The Feathers: A Forgotten Centre of Early British Rowing. Part II: The Salters and the Glory Years

A picture of c.1830 titled Entrance to the Wandle from the Thames. The white building is most likely “The Feathers” pub.

6 May 2022

By Tim Koch

In Part I, Tim Koch noted that conventional wisdom seems to be that, when amateur rowing moved from Central London to Putney in the late 1850s and early 1860s, this was something new to the area. However, the Feathers Tavern and Boathouse just downstream of Putney Bridge had in fact been a centre of amateur and professional rowing since perhaps the 1830s.

According to panoramaofthethames.com, The Feathers pub in Wandsworth was first recorded in 1755 and was rebuilt about 1776. It was sited near the mouth of the River Wandle where it entered the Thames.

A picture from 1829 from part of the Panorama of the Thames website that has been annotated by me and shows the Wandle emerging into the Thames and the site of The Feathers.

The River Wandle is a tributary of the Thames that runs nine miles from Croydon to Wandsworth. Once fast flowing, it powered many water mills and became heavily industrialised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1800, it was proposed to build a canal from Croydon to Wandsworth to open up that part of Surrey to trade. However, it was found that the Wandle did not have the water to supply a canal over such a distance and the radical decision was made to instead build the “Surrey Iron Railway”. It was initially powered by horses, not locomotives, and was allegedly the world’s first public railway. However, there was still to be a canal, a very short one for barges to cover the last quarter-mile from the Thames to the railway head. 

The canal lock ran past The Feathers and, from the canal’s opening in 1802, an association between the pub and boating began. In his history of Thames RC and of Tideway Rowing, Hear the Boat Sing (1991), Geoffrey Page says, “There was a sculling club based on Wandsworth before 1830…” but gives no more detail.

The annotated main map is from 1891 and shows The Feathers on the causeway between the River Wandle and the Wandsworth Cut or Canal (later called McMurray’s Canal). The Surrey Iron Railway had gone by 1846. The insert at the bottom left shows the Feathers in 1862, before the neighbouring pumping station was built.

The part of The Feathers in the story of British rowing is associated with the three names that ran the boatyard between the 1830s and the 1880s: Salter, Clasper and Gibson. However, their importance declines with the chronology.

The Feathers was in the hands of the Salter family for nearly forty years beginning in 1836 when James and Elizabeth Salter moved from Fulham to Wandsworth to run the riverside tavern. While their interest in rowing was possibly based on how much beer thirsty oarsmen would buy, their sons (Harry, John and Stephen) took a much more active interest in the sport. 

John and Stephen set up a boat building and hire business in Oxford in 1858 and the firm continues to be active in the boating world to this day. A short history of the company on its website says:

(The Feathers) became one of the early centres for rowing in the country and by the middle of the century Harry Salter (1822 – 1874) had established himself as one of the foremost rowing coaches of the era. The family were also enthusiastic competitors who entered many of the major regattas for professional oarsmen. In 1850, John and Stephen spent time with the famous Tyneside boat-builder and oarsman Harry Clasper, and, after returning to Wandsworth, the racing boats they built began to achieve considerable success in contests around the country. In 1857, they built their first eight that was used by Cambridge in the university boat race…

The Feathers yard in 1865 drawn by Francis Seymour-Haden and mostly showing the part occupied by the West London Rowing Club. Possibly, the sails of the boats are blocking the view of the mouth of the Wandle. This would be confirmed If the structure on the right marked “x” is identified as the spire of Wandsworth Old Church. The year 1865 was also when Elizabeth Salter transferred the pub’s license to her son, Harry.

The Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 13 April 1863 reported on the contest between Bob Chambers and G.W. Everson for the Championship of England over the Putney to Mortlake course. Chambers’ training base was at The Feathers and the Chronicle reporter was clearly very taken by the place:

Chambers, the Northern Champion, has been in steady training at his quiet suburban retreat at Wandsworth… The champion is accompanied at Salter’s snug little hostelry by Harry Clasper and Winship… The Feathers… is a small house perched on the left bank of the Thames at Wandsworth… The locality is delightfully rural and quiet, and would remind the Tyneside visitor of Ryton rather than of any other place on the banks of the coaly river. The boat-house of the West London Rowing Club adjoins the roomy and clean sheds in Salter’s yard where (Chambers’ boats) are stowed, and on the quiet surface of the river, the royal swans of the Thames delight in showing off their graceful and majestic forms.

