Invention: One Mother (Necessity) But Many Fathers

A 1:8 model of the “Biffen Patent Portable Boat” that was exhibited at the 1851 “Great Exhibition” and that is now on display at Auriol Kensington Rowing Club in Hammersmith, West London.

14 March 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on joined-up thinking and the sectional boat.

“Who invented the wheel?” is a popular time-wasting subject. As usual, the Internet is not short of confident but completely different answers. Clearly though, we will never know, not least because history is full of simple and not-so-simple pieces of technology that evolved in different places at much the same time. Certainly, various improvements to racing boats seem to bear this out. In his latest piece on George Pocock’s memoirs on 7 March, Chris Dodd wrote that:

For years rival claims of who invented the outrigger or the sliding seat was a matter of dispute in pubs wherever watermen gathered. When it came to arguing over who pioneered ‘shell’ construction by building a smooth-bottomed boat, the name of Pocock was in the ring.

Chris notes that Harry Clasper and Matt Taylor were also among the names frequently put forward as the inventor of the shell boat. While I am not going to attempt to prove the identity of the men who first produced each of these three very important innovations in racing boat design, I was intrigued by Chris’ line that, in 1871, George Pocock’s maternal grandfather, George Vickers, built “one of the first portable boats ever made”. This was, allegedly, when Henry Morton Stanley commissioned a craft that could be taken apart and portaged between African waterways as part of his search for David Livingstone. 

A sectional boat built for Stanley’s second expedition in 1874.

While George Vickers could have made an early portable boat, as a member of Auriol Kensington RC I have a personal connection to the fact that a Hammersmith boatbuilder, Jack Biffen, was claiming to be the “Inventor of the Patient Portable Boat” at least twenty years before George’s sectional craft was bound for “The Dark Continent.”

Writing in his family memoir, Ancestors In The Attic (2017), the late Frank Grace takes up the story:

When William Biffen (1763 – 1818) had established [his boatbuilding] 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… type, that were for use above London Bridge. 

[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… They were not just boat-builders but typical Victorian entrepreneurs…

The late 1840s marked 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…

The “Biffen Portable Boat, Registered 25 February 1850” was a fixed seat, fixed pin, shell boat that could be assembled as a four or an eight or even possibly a six.
The boat split at every two seats, and the bow and stern canvas sections could also be detached.
The Great Exhibition catalogue called it “a rigged portable expansive boat.”
A Biffen advertisement from 1876 seems to show that their portable boat was in production for at least 25 years.

Did Jack Biffen produce the first sectional boat? Like the inventors of the shell, the keelless boat, the sliding seat and the outrigger, we are as likely to find out as we are to discover “Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp” and “Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong” – though Harry Clasper would probably have claimed that he did both.

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