The Feathers: A Forgotten Centre of Early British Rowing. Part III: Decline

The Feathers yard, a drawing from 1865 by Francis Seymour-Haden and mostly showing the part then occupied by the West London Rowing Club. The West London moved to the “more fashionable” Putney in 1879.

7 May 2022

By Tim Koch

In Part II, Tim Koch noted that the Feathers Tavern and Boathouse just downstream of Putney Bridge had been a centre of rowing since perhaps the 1830s and that its “Glory Years” were under Harry Salter, coach and boatbuilder, particularly in the decade 1856 to 1866.

When Harry Salter died by his own hand in 1874, he had long been running both the Feathers pub and the Feathers boatyard (aka Salter’s Yard). The South London Press of 3 October 1874 recorded that the alcohol licence of the Feathers Tavern had passed from Henry Salter’s executor, George Salter, to William Tabor and William Ward. Tabor and Ward were licensees for four years but there is no evidence that they had any role in the boatyard. Any aquatic work at Wandsworth must have been continued, as it had done for some time, by John Hawks Clasper. 

As I recorded in a recent piece, John H. Clasper, like Harry Clasper his more famous father, was a fine oarsman and innovative and successful boatbuilder. He had established his own boat building business in Durham in 1863 but in 1867 moved to London and soon built a name for himself working out of the Feathers yard. 

A Clasper boat under construction at Putney in 1897.

The Salters and the Claspers were old friends. When the Claspers competed in London in the 1840s and 1850s, the Feathers was their base. The Salters’ boat building business had become much more successful after Harry’s brothers, John and Stephen, had served some sort of apprenticeship at Harry Clasper’s Newcastle yard in 1850. 

I do not think that John Clasper and Harry Salter were business partners, the impression is that John ran his boatbuilders out of Harry’s premises and alongside him (though John soon acquired his own boathouse in Oxford and for a long time ran both sites concurrently). Harry’s powers declined with his health after the mid-1860s, but at the same time, John’s reputation and order books grew. 

After four years under Tabor and Ward, The Sportsman newspaper of 3 August 1878 carried the news that JH Clasper had taken ownership of the Feathers.

The Sportsman’s announcement gives the impression that John had just bought the boathouse side of the business but the Surrey Directory of 1878 records him as the pub license holder as well.

While John Clasper’s boat building business was going from strength to strength in both Wandsworth and Oxford, his attempts to make the Feathers the centre of rowing that it had been in Harry’s heyday were not so successful. 

The Morning Post of 4 November 1878 records one of the attempts by John Clasper to revive the Feathers.

After four years in charge at Wandsworth, John Clasper decided on a major change. Bells Life of 16 September 1882 reported:

The latest intelligence from Putney is to the effect that John Clasper, of the Feathers, is about to migrate from the once popular boating establishment to more aristocratic regions. A new boat house is to be built for him on the plot of ground between… William East’s… and Phelps, Peters and Co’s yard. All the boats at Wandsworth are to be sold by auction, as Clasper intends starting in his new shop with a brand new lot of ships.

William East’s was sited where the HSBC Boat Club and/or Dulwich School Boat Club boat houses are today and Phelps, Peters and Co was in the Unity Boathouse, currently home to the Ranelagh Sailing Club. Thus, Clasper’s new boathouse in the “more aristocratic” Putney was the building that today still bears his name in brick on the gable end and that has been home to Westminster School BC since 1921 (this corrects an earlier idea of mine that Clasper initially moved to Putney into East’s old building before building his own premises). 

Informatively, Bells Life continues:

It seems but a few years ago that the Feathers was the most popular of the hostelries amongst rowing men, but poor Harry Salter let it go down very much before he died, and Clasper does not appear to have been able to make much of what was thought at the time he became its proprietor a rare bargain. 

Very perceptively, a few weeks later The Globe of 9 October 1882 stated (with my emphasis):

The ghost of old Harry Salter, of Wandsworth, would wiggle uneasily, to say the least of it, could he revisit the feathers, in his time the scene of so much rowing activity, and the training quarters of Robert Chambers, Harry Kelley, Old Winship, Harry Clasper the first, and a host of aquatic giants of a by-gone day. The present tenant, JH Clasper, the well-known boat-builder, has resolved to abandon the classic, if muddy, water-side quarters, and move to Putney, which threatens to absorb in a few years all the below (Richmond) lock talent, both professional and amateur.

An abrupt advertisement in The Field of 10 May 1883 suggests that John was keen to be quickly rid of the Feathers:

FEATHERS TAVERN, Wandsworth. To be DISPOSED OF, this well-known waterside property with excellent boat business attached; suitable to a man with £700 cash.

This picture is held by the USA based National Rowing Foundation’s JH Clasper Collection. Nothing is known about it except that the sign on the boathouse reads “JH Clasper.” It probably cannot be any of Clasper’s premises at Durham, Putney, Oxford, Lambeth or Cambridge. This leaves only Wandsworth – though I am not convinced that the building on the right is the Feathers pub.

The final owner of the Feathers pub and boathouse was Lew Gibson, a well-known professional oarsman, a former steward of London Rowing Club and one of the last fishermen to work the Putney reach. In the latter capacity, in 1864, he was responsible for the last sturgeon caught at Putney. Under a 14th century law of Edward II, Gibson had to offer the five-foot-long “Royal Fish” to Queen Victoria – who gave him £5 for it.

As the Sporting Life of 13 October 1884 reported, Gibson made strenuous efforts to restore the Feathers as a centre of rowing by holding sculling races with generous prizes but also tried to attract other sporting types by laying a running track and holding athletic events, also with big rewards for the winners.

The newspapers carried several reports on Gibson’s efforts during 1884 but these then abruptly stopped. Presumably, with no boatbuilding going on following Clasper’s departure, with Putney now the centre of things aquatic, and with professional rowing continuing its long, slow decline, the “muddy water-side quarters” was no longer viable. According to a website on pub history, The Feathers finally closed in 1888. In 1891, John Clasper organised a benefit for Gibson when “It was resolved to take a music hall and to secure the services of several popular artists.”

A painting from the 1920s showing the mouth of the Wandle and the increasing industrialisation that had taken place.

The aforementioned website says that the Feathers pub building remained until 1959, standing inside the waste depot that now occupies the site.

The short canal at Wandsworth was filled in around 1937, but this picture from about 1956 seems to indicate that the canal lock on which the Feathers stood lasted for nearly twenty years longer. If one of the low buildings on the left is in fact the Feathers, then this photograph has been reversed, the pub should be on the right as viewed here. Picture: Wandsworth Heritage Service.
The Wandle as it enters the Thames in 2022, looking east.
In the picture above this, this plaque is sited on the far right, next to the red and white life ring.
The name “Feathers Wharf” at least lives on.
Looking west towards Putney from the waste depot that now occupies the Feathers site.
The top picture from the panoramaofthethames.com website has been annotated by me and shows the Wandle emerging into the Thames in 1829. The picture below it is from 2022 and shows the “Wandsworth Solid Waste Transfer Station” now standing where The Feathers and the entrance to the Wandsworth Canal once stood. Not a trace of either remains. RIP.

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