Richmond Bridge Boathouses
Boating has formed an important part of Richmond’s history for many centuries. In 1894, the construction of a lock and weir ensured that the Thames at Richmond was navigable around the clock, regardless of the tide. This led to a rise in pleasure boats, and created plenty of business for the boatyards that maintained them.
The Redknapp family ran a boatyard and boat hire business at Richmond as far back as the 18th Century, along with a number of other families, such as the Chittys, Wheelers and Blights. A Redknapp descendant, Stan Peasley, sold the business to Michael Turk, of the R J Turk boatbuilding family, in the 1970s. In 1992, Mark Edwards took on the yard and began to revive wooden boatbuilding from the boathouses.
Mark and his team at Richmond are specialists in traditional wooden boatbuilding, crafting vessels from skiffs and punts, to cutters and wherries. Their knowledge and interest in the history of traditional boatbuilding on the Thames is clear in the formation of the Thames Wherry Trust. In 1990, the Trust built a Thames Wherry, Rose in June, the first in 150 years. Mark also adapted the design of the wherry, combining it with a skiff to form his own unique boat, the ‘Skerry’.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Mark built the Jubilant, a replica of an 18th Century barge, to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. In 2011, Mark and his team were invited to build Gloriana, an 18-oared, 88 foot long row barge for the Queen’s Jubilee. Nothing like it had been built on the Thames in over 200 years. The build took 19 weeks with over 60 craftsmen at work. Gloriana was launched at Isleworth, and named by the Queen in a ceremony in April 2012.
Building the Gloriana
William Colley Racing Boats
Also at Richmond is William Colley, known as Bill, who may be the last remaining builder of wooden racing boats on the Thames. His career began in 1952, aged 14, when he was apprenticed with the famous Sim’s boatbuilding family in Putney. Sim’s has a history dating back to 1864, and were famed for their boat building at Hammersmith, including the construction of eights used in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. In the 1960s, the Olympic single sculler, Vyacheslav Ivanov called George Sims “the Stradivarius of boat builders”.
In 1958, George Sims at Hammersmith was joined by Isleworth boat builder, Bill Sims, who was unrelated to the original Sims family. Bill moved the boatyard to Eel Pie Island in 1962 and continued there under Bill Sims and his son Andrew until the boathouse was redeveloped in 2008.
In April 1973, Bill Colley was working at Albany Boathouse in Kingston, owned by Michael Turk, when a fire destroyed the boathouse, along with many of Bill’s tools and belongings. Despite this set-back, Bill continued his dedication to wooden rowing boats. However, the industry was also about to be irrevocably changed by the coming of glass re-enforced plastic. Empacher brought out their first plastic rowing boat in 1956, and despite being more expensive than their wooden counterparts, these easy to make boats quickly dominated the market, marking the beginning of the end for traditional wooden sculling boats. By the 1970s, plastic rowing boats had become ubiquitous, and many of the traditional skills of wooden racing boat construction were being lost.
Bill Colley, now in his 80s, continues to work on repairing wooden sculls from his workshop at Richmond Boathouse. Forever a critic of the glass re-enforced plastic versions, he has hopes of building one last wooden racing boat from scratch.