A probably far more realistic and gritty description of The Feathers was in a wonderfully atmospheric piece from the Sporting Gazette of 1 November 1873. Under the series title, London Sporting Haunts was No.1 – The Feathers Tavern, Wandsworth. It read:

Anyone travelling down the South-Western loop line from Waterloo must have noticed to the right hand, just past Wandsworth Station, a low built white house standing… on a delta of the mouth of the River Wandle. This is “The Feathers Boathouse”… The landlord (is) Mr Henry Salter, more familiarly known as Harry Salter, one of the celebrated boatbuilding family of that name, and always one of the sagest trainers and best coaches on the London water.

Getting out at the (railway) station… turn left along the embankment till we emerge at the gas works… if we turn left, we cross a cut of the Wandle by a swing bridge, and find ourselves on a plot of low lying ground… chiefly covered with osier beds, with only one house of any consequence on it, that of the Feathers.

The hostelry itself is not a very large or a very magnificent one. There is nothing of the Star and Garter about it, and ladies have never within the memory of man visited it…

The Feathers Tavern pictured in the 1870s. The females pictured are, presumably, not “ladies” but “women.”

You can only get to the river through the public house, and there is a total absence of the towpath and promenade which are so prominent at Putney. Those who come here mean business and nothing but business…  

We force our way through the knot of waterside men… which invariably blocks up the narrow passage, and catching a glimpse of the smoke-browned old taproom to the left, where a dozen men are criticising a new sculler and a fresh tap of porter. We squeeze ourselves with difficulty into the little bar parlour, it is only 8ft by 6 or something of that sort, and it already contains about twenty men, a very large majority of whom are smoking… Yet the room is never so full that it cannot hold one or two more…

(Through) a rift in the smoke cloud, we catch a glimpse of… Old Harry Salter… Why “Old” it would be difficult to say for he is hardly passed middle age. A tall, dry, hard-faced man with a pleasant eye and speaking in a low, quiet voice… (Perhaps) a bit stooped and slow now… but there is enough left of his great square back and his long, weird-like arms for you to see that he must have been… a wonderful man at the end of an oar when he was young and the Salter Brother’s four was at the head of the Thames.

The man on the left may well be Harry Salter. In 1857, The Times reported, “A few days ago Ben Dukes, the attendant on the boats at the Feathers, Wandsworth, shot a large seal in the Thames… It is a beautiful specimen of the species… The fish may be seen at Mr H. Salters, the Feathers Tavern, Wandsworth.” Strange and different times.

(In) the yard is a range of boatbuilding shops and as we pass we catch a sniff of sweet, fresh pine wood and a glimpse of milk white boats… as yet unbaptised and now lying deserted in knee deep shavings.

Further down are the dressing-rooms of the different clubs, of all shapes and sizes. There is the little caboose of some small tradesmen’s club… Further down is the square room of a minor club, run with lockers and with a comfortable zinc bath in its corner; and the end of the row is the long building occupied by the West London Rowing Club, the only club of any note rowing from the “Port of Wandser” as it habitués love to call it…

Everything here is rough and ready, but comfortable and clean. Towels, flannel caps… hair brushes, sweaters, pea jackets etc all litter the table in the middle of the low pitched room, while the smell of hot men is less noticeable than it otherwise would be from the fact of there being ample ventilation from the front windows…  

This sale notice from the London Evening Standard was published when Harry Salter died in 1874. It gives a valuable (though not complete) list of some of the professional oarsmen and amateur clubs that had used the place over the years.

That Harry Salter catered for all social classes was confirmed by the Sporting Life of 9 January 1861 in their review of that year’s Rowing Almanac and Oarsman’s Companion. It noted that:

There are… two very excellent chapters on training by the renowned Harry Salter of Wandsworth who has turned out more winners than any man of the present day… The rowing men of today comprise so many different classes, or, to be more distinct, have so many habits of living, each contrary to each other… that it is hardly possible to define a dietary system or course of practice that shall be common to them all…

Some of the most important professionals of the 1840, 50s and 60s trained out of the Feathers under Salter and they are listed in the advertisement above as “past aquatic champions”. Two of the greatest Tyneside professionals, Robert Chamber and Harry Clasper, treated The Feathers as their London headquarters when competing on the Thames. Tom Cole was trained by Salter to become the Professional Single Sculls World Champion from 1852 to 1854. After Henry Kelley had a particularly successful 1856 season, The Era of 7 December wrote, “We think that Harry Salter has this year trained more winners than we scarcely have ever heard of and had made a good ending by training Kelley…”

The race for the Championship of the Thames between Henry Kelly (sic) of Fulham and Robert Chambers of Newcastle, 1859. Both men were looked after at The Feathers.

