sure if anybody has only ever been employed by piecework and not on the books.
What would you say the main focus of the business was? Would it have been the steamers, the boat business or maybe the property?
Property in those days wasn’t really… My father used to tell me that in the previous generation they used to say ‘wise men rent property. Fools own it’. Because I mean the thing is… The street that we owned (Thames Street) and the problem was that there was no landlord tenant act. I mean these days you can get a tenant out, if they don’t pay – I’ve just done it recently. Within three months or so you can get somebody out. In those days, they were there for life and you couldn’t do anything about it. I mean to buy a house and rent it to somebody and for them to decide not to pay you rent is no good.
How important were the steamers important to the business?
Well, I think, yeah, I think the steamers through the railway connections and the big coach company connections, the steamers were really… and of course the country was obviously having financed the war and people generally were very much ‘If I can get a day out on the river’, whereas now the trends gone with people spending less and less. Somebody spending a day on the river, well it just doesn’t happen. You might spend half a day, you might spend four hours and you’re not going to spend a day and for people visiting Oxford, even an hour is too much.
How did you pick where you leased land for moorings and were there any discussions about changing the landing stages?
I remember when we used to do OKS (Oxford – Kingston steamers) I can remember our landing stage was at the back of where Woolworths was and that was a rented stage from Kingston Borough Council. I suppose the location sort of dictated themselves, to a degree, with access. If, today, you’re looking for a place to operate from, you’d go and see where you could access, where you can physically get the boat in, what’s suitable for the landing stage and all the rest of it and whether you’d get permission. And obviously local authorities are a prime target, because you can sort of say you know we’re providing a service for the community and the rest of the stuff.
And how about Windsor: did Salters’ ever try to get hold of the other side of the bridge?
I can tell you all about that, because that all blew up when I was… When I first came in to the company, we had an arrangement with Maidenhead Council to rent the site from the Thames Conservancy (back in those days)… The ownership was always slightly disputed between… the council would say it was theirs and the Thames Conservancy would say it’s an old wharf, so there was always dispute. And we paid, I think, it was the sum of £300 to rent from the council and I’m trying to pin down a date, but I hadn’t been in the business very long. And this surveyor from Maidenhead Council asked for a meeting and they basically said, ‘We can prove that this is ours and we want a proper rent and this is what we want’, and you know it was thousands. And at that time Pickins[?], who ran Windsor boats, which had a far superior site, agreed to pay it, but they always rented – it was never disputed. But anyway we had a choice – take it or leave it. They said if you don’t agree to it, we’ll put it on the public market and there were other people that wanted it. So we had to pay for it. And that went on for a number of years and then Keith French was trying to get in to Windsor, because Keith French used to work for us – they all did [the French Brothers]. So Keith French with a chap called Chaplin who thought he knew a bit about the river started this fight with the council saying ‘You’re not allowed’, saying it’s public property and you don’t have the right to rent it out. And what that basically meant was that the council took a back step and said, ‘You know, well, we’ll look into’ and we had to give up a part of it, which they knocked off the bill – the mooring fee. I think that went on for a couple of years. Of course it was impossible, because the lock keepers were all saying, ‘Oh, you know, Salters’ have got no rights there, you can do what you want’ and poor Peter Watts at the time was pulling his hair out. And eventually, typically, the Environment Agency couldn’t come up with the goods. They were sort of at the court room door and they couldn’t produce the evidence they needed. And apparently one of the strong factors that decided it was that in whatever year, all of the quay fell in and the council rebuilt it, so they said ‘we rebuilt it, why didn’t you rebuild it?’, because they didn’t want to pay for it. So with all that, the council said ‘Unless you start proceedings in so many days…’ and of course they didn’t and it all died… We had about 550ft, except 20ft which was outside the Donkey House, which they’ve always had.
So the council got what they wanted?
Yeah. So Keith French then did a deal with Picken, as Picken wanted to get out, so he got in on the other side…
Do you recall certain locations that were popular in the past and that are now less so due to the loss of connection with the railroad?
