Breeding Racehorses

The gated pound lock (left) with Salter's buildings on Folly Island behind and to the right of it, c.1873. Salter's warehouse, now the Head of the River pub, is on the far right. Image © Salter's Steamers.
The gated pound lock (left) with Salter’s buildings on Folly Island behind and to the right of it, c.1873. Salter’s warehouse, now the Head of the River pub, is on the far right. Image © Salter’s Steamers.

22 March 2016

The men’s and women’s Boat Races – this year known as the Cancer Research UK Boat Races – take place on 27 March, Easter Sunday. The annual clash between battling Blues is a battle of boat builders, too, writes Chris Dodd.

From its start in 1829, the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge has been a shop window for boat builders. If the winner is rowing your boat, your order book is filled as clubs, schools and colleges beat a path to your door. In the wooden boat era of the 19th and 20th centuries, boat builders courted OUBC and CUBC much as motor manufacturers pursue Formula 1 success today.

In the good old days when newspapers employed correspondents to write copious pieces on the weeks leading to the race itself, considerable space was devoted to the boats used by the university clubs. Even in this century, when the Olympics and World Championships also present prestigious windows on equipment, the annual tussle from Putney to Mortlake still matters to the Hudsons and the Empachers of the racing shell world, whether discussed in the media or not.

Interesting light on the design and territorial rivalries of wooden boats is thrown by Pleasure Boating on the Thames: A History of Salter Bros, 1858-Present Day, a recent workmanlike history of Salter Bros of Oxford by Simon Wenham (ISBN 978-0-7509-5833-2). Wenham produces a table of leading builders for winning Boat Race crews from 1839 to 1976, when composite materials began to take over the industry. Today, Salters are engaged in Thames steamer excursions, punt hire and sales of skiffs and electric craft. But the firm’s activities since it began trading in 1858 include every aspect of boating: the design and build of racing boats, liveries for municipal lakes, canoes transportable as motorcycle sidecars, hire cruisers and the operation of a steamer fleet.

What is most interesting to me about Wenham’s table of Boat Race success is the rivalry shown up between the builders of the Tyne and the Thames, and to a lesser extent of the Cam.

searle's yard, lambeth
Searle’s boatyard in 1830.

From 1839 to 1856, the Lambeth yard of Searle was the leading firm, with Oxford’s Isaac King (builder, with the Cornishman Stephen Davies, of the Balliol boat that Oxford used to win in 1829) and Hall in second place.

Matt Taylor of the Tyne, the builder who moved the keel inboard in 1857 to create a smooth bottom, led from that year to 1860 (other Tyne men such as Harry Clasper and Robert Jewitt laid claims to the shell). For the next nine years, Salters took the mantle, to be overtaken by Clasper who was also a pioneer of an earlier development, the outrigger, in 1846.

Harry Clasper’s son, John Hawkes Clasper, had a boatyard in Putney. Today, the building is used by Westminster School’s BC. Photo: Tim Koch.

From 1876 to 1881 another Tyne builder, Swaddle and Winship, took the lead. Clasper, now led by Harry’s son John Hawkes Clasper and based in Putney, dominated the 1880s, and Rough of Oxford took over for the 1890s. Note that sliding seats were first used in the Boat Race in 1873, the most important technical innovation in rowing, and a contraption that owed much to the Tyne builders and oarsmen. Various incarnations of the Sims family on the Thames dominated until 1972 with the exception of Rough (1909-1914) and Banham of Cambridge (1955-1964).

For 90 years from the 1820s, more than half of the Boat Races were rowed in boats of different makers. Winners tended to stick with their builder, losers to change. During 1839 and 1873, the winner changed builder five times, the loser 16. Oxford stuck with Salter for their nine wins from 1861 to 1869, while Cambridge stayed with Sims for their 13 from 1924 to 1936.

What the table does not reveal is the links between Tyne and Thames boat builders that lay beneath their 19th-century rivalry. Both rivers produced great professional sculling and rowing champions, many of them boat builders whose craft enhanced their performance and vice-versa. Recent events – Ed Waugh’s musical play Hadaway Harry about Clasper and this author’s Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers about the Tyne’s champion oarsmen, innovative boat builders and the song writers who celebrated them – are succeeding in their aim of reminding Geordieland of its forgotten heroes. Hadaway Harry is to have an airing at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, next year, with the possibility of a tour to the Thames, while recently the celebrated Hexham-born actor Robson Green, asked to name some famous Tynesiders on the BBC’s One Show, included Harry Clasper among his shortlist.

