Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 12:28 UK
Floating Assets - History of Oxford's Residential Boats
Folly Bridge in the 1830s
Houseboats have been seen around Folly Bridge since at least the 1830s

Oxford is a city of rivers.

Visitors who see only the fine buildings of the central University colleges may be forgiven for departing the city with a rather different impression, but its waterways have always been of paramount importance.

The Thames is the reason for Oxford's very existence; rivers delineate the greater part of the city's ancient municipal limits; and the many islands created by the braiding of the Thames' sidestreams formed the early western and southern parishes and suburbs.

It is therefore probable, in a city where boats have been integral to its very essence, that people would have resorted to using them as domestic accommodation from an early age.

There is no hard evidence for this, however, and it is not until the 1861 Census that a definite domestic use of boats can be observed.

Five of these floating homes were barges moored near Folly Bridge; two were 'houseboats' at Medley, a little upstream of Oxford.

Both were headed by men whose families had a long association with boatbuilding in Oxford.

One was Maximilian Davis (c. 1806-1879), about whom more later; the other was a man with a surname as synonymous with Oxford's waterways as any: William Bossom (born c. 1839).

The Bossom family had been trading on the river trade since at least the seventeenth century.

When business declined as a result of railway competition in the nineteenth century some of the family relocated to Medley, where they built and hired rowing boats, punts, and other similar craft.

William Bossom continued to live afloat at Medley with his wife Ellen for at least another 20 years, and it is due to him that the family name became so synonymous with Medley that the current boatbuilding firm there still trades as Bossom's, even though it passed out of the family's hands soon after World War Two.

The 'houseboats' at Medley had grown to number six by 1871.

Four were occupied by Bossoms, one by Maximilian Davis, and the last by the Bossoms' main business rival, Geoffrey Beesley (born c. 1845), 'owner of boats'.

Indeed the Beesley family had been in competition with the Bossoms for generations, in a rivalry which often verged on a feud (see the book, A Towpath Walk in Oxford).

Of note is the floating household overseen by Sarah Bossom (aged 45).

Living with her on board (her husband John, William's older brother, was absent at the time) were seven daughters and two sons, aged between 2 and 18 years.

It sounds cramped, but these houseboats were 14 feet or so wide, and probably at least 50 feet long; compared to the lot of a family on a working narrowboat, where two adults and two children might eat and sleep in a cabin seven feet by eight, it was probably considered a relative palace!

By 1881 the residential boat families at Medley had reduced to five.

John and Sarah Bossom still lived on one (called 'Alice'), with five of their daughters, and it is indicative of the pedigree of the family that John was by then a 'University waterman'.

The other four residential boats were all headed by men who also described themselves as boatbuilders: William Bossom and Geoffrey Beesley were two; the others were the brothers Henry (on 'Elizabeth') and Thomas Goatley.

As teenagers, the Goatley brothers had occupied their own barge at Folly Bridge in 1861.

William Bossom's name crops up in the recollections of the author, poet, and craftsman William Morris (1834-1896).

In 1880 and 1881 Morris took several trips along the Thames, to inform the writing of his futuristic 1890 novel News From Nowhere.

On one such trip, he noted getting back to his home at Kelmscott from Medley 'in two pair-oared boats towed respectively by William Bossom and one of his men'.

Maximilian Davis (c.1804-1879), meanwhile, the only other definite boat resident identified at Medley in 1861, was a close relation (probably the nephew) of Stephen Davis (?-1837), a boatbuilder at Folly Bridge whose importance in guiding rowing from a minor Oxford pastime to the pre-eminent Oxford sport is immense.

Stephen Davis built the boat used in the very first Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1829, and such was his influence that, in a rare example of Gown deference to Town, it was Davis to whom the Cambridge University Boat Club had addressed their historic first challenge.

When Oxford won that first race, the Sporting Magazine of July 1829 dubbed Davis 'the Professor of Rowing', because his real importance, then and subsequently, was as a trainer of the young Oxford undergraduates whose experience of rowing was necessarily limited.

Stephen Davis' importance is such that he features frequently in Oxford fiction, most notably in Peter Priggens the College Scout (1841), where Joseph Hewlett assigned him a similar pseudo-academic status, as a 'private nautical, or rather fresh-aquatic, or cymbatic tutor, much to the undergraduate's advantage and his own' (cymba = a boat in Latin).

Stephen Davis's relation Maximilian failed to achieve such literary or sporting fame, but did feature in two rare newspaper references to houseboats.

When called as a witness at inquests into drownings at Medley in October 1872 and the Sheepwash Channel in November 1873, his address was given in Jackson's Oxford Journal as 'a house-boat on the River Isis'.

It seems probable that he was located at Tumbling Bay, the open-air bathing place a little downstream of Medley, where he was an attendant at the time of his death.

While Davis and Bossom are the first Oxford boat-dwellers that can be positively identified, it is very likely that there were others of an earlier vintage.

It would be no surprise if many escaped the notice of the early Census enumerators; if it happens today (which it does), then it was assuredly likely then too!

Yet it does appear likely that the Medley premises that the enumerator described as 'Noah's Ark' in 1841, occupied by John Day and his family, must surely have been a boat.

Whatever, any early pioneer of residential boat life in Oxford would no doubt be pleased to know that the tradition continues, now swelled to some 120 such homes on the river and canal here, mostly adding interest, colour, creativity, and reassurance to our sometimes lonely and neglected towpaths.

Mark Davies is a local historian, writer, publisher, walks' guide and speaker on various aspects of non-University Oxford.



Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific