One hundred years of boatmen and boatwomen on the Pittville Boating Lake

The west side of present-day Pittville park was pieced together from various plots of land purchased by the Borough Council at the end of the 19th century to make a “people’s recreational park”. This was in contrast to the formal pleasure gardens on the east side of the Evesham Road, which remained until the 1950s predominantly the preserve of estate residents, subscribers or those willing to pay the park’s entrance fee.

How did the Borough change the site? Capper’s Pond, created by and named after the first influential resident of Marle Hill House, Robert Capper, was enlarged. The stream which fed it was widened to resemble a river with a tree-lined walkway along its banks, and a rustic bridge of large bamboos was constructed at the traditional crossing-point. The lake was now about 550 yards in length, with a depth varying between 2ft 6in and 4ft 6in. It became home for an ideal boating course, 1,466 yards long. The new attraction was known for some time afterwards as “The New Lake”.

Boating had already proved to be a popular leisure activity in south Cheltenham at Liddington Lake, close to Leckhampton Road. As a private enterprise the clay pits from the former brickworks had been extended and fashioned into a lake with an island where canoes and small boats could be hired by the hour. The entrance fee was 2d and events and family activities were organised to maintain interest, and so it was felt that a similar enterprise on the northern edge of Cheltenham was also likely to prove popular.

The first boats. Pittville’s first boats were purchased in 1894 from W. H. Halford’s boat-builders, of Gloucester. The Borough Council recorded on 9 March “That an order be given to Mr. Halford for the following boats”:

Two canoes at £6 6s each
One canoe at £4 10s
Two dinghies at £10
One half-out-rig dinghy £10
Two pair-oar gigs at £15 each
Two family boats at £17 17s
One punt £11, half-doz. pairs of extra sculls at 12s per pair
Two pairs of oars at 17s, total £129 2s

The charge for the hire of the Corporation boats was to be1s for the first hour and 6d. per hour for every hour or part of an hour after the first hour”.

The Boathouse: The Borough Surveyor, Joseph Hall, explained to the Borough Committee how the boathouse should be constructed, and he was authorised to proceed with the work, including a dressing-room, at a cost not exceeding £90. The building was swiftly completed, which meant that preparations could begin for the opening of the boating facility. The boathouse and gear were insured against fire for £150 with the County Fire Office, and the grounds were laid out with luxuriant plants, such as large subtropical specimens, hardy palms, yuccas, aloes, dracaenas and phormium tenax, otherwise known as New Zealand flax.

Opening day: The Marle Hill Annexe park and boating lake, complete with its boathouse, was officially opened at 5 pm on 25 April 1895, and it proved to be so popular that three more boats were added by Whit Monday. The first boatman to look after the boats was recommended by Mr William Halford.

Cheltenham Horse Show: The new park became an additional venue to complement events held in the Estate park and the Pump Room.

The boathouse in 2007 (photo credit: Terry Langhorn)
Mr. J. G. Villar, Honorary Secretary of the Cheltenham Horse Show Committee, requested that the Council grant them sole use of the Marle Hill Lake and Grounds for the evening of the first day of the Show, which was to be held on 8 and 9 July 1896. They wished to hold an Aquatic Fete and Promenade Concert with exclusive use of the Corporation’s boats from 5 pm. This was agreed, for the sum of £5, with the Cheltenham Horse Show Committee undertaking to make good any damage done to the boats or any other property of the Corporation.

Model boats: The sailing of model boats, known as pond boats, was a very popular activity for families and for enthusiasts, who took part in “miniature regattas”. Boats ranged from homemade models to highly crafted vessels purchased from boatbuilding specialists. There is still a following for this activity and vintage models are collected for their charm and/or quality.

Cheltenham Rowing Club: In 1900 the Cheltenham College Rowing Club began to train on the lake and paid £5 5s per annum to use the boats, with exclusive use of one of them. Another boat was purchased to replace it for general hire.

Other activities: Some examples of added activities at the lake included lifesaving demonstrations in 1902 and aquatic sports in 1903.

A uniform for the boatmen: At a Meeting of the Borough Council held on Monday 20 April 1903 it was decided that the Borough Surveyor should be instructed to obtain prices for the supply of uniforms for the boatman at Pittville. Many parks in Britain had adopted uniforms for their boatmen, where a nautical look, comprising white or navy trousers with a navy-blue jacket and a peaked cap, had been chosen.

Refreshments: By 1905 refreshments could be purchased at the boathouse to boost trade, as it was felt that the novelty of boating had begun to wane. The boatman paid the Borough an extra £1. 10s to provide this for his own profit but to attract custom. Nonetheless the 1906 receipts for boating were still £60 below those of 1896.

A huge undertaking: From 6 to 11 July 1908 the Marle Hill Annexe, Pittville, was the centre of a spectacular event, the Gloucestershire Historical Pageant, which attracted visitors from far and wide. Pageants had become popular from the turn of the century as a dramatic reminder of the history of the country and its counties. Each script provided scope for historical fact and poetic licence, cultural referencing, speech, song and dance, and in this instance boating, with the “arrivals and departures” of key characters.

