Interview with Len Andrews (Thames talk 3)

Interview with Len Andrews, with Nora Andrews (his wife) and Graham Andrews (his son) also present, in Kennington, 31 August 2004

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

This was one of the first interviews that was conducted, when a lot of information was still new to the researcher! It features Len, accompanied by his son, Graham, and wife Nora, recalling his experiences at the firm from the 1930s onwards. It provides an interesting insight into the different Salter family members, as well as the nature of the working environment with its long hours, low pay and, at one point, the scrutiny of ticket inspectors. He also mentions the expectation that the employees remained smart on board the steamers, as well as being entrusted with the firm’s first van, which lasted until its engine fell out!

Simon Wenham: So when did you first work for Salters’?

Len Andrews: 1930.

Did you work throughout your life right until retirement?

No, I retired after Hubert came on the firm firm.

What age were you when you started at Salters?


Were there a lot of that age working at the firm?

A lot started at 14.

Did you have a lot of different jobs?

I started at boat building, as an apprentice.

Was that at Oxford?

Yeah, at Oxford.

And then did you move onto the boats [steamers] after that?

I moved on right through the whole works and then I could build anything.

Did they train you up to do all the different boats?

Yeah, I done boat building and during the war we did a lot of landing craft [pictured]/

Did the war change what Salters’ did quite a lot? Did the steamers carry on going as well?

Yes, I think.

Were they building other types of military craft?

Landing craft, harbour boats.

Did they build quite a few of those?

Yeah, quite a few.

After the war were you still building boats or did you go onto…?

No, when the war started I came away from it. I went into skippering, steam engineer, marine engineer. All sorts.

Which boats did you work on then skippering?

All of them. I skippered every one.

Did you used to sleep on the boats?

Not a lot. I done a bit of it, but not much. I used to do relief work and that.

Was that mainly from Oxford or from lots of places?

Yeah from Oxford. I was on the Oxford-to-Kingston service on the Cliveden service for three weeks.

Was it quite hard work or quite laid back?

Well, you always had plenty of work after you’d finished. You finished at about 7, but I’d say it was 10 o’clock before you actually finished. You’d clean the boat up and scrub down.

And in the winter did you do other jobs?

I was in the workshop. Marine engineer.

Were you based in one particular building? Or were you working in lots of the different workshops?

Yeah, we had – what did you call it – workshop number 13. By where the Head of the River is.

Did they quite a large work-force there?

No, there was only Bill Dunckley and me.

Graham Andrews: That was in number 13 shop

Len: At the Head of the River. Well, it didn’t belong to them, it belonged to the brewery. Rented it off them.

What other buildings they have?

The boiler shop was in the same place and they had the offices, which they’ve got now. The back of the Head of the River were a lot of the sheds where they kept the boats.

Was there a saw mill?

The saw mill was the other side where Brasenose College [Hertford College accommodation block] have it now.

Graham: There was a red shop where the flats are that back down onto the river.

And what was in the red shop?

Graham: They were stores?

Len: Brook Street red shops.

Graham: There used to be a little slipway there.

Len: Yeah, the slipway in the red shops – the first one – we done all the launching for the landing craft.

What happened at Donnington bridge?

Donnington bridge is the main slipway. But we used to build the boats up at Folly Bridge. Then you used to pull ‘em across the road out by the shop into another onto the slipway and slip ‘em in [to the river].

And how were they transported then down to…?

You’d take them down. They’d fetch some of them. We took one down to Royal Albert docks.

Graham: Did they all go down by river?

Len: No, they had their tests at Nuneham.

Graham: Did they end up going by river or by road.

Len: No, I don’t know where they went. They went to the coast.

Do you know where the workforce came from were they mainly local or did they come from all over?

Well, Brook Street. One half of Brook street Salters’ built them themselves [the housing]. Brook Street, Buckingham Street – one side was all Salters – what they built their selves and some of of Malrborough [Road]. Most of the staff lived in them.

Did they have Salters employees housing in other places?

