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 wharf house and warehouse (now the Head of the River pub), stables, a dwelling house, a crane and the adjacent wharf. The buildings can be seen in this photograph and on this plan of 1844. The wharf house and warehouse were built in 1827 when the new Folly Bridge was built, but the wharf is much older, and dates back to at least 1638.
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 this diagram), 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).
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.
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.
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. In 1910 he designed the delightfully quirky offices, club room and passenger waiting room on Folly Bridge Island which replaced the by-then derelict Boathouse Tavern. There is a photograph of the offices taken in 1911 here.
Stephen 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.
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)