Saturday, 06 March 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

Wargrave Local History Society

THE society held another successful meeting using Zoom in January when Simon Wenham gave an illustrated presentation on Hobbs of Henley.

Simon, who is involved with Oxford University’s Continuing Education programme, has a particular interest in the social history of the Victorian era.

He had a summer job at Salter’s Steamers in Oxford. As a result, he studied the company’s history for his master’s degree and then his doctorate, which he completed in 2013.

He then met Tony and Jonathan Hobbs, who said that producing a history of their firm would be a good way to mark its 150th anniversary in 2020.

Unlike Salter’s, Hobbs did not have a large archive on which he could base his research.

This was not meant to be a promotional volume but to recount the history of the family and the firm, which has been a successful enterprise considering how long the business has existed.

The founder of the boating business was Harry Hobbs, who had taken over the Ship public house in Henley.

As publicans had to hold an appropriate licence, records of who was at a particular inn are available but these only showed Harry at the Ship from April 1871.

Trade directories of the town only referred to boating being part of Hobbs’ business from the Thirties and that it started in 1892. But by the Fifties the foundation year was given as 1870.

The Hobbses were not sure what the correct date was, so Simon set out to find the earliest documented connections of the family to the River Thames.

He traced them back to 1490 in Hambleden. The earliest written evidence of the family being associated with the river was in 1756, when Margaret Hobbs, from Hambleden, died, and her husband Thomas was referred to as a wharfinger.

The area was well known for its timber at that time, much of which would be transported by river, and so the wharf would have been an important facility.

A survey conducted in 1798, the Posse Comitatus, set out to count how many fighting men might be available should Napoleon decide to invade Britain. For Hambleden, it listed 15 men called Hobbs and six of those were called John and four were William.

There was a variety of trades listed and the four wharfingers in Hambleden were John Hobbs, John Hobbs senior, John Hobbs junior and a William Plummer.

The Hobbs family were wharfingers for several generations with the last being Henry, who had the wharf at Mill End in 1861. When he died in 1890, his obituary stated that the Hobbs family had held the wharf for more than 200 years.

He had also operated the nearby ferry across to Aston. The publican at the Flower Pot at that time was James Arlett, whose family later set up a rival boatbuilding concern in Henley.

Another early reference to the Hobbs family was found in documents relating to Burrow Farm, which belonged to Balliol College, Oxford.

Thomas and William Hobbs had taken a lease on this property in 1621 and a map showed the River Thames running alongside.

A crucial document for Simon to establish the date when the Hobbs boatyard was founded was a large pictorial advert dated 1900 that hung in the company’s office.

This stated that it was founded in 1870. Being within living memory, it was likely to be accurate, especially as Henry Hobbs was still alive and presumably verified the date given.

The Henry Hobbs who founded the present boat firm was born in 1841 and had taken over the Ship Inn from the Hooper family, who ran another of Henley’s boat building concerns. The pub was close to Henley’s main commercial wharf.

In 1875, the incidents reported regarding the Ship in Henry’s time were typical, for example, serving gin out of hours in 1875 or the need to break up a rumpus in 1888.

In 1893, Henry caught a thief trying to take equipment from the workshop and hauled the culprit by the collar to the police station.

There was still some commercial activity at the time, with barges running weekly to London, but by the end of the century they were disappearing quickly.

Ferries also continued to provide cross-river links, there being no other bridges across the Thames between Sonning and Marlow.

One of Henry’s early boating ventures was to hire out punts for anglers to use. They would moor mid-stream, sitting in cane chairs in the boat to catch fish such as trout, carp or barbel.

This was a popular activity at the time and one noted amateur angler at the end of the 19th century was A. Edward Hobbs (an eminent architect, but not directly related to Henry), who caught hundreds of trout.

He became hon secretary of the Henley Fishing Preservation Society and wrote widely about angling.

There were tensions, though, as many who took to the river as a social event did not always respect the activities of rowers, anglers and others — something portrayed by a cartoon in Punch in 1869, entitled “Captain Jinks of the Selfish and his friends enjoying themselves on the river”.

In 1897, Hobbs joined with Charles Luker in buying the Henley Standard from its previous owners, although his involvement was fairly short-lived as Luker bought out his interest in 1900.

This late Victorian and Edwardian era was the “Golden Age” of the Thames and pleasure boating became very fashionable — one of the few activities where there was mixing of the sexes.

Especially popular was the Henley regatta, which became much easier for visitors to reach following the opening of the railway in 1857.

The 5,000 or so visitors matched the resident population at the time, a boost for trade but putting a large strain on the town’s resources.

Hobbs have long been an important part of this local boating scene, hiring out various types of craft for the event, so the regatta is important to the firm financially.

From 1919 until 1988, Hobbs also undertook the lengthy process of setting out the regatta course.

There were several other boatyards in Henley in the early 20th century, including Sheppard (then by the Red Lion), one by the Angel, Carpenters, Parrotts and Hoopers, while Salter’s Steamers also called there on the way between Oxford and Kingston.