They had a place at Reading.

Graham: There were no houses down river?

Len: No.

On the boats, was it mainly single men or was a mixture of families?

No, it was families.

Other than the Dunckleys and the Andrews, what families were there?

Gillams. Bob Gillam used to be the purser on the Oxford. His son was the architect for Salters.

Architect as in he designed…?

We had a naval architect: Baker. He worked down the slip, building the steamers.

Graham: The Gillamses used to live near the Head of the River.

Baker: was he the foreman?

Near enough in charge. They had a foreman there, but he was the naval architect. With all the goings on.

Do you know where he came from?

He come from the coast somewhere.1

When they built the steamers, did they get [new] people to work on the job or was it the normal [Salters’] workforce?

What, they done. All the staff of the steamers, they had their steamer each and the crew stayed on that boat for up to twenty years. And in the winter instead of sacking them, they got them to build these ‘ouses. What they used to do. They used to build eights for the Oxford colleges. And what they done. The colleges couldn’t afford to buy one outright. So Salters’ built them an eight, charged them a rent for three years, then they took that eight away, probably give it to the second crew, and build another boat to start paying out again.

Was the boat building the ‘mainstay’ of the company? Was that a bigger side than the steamers or was it quite similar?

No, the steamers was bigger in their day. They built a lot of steamers for Mears In London.

Did everyone in the firm know each other ? Was there…?

Oh, yeah. Pretty well know each other. We used to muck in together.

Did they use the name ‘Salters’ navy’?


How did the management structure work? Who was there keeping control of the company? Would you see a lot of the Salters?

Bill Gillam was the manager up here. Then they had a fella named Bob Tedds used to be in charge down the slip.

Were they quite strict or did they…?

No, actually it was a very easy firm to work for.

Was there like a hierarchy between different jobs that people did? Or were there particular steamers that were thought of as better?

The Oxford-to-Kingston steamers took priority.

Did people get promoted?

No, they stuck with their job, they didn’t move up much.

Was their rivalry between different boats or was it all fairly friendly?

No, they were very friendly. Coz they used to run the Oxford-Kingston service and when they stopped for the night, they used to go in together and help each other.

Did you have much contact with the Salter family? Did you see them much on a day-to-day basis?

Yeah, you used to see them every day.

Which of the Salters did you see?

Well, first of all it was…John and George was the first two that I remember working for. Then there was the nephew, Frank, and there was James Salter as well – he was a senior one.

Did they run the firm on a day-to-day basis as I know John and James became mayors of Oxford at one stage. Did they still have time to run the firm?

Yeah, of course the councils in Oxford was all business men.

Were they quite respected? Were they friendly, or…?

Oh yeah. Nice firm to work for.

Did the different brothers do different things?

Yeah. What they used to do you see. John Salter was the oldest. So any orders he give, comes first. That’s why I left. I left because when Hubert come on the firm, he give me a job to do that I couldn’t do, because I had too much. So it didn’t get done. I actually give my notice in and Frank Salter called it off. I told him that our orders were to do your orders from the bosses in order of seniority. So Hubert come last.

I heard that the Salters were religious…?

Yeah, Wesleyans.

Did that affect the way it was run?

No. They were Quakers actually, not Wesleyans.2

They didn’t run on Sundays did they?

They didn’t run on Sunday whilst George and John were alive. It was after that that they started to do Sunday work, when all the other firms started to do Sunday work.3

And they didn’t serve alcohol on the boat for some time…?

No, they didn’t serve alcohol. That was when George and John left…well, died off.

What was your perception of how the firm changed over time?

Well, what they done is they run the full service – they cut that out, coz they couldn’t keep the times. There were so many boats on the river. They couldn’t keep the service times. That’s why they broke the service up into little pieces. Too much traffic. Coz when I first went down (Salters’ steamers), you come down to a lock and there were a lot of motor boats. The lockkeeper would always stop the motor boats to let the steamers come through. Course they got a nice gratuity at the end of the year – every lock keeper. It got to the stage that there were so many motor boats that they started kicking up.

