Boating the Blues

The Procession of Boats at Oxford in 1863. The boatmen of Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) and of the college clubs had clearly done their work well.

18 May 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch notes some aquatic long service.

It is never good to begin a piece of writing with an overused quote so I will avoid starting with LP Hartley’s famous observation that, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. However, younger HTBS readers (assuming that such things exist) may be surprised to learn that in the not-too-distant past, men in particular enjoyed something called “jobs for life”. 

Famously, a man could leave school on a Friday and on the following Monday arrive at the place where would work for the next fifty years. The jobs may not have been particularly well-paid, conditions may have been poor, and employers could discriminate on almost any grounds that they wished but paternalistic bosses would also give job security, pensions, sick and holiday pay and, in many cases, a company sports and social club, one that may have included rowing. It was a very thinly gilded cage but perhaps one that many of those who today have only ever known “McJobs” or zero-hours contracts in the “gig” economy would like to be imprisoned in.

I was reminded of long-serving employees by my recent piece on Alf Twinn, the boatman who looked after Cambridge University Boat Club for over fifty years. This prompted me to look at the service given by the boatmen at “the other place”. For many years, Alf’s opposite number was Albert Andrews at OUBC.

Albert Andrews, boatman to Oxford University Boat Club from 1950 until 1987. This year is the centenary of his birth.

Albert Andrews would have had to make a strenuous effort to avoid working on and about the Isis, the river that came to dominate his life. He was born in 1921 in Jubilee Terrace, South Oxford, a row of Victorian dwellings overlooking the Isis and sited a few hundred yards upstream of Folly Bridge and a short walk from the barges that then housed the college boat clubs (the first brick-and-mortar boathouse did not appear until 1936). Albert’s father and his four brothers all worked for Salter’s, the Oxford company that had been looking after the city’s boating needs since 1858.

Albert gets Oxford afloat, Boat Race Day, 1955.

On leaving school in January 1936, the 14-year-old Albert joined Slater’s, working in the boatbuilding shop during the winter and on the pleasure steamers in the summer. By the age of 17, he was allowed to skipper some of Salter’s smaller (40-foot) boats. One source claims that he also managed to fit in working as boatman to both St Peter’s and to St Edmund Hall. In whatever spare time he had, he rowed with a college boatmen’s club, the Sons of the Isis, and raced in tradesmen’s regattas.

Albert in a Putney boathouse for the 1965 Boat Race.

Albert’s service during the 1939 -1945 War was recalled by the Oxford Mail in 2007:

During the war, [Salter’s] was engaged in boat building for the Admiralty, which took Albert to London. He was working as a mate on a steamer when Surrey Commercial Docks were bombed. Recalling that day, he said: “Boy, did it go up. I’ve never seen the river boil before, but it did then.”

Albert had an even closer call in 1943 when serving in the Royal Navy. While south of Gibraltar, his ship was hit by a torpedo or a mine. He said: “I was thrown into the sea, with nasty injuries to my arm. I don’t remember much about it, but I was rescued and taken to hospital in the Azores.”

Albert at Putney in 1982.

Albert came out of the navy in 1945 and by 1948 he controlled Salter’s summer hiring season, coordinating punts, rowing boats and steamers.

In 1950, Albert left Salter’s to become assistant to Dick Talboys, then head boatman at OUBC, taking over the top job on Talboys’s death in 1952. Apart from his regular OUBC duties, Albert was involved in other aquatic work: during the long vacations he would return to Salter’s for the summer trade; during Torpids and Eights Week he would mark the course, take timings and fire the starting guns; during Henley Royal Regatta, he drove the OUBC launch, Bosporos. Naturally, Trial Eights, Tideway Week and Boat Race Day were busy times, though Albert rarely saw a complete Boat Race as, once the crews were off, he would take their clothes in a taxi to the finish, catching sight of the last few strokes if he was lucky.

Albert’s last Boat Race was in the so-called “Oxford Mutiny” year of 1987.

Albert retired from OUBC after 35 years in 1987 though returning to work at Salter’s until 1992. He was a Conservative member of Oxford City Council for nine years and was also a freeman of the city. He died aged 85 in 2007.

Remarkably, Albert Andrews may have been only the sixth person employed by the OUBC as their boatman since the club was founded in 1839 (not in 1829 as the boat club’s current attempt to rewrite history would have it).

Albert’s predecessor had been David Alphonso (Dick) Talboys who looked after OUBC for 35 years, from 1928 until his death aged 56 in 1952.

Dick’s obituary in a local newspaper read:

He was part of the Boat Race and Putney next March will not seem the same without the spry little figure in the blue reefer jacket, hip boots and peaked OUBC cap who ministered so diligently to the Dark Blues when they descended on the Tideway each year.

When he became waterman to the club in 1927, Dick carried on a family tradition. For more than a century the name of Talboys has been associated with Oxford rowing. His grandfather was Waterman to Magdalen and many of his uncles and cousins were well known riverside characters…

The view of the college barges from Folly Bridge during Torpids or Eights Week. The “DA Talboys” on the sign on the boatman’s barge on the right was Dick’s father, David Adolphus (1873 – 1943).
The “RA Talboys” sign on the family barge was Dick’s grandfather, Richard Adolphus (b.1841).

The obituary continued:

At Boat Race time [Dick’s] job was to look after the boat and see that it was in perfect trim for the great occasion. At such times he could not be separated from his famous “little black box” which contained the tools of his craft. Yet he followed only one Boat Race. That was in 1933 – when he saw Cambridge win by two-and-a-quarter lengths…

Dick had succeeded Walter “Wallie” or “Walt” Taylor who had been in the employ of the Dark Blues for 30 years, 20 of them as head boatman, 1908 to 1928. Taylor was a nephew of his predecessor, Tom Tims, and a former boatman to Christ Church.
Before Taylor, Thomas “Timmy” Tims had put in 45 years as the OUBC Boatman, from 1863 until he died in 1908. He is pictured here in 1886.
Tom Tims’s obituary in the Sporting Life.
Tims at Putney for the 1903 Boat Race.
Tims firing the starting guns for the bumps in 1905.
Tims in 1908, the year of his death.

The 1908 obituary of Tims in the Sporting Life noted that his predecessor was William Harvey. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 3 November 1855 mentions “William Harvey, the university waterman”. Over the years, the paper made several mentions of “Harvey’s barge”, the earliest in 1859. In a report on a drowning in 1866, the Journal marks the change of roles and refers to “Thomas Tims, waterman, attached to the University Boat Club” and to “William Harvey, University Water Bailiff”.

Harvey was, however, probably not the first man to look after OUBC’s boats as WE Sherwood’s Oxford Rowing (1900) notes that in 1841 “the first university barge was hired from a man named Heather for £10 a term, and that the same man received £2 5s a term salary”. As he was paid a salary, it looks like “Heather” could be called the Dark Blues’ first boatman.

Since 2012, the OUBC boatman or “boathouse and equipment manager” has been Austin Dorey, pictured here at Putney in 2019. The succession of OUBC boatmen obviously carries on but the record of just four people (Andrews, Talboys, Taylor, Tims) covering something like 124 years is unlikely to be challenged.

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