The Biffens of Hammersmith – Builders of Boats Big and Small

The ‘Anchor’ boathouse of the Hammersmith boatbuilding firm of Biffen in 1872. Sitting in what today is the ergo room of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club, the boatbuilders watch the coxless four that they have made for members of the Atalanta Club of New York go afloat. Possibly, the man in the top hat is William Henry Biffen, the third generation head of the family business.

10 January 2018

Tim Koch takes up modelling.

HTBS recently published an appeal by boat restorer Kai Stürmann for information about ‘a very fine model of a single racing shell, made from wood, and put together quite like a full-size shell’. Kai wondered ‘Is it possible that it was made by an actual builder….?’ While I cannot provide any information on Kai’s model, I can confirm that at least one boat building family produced scaled down boats as a sales aid, as a hobby, and as a source of extra income. They were the Biffens of Hammersmith, boatbuilders for five generations. Before I look at what I know of their model making activities, a summary of the history of their business building full-scale boats is appropriate. For this, I quote extensively from a self-published book by Frank Grace, Ancestors In The Attic (2017).

Frank first contacted me in 2015 because my club, Auriol Kensington, is based in a boathouse built by the Biffens in 1869. He explained that he was writing a history of his family and that he was related to the Biffens through his maternal grandmother. I was happy to be able to show him a very tangible legacy of the Biffen’s occupancy of the building – more of this later. Sadly, Frank died last year, having just approved the final draft of his book – which was then published posthumously.

The Atalanta crew at Biffen’s Yard, outside what is today Furnivall Sculling Club (marked ‘X’) at 19 Lower Mall. The Americans were in Britain to race a four from London Rowing Club.

Frank Grace writes in his book:

The Biffens were part of the community of riverside workers that for centuries had dominated traffic on the Thames from Gravesend to Windsor, the Thames watermen and lightermen…  From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the livelihoods of these men were under increasing threat: late eighteenth-century bridge building, the introduction of steamships on the river, and later transport improvements like railway and omnibus links meant an erosion of river-borne traffic and eventually a real decline in the number of watermen. One means by which such redundancy could be avoided was by a concentration on their skills as boat builders and clearly, this had happened with the Biffens, who began to build a reputation at their premises at Hammersmith…

Part of the Hammersmith riverside in 1829 showing the site of Biffen’s first boatyard. It was on Hammersmith Creek, next to the High Bridge. They later moved a few hundred metres to the east, building their ‘Metropolitan’ boathouse on Lower Mall. Picture: panoramaofthethames.com
The above 1829 scene as it was during the November 2016 Oxford Trials. The covered water outlet that is the remains of Hammersmith Creek is marked with the ‘X’. The High Bridge is gone and the Furnivall Green open space replaces a random collection of homes and businesses, but the Dove pub remains an unchanging landmark.

When Bell’s Life in London started in the 1820s to report regularly on sports and pastimes in London… races were inaugurated largely by the watermen who still worked on the river, who translated their previous often rowdy and dangerous competition for fares into organised rowing matches… A number of regattas were started, and the course from Mortlake to Putney was soon recognised as the best, and of course became the venue for the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race… These developments in rowing were of obvious benefit to the boat builders, not only because they could make money hiring out their boats to the public, but more importantly because rowing matches soon began to attract very large crowds, indeed it was said that their appeal was similar to that of horse racing and pugilism and they attracted the betting fraternity… Large crowds on the towpaths at such events offered men like the Biffens other opportunities. Their premises were ideally sited roughly halfway along the Mortlake-Putney course and viewing platforms could be built and tickets sold… Such larger premises could also be developed to build for and house the growing number of rowing clubs, and here Biffens premises became probably the largest boathouse upriver from London, their only rivals being at Putney. Biffens was thus in a prime position to benefit from one of the most important social and popular sporting developments of the era.

Hammersmith’s Lower Mall c.1860. The dark-roofed building marked ‘A’ is where Furnivall Sculling Club is today. The building then in front of it was the London Sailing Club, later taken over by London Corinthian Sailing Club. ‘B’ is the Biffen’s ‘Metropolitan’ boathouse – with a grandstand perched seemingly precariously on the roof. ‘C’ shows the fishermen’s cottages that the Biffens replaced with their ‘Anchor’ boathouse in 1869 and which became home to Auriol Rowing Club in the 1900s and also to Kensington Rowing Club in the 1920s. Auriol effectively bought the building in 1939.

When William Biffen (1763 – 1818) had established the business in the late eighteenth century, probably at a yard on (Hammersmith’s) Middle Mall, his workshops built small Thames fishing boats, especially the ‘peter boat’, a clinker-built rowing boat, double ended and decked fore and aft with a well for holding the catch amidships, probably of the smaller ‘above bridge’ type, that were for use above London Bridge.

‘A River Thames Fishing or Peter Boat’, 1808.