Well, I mean the first bit to go was the bit between Staines and Kingston. That was the bit we really couldn’t make money on.
And why was the Oxford to Kingston service stopped?
Well, several reasons. It was getting very hard to keep time, because we had no priority at the locks and we couldn’t get any priority at the locks. So it was getting more and more difficult to keep to the timetable – it was causing more and more problems. And one year we had to look very carefully at the finances and we needed to make cuts and that was probably in the 70s or early 80s maybe.
And did the Thames Conservancy try to help you in that respect?
No. We never had much help from the Thames Conservancy. I mean it’s better these days, as the Environment Agency does have a remit to try and help businesses, whereas the Conservancy were just about governance. And that went on from the Conservancy to the NRA and Thames Water – all those different guises, they had they were a regulatory body rather than a… Now the EA has so many hats, the environmental hats, the promoting business side, it’s all a bit conflicting really.
Did you ever try to regain preferential treatment?
Oh yeah, many times, but you know it’s all thrown back to the Magna Charta – the right to navigate the river and they didn’t have the right to give a priority. It’s just first-come, first-serve.
Do you know when and why they started running disco boats?
Well, yes, it was at the time when our railway, you know all the day-time traffic was sort of… Going on that subject you do know there was a time when they weren’t running on a Sunday – for religious reasons…
Yes, interestingly they ran private parties on the Sundays, but it was just the scheduled services they wouldn’t allow on Sundays.
Sorry, where was I?… Well, again that [the disco boats] was all starting. I suppose it started down on the tideway and then with the advent of the Lady Ethel-type boat [modern enclosed boat], which leant itself to that sort of thing, Windsor boats started doing it.
So they were before Salters’ in doing it?
Well, yeah, I have to say yeah, I think they were… And Keith French who was actually skippering for us, he started this business… I mean the technology – we didn’t have inverters and generators were big horrible noisy things, you know, you had to have a big thing just to produce current – not like it is now – and Keith had developed this 12 volt record deck system, which, I mean it was terrible – I mean always going wrong. [Mentions a conflict of interest once French Brothers started and then Tim Deaton, another former skipper starting to run trips from Abingdon, which Salters’ undercut].
How do you account for the new firms being able to carve out a market?
Easy – the advent of cheap passenger boats. Because there was a guy called Frank Williams who started designing passenger boats and he got round the… He knew all the design rules. I mean to build a boat like the boats we operate still it would be a huge costly job and people wouldn’t be able to do it. So I guess it was the accessibility of money, because back in those days it would have been very difficult for somebody who hadn’t got anything behind them to start up. And it isn’t and it’s becoming difficult again, but there was a huge period of time, when if you had a decent business plan you could get the money to buy a boat which is relatively cheap and start off and once you’ve got one you can then start building your fleet, could you?
Do you think them being in their local area help them and hinder you?
Yes, I think one of our problems is trying to cover too much territory. But in the past we’ve found that if you pull out of somewhere usually someone sneaks in. And that’s always been the policy of the company to try and keep a presence, as much as possible. But it’s a difficult balance, because the thing is you can’t really. I mean somebody like Hobbs, who weren’t really into passenger boats that much, but they had the premises they had the position, so it wouldn’t take much with their assets to raise the money.
Had you been thinking of going into modern boats?
Well, yeah, but it was money constraints really, because we bought the Lady Ethel from Hancock and Lane in Daventry and it sat in the yard for quite a few years before it got fitted out and in fact the racing boat builders fitted it out, when we were short of work.
Do you know why they stopped crews sleeping on board?
Well, you can imagine, can’t you? [laughs] Well, my father used to tell me stories about… I mean a lot of the guys, we used to employ were from… We used to advertise in Wales and these lads, some of them quite young. So there was all the supervision problems with them causing problems. Police coming down on to the boats, parties, girls, parents chasing the… you know… I remember we had a manager at Windsor, who had a wife who the boys seemed to like. He wasn’t a very good supervisor but we used to keep all the beer in the back yard and a load of beer went missing with people putting their hands over and of course he rang up head office, which he spent most of his time doing, and asked what he was to do. And of course the answer was report it to the police. Well, the next day of course we didn’t have any crew. They were all locked up, so he had to go and bail them out, so we could run the boats. It was quite amusing some of things that used to go on.