The site for the event was donated by Mr Joseph Maby, the owner of  Marle Hill House, which had been suitably screened by a wooden structure representing a castle. The wide sloping lawns of the house adjoining both the park and lake provided the stage on which the drama unfolded in episodes over six days. The participants were in the main amateurs drawn from Cheltenham and the surrounding district, led by a vast local committee with an experienced professional Master of the Pageant Mr. George D. Hawtrey. The Chairman of all the water activities was Captain Savile R.N. and the Vice-Chairman was Commander Daubeny R.N. plus another 11 men.

Wooded stands were built on the southern side of the lake
The Corporation boats and others lent for the occasion were variously transformed with
their historical garb, and featured throughout the eight episodes.

Episode 4, the arrival of Queen Margaret

Boats during rehearsal
Replacement boats: During 1910 the boats were inspected and some were found to be beyond repair, so two out-rigger boats and two canoes were purchased. In 1911, to boost their use, an advertisement was placed in the Echo “calling attention to the boating facilities at Pittville”. The Head Boatman at the time was Mr Henry George Healey.  It seems to have been effective, as a further purchase of two four-oared gigs and one two-oared gig, including cushions and sculls, was made for £44, this time from Messrs. Bathurst’s boating works at Tewkesbury, a company which had supported the pageant.

The boatwoman of Pittville: The Cheltenham Chronicle reported in July 1915 that Mrs Gertrude Healey’s husband was the boatman at Pittville Lake, but that while he was on active service in France during the war she had taken over his job. She was often seen taking the soldiers around the lake whilst they were convalescing, and continued to do this work throughout the war until her husband returned.

Renting the boating rights: At a meeting of the Cheltenham Borough Committee held on Friday 16 February 1923, a letter was read out from the boatman, Mr. H. G. Healey, stating that two boats, two canoes, and ten pairs of sculls were required, but that if the Committee would grant him a lease of three or five years, he would provide the necessary boats and sculls, etc., himself. It was agreed that he should be granted the boating rights for the seasons 1923 to 1925, at a rent of £20 per season, subject to his entering into a formal agreement, to be prepared by the Town Clerk, and to include the following conditions:
  1. The right would include use of the lake while the annexe was open to the public (except that no boating was to be allowed on Sundays before 2 pm).The charges for boats would not exceed 9d per hour for canoes, 9d per hour per person for single sculling boats (with a minimum charge of 2s), and 6d per head per hour for family boats (with a minimum charge of 3s per hour).He would be responsible for keeping the lake free of weeds for boating, but would not apply any copperas or other chemical for killing the weeds except with the approval and under the supervision of the Medical Officer of Health.He would provide any additional boats he might require at his own cost.Opening time: Pittville Park would be kept open until half an hour after sunset.
This contract was renewed for another five years from 1928 until 1933.

Steam-boat bought: In 1925 an old steam-boat was purchased by the Council from J. Healey for the cost of £3.

Cleaning out the Lake: In 1914 the Cheltenham College Club had complained of the weeds in the Marle Hill lake, and by 1930 the lake needed desilting. It cost £250 for the mud to be removed, all the way from the Evesham Road end along to the bridge, by Messrs. Bomford & Evershed Ltd. It was then deposited on the field adjoining the Grammar School, at the school bursar’s suggestion.

Reassigning the boating rights: Mr H. Higgins asked the Corporation in 1933 for consent to assign the boating rights to Mr Griffiths, who had acted as Head Boatman for him during the past two seasons. The two men attended the Committee meeting, where it was proposed that a sub-committee “consider the desirability of the Corporation themselves taking over the boating”.

A paddle-boat for the children: The Committee further resolved that the Borough Surveyor should be instructed to purchase an additional children’s paddle-boat at a cost of £8 8s. 0d, and that two additional boats purchased should be let to Mr. Healey for the remainder of the season, for the sum of £2. Also, tenders were invited for the boating rights for the next three seasons.

A safe children’s boating area: A new initiative, allowing children to experience the fun of boating safely, was agreed by the Corporation in 1934. Plans were drawn up to make a shallow and firm bottom to the lake east of the boathouse, creating a children’s boating area contained behind a barrier. The stream was diverted to provide a walk around the eastern edge. Also, shrubs and small trees were cut down, to allow a view of the lake from the Evesham Road. The cost of the work was quoted as £350, and it was carried out during the same year.

Photo credit: Terry Langhorn
This area still remains as constructed, with a concrete base, but it is no longer used for boating. The silt has built up to such an extent that even children’s boats came to ground and the cost of supervising the safety of the children was considered prohibitive. It was still in action in the late 1990s as seen above.

