HISTORY OF HENLEY 1896

The Henley was built for a John Salter of Folly Bridge Oxford. She was the sixth new vessel that had been purpose built for the growing fleet. Salters had started the five day return service from Oxford to Kingston in 1886 with a second-hand craft the Alaska, they also acquired the Thames and a smaller boat the Isis for local work. Salters looked further afield for new boats and commissioned Edwin Clark of Hope Mill Yard and Canal Ironworks at Port Brimscombe, near Stroud in Gloucestershire to undertake the work.  It is probable that Salter knew the young Clark, for he had been apprenticed to Davis a boat builder at Abingdon before seeking premises of his own.  The new boats were to be designed by William Sissons of Gloucester, the specification demanded that they had to have a good capacity, be fast yet reliable and produce little wash.  Sissons was also to supply the engines, a contract that was to last until 1931.  Craft were built in quick succession, the first was the Oxford, followed by the Kingston then a small boat the Swan.  Windsor and the first Cliveden came next. It was then that Salter asked for a bigger boat, so in 1896 the sixth vessel  to be constructed by Edwin Clark, the Henley was built, sadly it was to be his last for he died at the very young age of 36 in the same year. Henley was a beautiful steam powered vessel. She had a steel, riveted hull together with the Victorian elegance of teak decks and well appointed saloon.  She was 79.93 feet (24.38 m) in length and her registerd tonnage 36 tons.  The location of Edwin Clark’s yard on the canal had dictated that a number of larger vessels had to be built in sections which would have been bolted together for trials then dismantled and carried by barge to Sharpness in preparation for shipping to their final destination.  There they would be reassembled and riveted and commissioned for the customer.  This constructional skill was to prove invaluable with the Henley.  She was too long to come down the Kennet and Avon Canal but she did nevertheless come under her own power.  It was reported by local press that the strange sight of a steamer coming down the canal with the bow section on the deck bemused spectators!  Clark realised that if he removed the bow section she would just fit through the locks.  She would have been towed from Sharpness down the Severn to Bristol and there she would enter the canal for the journey to Reading. The long trip probably about five days in all gave the crew the chance to test the engine although without the bow section they would not have been able to go very fast.  Henley was fitted with a high-speed triple expansion engine for which Sissons were famed, in fact every Salter boat had the same engine although the larger ones ran a higher pressure to produce more power. On arrival at Oxford and she was commissioned and put into service test run to Nuneham with the proud owners on board allowed them to show off the vessel.  One more boat the Henley’s sister the Nuneham was to be completed at Clark’s yard after his death by the foreman who it is believed then was taken on by Salters and built many more craft at Oxford until the 1930s.

The Henley was used on the famous service along the upper reaches of the Thames for over 70 years becoming one of the famous ‘black steamers’ which are remembered by so many people from all over the country.  During the second world war she played her part, not at Dunkirk, something that has become a popular myth but in another equally important way. The Thames steamers were fitted with non-condensing engines and these were not suitable for operation in the salt water of the English Channel. Some of the larger boats on the river were requisitioned to be used as hospital ships in the Tideway.  Those owned by Mears of Richmond  were taken to Sheerness in preparation for the job of carrying wounded servicemen back to London, none of the Salter boats were involved in this task. However, Henley continue to operate throughout the war, Salters were allocated  a regular supply of coal for their fleet.  The steamers were considered to offer an essential opportunity relaxation and leisure in such dark times and perhaps more importantly they were often to be seen with crowds of servicemen on board either on leave from active service or recuperating after injury.  So, the little steamer Henley managed to remain in continuous service on the Oxford to Kingston route as he had done since 1896

After the war things gradually returned to normal.  Henley had had a new saloon put on in the 1920s and the top deck lost its Victorian central raised roof in order to accommodate more passengers by the mid-1950s this to needed refurbishment.  In 1958 she was modernised, the steam engine was taken out and a four-cylinder high-quality Dorman diesel was fitted to her at the same time she received a new saloon and  re-entered service ready to work for many years to come.

Her steam engine was to find its way into the Kew Bridge Museum where it was admired by visitors for several years.  Today it remains in existence owned privately.  It is perhaps a tribute to the engine builder himself that it lasted for so long and was so reliable.

As the 1970s dawned the famous service was cut back, it became impossible to keep to the timetable and the boats found themselves being used more and more for private hires and group bookings.  Henley was found to be surplus to the company’s needs and was one of the smaller boats offered for sale.  The Henley was sold in 1975 to Bill Jackson and she was taken off to the Tideway.  Here she started her new life in London on the Thames running on the WPSA service from Westminster to Kew, Richmond and Hampton court.  In the late 1970s she was to venture upstream again to have a new Thornycroft engine fitted by Bushnells at Wargrave, the return journey downstream in floodwater was to prove an eventful one for the crew.  She re-entered service and has plied her trade from Westminster ever since.  In 1979 J.J.Shearing (later to become J&R Shearing) acquired the vessel.  Then in the mid-1990s the Henley was taken to Hampton Marine Services slipways at Platts Ait.  There she had her ageing saloon replaced by a new modern steal structure.  She carried on running on the service for J&R Shearing till 2002 when she was sold again to her third proud  owner, a great enthusiast of the old steamers, the late Edward Langley, of  Complete Pleasure Cruises, here she continued to work for WPSA (Thames River Boats) to Hampton Court.  From 2005 The Henley became a remarkably busy vessel when she started doing a commuter service each morning and evening from Blackfriars pier to Putney. In-between the commuter runs he would continue her daily service up to Hampton Court and back.

In 2006  National Historic Ships Register  committee was created to study the immediate issues concerning historic vessels in the United Kingdom and to address a range of questions relating to the support infrastructure for historic ships.  They looked at their potential and their contribution to the wider economic, social and community benefits that they could offer.  The register maintains a watch list of vessels based both at home and abroad of potential maritime historical significance to the United Kingdom.  The Henley was added to the list of historically important vessels, her Certificate number is 256.

On the 3rd of June 2012 Queen Elizabeth 2nd celebrated her diamond Jubilee.  To mark this historic day the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant was organised on London’s river with 670 boats taking part. The Henley was one of the lucky boats to be chosen to be part in this event. The vessels that took part included military, commercial, and pleasure craft. According to Guinness World Records, this was the largest ever parade of boats, surpassing the previous record of 327 boats set in Bremerhaven in Germany, in 2011.  Sailing vessels and others too tall to pass under the bridges were moored as an “Avenue of Sail” downstream of London Bridge with smaller craft in St Katherine Docks. The Queen, Prince Philip and most of the Royal Family all took part in the event, travelling on different vessels sailing down the Thames from Chelsea to Tower Bridge.

The Henley continued to work with Complete Pleasure Cruises until April 2019 when she was bought by her fourth owner, Ryan Sandall, operator of River Boat Charters, she continues to operate on the service to Hampton court.  In 2021 this historic vessel will celebrate her 125th Birthday becoming the oldest working commercial vessel on the tidal Thames.

Ryan Sandall 2020