Do you know when that was?
That would have been late 60s.
Why was the Thames Catering Company set up?
And was it just to…?
My grandfather, as you probably know was an intellectual. He had a degree in history.
Oh, I’ve heard an interview with him (was it Arnold?) and he mentions history…
Arnold, yes. Edward Arnold, is the same (is my Grandfather). EA, but they always called him Arnold. They always used to call them by their second name for some extraordinary reason. I think it may have been the Methodists, I think.
There were also two John Salters, so they may have called the second one Frank to distinguish them!
Yes, exactly… Well, anyway, for whatever reason, my Grandfather, his brother was Lord Salter, as you probably know, and the other one was a vicar of St Sepulchre: Bert. Well, anyway the story goes that his father gave him Hampden Farm, which is just down the road. Well with Hampden farm – he wasn’t a very good businessman, I’m afraid – with Hampden Farm came a lot of land, land that Branson owns now, all up where the school is (Gosford Hill School). I mean hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of building plots and he didn’t do it once, he did it two or three times, when he sold off bits of land at agricultural prices. People would go and get planning permission, make a fortune and retire. When I started my property company, I used to say to my Dad, ‘Grandfather gave Kidlington away and I’m buying it back, bit by bit.’ Do you know I bought the pub?’ [talks a bit about the pub on The Moors]
Was the catering side always separate?
Yes, is the answer to that. My Grandfather, because he had this Hampden Farm, he sold eggs and everything (farm produce). He was interested in catering. He used to run the Abingdon bridge restaurant, which was in the beer garden. There was a sort of old boat shed, it was a wooden building and he used to run that and as part of this railway thing, they’d put them on the steamer from Oxford to Abingdon. And you’d have 100 people in them and then feed them. And Thames Catering was his sort of baby. I mean it really subsidised the farm, I think.
And was he also running the firm of Salters as well?
It gets a bit complicated. My grandfather was the largest single shareholder and next to that was my Great Uncle and then Bert. Bert’s shares went to Yvonne [current shareholder]. In those days, there was a time when the tax office would take the view that a pound share in a company was only worth a pound maximum, but it probably wasn’t worth a pound, because it was a minority and you couldn’t do anything with it, so it was worthless. They don’t take that view any more – they’ve changed the law. They assume they can be sold, which they can’t, which is daft… Anyway, so there was a bit of… My great uncle, he was the warden of All Souls College (you probably know that) and because of his presence, he was so respected by the other shareholders, nobody would stand up to him, except my father, he used to stand up to him, but all the rest wouldn’t. And my grandmother died when I was little boy, when I was about 3 or 4 years. I can just about remember a vision of her, but that was just about it and my grandfather married a woman that my great uncle didn’t approve of and this feud went on for years and years and it got to a head, I suppose, back in the early 70s and they had a big row and the company wasn’t doing very well and to spite his brother, he gave all of his shares to my father. And then actually when Dad got the company going again he asked for them back, but my Dad refused to give them back, because he said ‘You only want to come back in to the business to cause problems.’ Dad wouldn’t give them him back, because he said, ‘No, the business is running well now,’ and he said, ‘the shares are worth a lot of money and they weren’t worth anything, when you gave them to me and I got it going and now you’re asking for them back.’ But then of course when my Grandfather died his shares were held in trust for my father and his brother and sister, and then me. Well, my Uncle Jack died, my Aunt died, and so the shares were held in trust for Dad and I. And then when the widow died, the trust was defunct and we got the shares. So I am the only Salter to ever hold a majority of shares, by chance really! I mean because my Great Uncle had no children, you see. If he’d had children it would have been a different story.
Was Jack, the oldest brother ever in line?
