Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Blue plaque honour for ‘Brunel of boat-building’

A MAN who developed a method of building waterproof boats is to be commemorated with a blue plaque.

A MAN who developed a method of building waterproof boats is to be commemorated with a blue plaque.

Samuel Saunders lived in Goring in the late 1890s and built the steam-powered umpire’s launch Consuta for Leander Club in Henley.

He later moved to the Isle of Wight, where his venture became Saunders-Roe, a leading marine engineering company.

The plaque celebrating Mr Saunders’ achievements will be unveiled at the Royal Mail sorting office by Goring bridge next month.

The building, which is now owned by leisure boating firm Hobbs of Henley, housed his workshop and showroom, where he developed the Consuta method of boat-building.

Consuta, which is still in full working order, will parade on the river and there will be an exhibition about Mr Saunders at the village hall.

The plaque will be unveiled by Ray Wheeler, who has written two books about Mr Saunders.

The event is being organised by the Oxfordshire Blue Plaque Board with Mike and Janet Hurst, of the Goring and Streatley Local History Society.

The couple moved to Nun’s Acre, Goring, in 2004 and began researching Mr Saunders, trawling through local newspaper records and visiting the National Archives at Kew.

Last year, they nominated their subject for the blue plaque with the information they had uncovered.

Mr Hurst said: “I thought it would be thrown out but we had a very warm response from the board, saying it was a great idea. They told us they wished more people would send in applications like ours.

“Mr Saunders was absolutely fascinating. When people come to our talks about him they always want to find out more. We are so proud that this wonderful man is part of Goring’s history.”

Mrs Hurst said: “A lot of people aren’t aware of Samuel Saunders and I think they will be very interested to hear about this famous son of Goring.

“A lot of famous people have lived in the village but I don’t think it has occurred to anybody to apply for a blue plaque before.

“We are delighted and very grateful that we have been allowed to put it on the building which he used.” Mr and Mrs Hurst are trying to trace Mr Saunders’ descendants so they can invite them to the ceremony. It is believed that he has at least one surviving great granddaughter.

The couple also hope to write a book about him as Mr Wheeler’s books are out of print.

Mr Saunders was born at the Swan in Streatley, which his parents owned, in 1857. He built his first steamer, called the Flying Dutchman, when he was 19.

He married his wife Kate in 1877 and the couple had two children, Ethel and Hubert. Ethel worked for her father as an administrative assistant until her death from meningitis, aged 34.

Mr Saunders started building his Goring works in 1886 and is known to have been living in Willowside, now called Bridge House, by 1891.

He allowed villagers to use his premises for community events as the village hall was not built until 1900.

A parish councillor, he helped found the Goring and Streatley Regatta in 1888 and installed electric lighting at St Thomas’ Church, where he was a warden, as well as repairing its organ.

In 1899, Mr Saunders moved his business to larger premises at what is now the Withymead Nature Reserve, near South Stoke. The remnants of his slipway are still visible today.

He also sold Willowside to live in a cottage on the site.

Here, he developed the Consuta method, which is derived from a Latin word meaning “sewn together”. It involves stitching four thin layers of mahogany and canvas together with copper wire.

It was widely adopted by the boat-building industry until waterproof glues were developed in the Fifties.

However, Mr Saunders started building boats that were too fast to pilot safely on the Thames and he moved to Cowes in 1901 so he could test them in open water.

Mrs Hurst said: “A lot is known about his professional life, particularly after he moved to the Isle of Wight, but we found out some new things.

“We discovered more about him as a person and how he threw himself into things wholeheartedly, perhaps sometimes without thinking.

“For example, he was fined at least three times by magistrates for speeding on the river while he was testing his boats. From looking at his business records, we now know for sure that he sold both his properties in Goring to pay for the move to the Isle of Wight.

“He built boats for royalty and very important people all over the world so he was extremely well-renowned. However, he was also very generous to the village.”

Mr Saunders sold his yards to William Hobbs, great-grandfather of Hobbs’ current director Tony Hobbs.

While based in Cowes, his clients included Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg.

He regularly returned to Goring and would stay at his brother-in-law’s house in Station Road.

He died in 1933, four years after his company was taken over by aircraft manufacturers Alliot Verdon Roe and John Lord.

In 1913, Hobbs built its steam launch Enchantress at Mr Saunders’ old South Stoke site. The works were demolished in the late Forties.

The company built two other steam ships during this time but Enchantress is the only one to have survived. It continued to run a boat hire service at the old Goring bridge works until the Sixties, when it was leased to the Royal Mail.

Mr Hobbs, who will attend the ceremony along with Enchantress, said: “We’re thrilled about the news because Sam Saunders is a local man who started a big business in a very small way.

“He was also a very community-minded person and played a very important role in village life in Goring.

“I would say he was almost the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of boat-building. He was extremely forward-thinking.”

Since 1998, Consuta has been looked after by a charitable trust.

It was restored in 2001 and regularly appears at the Henley Royal Regatta. It is also available for river trips during the summer.

Trustee David Eager said: “Consuta was pivotal to Mr Saunders’ career and the method he used to build her was revolutionary. She gave him the big break and the publicity he needed to build future business upon.

“It is good that he is being celebrated because he really gave a lot to this area. In Cowes, there is a whole museum dedicated to him so it is great that he will finally get recognition in the place where it all started.”

The plaque, which has been paid for by the Gatehampton Trust, will be unveiled at 2.30pm on September 7.

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