Graham: You used to blow the whistle to let the lockkeeper know you were coming to get the lock ready.

Len: Did you know that Salters’ – I don’t know whether they owed it or rented it – ran Edgbaston reservoir in Birmingham. They had a board over there, didn’t they? They had a place in Pangbourne.

Cawston’s was top side of the Swan, Reading, wasn’t it? Where they built the Queen of the Thames. Bottom side we ‘ad that slipway there.

Graham: Was that Maynard’s?

Len: Maynard’s, yeah.

Graham: We bought Maynard’s and Cawston’s.

Len: They bought a steamer of Cawston’s and all.

When did you stop working for the firm?

About 1959, I think.

And so they had a reservoir in Birmingham, what did they have at Pangbourne?

Another boatyard in Pangbourne, just above the lock.

Was it always the headquarters at Oxford?

Yeah, the Salters were there.

In the winter did all the steamers come up to Oxford?

Yeah. You used to get six steamers in the bottom (‘alf of the slipway) and you used to pull ‘em out and then we used to have lines tram lines to jack them up with a trailer and that. Then you shirted the wheels round and stick them over sideways. You had the big boats on the top like the Cliveden and Maple[durham]. One or two private cruisers you used to get in there.

I heard they built a paddle steamer at some stage, were you there when that happened?

There was a paddle steamer that went tp India.4 That was built ‘ere – tested ‘ere. The plates was took apart and then they sent our fellas to India to put it together.

Did I hear that the slipway burnt down?

Yeah, the Oxford was in there.5

Do you know when that was?

About 1920, I think.

Do they know why it was burned down?

No, never found out. Of course they never had any electric lights in there. They had, like you used to have at the fair, big canisters and a tube down there and burners here and that’s all they had to work [gas lighting, i.e. flammable].

So when did they get electricity?

When they put the new slipway up they put electricity in it as well.

In our base in Henley did we a landing stage or did…?

We had a landing stage where Hobbs’ is. It was our landing stage. We put it in and looked after it. We could stop there. Then Hobbs’ wanted it back, as it was on their property. So we moved down and got a landing stage further upstream.

Is that where the present one is [by Mill Meadows]?


Was Marlow just a landing stage?

Yeah, we used to rent that off the council.

Did we have a slipway at Windsor or was it just the office?

No, just the office and the landing stage.

If you worked at the slip did they feed you, like the steamer crews?

No, when the steamers were running they had to feed their selves. Lived on fish and chips then.

When you were a relief skipper. Did you have a set schedule or was it just whenever someone wasn’t there…?

If someone was taken ill or wanted a day off for something special. I used to go on and do the day trip.

And were you based at the slipway whilst you were doing that?

I’d be up at Folly Bridge.

Yes, sorry. Did many people have days off?

Not a lot. They only had three day’s holidays. That’s all they had.

On the boats what was the uniform?

They had all the uniform on the boats.

What was that? Did you wear a hat?

Yeah, a hat.

Graham: A white top for the summer.

Len: Salters’ buttons, Salters’ brass buttons.

Graham: That was the skippers.

Len: The skippers, yeah.

Nora: They used to look very smart

Len: You wasn’t allowed – when John and George was alive – you wasn’t allowed to go on the boat with your coat off, however hot it was. They’d pull you up over it

Did they often tell people off for things like that?

Well, you got pulled up. They used to have inspectors, used to go on and off the boats at different places.

And who were they? Were they from the Oxford office?

No, they were the people who done the canvassing in the winter.

Nora: They used to go around the schools, didn’t they?

Len: You used to have sixteen boats going out of Windsor to Runnymede and back. You can tell what a jam up it was.

Were the inspectors in uniform or were they secret?

No, no. They might have had the Salters’ badge on.

And would they just tell people off or would they take away pay or anything?

If anything wasn’t just right, they’d make a note of it. If you had any complaints you complained to them and they’d try and put it right.