Yeah, I used to like my uncle John. Well, he did a few things that weren’t very clever and my great uncle [Arthur] fired him basically, but my father got the blame for it….
Was that Frank?
No, Frank was the other brother – he lived at Hampton House with my grandfather.
And when did Thames Catering Company stop?
Thames Catering Company is Salter’s Steamers [Ltd]. I just changed the name.
Yes, but I mean in terms of producing catering.
Well, after my Grandfather died, one of the manageresses that he had (that ran it), called – ‘Marianne Catering’ (Marianne Stubbs, her name was). She sort of volunteered herself to rent the restaurant, and because we were being charged so much money for it, the only way we could really make it work was the take out the rent to cover what we were paying,.. and we rented it and part of the deal was that they got the business from the boats.
Do you know when that was?
I forget when my Grandfather died now. He was still ‘in the saddle’, when he died really.
And what about Thames Valley Art Company?
TVAP? Yeah, that was George Cox. My Dad was never involved with it, but they started a sort of business within the business to benefit a few in the business.
And what did it produce?
I think postcards and such like.
And did that now work out?
I don’t really know a tremendous amount about it, but I think my father threw a spanner in the works with that, as I think he was a bit fed up with what was going on, to be honest.
Do you think leisure activities on the river in Oxford have changed much?
I’m not sure if it has changed tremendously. Because there was a period of time, because of the way that the site [now the Head of the River] was taken away from us, Father would never have anything to do with boat hiring over there. And I didn’t want anyone else getting in, so I took it [hiring station opposite head of the river pub]. Obviously we’ve got the other bit as well [on the same side of the river, but on the other side of the bridge]. [Then mentions the dispute about running passenger boats from the pontoon opposite it, where a new company Oxford River Cruise operates from]
When did the rowing to London service end?
Well, there’s always been a bit of it. People still do it now.
I mean in terms of Salters’ providing the service.
Oh, you mean on the camping boats. We stopped that shortly after I joined the company – early 70s? Really, it wasn’t viable and the boats were worn out.
And was that the delivery and retrieval system too?
Yeah, yeah, we just couldn’t make any money out it.
And when did they stop renting punts and things and why was that?
Well, it was really losing that site at the Head of the River that did that.
And what about the motorised craft (when and why was that)?
Well, we couldn’t make any money out of it was why. For a while what kept it going is we used to build narrow boats.
Did we actually build them?
No, 99% of them and I think we must have had over 100 boats from Colecraft Engineering in Warwickshire. We’d had one or two from other people which didn’t work out very well – two or three.
And why narrow boats?
They were popular to hire and they were cheap to build – relatively.
Did the firm have much residential property when you start?
No. well, we obviously had the sites. Father and I never actually owned the office block. We bought the office block in the early 80s.
Do you know how you funded that?
Through NatWest. We took a mortgage out on it, a ten year mortgage on it. It was a suicidal thing to do at the time. It was absolutely crazy, we didn’t have the money, but the problem was that we had a full repairing lease at the council. We couldn’t do anything to the building, we couldn’t create flats or anything, as they would have wanted cut of the revenue and it came with the red shops, which we sold, which helped pay for it.
Would you say the property has been crucial in keeping the firm going?
Yes, absolutely – absolutely crucial. [mentions a few things off-record]. But, I’ve always loved boats, but what I wasn’t prepared to have was the boats erode the assets of the company. So I’ve obviously tried to hang on to property and tried to expand it and get it to… the last project is the slipway, I’ve just started that. But before we get to that… We were paying a lot of money in rates, back in those days around £60,000 in rates, which was draining the business. We weren’t getting any real usage out of what we’d got. So obviously we developed Jean Marguerite Court, we developed the Hertford development, which we’ve gained those six flats with Isis House. We’ve got a lot of flats…
So that was a conscious…
Well, if you’ve got a head start, it’s relatively easy, because you don’t have to buy the land. I’m really glad we did it when we did it, we wouldn’t be able to do it now, because of the flood plain boundaries. We wouldn’t be able to do it, because the EA, sort of overnight, they raised the flood levels by a third. They always used to use the old ‘47 flood mark. as a benchmark and they’ve added a third on that to take into climate change for the next 100 years. Well, this means we can’t ever put residential down at Donnington bridge [site of the slipway]. So the plan is to retain one slipway and to build workshops and turn the rest of it into seven industrial units. But I haven’t got the guts to do that at the moment.
