Reviewed by Tony on 21st June, 2017
On Tuesday 6th June members braved the unseasonal weather to hear a fascinating talk by Dr Simon Wenham about Salters, said to be the oldest family firm in Oxford. We all knew about the pleasure steamers on the Thames, but there is a lot more to the history of the company than we thought.
The origins of the company can be traced back to the riverside Feathers pub in Wandsworth, from where it moved to its present location at Folly Bridge, Oxford. In its early years, it built racing boats, having a contract to build Cambridge's boat for the Boat Race in 1857, as well as Oxford's winning boat from 1881 to 1889 and the umpires' boats for Henley Regatta. It lost the ascendancy in this field in the 1870s, but built its last racing boat for Oxford in 1976, the last wooden boat in the Boat Race.
The company expanded into leisure boats for hire, peaking in size with some 900 boats in the 1880s, including the innovative camping craft. From here it broadened into other sectors, including Oxford College barges, stern paddle steamers for use by Baptists in the Congo, collapsible liferafts (demand for which increased 300% after the Titanic disaster!), WWI naval motor boats for use in Operation Kronstadt in 1919 and even Normandy landing craft.
Its passenger boat fleet peaked in size at 17 in the 1950s and by the 1970s they carried as many as half a million passengers annually. Originally Salters' concentrated on longer routes out of its Oxford base, leaving shorter trips to local operators. Unfortunately the company's boats were no longer to be given priority at locks on the river and they found it increasingly difficult to keep to its published timetables. This forced it to operate local services only where its competitors had become established. Let us hope that Salter's will be able to continue operating their delightful services.