Were there a few employees who weren’t very good or were the staff generally well-behaved?

Well, sometimes when the inspector had been on and got off, they took their coats off.

And how was the pay? Was it good or bad?

No, it was always low. When the Salters came to the yard, we used to have a signature tune we sang:

We are the little children weak.

We only earn three bob a week.

The more we work, the more we play.

It makes no difference to our pay.

Did wages go up every year or were they fairly…?

You had to ask for your raise at that time.

You had to go to Mr Salter?

Yeah, to Mr Salter himself.

Did that mean everyone was paid differently?

All the steamer and the skippers got paid the same wages. Not like… The crew got the same wages and the skippers got their wages, as I understood it.

Was the workshop comparable with the wages?

No, the workshops got more money. In the boatbuilding, they got more money than the steamers.

Why was that?

It brought in more money… Well, the boat building was all year round.

Was it highly skilled work?

It was, yeah.

Who was in charge of designing the racing boats?

Well, we had a bloke named Throssleby who was in charge of all the racing boats. They didn’t have wheels on then. For a long time it was fixed seats.

Graham: Well, they had all trades. Saw mill staff, carpenters…

Len: They had oar makers.

Nora: And upholsterers. Lovely upholstery.

Len: All the steamers used to have cushions. Home-made cushions on all the steamers. You didn’t sit on the wooden spars.

And they had pianos on at some stage?

Yeah, every steamer had a piano

Do you know when they stopped that?

No, I don’t. After I left.

And were they used quite a lot or…?

Quite a bit, yeah. If they had a party on board, they’d play the piano and have a sing-a-long. You didn’t use them when the boat was in service – only when they had a party on.

But the piano stayed on?

Yeah, it was covered over.

Did you have many people falling in?

Not very often.

Do you know what was fastest boat?

Well, the Mapledurham was always faster than the Cliveden. Then they turned it into steam. When they turned her (Cliveden) into diesel it was faster.

Graham: Didn’t you say the boats they built for Mears’ actually kept up with the boat race?

Len: They used to go to the boat race. They never kept up with them, but they joined them in up the course at different places.

Graham: They weren’t any faster than those at Salters’?

Len: No.

During the war, was it mainly landing craft?


Were they quite small?

I suppose they were 20 foot long, 10 foot wide. All steel sheathing on it.

Did the passenger services carry on as normal? The steamers

The steamers carried on as normal. Of course they done ‘holidays at home’.

Do you know what the parents of the original Salters did?

No. They were charitable. The Wesleyan chapel did very well out of them.

When did they bring in skipper’s tickets? [license]

Graham: 1969. You didn’t have to do a test. Salters just wrote in to say you’d been skippering boats for so many years. That’s why I’ve never done a test. I don’t suppose Bryan [Dunckley] has.

I heard that one Salter brother drove into work and the other cycled. Is that right?

Mr George had the car, because he had a chauffeur and all. I was the first fellow at Salters’ to get a travel van.

Nora: And what happened to that?

Len: The engine fell out!

Graham: Yeah, I remember that, coz it was by a pub called the Pond House. The engine fell forward and the fan hit the radiator.



1: Thomas Arnold Baker was in charge of the steel production at the slipway and operated like a subcontractor, who provided his own staff. He came from Clark’s of Brimscombe, who had previously produced the steamers of Salters’, so he was presumably taken to Oxford by Salters’ after Clark passed away (and his business folded).

2: He was correct the first time – they were Wesleyan Methodists, who attended the Wesley Memorial Chapel in New Inn Hall Street.

3: They started running the Oxford-to-Kingston service in 1933, partly because the depression had affected takings. As he suggests, this was from pressure from the younger family members. Many other firms had already been doing well out of Salters’ policy by running on a Sunday, although Salters’ did do some private trips on a Sunday prior to 1933.

4. He is probably referring to the paddle steamer Endeavour that actually went to the Congo.

5. It was actually a boat that was called Phoenix (because of what happened) that was then renamed Hurley.

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