Were there ever any ideas to move the business or to buy property elsewhere?
Yeah, we did look at one or two. We looked a place, Dad and I, we were quite keen to buy a little business on the Nene, when the holidays were expanded and it was all about getting another hire cruiser base.
When was this?
In the 80s. It didn’t work out ‘cause we found out they’d failed in a planning permission application and they’d omitted to tell us.
Did you want to keep the (now) Head of the River site?
It was owned by the Mallam family and they sold it over our heads to Hall’s brewery, when we were tenants. And then Hall’s brewery came on to us with a huge dilapidations claim, which could potentially have bankrupted us, because we had a full repairing lease. [Talks about the a legal dispute over the state it had to be ‘returned’ to] You know it was a warehouse with still the old mangers in it for when the horses used to be used and all this stuff. Then of course they sold it to Fullers and sold the car par to Hertford.
Were there any particular staff members that were especially important to the business in your opinion?
Yes, lots of people played a role. It’s hard to… Well, I think Ted Wilde was very useful for building that part of the business up. Obviously Bill Gillams was very important in the boat building side and I can’t remember many of their names now. Mike Hulcoup – he was a carpenter – well, he was an apprentice boat builder before. I mean so many people have worked for us over the years. Bill Weller did a good job for a long time. I mean they’ve all played a part. Obviously people like Ted Sims and George Cox. Ted Sims was at Windsor for a while, but he ended up at Oxford – he lived in Oxford. And there have been whole families that have worked for us. The Andrews family, the Beesleys… There’s been so many of them – too numerous to mention really. They’ve all played their part in different times.
Do you know when pensions were introduced?
My father started the pension scheme, really to try and attract and keep staff, I suppose. That was before you had to. Late 70s, I’d say.
Has discipline been a challenge for and the management and do you have an impression whether it’s got better or worse?
Well, discipline is pretty difficult, isn’t it really, it’s employment legislation now. When I started in the business you used to give them what they called the ‘DCM’ (‘Don’t come Monday’). Ted Simms used to say give them the DCM. But obviously employment law has been… I wouldn’t want to see people treated in the way that they were treated years ago. I mean that’s out and out wrong, isn’t it? I mean my Great Uncle was one of the founder members of the Fabian society against all that kind of stuff. The trouble is that it’s gone too far. [Mentions some recent employment problems they’d had]
Has matching wages with other businesses been a struggle?
Well, yes, the biggest enemy that we had has been the car factory. When I first went into the business, it was in the BMC days. In fact, if anybody said they’d been working up there, we wouldn’t employ them, as a matter of policy really, because they were just allowed to do whatever they wanted to. And quite often they’d boast about being on the night shift and going and finding a quiet place to have kip and then go out and do their job in the day time and getting paid a lot of money to do it. And what was being paid in the factory has always been thrown in our face. Not so much these days, as we’re closer and they do have to work very hard up there.
So you didn’t want to employ people from there generally because of that?
Did you feel you lost staff to certain businesses?
The car factory and the colleges were the main… Boat builders being offered jobs as watermen and stuff like that.
Did you ever have problems attracting apprentices?
No, apprentices were easy, because they wanted to get their indentures, so they could move on, didn’t they. So never any shortage of lads wanting to be apprentices. We had to stop the apprenticeship scheme, because it got so difficult with the Ship and Boat Builders’ National Federation rules, which was very union orientated. Once you had taken an apprentice on you had to keep them until they had finished, no matter what they did pretty much, so it was another discipline thing.
Were there other ways in which you compensated staff, if you couldn’t match…?