There was a wide range of craft available. Skiffs becoming popular while the latest technology being promoted by Hobbs was electrically powered boats.

Another aspect of the business to grow at this time was pleasure craft to take passengers for trips on the river. The 50ft-long Marian was able to carry 50 people.

In one incident in1909, the vessel collided with the Windsor Belle. Each owner blamed the other but it transpired that the captain of the Windsor Belle was not at the wheel at the time, so a court ruled in favour of Hobbs.

Recreational camping along the river was another activity to begin at this time. The equipment was relatively heavy, so boats were hired to make it easier to carry the tents etc to the camp site. There were even boats that could become floating tents.

The campers, however, caused problems for the local landowners — the crimes reported including using wine bottles to injure livestock, stealing fruit and vegetables, leaving litter and even “milking cows at ‘unholy hours’”. The river was certainly a busy place.

Hobbs’ boatbuilding activities expanded from 1911, when they acquired the Springfield Yard at Goring from Sam Saunders.

They had made a number of umpire launches for use at the regatta, which fitted in well with other work.

The work expanded to more stylish craft, including some very elegant slipper launches, yachts, Broads cruisers etc.

By the Sixties, however, the introduction of fibreglass meant that traditional boatbuilding diminished.

Hobbs was able to adapt to the new conditions by opening a chandlery in 1965 as well as providing mooring space — their clients have included many well-known personalities, such as Vince Hill and Jeremy Paxman.

During the Second World War, despite the Royal Marines needing to take canoes for training military personnel, Hobbs were able to continue and from 1942 leisure boating increased.

The river was away from the restricted access coastal areas, so was seen as a safe and accessible alternative.

In the post-war era, leisure cruising gained in popularity, so that during the Seventies there were more than a million coming through the locks each year, Marsh Lock being the busiest of them.

This growth in holidaying on the river had been promoted by TV adverts by Hoseasons.

There were about 800 such vessels on the river by 1980, including those from Hobbs, which traded under the Thames Hire banner.

Changes in holidaying habits, however, meant this number was reduced to around 300 by 1990, when Hobbs sold its fleet.

People still wanted to enjoy time on the river, so Hobbs invested in a larger craft, the 44ft long Maratana. This could provide short trips on the Thames between Marsh and Hambleden locks, so avoiding the delays at those points, and thus became very popular.

It was the problem of timing boats through the locks that led Salter’s to cut their through services in 1974.

To cater for the increasing river traffic, Hobbs brought an even larger boat into service in 1983, Consuta II.

It, too, was a single-deck craft, so could still not cater for larger corporate parties so an even larger boat was added to the fleet.

Around 110ft long, The New Orleans cost about £500,000 and came into use in 1991 with on-board catering.

The hire side of the business then sought to appeal to the higher end of the market.

An Olympic class of craft was instituted, the name reflecting their origin as boats that had been used to transport VIPs to the 2012 Olympics. To enable this continued growth, the company had obtained additional premises over time.

Having begun by the Ship Inn, the site at Station Road was acquired in 1898 — ideally situated to cater for visitors arriving by train — and then in 1917, the large yard in Wargrave Road that had belonged to Sheppard was obtained.

Adding extra properties enabled new markets to be explored and in time there was room to store 100 boats, with different yards for fitting out.

As there is a limited amount of river frontage available, it also has kept out competitors.

Harry Hobbs, who established the firm, was a direct descendant of the Hambleden wharfingers, and five of his sons joined the business.

His son William, known as Bill, went on to develop it with his brother Arthur, although the latter later set up a rival concern.

Bill also became superintendent of the town fire brigade and served as Mayor.

His son Richard (Dick) succeeded him as head of Hobbs and also became Mayor, serving on three occasions as well as being a member of the Thames Conservancy. His daughter, Margaret, was also Mayor, as was Dick’s son.

Tony followed as the company’s managing director but did not become involved in politics but instead joined many community organisations for which he was awarded the Henley town medal.

He also served as a royal waterman and became an MBE. His son, Jonathan, is the current managing director and also a royal waterman.

Of course, a business depends not only on its owners but its workforce. The boating trade does not offer all-year round employment for many, so although 25 or so staff are needed in the summer, and 50 for the regatta, only 10 are kept on for the winter months, so most have another occupation.

The work is varied, one member of staff commenting that being the driver of an umpire launch is “the best job” while being in the piling gang was less glamorous.

Simon reflected that Hobbs had survived for such a long time because it had made “astute, brave and sensible business decisions”, had learnt from their competitors and diversified to meet changing conditions,.

Now it saw itself as a hospitality company that benefits from, and contributes to, the “Henley mystique” in order to be, as the company motto says, the “Best in boating since 1870”.

Simon’s history of Hobbs has been published by Amberley and is available from the Bell Bookshop Henley and the Hobbs’ offices as well as online.

To see the society’s programme, visit www.wargravehistory.org.uk or for information, email info@wargravehistory.org.uk

Peter Delaney

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