Hobbs of Henley Boatyard

Jonathan Hobbs is managing director of boating firm Hobbs of Henley. He is the fifth generation of his family to run the firm, which was founded by Harry Hobbs in 1870. Jonathan has just been appointed as a Queen’s Waterman, following in the footsteps of his dad, Tony.

Tell us about Hobbs of Henley
We have the largest fleet of boats on the River Thames. We’ve been at this boathouse by the river since 1898, it was built by my great, great grandfather Harry and his sons. My dad Tony developed the boat hire business and we now have three large passenger boats, including The New Orleans, which resembles a Mississippi paddle steamer and can carry 125 passengers. We also hire Linseed motor cruisers for holidays on the river, motor launches and rowing boats. We can match any budget or level of ability. I’ve been MD since 2012 after my dad retired.

What’s it like growing up in a family boat firm?
When I was growing up the firm was building boats as well. Coming in and seeing the launching of boats and the building of boats and seeing all these real old river folk in their boiler suits, all asking when I was coming to start work was a bit scary but it was great.

And when did you start working?
I was 14. My first job was probably baling out the rowing boats because they were full of rainwater from the night before or cleaning a slipper launch.

So it was always assumed you’d join the family firm?
No actually. I’ve always loved the river and I’ve always enjoyed being on it but I was thinking of doing lots of other things. I did well at school and went to university and it was all very different from the old style here of apprenticeships and boat building and building landing stages. There’s a lot of construction and engineering involved and I don’t have that kind of mind, I’m more artistic and creative. My father was saying ‘I can tell you don’t want to come into the business, go and find your own path’.

But you joined eventually
It has been a very natural way to come into it. It was really growing up and understanding what a nice way of making a living and a nice way of life working in a boating firm could be. So a couple of years after graduating I joined the firm and I’ve loved it more every day since.

By the time you joined in 1992 the firm was moving away from boat building?
When I was younger it was primarily boat building. We also built the Henley Regatta course, the landing stages. That took a gang of ten men six months of the year. Since I’ve been here we’ve very much gone down the direction of concentrating on the hire side – big boats for charter, small boats for self-drive.

The New Orleans
What was it like coming into the firm?
I’d grown up a little bit and I started to look at the business and started to think there were things I could do to make my mark. There’s always a lot of pressure on a son growing up in a business, people thinking ‘is he going to make it?’ but I could see potential in the bigger boats and the charter business. We had one big boat but we bought two others shortly after I started. The nineties was a time when corporates were throwing money at events. We were close to London and close to the M4 with the Silicon Valley companies and boat parties were very fashionable.

What kind of experience do your guests get in the larger boats?
The quality of the boat first and foremost. They walk on and there are wood finishes everywhere and it’s all gleaming. They get great service from people who’ve worked for us for a number of years and really get what we are about. And we are very lucky to be situated on the one of the most beautiful parts of the Thames. The 20-mile stretch of river we operate is Sonning one way, and down towards Marlow the other. You have got some of the most beautiful, iconic scenery – wonderful country houses, riverside pubs and stunning scenery, all eating the best food on a lovely boat. It’s quintessentially English.

What’s your favourite stretch of the Thames?
I really like the Cliveden Reach, you go through Cookham Lock and it is really quiet, it’s not like anywhere else on the Thames. The bank is really steep-sided and woody and then you head down towards Maidenhead and you see Cliveden up on an escarpment, it’s rerally quite dramatic. When I was a kid delivering umpire launches to the regatta I remember going through there and thinking ‘wow, this is a really beautiful river’.

What’s your favourite time of year on the river?
You have got to say July, that’s when everything goes on. It’s like Venice in a way. There are boats flying everywhere, whether it’s the regatta or the traditional boat festival, you can see visitors standing and looking amazed at what’s going on. You can see classic slipper launches, big paddle steamers, speedboats, gin palaces – and they are all just moving around, no one’s colliding with each other. Everything comes alive and people are celebrating the river and just enjoying being on it.

How does the regatta affect Henley?
It’s a fantastic celebration of rowing. Henley is its spiritual home, we’ve got the Leander club and the GB squad used to train here. The regatta is a great celebration of rowing as a sport. Henley comes alive as part of that, as being part of the journey that saw rowing established in this country. I’ve rowed a few times when I was younger. It is fantastic.

What’s your typical day like?
A winter day would start about 8.30am with meeting the staff and talking about what needs to be done. Mainly winter work is refurbishing boats so I’ll talk to the skippers about what they are doing. Then I’ll meet with suppliers and contractors, getting stuff ready for the season in March. The website is really important, we do a hell of lot of stuff online so keeping that up to date is vital. In summer we’d know all our bookings in advance so everyone knows what they are doing. We check the boats and then deal with customers. It’s a long day.

How do river conditions affect the business?
For three weeks at Easter the river was in flood so we couldn’t operate. There was one big flood in July in 2009 which was unique. For six weeks, at the height of our season, we did nothing, it was disastrous. To have that hanging over you, knowing it could happen at any time and it is beyond your control, it sharpens the mind to think of other ways of making the business stable.

The Waterman
And how have you done that?
We have increased the moorings we own in central Henley. We are the freehold owners of 120 moorings, we used to have 80. So increasing those, that’s an annual fee paid no matter if the river goes up and down. Four years ago we converted our marine chandlery into a restaurant, that provides a regular income.

How well has the restaurant done?
Really well. I wanted to have a destination restaurant where people would come for the food and if people coming down they’ll see the boats and vice versa. Just yesterday we had a party of 20 in the restaurant and they saw the boats. Now we are organising a trip with a gin tasting for them.

And now you make your own gin?
Suzy and I are big gin lovers. Suzy researched the history of Harry Hobbs and local botanicals and then we found a distillery in Buckinghamshire and they agreed to make Mr Hobbs Henley Gin. We produced it because there isn’t really a Henley souvenir.

How will the Great West Way project help Hobbs?
What is quite exciting is that people abroad, like in Germany where we do the Dusseldorf Boat Show, ask us where the boats are and we say on the Thames they can’t really get the idea of what’s around us, they think it is just London. The beauty of the Great West Way is that it lays out a defined area and gives you an idea of what’s in that corridor and everything you can do I think that is powerful for visitors.

What’s your favourite part of the Great West Way?
I love the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, they are so beautiful. I enjoy going to west Berkshire, I really like Goring and Streatly and out towards Newbury. Everything opens up with the bigger rolling hills and you can see for miles. We have a great pub in our village, The Crooked Billet. Antony Worrall Thompson’s place, the Greyhound on Gallowtree is excellent and The Hurley House Hotel in Henley is really nice. It’s quite high end but you feel comfortable going in for a pint.

And now you are a Queen’s Waterman
The history of the watermen goes back to Tudor times when the monarch had 18 of the best waterman on the river escorted them. To keep the tradition waterman go on the back of carriages on state occasions. It is the ultimate accolade for giving your life to the river. My dad did quite a few state visits and Andrew and Fergie’s wedding. And he also took the Queen on the river. There are quite a few state occasions ahead so it is quite exciting.

What do you get out of your job?
I like working with the people here. We do all like each other and make each other laugh. Being the fifth generation of Hobbs I do get a sense of the history of the firm. There’s a sense of excitement and looking back and seeing Harry’s entrepreneurial spirit and carrying that on.
Day Hire Boats From Hobbs of Henley

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