Well, again, accommodations and say with Geoff and the new guy, he’s accommodated. The problem with bringing a specialist in to the area they’re not going to be able to afford to, by the time they pay the rent, because rents are so high…
Where did you source staff?
We used to get a lot of staff from Norfolk, but I think the boating industry has been hit so badly in Norfolk. The trouble is when you lose… you know, the company Silverlive Marine, we put boat building stuff out to them and I’ve tried getting a price and they said, ‘Well, we’ve had to get rid of our guys.’ And it is the problem because once these guys go out of the industry, once they start stacking shelves in Tesco or whatever they do or go into other fields or into the building industry… The building industry has been another big draw, because if you’re a skilled boat builder, carpentry is a doddle. That’s always been a big bone of contention.
Was the sick club ever operating when you were there?
Yeah, that was something the men did. I can remember when I was a lad they used to have, just before they stopped for Christmas, they’d have the sick club and they’d sort of divvy out what was left over from the year as a Christmas bonus.
Did they have a meal?
I don’t know about a meal.
Do you know when that stopped?
I don’t think it was going on in the 80s. I can remember my father didn’t really… Well, he didn’t disagree with it, but there was always one or two who would take out of it what they could and they knew they weren’t on the level. There were always arguments going on about it. Well, you can imagine can’t you, everyone’s putting in so much a week and then you can take so much out of it if they’re ill and the guy who always takes the maximum amount, come what may, always the same people.
Were there any other clubs?
Not to my knowledge. My father told me there was a social club started during the war, but when they found alcohol was being consumed they put a stop to it.
To move on to the family: Just to clarify things again, when did you start working for the firm?
I would say 1970. ’69 or ‘70.
Did you have practical training, as you mentioned your father was a boat builder?
Yeah, I was in the workshops. Apprentice engineer.
Were you a trained boat builder?
Not a boat builder, no, I was on the engine side – you know take engines out of boats and rebuilding them.
Do you know if that was the case for your grandfather’s generation?
No, no, no. They came in as bosses, because they went to university. I don’t think any of that generation…
Would that have been Frank too, because he was the one that didn’t go to university?
I’m pretty sure he didn’t. I didn’t think any of that generation got their hands dirty. In fact, I think that my father and I are probably the only Salters… Well, obviously the first generation did and I don’t know about the second generation. Besides the first generation, I think Dad and I were the only Salters to ever actually physically work on the boats, because where Jean Marguerite Court is, that was the engineer’s shop, that was where I used to work. And the Carpenter’s shop was above it and the sail maker’s shop behind it and the other bit was the garage, where the boat lorries were kept.
Were you expected to join the firm?
I never had any pressure. I didn’t feel that I had any pressure. I was quite interested in antiques. I used to work during the summer holidays on the boat station and then it got to the stage when I had to decide if I was going to carry on at college (I went to Witney College for a while)… Anyway, I don’t know how it happened – I just carried on working.
And how about your father?
Well, he was very keen on market gardening and he was either going to be a market gardener or go into the family firm. And for some reason he decided to go in… And even until he got ill, he was always…where we put the swimming pool was a vegetable patch. It was quite a big… and he used to dig it and grow his own stuff. A couple of big chest deep freezers and he’s grow his own vegetables. Yeah, he was a good gardener. I could never see it myself.
What about the extended family members – was the option there for them to join the firm?
[Alludes to an ‘insular attitude’ of some two generations earlier not wanting certain other family members being involved]
Was succession always clear with you and your father?
Well, no, it wasn’t really. I had no idea that I was going to end up having the majority of shares. No idea at all. When I started I didn’t have any and they gave me some out of the kitty. And my father’s brother’s widow sold his shares, which my father bought for me. He didn’t want to take them, as they were his brothers. So I had a reasonable sized shareholding, but it’s getting the majority that counts.
Was there always a senior member and then a junior member?
I don’t think there’s ever been any plan. It’s just the way it happened. Last man standing I guess.
Do you remember any of the older family members?
