There are a number of long established businesses still operating on the Royal River Thames and arguably the most famous of these is Salter’s Steamers Ltd (or Salters’ for short), based at Folly Bridge in Oxford. The firm played a key role in popularising pleasure boating on the non-tidal river and its history provides a fascinating insight into how water-based leisure developed over the past two centuries.
In order to expand the firm accumulated a large number of waterside properties around Folly Bridge, as well as residential housing that was used as both a source of rental income and subsidised accommodation for employees. The racing-boat department declined in the mid-1870s, following the departure (from ill-health) of Stephen Salter, but by that stage the business was focusing more heavily on the pleasure boating market. Water-based leisure was already popular in Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century and one of the most famous outings was undertaken by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) in July 1862. He travelled from Folly Bridge to Godstow and it was during the trip that he first told the stories that eventually became Alice in Wonderland. A number of authors have suggested this was on a boat rented from Salters’, although Carroll did not say where he got the boat from. It is certainly possible that it might have been, though, because the firm was one of the two main hire companies operating at Folly Bridge at the time.
Salters’ also helped to popularise the long-distance ‘Thames trip’ between Oxford and London by providing a free delivery and/or retrieval service for those wanting to undertake a one-way journey. This became a very fashionable activity in the late Victorian period, when the river entered what some authors have described as a ‘golden age’ for leisure. The popularity of pleasure boating was connected with the rise of recreational camping, and the firm offered a range of tent boats to cater for those who wanted to sleep on board overnight (although camping on the bank was also another option). By the late-1880s the firm’s rental fleet had grown to an incredible 900 craft (including racing boats), which undoubtedly made Salters’ one of the country’s largest inland boat-letters.
In 1888 the firm began operating a steamer service between Oxford and Kingston, the expansion of which opened up the Upper Thames to much larger numbers of visitors. By forging a close relationship with others in the transport industry, Salters’ was able to tap into the growing excursion market and to establish a monopoly over the long-distance journey. By joining forces with the Great Western Railway the firm introduced a range of ‘circular tours’ involving sightseeing by both rail and river. These ensured that Salters’ became a convenient ‘one-stop-shop’ for those in the tourist industry wanting to organise trips on the river between Oxford and Kingston. The service benefitted from a large amount of publicity and was very profitable in the early years, which enabled the firm to build up its fleet (initially by purchasing them, but also, from 1901, by building them). By the beginning of the twentieth century the firm was the biggest passenger boat operator on the non-tidal Thames with its steamers well-known both nationally and internationally. The business also became a leading authority on the river and the surrounding area, partly because of the popularity of what became known as The Salter’s Guide to the Thames (of which fifty-seven editions were produced between 1881 and 1968).
The firm’s success also helped to elevate the second generation of the family to prominence in Oxford. By the end of the nineteenth century the business was being run by the brothers John, James and George, and the oldest two were very active in local politics (as Liberals representing the South Ward). They became central figures in the city’s civic affairs and both served as Mayors of Oxford during the Edwardian period. The three brothers were also prominent Wesleyan Methodists and their religious convictions inevitably influenced how they ran their business. The Oxford and Kingston service was not run on a Sunday (until 1933), nor was alcohol served on board.
It was James Salter’s oldest son, Arthur, who went on to achieve the greatest fame. He initially entered the civil service and was a key figure in charge of shipping in both the First and Second World Wars. During the 1930s he became Gladstone Professor of Political Theory and Institutions at Oxford University, which led to him serving as an MP for the University. He received many awards and honours during his illustrious career, and in 1953 he was elevated to the peerage, as Baron Salter of Kidlington.
The business experienced some cash-flow problems in the early part of the twentieth century, but it benefitted greatly from a large amount of contract work in the latter stages of the First World War, which helped to swell the workforce to unprecedented levels (167 employees in the summer of 1918). The craft Salters’ built during the conflict included dinghies, pontoons, collapsible boats, cutters (used on larger military vessels), motor boats, launches, whalers, seaplane tenders, gigs, coastal motor boats, pinnaces and pontoons. The firm, which became Salter Bros Ltd in 1915, also benefitted from a notable rise in pleasure boating both during and directly after the conflict.
In the 1920s the three most important parts of the business were the boat-building department, the rental fleet and the Oxford and Kingston steamers, which each typically generated between 20% and 30% of the firm’s total annual turnover. Over the course of the decade orders received by the former grew to unprecedented levels, peaking at 359 in 1930 (including 21 canoes that were outsourced from Canada). Hydroplanes made for racing were particularly popular at the time, and one built by Salters’ (Itsit VII) achieved a record speed for a class C outboard off the Isle of Wight in 1929. Small dinghies and paddle boats for boating lakes were also beginning to be popular and those built for local councils around the country became an increasingly important market for the firm. Salters’ also had a prolific oar-making department that was responsible for producing nearly 2,000 items in 1925, which included 1,334 sculls, 239 poles (mainly punt poles), 217 oars and 174 paddles. Self-drive cabin cruisers were also introduced into the hire fleet in the 1920s. One such craft the firm built for a private client was Bosphorus (1936), which was moored up at Folly Bridge and was regularly used by both the owner, Warren Lewis, and his brother, the famous author C. S. Lewis.