[William’s] only son, John (‘Jack’, 1793 – 1866), was twenty-five when he took over on his father’s death in 1818 and it was he and his only son, William Henry  (1817 – 1887), who expanded the business, building all sorts of craft: four-oared, pair-oared, sculling and pleasure boats, including skiffs, punts and the new-fangled canoe.

The late 1840s mark the point at which the reputation of the Biffens began to flourish. In the Auriol Kensington Rowing Club, which today is housed in the old Biffen ‘Anchor’ boathouse, there is a model of a collapsible boat built by Biffens for a four or eight-oared crew which was exhibited at The Great Exhibition in 1851… [Biffen’s] kept and advertised a large stock of craft for hire or sale including wager boats, and their adverts spoke proudly of the ‘high standing’ that their boats had. They were also widening their advertising, and were prepared to build boats at ‘north country prices’ and were offering accommodation for both rowing clubs and gentlemen’s boats. They were not just boat-builders but typical Victorian entrepreneurs… [When] Charles Dickens’ eldest son compiled his Dictionary of London (1879), it is not surprising that he noted ‘Biffens of Hammersmith’ as one of the ‘principal builders of boats for London men’, and they continued to flourish through the 1870s and 1880s…

A Biffen’s advertisement in the “Rowing Almanack” of 1876 shows a prospering business.
Boating from Biffen’s raft, 1884.
Biffen’s Metropolitan Boathouse pictured sometime between 1880 and 1884 – before a large extension was built on the site of the small boathouse next door. It seems that the Rutland pub on the right also got into the grandstand business, offering seats for 3 shillings (15 pence).
Members of the Hammersmith Sculling Club for Girls and Men (later Furnivall Sculling Club) alongside Biffen’s Metropolitan boathouse in Mall Road, Hammersmith, 1907.

Tim concludes the Biffen story:

After William Henry’s death in 1887, his eldest son, John (1844 – 1892), became the fourth generation to run the business. However, times were changing and perhaps John was not as adaptive and entrepreneurial as his ancestors – a common failing in inherited businesses. Five years after John’s death, most of the large and original company boathouse, the ‘Metropolitan’ at 16 – 18 Lower Mall, was sold off. The Anchor boathouse at 14 Lower Mall and a workshop behind the Metropolitan were kept, run by a member of the fifth generation in the form of John ‘Jack’ Biffen (1870 – 1912). The 1912 Rowing Almanac also has an advertisement showing a TA Biffen running an oar and scull making business on Lower Mall. However, the Victorian and Edwardian boating craze never recovered from the 1914 – 1918 War, and what was probably a repair only business struggled on until the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 War. In 1939, the Anchor boathouse was effectively bought by the Auriol Rowing Club and, with this, one hundred and fifty years of boatbuilding history came quietly to an end.

Lower Mall in the 1920s. ‘A’ marks Furnivall Sculling Club. ‘B’ shows Biffen’s Metropolitan Boathouse with the 1884 extension which doubled its size. By this time, most of the building was owned by the West End Amateur Rowing Association (a collection of clubs belonging to business houses). ‘C’ is the Biffen’s Anchor Boathouse where, at this time, Auriol Rowing Club rented the first floor and Kensington Rowing Club the second floor.
Lower Mall in 2013. ‘A’ is Furnivall Sculling Club, ‘B’ is the development of flats that replaced the Biffen boathouse in the early 1980s, ‘C’ is Auriol Kensington Rowing Club – including the extra floor added during the rebuilding of 2004.

After this somewhat lengthy preamble, we can now look in greater detail at something that Frank has already mentioned, the model of the ‘Patent Portable Boat’ currently held by Auriol Kensington RC that was displayed at the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition’.

The Great Exhibition was a fantastically successful ‘world’s fair’ of culture and industry held in the specially constructed ‘Crystal Palace’ in London’s Hyde Park. The ‘Palace’ was a cast iron and plate-glass structure covering 990,000-square-foot / 92,000-square-metres. The Exhibition was visited by the equivalent of a third of the British population in its four-and-a-half months.

The Biffen Portable Boat (‘Registered 25 February 1850’) was a fixed seat, fixed pin boat which could be assembled as a four or an eight. Possibly, it could have also been made up as a six? It split at every two seats, and the bow and stern canvas sections could also be detached. In the days before boat trailers and easy road transport, a sectional boat must have been a great advantage in travelling to regattas, though probably the price paid was a craft of greater weight. The survival of this model after about 167 years existing in the rough and tumble of a boatbuilders’ workshop and later a rowing club is remarkable, even more so when its fine condition is realized.

The ‘Biffen Boat’ on display at Auriol Kensington RC. ‘J Biffen’ would be John who ran the business from 1818 to 1866. Rigged as a four, the model is nearly six feet long, perhaps making it the same scale (1:8) as Kai Stürmann’s model single scull.
The stern section – which can be unbolted at the coxswain’s seat.
The interior of the boat shows the quality of the build of the model. We will probably never know who the model builder was, or even if he was a Biffen.
A close up of the bolts at one end of the middle section.
As this extract from the ‘Naval Architecture’ section of the official catalogue shows, Biffen was not the only builder of racing boats to have a display in the Great Exhibition (though they were the only firm not to pay for the large space needed for a full-size boat).

