W hen Bill Dunckley began working for Salter Brothers' Steamers as a schoolboy, his father Ernest told him: “Don’t be daft, son. You should go on the railways. Don’t go wasting your time on some dead-end boating job.” That was in 1944.

This year, as the firm of Salter Brothers celebrated 150 years, Bill has notched up his 64th year of service with the company — and looks set for many more.

Bill was 14 when taken on as a ‘mate’ on the Streatley, travelling from Oxford to Henley in two days, with an overnight stop at Wallingford. As one of a crew of five (skipper, engineer, purser, and two mates), Bill mainly helped to ensure the safe passage of the boats, but was also required to perform a number of other tasks, including polishing the brasses, keeping the water supplies — for both the boat’s engine and for drinking — topped up, and serving drinks. In Wallingford, he also used to carry passengers’ luggage to the George Hotel or the Feathers, the usual overnight locations.

Prior to departure, Bill’s most important role was to load the coal for the steam-powered vessel. All Salters’ boats used Welsh steam coal, supplied by a coalmerchant called Jack Leech, whose supplies were delivered to Folly Bridge from the railhead at Rewley Road. The coal was stored on the wharf outside what is now the ‘Head of the River’ pub, until 1977 a Salters’ warehouse.

Bill was encouraged to ignore his father’s early advice because two uncles, Bob and Basil, already worked for Salters, and he had in any case already got a taste for the life, after several stints in his school holidays. Then, in 1947, Bill’s younger brother Bryan also joined the ‘Salters’ Navy’, and the two brothers often found themselves working together on the same boats, especially the Streatley and Mapledurham.

The austerity of the post-war years did little to depress custom, and Bill recalls that queues would frequently stretch right across Folly Bridge. Often it fell to him to give latecomers the disappointing news that there was no more room. With full passenger loads, it was the sort of work where tips were plentiful, and Bill reckons that he barely needed to touch his actual weekly wage. This, he recalls, was £1 7s a week when he started. For comparison, The Oxford Times in the summer of 1944 cost 2d (less than a modern penny), the single fare to Wallingford was 5s (25 pence), and the best seats at the Oxford Playhouse were 6s 6d (32½ pence).

Regulations about the maximum number of passengers were strictly observed, but there were other rules which were cheerfully, though never recklessly, ignored.

When Bill gained enough experience to skipper a boat — his first was the Iffley — it was purely a company decision. No tests or qualifications were required, just the confidence and trust of your employer. But it was not so different on the roads, it should be remembered — it is only since 1957 that there has been an uninterrupted legal requirement to take a test.

The alcohol flowed freely, too. The boats themselves had no bars at this time, so groups on charter trips would bring their own drink. Free-spending Americans were particularly welcome, and the Dunckley boys especially looked forward to July 4, when they could count on many a free Independence Day drink. So many, in fact, that Bill recalls the frequent illusion of steering towards three bridges rather than one!

Another vivid memory of the 1950s was the annual outing of the Hounslow Constabulary, who reliably consumed sufficient alcohol on the trip from Windsor to Marlow to inspire many of them to strip off and dive into the river en route.

Bill remembers one occasion at Cookham Lock where so many of them were in the water that the boat was going to fall seriously behind its schedule. Neither the lockkeeper nor the Salters’ staff felt quite brave enough to berate them, and had still not agreed on whose responsibility it was when the Boys-no-longer-in-Blue squelched back on board of their own accord. On another occasion, these guardians of law and order ejected the boat’s piano into the river near Bourne End.

“They used to get away with murder,” was Bill’s assessment. Well, perhaps not quite, but that piano almost certainly is still lying in its watery grave.

There was less red tape relating to the condition of the boats too. “It was simply accepted that the boats would be maintained in a good condition. We travelled on those boats more than any of the passengers, so of course we made sure everything was in good working order.”

Yet despite the lenient regulations, Bill can only remember one accident serious enough to cause loss of life — and even that was not due to any navigational error, but the mundane and essentially British desire for a regular cuppa.

In the days of steam, it was easy to keep a kettle on the go, but after conversion to diesel (a process completed in 1966), the boats used primus stoves, requiring manual pumping to achieve pressure.

One day in 1961, a crew member called Samuel Fuller was priming the stove on the Reading when a fault caused the tank to explode, killing both himself and another member of the crew, Gwendoline Fuller.

Bill remembers the incident vividly, even though he was nowhere near at the time. Because that was the day he happened to be steering a small trip boat some way downriver. Indeed, he was rather farther down than he had planned, having been persuaded by his delighted passengers — a certain Peter Sellars and family — to extend their day to its maximum.

Another incident of note at about this time was when a college eight was split in half during a collision with a Salters’ boat. The Cliveden had been in Iffley Lock, waiting for the all-clear in between heats during Eights’ Week.

The lockkeeper’s wife opened the gates earlier than was prudent, and an eight coming downstream for the next race collided full-on with the Cliveden’s emerging prow. Although this was not Salters’ fault, the company repaired the craft free of charge.

This was not a problem, because it should be remembered that the passenger trips were only one aspect of Salters’ operation; building boats was also their business, and indeed, it is this trade by which the firm established itself as an iconic Oxford name in the first instance.

When Bill started in 1944, Salters had already been in existence for almost nine decades. The firm had been founded by the brothers John and Stephen Salter, who came from Wandsworth to take over Isaac King's boat-building business at Folly Bridge in 1858. In the early years, it was the University which supplied most of the two brothers’ business, and they were soon constructing a wide variety of different craft, including many of the University barges which once fringed Christ Church meadows.

The next generation — John, James, and George Salter — introduced the passenger services which remain to this day.

The very first such trip departed from Oxford on May 21, 1888. The boat was the Alaska, purchased especially for the purpose (and still operating when Bill began his career).

The five-day return trip to Kingston was hugely popular, and by the early 20th century the fleet had expanded to run twice daily — although it was not until 1933 that John and Stephen Salter’s refusal to operate on Sundays (on religious grounds) was finally overturned by the younger members of the family. Salters started building their own boats for the passenger fleet in 1901, when the Reading was launched, and culminated in the construction of Mapledurham and Cliveden, the largest of the boats, in 1927 and 1931 respectively.

The company also built many boats for naval and military use during both World Wars. These included gunships, mine-layers and landing-craft, whilst Mapledurham and Cliveden were used as hospital ships in London during the Blitz.

Of the present fleet of passenger boats, seven were built by the company. Bill knows them all intimately. It really is extraordinary for an individual to work for the same employer for more than six decades, and therefore for over half of the 120 years that Salters have operated passenger trips from Oxford.

So, does Bill have any regrets? Had he ever thought of leaving, and trying something else?

“No, never,” he said. “I have loved almost every moment. It is a world of its own, the river. Every day it offers an escape from the pressures of the outside world, and I think the passengers usually find that too.

“I can’t imagine any other job where I’d get the same level of enjoyment, satisfaction, and freedom.”

It’s a precious combination to have found in life. Witnessing the enthusiasm and skill with which Bill applies himself still at the age of 79 — whether dealing with an engine, a hull, a colleague, or the public — it seems that a great deal of water will have flowed under a great number of Thames bridges before he is ready to give it up completely.

Mark Davies is co-author of A Towpath Walk in Oxford: the Canal and River Thames between Wolvercote and the City. He leads regular group walks along Oxford’s towpaths, on historical and literary themes, and provides talks and courses on the waterways and related aspects of Oxford’s history.