Richmond-upon-Thames, Part II: 64 years with Bill Colley

Bill Colley – building wooden racing boats since 1952.
Bill Colley – building wooden racing boats since 1952.

1 November 2016

Tim Koch writes:

In Part I of my report from Richmond-upon-Thames, I put forward the idea that Richmond was home to more than one survivor of the ‘golden age’ of leisure rowing. I also wrote about Clive Radley employing Bill Colley, a Richmond-based designer and builder of wooden racing boats, to restore a scull built in 1956 by Clive’s uncle, Sid. I am devoting Part II to a wonderful talk that I had with Bill, sitting in the sun and drinking tea outside his workshop by the river. An edited version of our conversation is below. My questions have been taken out to make it easier to read but, hopefully, it retains the spirit of what was said.

The riverside at Richmond. The majority of the boats here are connected to Mark Edwards, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Edwards_(boatbuilder) also a builder of traditional wooden boats, though not ‘racing boats’, which are Bill’s speciality. The entrance to Bill’s workshop is in the bottom right of the picture.
The riverside at Richmond. The majority of the boats here are connected to Mark Edwards,also a builder of traditional wooden boats, though not ‘racing boats’, which are Bill’s speciality. The entrance to Bill’s workshop is in the bottom right of the picture.

Bill Colley:

I’m 79 now and I have been a boatbuilder for 64 years. I was born on 1 April, which is my excuse for everything. My uncle was a boatbuilder at the West End Boathouse in Hammersmith and my father was a waterman, he was always afloat, in later years he was a river pilot. I started work under Roland Sims at Putney in 1952 when I was 15, though not officially an apprentice. They would not take on apprentices, I don’t know why, but I did in four years what the proper apprentices did in seven. I managed to build a boat that won a Silver Medal in the Olympics after four years.

Sims of Putney was on the ground floor of the building second from the right. The top floor was Vesta Rowing Club – which now occupies the whole building.
Sims of Putney was on the ground floor of the building second from the right. The top floor was Vesta Rowing Club – which now occupies the whole building.

When I left Sims, I became a scooter mechanic for a couple of years but that was a bit boring, it was a good change but I went back to boatbuilding at the first opportunity and worked for Sims of Hammersmith at the Rutland Boathouse.

Some views of the interior of the Rutland Boathouse in 1939 – though it probably was not much changed when Bill worked there 20 years later:

pic-3b

pic-3c

pic-3d

In 1960, Bill Sims then moved the Hammersmith business to Eel Pie Island in Twickenham. The company built eights that were 60-foot long, so we had a workshop build on Eel Pie Island that was 45-foot square and the eights had to be built diagonally, corner to corner. But he did turn around the business. Dear old Frankie Sims (who ran the company before Bill and was the grandson of the founder) was losing money on every boat that he built. But, at that time you had six to eight months of advance orders, so Bill wrote to all the prospective customers and said that their boat would cost them 10 or 12 per cent more – and nobody said no, they appreciated that the boats had been too cheap. The only good thing about the plastic people was that when they came in, their prices were sky high, so we were able to be cheaper than they but more expensive than we would have been. Boat people are not business people, that’s our trouble, we’re all the same.

Sims on Eel Pie Island, Twickenham in 1968.
Sims on Eel Pie Island, Twickenham in 1968.

In about 1963, I went to Eton College but that was absolutely disastrous, it was ridiculous how you had to perform. There were no machines at all, everything was done by hand. If you wanted a bit of wood, you had to go down two flights of stairs and walk 50 or 60 yards to the timber store, get your bit of wood, walk back and then cut it by hand. There were no toilets, you had to use the public one down the road. I was there for just ten weeks and I never finished building a four, I only just over half finished it – normally I could build a four in three weeks. Once I built four eights in four months. My record is that I once built a sculling boat in 56 hours. That’s from going to buy the timber to the finished boat going out with the riggers and everything. My average time for building a sculling boat using my method was about 100-120 hours (which is a bit different to the plastic ones, count them in minutes rather than hours)! Frankie Sims claimed that he once singlehandedly built ten sculling boats in 100 days.

This upbeat newsreel from 1950 does not even hint at the problems of working at the Eton College boathouse that Bill encountered.

After ten weeks at Eton, I went self-employed, at Hammersmith, behind the West End Boathouse, working with my uncle. But we fell out and I went to the University College School Boat Club by The Three Pigeons in Richmond. It was a nice place to work, a great big workshop, but there was no money so I went to the Castle Boathouse in Richmond for three or four years.

A postcard from long before Bill’s time showing the Pigeons/Three Pigeons in Richmond and what was then Messum’s Boathouse.
A postcard from long before Bill’s time showing the Pigeons/Three Pigeons in Richmond and what was then Messum’s Boathouse.

