A Brief History of Salter's
"Salter" - a name synonymous with the Royal River Thames
Stephen was to retire early from the firm and following the death of John Salter the firm passed into the hands of three of John Salter's sons (John, James and George). The firm now became known as "Salter Bros" boat builders and in 1888, the company was to enter a whole new phase when they started their own steamboat service between Oxford and Kingston onboard Alaska (which had been purchased in 1883- see photo below). The first scheduled service was a weekly return trip between Oxford and Kingston-upon-Thames (guests would stay at hotels along the way). By the turn of the century, the service was extended to twice daily.
Alaska (Salters' first passenger vessel used on the Oxford to Kingston
As Sundays became an increasingly popular day of leisure (with other companies operating) pressure from the younger members of the family finally forced the company to start operating on Sundays (& later still alcohol was served onboard)
The fleet of "Salter's Steamers" continued to be enlarged throughout the first 50 years of the passenger services (eventually to peak in the 1950s). The company was continuing to build huge numbers of craft. The publication "Salter's Guide to the Thames" had become a household name and was established as one of the most authoritative accounts of the sights and sounds of the Royal River Thames.
The company was also on the war office lists and commissioned to build many boats for the admiralty in both of the World Wars. Many different vessels were constructed including Gun-ships, mine-layers and landing-craft were all constructed, whilst the passenger vessels "Mapledurham" and "Cliveden" were taken over by the admiralty (in the Second World War) and used as hospital ships in London during the blitz..
The third generation of family members were the first to be educated privately (previously family members were expected to work for the firm on an artisan's wage in order to learn the trade). Lord Arthur Salter was the most prominent member of this generation representing Oxford University as an MP, working in the league of nations and being one of the leading experts in shipping during the war.
In 1950, as coal prices continued to rise, a project of conversion was pursued with the coal-fired steam engines being converted to the more efficient diesel engines. The "Hampton Court" was the first to have a Dorman engine fitted and by 1965 steam had become part of the company's history. In 1956, the company acquired its last traditionally-styled vessel with the purchase of the Dutch trawler "Kagerplas" - which was renamed "Mary Stuart."
With increased traffic on the river and the growth of the car industry, the Oxford to Kingston service was discontinued in favour of shorter more-frequent trips along the most popular stretches (the same services which continue today). With the changing trends on the waterways, the company built a large number of narrowboats (eventually opening a subsidiary company Friston Narrowboats) and cabin cruisers (many of which were used in Salter's own hire-fleet).
At the beginning of the 21st century Salter's remain a major influence on the Thames as both a popular passenger boat operator and a respected boat building business. Of the present fleet of passenger boats, those owned and built by the company include "Reading," "Goring," "Wargrave," "Hampton Court," "Cliveden," "Mapledurham," and "Iffley" (further information about the history of the steamers can be found below). Two of the company's newest vessels, the "Lady Ethel" and "Jean Marguerite" were introduced into service in 1988 and 1998 respectively, both named after prominent members of the family. In 2004 the "Maratana" was added to the fleet and the company continues to build many smaller Glass- Fibre boats (with few hire-boat companies operating without a Salter's boat). Although no longer building narrowboats or cabin cruisers the firm remains at the forefront of boat construction with the development of electric-propelled craft.
In 2003 Salter's announced the return of scheduled trips between Abingdon, Wallingford and Reading. These new services have ensured that the entire length of the Thames from Oxford to Staines, can now be accessed on the steamers. From humble beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century, Salter's has become a name synonymous with the Royal River Thames.
A Brief History of the Boats used in Salters' Steamers Passenger Services
Salters' relationship with passenger boats began in 1879 when the company was one of the agents for the Thames and Isis Steamboat company. It is thought that these services operated out of Oxford to Kingston onboard the steam launches Isis (built 1875) and Thames (1878- these are believed to have been bought by Salter's in 1882).
The first service operated by Salter's was the Oxford to Kingston service which began in 1888 onboard Alaska (built in 1883). The fleet was subsequently expanded and by the turn of the century Salter's were building their own steel-hulled boats (the first of these was Reading built in 1901). The design of the craft remained largely unchanged although the sizes gradually increased to accommodate greater numbers of passengers (the length peaked in 1927 when the 105 ft Mapledurham was built). The fleet was also enlarged when they acquired other firms for example in 1945 when they bought Cawstons of Reading they added The Majestic, The Original River Queen & Mystery to the fleet. The fleet size peaked in the 1960s when the Oxford to Kingston service was at its height and the steamers became synonymous with much of the Upper-Thames. It was during this time (starting in 1950) that the boats were slowly converted from steam to Diesel. Although the steam funnel removed (as this needed to be taken up and down when going through low bridges)By the latter stages of the twentieth century the timetables became increasingly difficult to keep to and the increased traffic forced a down-scaling of the services and fleet.
However, more recently according to increased demand (particularly for private charter) the fleet has begun to enlarge once again with the acquisition of Lady Ethel in 1988, Jean Marguerite in 1998 and Maratana in 2004. Later in 2004 p.v Iffley was restored and returned to service in Oxford.
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For further information about the firm's history see S. Wenham, "Salters’ of Oxford: a History of a Thames Boating Firm over a Century of Evolution (1858 - c.1960)" in Oxoniensia LXXI (2006). To read this online click here
Below is a video showing two promotional films from c.1950's. Sweet Thames Run Softly & See How They Fly. Copies of this film are available on DVD-R from Salters Oxford office at a cost of £5.00 (plus £2.00 p&p).