Yes, I do. I remember my Grandfather very well, because we used to go and see him every… When I was a small boy and he used to give me a bar of Toblerone and half a crown, which I was always very pleased to receive.
And what was your impression of him in terms of the business?
Well, I have to say he proved not to be a terribly good businessman – that’s the kindest way I can put it. And my great uncle [Lord Salter], I can remember him very well. I was always frightened of him really. He was only a small man and he used to pace up and down with his hands behind his back. He had this sort of air about him and he was only a small man. And he would sort of fire questions at you and you never quite knew what was coming next and they were all loaded you know. So it was quite hard for a child to deal with. Hubert, he died of a brain tumour. He died quite young. I remember him quite well. [mentions a few things about him]. My Dad used to get on quite well with him. He had a house over in Enstone and I can remember being taken over to see him when he wasn’t very well…
Can you remember any family members being religious?
No. [Talks about the family graves being cleaned up in Kidlington]
Do you know if any of the family were freemasons (as the founder Stephen was)?
Not to my knowledge… Never heard it spoken of.
Did any of the family members have interests in certain areas that affected the business?
Well, my grandfather was always very interested in the catering side and that’s what he did. Hubert was interested in the holiday side and his job was to run the fleet of holiday boats, such as they were in those days.
Were there disputes between family members in different departments?
Again, this thing of employing family – the sort of feuds – the fact that somebody was a member of one family against another family. You wouldn’t dare have anything to do with them, because the fathers had fallen out.
And I read that your father attempted to sort this out…
Yeah, well, Dad was quite forceful when he wanted to be. There was in-fighting in the management and in-fighting in the company itself. And if you asked someone who was involved in the boat building why the firm was successful, they’d give you chapter and verse about the boat building and if you asked someone involved with the steamers, they’d say it was the steamers. So you could never really get the true overall picture really.
And were there communication issues associated with that?
Well, I think a lot of it came down to selfish reasons, I believe.
I noticed that in 1981 the firm added additional shares and your family increased its stake. Do you know why that was done?
I don’t know why that was really. I wasn’t really involved in that really. Although I was a Director I didn’t have a lot of say.
The shares have never gone out of the family. Can they go out of the family or have they just done so?
I’ve always tried to maintain a policy of any transfers within the family, I’d approve. I have to approve them.
Has that been crucial for keeping the firm going this long?
Well…[long pause] Probably.
Has anyone wanted to sell outside?
No. I mean fortunately at the moment, all of the other shareholders are quite loyal and like to see the boat business carry on as it is.
Did the firm have problems raising capital to keep going?
Well, I think it’s very important to have a strong balance sheet and not to have all of your eggs in one basket. And because of my own experience in my own businesses… [Talks about all of the assets being in one place (the bank) when his father died. He took back the deeds, so they’ve had a policy of keeping flats free of finance, so there’s always something to fall back on and not to use one bank]
Do you know why the bank moved to Chesterfield?
Yes. Again one of these times we were having problems with Barclays Bank. They wouldn’t increase the overdraft limit and my father paid the wages. This was just when I was coming in to the business – so this would have been in the late 60s – and my father’s brother, Jack, by this time he’d got a farm down in Exeter and he said ‘Oh, my bank manager’s a good bloke and he’s always keen for business’. And the next thing we know this guy had come up from Exeter and said ‘Yeah’, looked at our balance sheet and he said, ‘Yep, I want your business and gave us a chequebook’ [Mentions his father taking pleasure in going to Barclays and changing banks]
Has the firm ever been close to jeopardy if you don’t mind me asking?
We’ve always… Yeah, there’s been one or two… I don’t think we’ve ever been close to bankruptcy or anything like that, because we’ve always had a lot of collateral left. But if you bank with just one bank, you have to follow the policies of that bank and if you can’t go to another bank you’re not in a strong position… [talks about changes afoot at different banks]
Have you found relying upon professional managers has helped the business?
[Talks about advice from professionals consultants and how they couldn’t help them]
Sorry, I mean in terms of the workforce – your professional managers?