The Salter family’s early involvement with rowing began at its public house in Wandsworth, the Feathers. The Claspers stayed there when they were competing on the Thames. By 1849, the Claspers had trained there regularly enough to call The Feathers their ‘old quarters’. In September that year, John Salter went to Newcastle to gain experience in Harry Clasper’s workshop. In 1850, he was competing with the Claspers in northern regattas, finishing second at Talkin Tarn and chalking up victories in the Chadwick Cup at Manchester, the Ellesmere Plate at Salford and the Tradesmen’s Plate at Tees regatta.

J & S Salter Boat Builders. Photo:

When he returned south, John Salter billed himself as ‘of Wandsworth who was formerly with Clasper of Newcastle’. Immediately, Salters racing craft had wins at professional and amateur Thames championships (1853) and the Colquoun Sculls next year in Cambridge. In 1857, Cambridge used a Salter boat for the Boat Race, without success. In 1858, John and Stephen Salter set up J & S Salter Boat Builders in Oxford, buying Isaac King’s business, boats and stock-in-trade included, for £1,300 in instalments.

A second North-South link occurred when the Oxford-builder Rough, who had worked for John Clasper, married his daughter.

Through John began Salters’ swift rise to a place among the great artists of boat building. For in the days of wood, crafting boats was more art than science. Arthur Salter likened it to breeding racehorses. Your reputation, he said in 1978, hangs on how your boats perform. No two craft were the same. They were bespoke for crews, and affected by the size and weight of the crew as well as conditions on race day.

Salter’s boats set up Oxford’s fastest times of the 19th century in 1868 and 1869, despite the comment from the 1869 crew:

She seemed to us to trim somewhat more towards the stern than is usual… but we were informed by her builder that this was an intentional peculiarity… with the object of exposing as little as possible of her stern to the action of the wind.

The Rowing Almanack cited the best Boat Race boats thus:

The 1914 Cambridge boat by Bowers and Phelps had ‘the undeniable advantage in naval architecture… the best model since Oxford’s boat of 1908 and probably superior to that, in which case one might be hiked back to the celebrated Swaddell [sic] used by Oxford 1877-82.’

The 1914 Cambridge crew who raced in a boat built by Bowers and Phelps
The 1914 Cambridge crew who raced in a boat built by Bowers and Phelps

The coach and commentator Guts Woodgate added Cambridge’s 1883 Clasper to the list, and claimed that Oxford’s 1865 Salter was the fastest Salter. The normal place for the widest part of the hull at that time was at the No 5 seat, but this one had the widest part at 3 because of size of bow man, fish-shaped like Matt Taylor’s boats. Surely some confusion here: Oxford’s bow man in 1865 was R T Raikes, the lightest man in the boat at 11 stone. Heaviest was E F Henley at 12 stone 13 lbs. the No 5 was A Morrison, 12 and a half stone. Anyway, the boat went on to win the Grand in 1866 and 1867 for Oxford Etonians, and shone at the Paris International Regatta in 1867.

In 1874, the Saturday Review commented:

Armies have been defeated, it is said, from the fault of the shoemaker as well as from the mistakes of the general; and, if justice were fairly distributed, Messrs’ Searle, Clasper, Salter, and other builders would frequently deserve a large share of the glory or the blame which is too frequently bestowed upon the oarsmen and their trainers.

For Salters, the last year of wood in the Boat Race was the best. In 1976, they built an eight for Oxford that was not the lightest, but rigid for speed. It won the race in a record 16:58, ‘the proudest day for Salter Bros this century’.

The wooden boat builders had many similarities with today’s synthetic material artists and scientists. They tested their craft at regattas and carved reputation with lesser clients, they bespoke boats for their top clients and they sought national and international publicity through showcase events. Wenham notes that by 1900, Oxford and Cambridge were changing builder less often. Was this because boat builders were breeding similarity? Perhaps. But there is plenty of evidence that they were not. Only the other day, Volker Nolte, designer of a sliding rigger in Germany that made a mark in the 1980s before it was banned by FISA, was calling for its re-introduction. His prototype is displayed in the River & Rowing Museum in Henley, in the company of several other boats that were experimental and controversial. The trail of ingenuity initiated on Tyne now tributaries round the world.

Leading builders in BR in wood-era, based on winners only, from Pleasure Boating on the Thames.

Date Leading firm No 2 firm
1829-36 No leader
1839-56 Searle (Thames/Cam) King/Hall (Isis)
1857-60 Taylor (Tyne) Searle (Thames)
1861-69 Salter (Isis)
1870-75 Clasper (Tyne/Thames) Salter (Ox and Eton)
1876-81 Swaddle and Winship (Tyne)
1882-91 Clasper
1892-98 Rough (Isis) Clasper
1899-08 Sims and Sons (Thames)
1909-14 Rough (Isis) Sims and Sons
1920-36 Sims and Sons Bowers and Phelps (Thames)
1937-54 Sims (Thames)
1955-64 Banham (Cam) Sims
1965-72 Sims
1973-76 No leader

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