Oxford, the Thames and Leisure: a History of Salter Bros, 1858-2010

Oxford University DPhil thesis, Michaelmas term, 2012 by Simon Wenham.

[Please note that some of my views have evolved since the publication of the thesis and these are outlined in more detail here]


This thesis is an examination of the history of Salter Bros Ltd and the firms connected with it. Founded in 1858, it became not only one of the most important businesses associated with the recent history of the Upper Thames, but also a significant employer in Oxford.

The study takes a thematic approach, which involves examining the five main areas of the firm’s commercial activities, which were: providing services for the sport of rowing (chapter 1), boat-building (chapter 2), boat-letting (chapter 3), passenger boat operating (chapter 4) and property development (chapter 5). This thesis draws on the firm’s archive, which has previously been unavailable to scholars. The mainly quantitative data from the archive is contextualised by reference to wider qualitative sources, although there is not always much comparative information to draw on. Finally, it focuses on the evolution of the workforce, which shows how the business managed to survive both the impact of the industrialisation of Oxford in the twentieth century and some of the challenges associated with family firms (chapter 6).

By examining the areas shown above, the work sheds light on our understanding of (1) the socio-economic context of Oxford and the Thames, (2) the development of different forms of water-based leisure, and (3) how a family firm overcame some of the classic weaknesses of such businesses.

Chapter 1 analyses the contribution that the firm made to the sport of rowing. The family moved to a riverside tavern in the mid-1830s and this resulted in heavy involvement with the rowing scene. They made a successful transition from professional oarsmen to successful racing boat-builders, which led to John and Stephen Salter moving to Oxford to start their own business in 1858. By exploiting the strong local rowing scene they built their firm up to be the market leader in the 1860s. Supplying craft for the Oxford and Cambridge (university) boat race was important for helping the business gain worldwide fame and, although Salters’ lost the ascendency in the 1870s, it provided a wide range of services for the sport until the second half of the twentieth century. It then slowly became divorced from the rowing scene and, despite a brief renaissance in the 1970s, the company finally bowed out of racing boat construction at the end of the 1980s.

Chapter 2 explores the development of the boat-building side of the business. The firm was a major producer of craft and it was especially busy in the late 1920s and late 1970s, when new products helped to stimulate demand. By examining four areas of expertise (steel manufacturing, motorised boats, corporation craft and fibreglass construction) it becomes clear that the business was relatively slow to embrace new technology. Yet although it was not particularly innovative, Salters’ successfully exploited a number of emerging markets, like supplying craft for council-run boating lakes from the 1920s onwards. After a period of decline in the 1960s, the firm’s boat-building department was briefly revived by the introduction of fibreglass construction in the following decade, although this brought to an end skilled craftsmanship in the industry. Salters’ had to be flexible in order to survive, as is shown by the contract work it took on during the two World Wars, but in the second half of the twentieth century the firm’s focus moved away from boat-building towards providing leisure services.

Chapter 3 examines the nature and timing of the rise of pleasure boating on the Thames and Salters’ role in promoting it. The railway destroyed much of the carrying trade on the river, but the waterway gained a new lease of life by the rise of leisure activities on it. Different types of boating were popular at different times and certain waterside locations were busier than others, but it is possible to discern short-term peaks in pleasure boating on the Upper Thames, as a whole, in the early 1890s and either side of the First World War (although the river became busier still after the Second World War). There were many factors contributing to the rise of leisure on the waterway, but Salters’ helped to popularise ‘the Thames trip’ between London and Oxford, which was linked to the growth of camping. The firm’s fortunes were also closely tied to the local market and by the late 1880s it had one of the largest fleets of rental craft in the country. Salters’ had to diversify according to changing fashions in pleasure boating, but after the 1920s there was a slow reduction in the number of craft it operated, until it stopped boat-letting altogether in the early 1990s – although this side of the business was revived a decade later, albeit on a smaller scale.

Chapter 4 explores the firm’s involvement with passenger services on the waterway. The long-distance steamboat trips took much longer to become established on the Upper Thames, because of the logistical problems caused by having to pass through locks. Salters’ was the first business to make a success of running between Oxford and Kingston and it did this by forging a close association with the railway, which opened up the river to the day-trip market, and by building up its fleet to establish a monopoly over the long-distance journey. The service had to overcome many challenges, but one of the most serious problems it faced was the growth in pleasure boating after the Second World War. Although passenger numbers on the steamers peaked in the 1970s, general traffic on the river also reached record levels, which caused significant delays and forced the firm to end the through-service between Oxford and Kingston. Furthermore, by catering for the growing demand for shorter round trips Salters’ was drawn into direct competition with other companies that were already focused on this market. By the end of the twentieth century, the firm was no longer dominating the waterway and it was heavily reliant on income from both its home city of Oxford and private parties.

Chapter 5 examines the extent and significance of the property the firm came to occupy. Salters’ acquired many new properties in order to expand the business and the firm’s success also enabled it to accumulate residential accommodation, which was part of the employment package offered to its staff, as well as being a source of rental income. The commercial sites were useful for preventing competitors from encroaching on the firm’s territory, whilst they were also subsequently used for further development. Most importantly, the property was a reservoir of capital that Salters’ relied upon in times of financial hardship.

Chapter 6 focuses on how the workforce evolved in the twentieth century, which sheds light on how the business survived both the industrialisation of Oxford and some of the challenges associated with family firms. Salters’ went from being an employer with a highly skilled and local workforce to one that had fewer specialised craftsmen and which recruited mainly from outside the city. This was symptomatic of the city’s employment market that had been transformed by the motor industry in the interwar period, as well as the firm’s greater focus on its passenger boats, which was connected with it. Salters’ had to be flexible to accommodate the changes, but it was unable to compete with the high wages offered in the car factories and a shortage of local labour meant that it not only struggled to retain employees, particularly its skilled craftsmen, but standards of discipline also deteriorated. Nevertheless, the impact of wage competition was mitigated by the firm’s paternalism and the considerable appeal of working on the passenger boats. The latter offered an enjoyable lifestyle that was very different from the working environment of other waterway communities. The Salter family also played an important part in the survival of their company. Although the firm suffered from many of the classic weaknesses associated with such businesses, the way in which the ownership and management of the company developed in the second half of the twentieth century – which was both by chance and by design – was important for ensuring its longevity.

The study shows that Salters’ achieved considerable success in the commercialisation of water-based leisure by expanding and diversifying its services. The firm went from being a leading racing boat-builder in the 1860s to becoming one of the country’s most significant boat-letters by the late 1880s. By the early twentieth century it was the major passenger boat operator on the Upper Thames, as well as being one of the foremost inland boat-builders. Its early commercial success enabled Salters’ to build up an asset-base (in the form of property) on which it relied in the second half of the twentieth century, when many areas of the business declined (although the company experienced a brief resurgence in the late 1970s). There were many reasons for the downturn, but the problems were exacerbated by both the industrialisation of Oxford, which transformed the local employment market, and some of the weaknesses associated with family firms. Nevertheless, the company’s adaptability was of paramount importance and the firm ultimately shifted its emphasis away from the risky and volatile leisure market towards property development.

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