In its listing of the clubs rowing out of The Feathers, the 1874 sale notice names some that were undoubtedly for gentlemen amateurs: Vesta (now at Putney, at the Feathers 1870 – 1874); Westminster School (the public school club naturally still in existence); The Times (for the newspaper’s typographical staff and called “old-established” in 1884); West London (established at the Feathers 1855, successful in second-tier regattas, moved to Putney 1879); Iris (established at Wandsworth in 1860 for the employees of a firm of mail order haberdashers but a newspaper report of 1887 noted that it was “now at the more fashionable Putney”). However, who the members of Audax, Argus, Victoria, Lotus, Spottiswoode, Warwick House, Petrel “and others” were we may never know. Perhaps they were the “small tradesmen’s” or “minor clubs” mentioned in the Sporting Gazette piece?

The most important club to row out of The Feathers, however, was not any of those mentioned above. It was in fact the Wandle Club which had ceased to exist by 1858 but which can be said to have played a vital if little-remembered role in the development of amateur rowing in Britain as it provided many of the founding members of London Rowing Club.

Bells Life of 28 February 1858 carried a story that “the late Wandle Rowing Club” had held a testimonial dinner for Harry Salter “at their old rowing quarters, the Feathers Tavern, Wandsworth.” Importantly, it lists some of those who were formerly members of the Wandle.

At Henley, the Wandle Club had won the Silver Goblets in 1855 (AA Casamajor and Josias Nottidge), the Diamonds in 1854 (Herbert Playford) and also in 1855 (Casamajor). Further, wearing Wandle colours, the Wingfields had been won by Herbert Playford in 1854 and Casamajor in 1855. These three men were the leading founder members of London Rowing Club: Nottidge had the vision to call the meeting that resulted in the formation of LRC and was its first chairman; Herbert Playford was its first secretary; Cassamajor was its first star oarsman and its third secretary. Other Wandle men included London’s first captain, Frank Playford, its second captain, James Paine, and one of the first joint treasurers, John Ireland.

At London RC’s first Henley in 1856 (where the qualification rules made London RC row as the Argonaut Club) the former Wandle men, Josias Nottidge, A. A. CasamajorJames Paine, Herbert Playford and F. Levien won both the Stewards and the Wyfolds. The same four comprised the final of the Silver Goblets with Casamajor and Nottidge beating Paine and Playford. In addition, Casamajor won the Diamonds. London RC can claim the wins, but I suggest that the Wandle Club can claim the credit.

In a piece on Metropolitan Rowing in The Field of 3 December 1910, it was noted that:

In 1856, the London Rowing Club was founded by a combination of some half dozen or more small clubs (composed principally of finished scullers) which boated from either the Feathers at Wandsworth, a very celebrated sporting drum of the last century, or from Simmonds’s (now Aylings) at Putney.

In this famous picture of the great and the good of the then three-year-old London Rowing Club, I have underlined in red the names of the known ex-Wandle Club members – who form a majority.

It is not only London RC that owes a debt of gratitude to Harry Salter and The Feathers, so does their old rivals, Thames Rowing Club. In the early days of Thames RC, a four that included the famous “Piggy” Eyre wanted to train for the 1870 Wyfolds. However, at that time Thames was not so ambitious and the club would not back them. Thus, Piggy and friends trained out of The Feathers, bathing in the canal after training, and provided Thames with their first Henley win.

The years 1856 to 1866 were Harry Salter’s “Glory Years” but, a short time after, The Feathers ceased to be an important centre of rowing. There were several factors that caused this: professional rowing had begun a slow decline; amateur rowing with its attendant boatbuilders, oar makers, watermen etc was increasingly based along the Putney Embankment; Salter had become an alcoholic and committed suicide in 1874 at the age of fifty-two. The Oxfordshire Weekly News diplomatically reported on the inquest: “He had at times been affected with delirium, and it was supposed to arise from his habits while keeping a public house… A verdict of ‘Suicide while in an unsound state of mind’ was recorded.” 

It took over a decade to realise it, but The Feathers really died with Harry Salter. In Part III, posted tomorrow, I chart the decline of this early centre of British rowing.

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