A new lease for Billy Butlin: With fresh ambitions to expand the boating, new boating rights were arranged with Supercraft Engineers in 1934 and in a letter Mr. W. E. Butlin of Grand Parade, Skegness (yes, that really is Billy Butlin himself) agreed to take over the boating rights as follows:
  1. Rent and term – £20 for the first year, with an option to continue for a further term of seven years at a rent of £50, the rent to be payable by three instalments, in the summer months, namely on 31 May, 15 June and 15 August.The two paddle-boats belonging to the Corporation would be sold to Supercraft at £5 each or hired at a charge of £1 each.Treatment of weeds — The Lessees would be responsible for keeping the water free of weeds, as under previous agreements, except that their out-of-pocket expenditure for materials should not exceed £5.Sunday hours — The Council should be recommended to allow boating to start at 10 am on Sundays (instead of 2 pm) (in fact, this was changed back to 2 pm as local churches protested that boating would interfere Sunday School attendance).Closing time — The closing time would be extended.Charges — The charges proposed for boating should be submitted to and approved by the Committee.
The Entertainments Sub-Committee also authorised that terms could be arranged for granting a lease of boating rights and associated amusements at Marle Hill Annexe to the Supercraft Motor Boat Co. for a term of not exceeding seven years.

The lease was then transferred to Supercraft Ltd. of London, with the consent of the Council in December 1934.

Supercraft pull out!: Eighteen months later, though, at a meeting of the Corporation on Friday 12 June 1936 a letter was read out from the Receiver Manager of Supercraft Ltd.; it advanced a proposal on behalf of his company to dispose of the sixteen boats and canoes, paddles and oars belonging to the company at Pittville. In the end, the Cheltenham Corporation offered the company £50 for the boats, and waived their claim for arrears of rent and for the cost of destroying the weeds in the lake. Alderman Pates and Councillor Avery were asked to arrange for the letting of the boats during that season.

The grand ambitions of the Council for outsourcing the running of the Pittville boating lake had not been fulfilled, and local management was once again sought. An offer was made to Mr. H. Higgins to take the boating rights and boats on the following terms:
  1. The rent would be £34 for the remainder of the current season, and would be increased to £50 for a full season.There would be an additional charge of 10 per cent. of the cost incurred by the Corporation in the purchase of boats, and 10 per cent. of the initial cost of their repair and painting.Mr. Higgins should the option of continuing his tenancy for a further five years.This offer must be accepted in conjunction with an agreement prepared by the Town Clerk containing similar terms to those contained in the agreement with Supercraft Ltd.The three boats belonging to the Humberside Propelling Co. would be purchased for £15 9s.
More lessees: Mr Harry Higgins continued to manage the boating. He had to arrange for the cleaning of the children’s lake and incurred incidental expenses for the damage done to the boats during the 1936 Rotary Club Carnival. Then, in 1938, he approached the Committee to ask if Mr Griffiths could take over the lease. When this was turned down he asked if he could sublet to Mr Griffths Jnr. This was approved, but on the death of Mr Griffiths in 1940 Mr C. Maisey of St. Margaret’s Parade, Bennington Street took over the sub-lease up to 1942, on a yearly basis, at an increased rent of £75 per annum.

Mr Maisey was informed that, subject to the Committee being satisfied with the arrangements, they would not terminate the tenancy during the war. Also, they approved an increase in the boating charges the following season by 50 per cent, except for the children’s paddle boats, where the charges remained unchanged. But Mr. Maisey was required to revert to the pre-war charges for the remainder of the current season; there had been complaints that he had been overcharging.

Post-war changes: In February 1946 the Parks and Recreation Grounds Committee decided to engage a Head Boatman, who had to make repairs to the boats in addition to carrying out his normal duties. His wages would be £4 7s. for a 47-hour week. A month later they increased his wage by 5s, doubtless after some complaints, to that of a skilled handyman, at £4 12s for the same hours. And then in early April they took the plunge, and engaged one of the Parks employees, Mr. J. Cummings, as Head Boatman, under the terms already agreed.

At the same time, a new tariff of charges was introduced: the charge for skiffs and canoes was raised to 1s 6d per hour for one or two persons (with an extra charge of 6d per person above this), and the charge for paddleboats and tubs was set at 3d. per child per half hour.

In response to the popularity of the activity, the Committee bought more boats, from Mr. J. Sanders, boat-builder, of Pershore: one second-hand double sculler for £60, a second-hand single sculler for £45, a newly constructed canoe for £50 5s 2d, a newly constructed American canoe for £60, and an extra skiff for £45.

An established attraction: During the mid-twentieth century the two parks east and west of Evesham Road had become one Pittville Park. With the recreational activities of a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf, tennis, alongside the boating all were well attended. An old town rubbish tip had been capped by 1970, which allowed the golfing course to extend to eighteen holes. In May 1971 a leisure centre, with two swimming pools, overlooking the western edge of the lake was opened by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Later, when a stadium was added, the west area of Pittville park became the main recreational centre for the town.

Recent times: From 1981 to 1990 the boatman was Ronald Henry Hussey, of Hill View Road, who was popular both with his colleagues and with his customers. He also sold ice-cream during the summer months!

During his twenty years he maintained the boats and the hiring service and many still remember him today.

Thanks to Rachel Harley for this image and the associated information

When he died in 1990 his friends and colleagues clubbed together for a purple-leaved birch tree to be erected in his memory. (Now take a look at our related Gallery On the water and along the lakeside.)

Judy Langhorn 2020

[The illustrations are from postcards in the possession of the author, unless otherwise stated.]