The overall trend in the interwar period was one of falling income from the scheduled services and rising income from boat-letting, which included the rental of privately hired steamers (especially those used on the increasingly popular circular tours). The 1930s depression temporarily affected all areas of the business, although it was the boat-building department that suffered the most, as orders failed to recover after falling by approximately a third.
The Second World War was a considerable fillip for Salters’, as it benefitted from additional contract work and a significant increase in pleasure boating, especially travelling on the Oxford and Kingston steamers. Some of the largest passenger boats were requisitioned and converted for use as hospital ships on the tideway, although it was only the passenger boats that the firm had built for other operators – those that were designed to run on salt water – that were able to be involved in the Dunkirk evacuations.
The company continued to be profitable in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, aided by its close ties with those in the travel industry, and it was coach operators that became increasingly important, as road replaced rail as the main way in which people travelled to tourist destinations. The 1950s and 1960s were a difficult time for the firm, however, and it was during this period that it sold off much of its residential property. There were a variety of reasons for the downturn, but one major local factor was that Salters’ was unable to compete with the wages offered in Oxford’s motor industry, which had grown massively from the 1920s onwards. Like many other businesses in the city, it was forced to source employees from other parts of the country, although it was fortunate that the jobs on board the steamers remained popular. By contrast, Salters’ struggled to recruit and retain its skilled but low paid craftsmen, which contributed to the demise of traditional wooden boat-building. Despite the challenges it faced, the firm’s fleet of large passenger boats peaked in the late 1950s at seventeen craft, although the majority of the ‘steamers’ (as they continued to be called) had been converted to diesel by that point (a process that took from 1944 to 1964 to complete).
The company’s performance improved considerably in the late 1970s, as the river briefly became busier (in terms of traffic through the locks) than at any time in its history. The firm’s fleet of motorised rental boats, which now included canal boats, grew to its largest size (aided by bookings from Hoseseasons holidays) and its racing craft were in the ascendency once again, following reinvestment. The proudest moment for the firm in a generation came in 1976 when Oxford University won the boat race in a Salters’-built eight. The victory was also the third record-breaking craft that the company had built for the contest, which is unrivalled by any other boat-builder. Furthermore, both the number of passengers being carried on the steamers and the output of the boat-building department also reached new heights in the 1970s. The latter was the result of the introduction of fibreglass construction and a particularly popular product at the time, which even briefly revived the firm’s export trade, was the life-raft designed to be placed on passenger boats. Yet as traffic on the river swelled to record levels the resultant delays forced the company to cut the long distance Oxford-to-Kingston service into smaller sections (in 1974). This, as well as catering for the growing demand for both short round trips and the private hire market, drew the firm into direct competition with other operators and made it more dependent on Oxford, at a time when its fleet was declining in size.
This was followed by a downturn in the 1980s, when the output of the boat-building department declined and Salters’ finally bowed out of racing craft construction. The depression of the early 1990s was a particularly difficult time for the firm and it not only disposed of its rental fleet (although it was reinstated in a smaller form a decade later), but it also had to sell one of its yards to Hertford College, which built student accommodation on the site. This was followed by further investment in property in the twenty-first century, as the firm sought to take advantage of the sharply rising housing prices in the area. Two of its yards on Brook Street were converted into residential accommodation and this change of emphasis eventually led to a restructuring of the firm. Salter Bros Ltd became a separate property company (as it remains today), whilst the boating side of the business was devolved to Salter’s Steamers Ltd.
This latest change was one of many ways in which the firm adapted and diversified in order to survive. Over the course of the past 150 years the different departments of Salters’ were able to support each other, and the business transformed itself from one that revolved around a skilled trade to one that was largely concerned with providing leisure services. In doing so, it became one of the most important firms connected with the recent history of the non-tidal Thames, as it was at the forefront of the changes that transformed the river from a working waterway into one of recreation. Indeed, Salters’ was amongst the prominent leisure providers of the Victorian age (and beyond), as it did more to popularise pleasure boating on the higher reaches of the waterway than any other comparable business. It is not surprising, therefore, that its name has become synonymous with the river.
The firm is now run by fifth and sixth generation family members, which makes it one of Oxford’s oldest businesses to still be under the control of those directly descended from its founders. In an era when heritage tourism is increasingly popular, it is fitting that we acknowledge the considerable contribution that Salters’ has made to the city, the Thames and the surrounding area – a legacy that continues to this day.
© Dr Simon Wenham, Historian
For more detailed information about the firm’s history, see S. M. Wenham, Pleasure Boating on the Thames: a History of Salter Bros, 1858 – Present Day.
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