I was there until 1970 or ’71 and I got a big place in Kingston and I was living in there as well. But, I had not been there three months and the whole place burnt down, the boats, building, everything was lost. About six companies were renting from Turks in there and they all went in the fire. For a year in ’72, I was unable to find suitable premises, you obviously need a lot of space for eights, but eventually I was back at the Rutland Boathouse in Hammersmith. London Rowing Club had rented it on short term while their club was been done up and the rent laws at that time meant that the brewery that owned it could not charge me any more than they charged London – £4 a week! It was about 3,000 square feet and it really annoys me that today it is derelict. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, built that in about 1880. He was a Biffin, he must have had tons of money (he never gave me any) as he custom built the place on three floors purely for building boats, most other boat building places have been adapted from something else.

The decaying Rutland Boathouse, Hammersmith, today.
The decaying Rutland Boathouse, Hammersmith, today.
pic-6b
A different view of the same yard as in the colour picture above. This 1939 picture shows how completed eights were taken out of the higher floors. On the other side of the street is the entrance to the rear of the West End Boathouse where Bill Colley worked briefly with his uncle in 1963 or ’64.

When I left there in ’83, the writing was on the wall, the plastic was really beginning to take over, so I went to work for London Rowing Club. I was there for eight years but was chased out by the plastic by ’91. So I went down to Richmond to work with Mark Edwards and built a few boats with him. I was then asked by Mortlake, Anglian and Alpha Boat Club to make and repair boats at their old Mortlake boathouse (they had moved to across the river to Chiswick). It was very nice, a big place, I built several boats in there and mended lots more but was then one day suddenly given three months notice to quit.

The old Mortlake boathouse in the early 1960s.
The old Mortlake boathouse in the early 1960s.

I went back to Richmond, in the row where I am now – but in the end unit – for six years. The landlord then decided to sell it and I moved two units up to here – and I am not moving again!

Bill’s (final) workshop – third from the left.
Bill’s (final) workshop – third from the left.
Bill entering his workshop.
Bill entering his workshop.

There is no future, I do not think that anybody is going to make money from wooden racing boats – unless you are Carl Douglas. He is a good friend of mine, we bully one another a bit but we know what we are talking about. He cannot custom-build a boat to the same extent (as me) as his are made in a mould and are partially Kevlar reinforced. I mean no disrespect, he earns a lot more money than I do and he has long order books as well, but what I call ‘tortured ply’ boatbuilding is finished.

Bill at one of his workbenches. Note one of his tool boxes in the bottom left with a nice collection of boat maker’s plates in the lid.
Bill at one of his workbenches. Note one of his tool boxes in the bottom left with a nice collection of boat maker’s plates in the lid.
Like most ‘mancaves’, Bill’s workshop has lots of things that he has kept in the certainty that they will be needed one day.
Like most ‘mancaves’, Bill’s workshop has lots of things that he has kept in the certainty that they will be needed one day.
A demonstration of one of the properties of cedar, the ‘miracle wood’ that HTBS has written about before.
A demonstration of one of the properties of cedar, the ‘miracle wood’ that HTBS has written about before.

Apart from Clive’s boat, I have done virtually nothing this year. But, this is the most beautiful place that I have been in, sitting here in the sun, lovely. I have never been tempted to learn about plastic boats, I don’t like the smell. As to doing other ‘woodwork’, it’s a very specialised thing, boatbuilding. People say, ‘come and put up a shelf for me’, or ‘resurface my table’ or things like that. No, can’t do that, won’t do that. You can be the best boatbuilder in the world but it does not qualify you to do any other woodwork.

Bill keeps many of his irreplaceable tools locked away.
Bill keeps many of his irreplaceable tools locked away.
A carefully stored collection of different screws and nails, all with very specific uses.
A carefully stored collection of different screws and nails, all with very specific uses.
Copper nails, waiting to be put to good use.
Copper nails, waiting to be put to good use.

I would like to build one final sculling boat. I should not say this, but I would almost do it for expenses. I’ve got some timber that I’ve only recently discovered from the building of the Queen’s Row Barge, Gloriana. A German boy, who was working on Gloriana, was using a wood from China called Paulownia to make surfboards. It’s a light as balsa wood but strong enough to build a boat from. I’d love to put it into practice as it can be used throughout a sculling boat, inwales, keel, cross beams, cross bracing, everything that is normally cedar or pine we could use this Paulownia for and I reckon that I could get the weight of the boat down…..

Bill, outside his workshop, waiting for a commission.
Bill, outside his workshop, waiting for a commission.

In December 2013, the BBC made a nice short film about Bill and it is still available online. In slight contrast, a film about Carl Douglas and his wooden veneered boats is here.

Tim writes: Bill did give me a figure for what he thought ‘expenses’ for building a new sculling boat would be. I will say that it is lot less than a new plastic boat. You will also be buying an exquisite piece of rowing history. How could any HTBS reader resist?

One comment

  1. My first single was a Colley and it had those little brass nails holding down the beading around the canvases (made of real canvas). I sold it to Andy Rudkin at Milton Keynes RC and saw some of his junior scullers using it at Cambridge heads from time to time. Fond memories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s