The story of Biffen model boats did not end in 1850. The third generation of boat building Biffens was represented by William Henry (1817 – 1887). He had nine children and, of the four boys, three became boatbuilders. The eldest, John (1844 – 1892), inherited the Hammersmith business meaning that the other two had to set up elsewhere. The second eldest boy, William Henry Junior (1847 – 1919), moved to build boats in Bedford, 30 miles west of Cambridge.

William Henry Junior (‘WHB’) could not only build boats, he could also make them move fast. Here he is pictured with some of the prizes that he won in a very successful rowing career between 1868 and 1876 including the Watermen’s Apprentice Coat and Badge at the Thames Regatta in 1868 (on the left; the coat on the right may be a Kingston prize). WHB raced in the Doggett’s of 1874 but his light build did not suit the heavy boats used in the race and he came in third.
In 1876, WHB was appointed a Queen’s Waterman, following his father and grandfather.

While at Bedford, WHB started coaching, starting with a long and successful association with Bedford Grammar School.

Frank Grace:

His ability as a coach got him even wider recognition… when he was hired as coach to the Trinity College, Dublin, boat club… The report of the Henley Regatta of 1873 in the Pall Mall Gazette remarked that Dublin, who had won the Visitor’s Cup and competed well in the Ladies’ Plate, had ‘rowed in the best style we have ever seen them… as a rule watermen’s coaching is of the worst to be found – void of reason and lucidity – but there must be an exception in the teaching of young Biffen… Dublin do him much credit…’

[In 1880, Bedford Grammar School] entered the newly introduced Public Schools four-oared Challenge Cup at Henley… they beat Radley and Cheltenham and went on to easily win the final against Magdalen College School, Oxford. The following year, 1881, they won again against seven crews. However, the Rowing Almanack, now the organ of the Amateur Rowing Association which in 1878 had begun to lay down rules for racing that were to define amateur status, spoke sniffily about the tactic that WHB had used during the final:

‘[Bedford] complied with the letter but broke the spirit of the law which obliged them to row on fixed seats…. they had long wooden ones and slid on them with grease… this is a bit of sharp practice which ought not to be countenanced by the authorities of the school as it is not likely to conduce to the development of a nice sense of honour amongst the lads themselves and may be regarded as on a par with questionable turf practices’.

The implication seems to be that WHB, being a professional rower, was responsible for this use of sliding seats and that it was not sporting… But he had clearly not suffered from the Rowing Almanack’s snobbish public snub and Bedford entered the race for the next three years, though they never won again only reaching the final again in 1883.

It should come as no surprise that the multi-talented WHB was also a skilled model maker.

The Daily Sketch of 11 January 1899 provides evidence of this:

“The Sketch” reported that the models were ‘built accurately to scale’, 1:16 for the racing boats and 1:8 for the pleasure boats. Click on the pictures to enlarge.
WHB’s models were not simply models to show potential customers for full-size boats (if that is what they were ever used for), this poster shows that he sold display cases of both racing and pleasure boats. They were of such quality that they were exhibited at various exhibitions including Paris in 1878, Cork in 1883 and Crystal Palace in 1884. A case of WHB’s racing boats is hung in the Leander Club bar in Henley.

Amazingly, we know what happened to the models in the Sketch article. They were inherited by WHB’s son, William Samuel, who had set up as a boat builder in Staines, 20 miles south-west of London, in 1916. Frank Grace was born in Staines in 1934 and William was his ‘Uncle Billy’, his maternal grandmother’s brother. Frank remembers:

Our house was a stone’s throw from the Thames… A little way upstream, under Staines Bridge on the Surrey side, stood the premises of ‘WS Biffen. Boat Builder. Boats and Punts to Let’. My brother and I would often be down on the landing stages, watching the skiffs and punts for hire being got ready… and looking in the boat sheds, which smelt of varnish, or in Uncle Billy’s office where, in glass cases, there were small, beautiful scale models of river craft in minute detail. I always longed to touch them.

In 2016, I sent Frank a copy of the Sketch article. In a postscript in his book, he wrote:

For the first time in seventy years, I saw [the model boats] again. The article recorded that they had been built during the winter evenings of 1872 – 3 and must have been for WHB’s son, William, who was born at that time…

Unfortunately, Frank reveals that:

Sometime in the early 1950s, the [Staines] office was broken into and the models vandalised.

It was a sad end for some exquisite pieces of rowing history.

One comment

  1. Fascinating article, love the photo of young William Henry with all his prizes. Always interesting to see “then and now” pictures of buildings. That row of buildings in Lower Mall is exactly where I was walking up and down last year watching the Boat Race. It was a very hot day and the Rutland Arms and Blue Anchor pubs were absolutely packed with people.

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