Well, you try not to give too much discretion, really. [Talks about the current economic climate]
How has the firm dealt with the seasonal nature of the business (with the cash flow problems)?
This is why we need to run an overdraft. It’s the only business that needs it – all of my other businesses don’t.
Have you ever tried any other ways of getting income in during the winter?
In the boat sphere it is difficult, because even the boat building side, people tend not to order anything until they want it. This is why we diversified into property, because it’s been my policy to separate the businesses, because if the boat company side of the business doesn’t make money the property side does. I’ll give you an example. When I built Arthur Salter court, thirteen one-bedroom flats, we had to sell some for social housing, which pretty much paid for the development. Those flats cost £35,000 each and the eight we’ve kept, they’re all worth 200 and something thousand pounds each. That’s a lot of money. You can’t make that kind of money in the boat… And the same with the others. And we’ve done that again and again.
Do you know of anything you or the older family members have been particularly proud of?
I think keeping the business going. [Talks of the challenges of keeping it going]
Do you know any practical associations with other businesses that helped the firm, such as the associations like the TBTA?
Well, I was chairman of that for 4 years [2004ish]. Yeah. And also Director of national boat shows for 2 years [approx. around 2007/8].
And have they been useful?
Well, I think so. We’ve been to BMF [British Marine Federation] with quite a few problems over the years and they’ve helped sort us out. The most recent being the derogation of red diesel. There’s been a lot of things, that they’ve helped us with. We’ve had fights with British Waterways over licensing and they’ve been quite helpful. I don’t think the THCA were ever a lot of help.
My penultimate question is: were the AGMs used to discuss policy? Were they proactive in changing policy?
No, no, no. the shareholders don’t have any right. The Directors decide what’s going to happen. I give a report and they ask questions of course they do about this and that. Obviously I own nearly 70% of the business, so we could put it to the vote and I could vote it down. It’s only changing the articles and things like that.
And finally why do you think the firm has lasted as long as it has?
It’s got to be the asset base that the previous generations have built up. Well, we’ve done a fair bit of building up ourselves, but we had something to start with. We didn’t have the office block, we didn’t have the Head of the River, but we had the slipway, we had Reading, we had Windsor… The Hertford College job was a very good deal at the time, because we got a sum of money plus the block of flats. It was quite handy at the time. The problem is that we had this number of properties that cost us a lot in rates, a huge amount in rates, but what do you do with it? Father wouldn’t get involved with trying to develop it. No, he wouldn’t get involved in all that. [Impression]: ‘We’re borrowing enough money as it is, we’re not borrowing any more’.
You did at least sell the red shops…
No, but we didn’t know we were going to be able to at the time. We didn’t buy it with that in mind. The red shops were sold, because we were losing money, because we couldn’t really afford to buy the offices. We tried to trade out of it, but we couldn’t.
Historically has death duties been a problem?
It hasn’t been because of taxation. I don’t know when they changed the law, but when I came in to the company – it’s probably… hang on, I’ll explain this properly: if you have a trading company, you get something that’s called business property relief. If you’ve got a factory and you spray cars or whatever and you own the factory, when the person that owns the factory dies and leaves it to whoever, you can get a 100% business property release, there’s no death duties. The problem is when the company becomes an investment company and people who own marinas are finding this. And the magic figure is 20%. Well, when my father died. I had started Brook Street, because he was dying for 18 months, he was diagnosed terminally ill for 18 months, so we had to look after him. That’s why I’ll always be grateful to Linda [his wife], as she was really good helping me look after him and my mum as well. When he died we were advised we wouldn’t be able to have business property relief, which would have had a huge impact on the business. Huge, something would have had to be sold I reckon. I got other advice that said, ‘No, we’d be alright’. It was close, but fortunately the developments hadn’t come off. Arthur Salter Court hadn’t been worked on and we hadn’t had any income off Jean Marguerite Court.
[Interview ends with Simon Wenham showing photos of the business to John Salter and discussions about a few of them]