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Salter's Steamers

Life boat launch from Salters Taunt 1900 D254071a

Crowds at Folly Bridge watch the dramatic launch of a lifeboat from Salter's boatyard, 1900. The winch visible near the centre of this photograph still exists, in what is now the Head of the River's courtyard garden. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: D254071a.

Salter's Steamers was founded by brothers John and Stephen Salter who had had a boat-building business in Wandsworth since the mid 1830s. When they came to Oxford in 1858 they took over Isaac King's boatyard at the northern end of Folly Bridge. The St Aldate's Yard as it was called comprised a warehouse (now the Head of the River pub), stables, a dwelling house, a crane and the adjacent wharf (left). The buildings can be seen on this plan of 1844. The warehouse was built in 1827 but the wharf is much older, and dates back to at least 1638.

Salters Folly Bridge diagram Simon Wenham Aug 14

Salter's sites at Folly Bridge. The block of flats (the 'Red Flats') maked no. 4 replaced a former boat-building and repair workshop (the 'Red Shops'). The workshop marked no. 5 was converted into flats in 2000 and the block is named Jean Marguerite Court after the mother of the current owner of the company. The winch which hangs over the towpath near these flats still exists. To the south Arthur Salter Court, named after the current owner's father, was built in 2005 on the site of yet another workshop. Diagram courtesy of Dr Simon Wenham.

Gradually Salter's took over other buildings nearby, and erected new ones, and by 1887 they occupied not only the St Aldate's Yard (no. 1 on the diagram left), but also Folly Island (no. 2), Grandpont Yard (no. 3, where Hertford College accommodation is now) and the adjacent white warehouse (now Salter's main office) which was built in 1835-6 by a previous boat-building firm, Carter, Sherratt & Hall. Salter's had several workshops at the northern end of Brook Street (nos. 4 and 5) and another a mile downstream (which they still occupy), near what is now Donnington Bridge, next to the City of Oxford Rowing Club. There were Salter's yards at the end of Thames Street (no. 6) and Isis Street (no. 7 - this street no longer exists).

[Salters boatbuilders foreman Baker c1905]

Foreman boat builder Thomas Arnold Baker (front left) at Salter's workshops on Buckingham Street, c. 1905. The best Salter's boats were those that were 'Baker-built'. Image copyright Salter's Steamers Ltd.

Salter's built all manner of boats - rowing boats, racing craft, canoes, college barges, pleasure boats, house boats, steam launches, paddle steamers, military boats and lifeboats. These they sold throughout the UK and abroad. At one time they were manufacturing up to 350 boats a year at Folly Bridge, and the company grew to become one of foremost inland boat builders in Britain, with a world-wide reputation. In the 1860s Salter's were the country's leading racing boat builder. They still have more record-breaking times in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race than any other boat builder.

[Salters at Folly Bridge with GWR notice Simon Wenham Dec 13]

Passengers boarding the steamer Cliveden at Folly Bridge in the 1930s. The board advertises 'GWR and Salters Steamers tour of Oxford and Morris Works' [the Cowley car works]. During the Second World War Cliveden and another Salter's passenger boat, Mapledurham, were requisitioned by the admiralty and used as hospital ships during the London blitz. Image copyright Salter's Steamers Ltd.

Salter's also became one of the largest riverboat operators in the country, having started to run passenger boats from Oxford to Kingston in 1888. This route became incredibly popular and Salter's played a major role in the commercialisation of leisure on the Thames.

In partnership with the Great Western Railway they offered round trips whereby the journey to the downstream destination was by boat, the return by train. They also went into private boat hire, and played an important role in popularising camping as a recreational pastime, as people would hire a Salter's rowing boat and go on a river trip lasting several days, camping overnight on the bank. Private boat hire is now Salter's main business.

Salters JOJ 10-11-1900 p8

Salter's employed a large number of people locally, who were known as the Salter's Navy. Four concrete houses on the western side of Buckingham Street (with their render scored to look like stone) are some of the sixty or so properties which Salter's built to rent out to their workers and others. All the houses on the eastern side of Buckingham Street were originally Salter's.

The second generation of the Salter family were prominent Methodists and tee-totallers, and as business boomed the family rose in status. Within a century it produced two mayors of Oxford, an MP for the University, a Waterman to the Queen and an architect, Stephen Salter. He designed the delightfully quirky offices, club room and passenger waiting room on Folly Bridge Island (illustrated left in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 10 November 1900) which replaced the by-then derelict Boathouse Tavern. There is a photograph of the offices taken in 1911 here.

Salter was also responsible for several other somewhat eccentric buildings in Oxford, including Lloyd's Bank at Carfax and the Cowley Road Methodist Church, on the corner of Jeune Street, as well as houses within and outside the city.

Simons book cover 2014


Plan of Folly Bridge and its surroundings drawn up in July 1844, shortly after the opening of the nearby Great Western Railway station, when nearby wharves were for sale by auction. St Aldates Yard (Lot 1) was later owned by Salter's. The key to the buildings is lower down. Image © the Bodleian Library, ref: Bodl GA fol B 71, 132. (Click image to close)

[Auction of wharfs, Folly Bridge, 1844, Bodl GA fol B 71, 132, map]

Salter's offices on Folly Bridge Island, photographed by Henry Taunt in 1911. Image © Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: HT11375. (Click image to close)

[Folly Bridge Island, Salter's offices]