The tranquil Thames?
December 1946 was very cold, power cuts were making things worse. Even the coal in the railway trucks was a frozen mass and difficult to deliver. Most council homes had just one open fire to heat the whole house so burst pipes were another problem. For us the woods of St Anne’s Hill were a handy source of fuel, plus some wood offcuts that I brought home from my job in a Shepperton boat building firm.
The firm: Kenneth M Gibb’s, had the workshop in a very old traditional Thames boathouse which was raised six feet off the ground to allow for the occasional floods. I have never been colder than I was in that draughty old building, the only time I felt warm was when I had to keep a row of primus stoves pumped up for the steam bending box. The timbers had to be steamed so that they could be bent into all sorts of shapes for the boats.
Another job was making the tea and helping the craftsmen. I was amazed at the skill of these men, everything was done with hand tools, most of which they had made themselves. During the many blackouts I had to keep dozens of candles alight, it’s a wonder the whole place didn’t burn down.
The only man I can remember was Horace Gardener—I suppose having a name like Horace would make him memorable! but he was also larger than life and kept us all warm just with his jokes. We certainly needed something to keep the cold out during that winter.
Then in March, the weather changed dramatically it became very mild and it rained continually. The rain melted the frozen snow, but the soil, also frozen to several inches, could not absorb it, the water flowed straight into the rivers and this was the start of the 1947 floods. The floodwater was so high that it started to come in-to the workshop.
Mr Gibbs, normally a very cautious man, decided to simply push the thirty foot long ‘Freebooter’ out on the water. It was virtually ready to be taken out anyway. This would save having to cut the roof as it tilted down to the ground. The large doors of the workshop were opened and with a lot of shouting and heaving, ‘Freebooter’ gently floated out onto the flooded bank with lots of cheering and laughter.
I don’t know who it was, who first noticed that the boat seemed to be lower in the water than it should have been. I think it was Mr Gibbs, a man I have never heard utter a swear-word in the months that I had worked for him. In that moment the calmness seemed to desert him, I thought he was having some sort of a fit.
Through the port-holes of this lovely boat, could be seen what looked like, a fountain, in fact there were several fountains of dirty Thames water. In the hurry to take advantage of the flood, water was pouring through the twenty holes for the keel bolts that had been overlooked. In a matter of minutes, despite the men jumping into the boat to plug the holes, all that could be seen was the top of the cabin.
Because of the floods, I couldn’t get back to work for a fortnight. When I did, I nearly cried, seeing my lovely black shiny boat, the paint work that I was so proud of, all ruined.
Poor Mr. Gibbs was never the same again, but he had been insured and was able to carry on.
I left Mr Gibbs in 1948, but I heard that in 1950 a horse called ‘Freebooter’ won the Grand National at 33/1. I was told the workers and Mr. Gibbs, won a good deal of money. It was as if Freebooter was paying back.
Freebooter was renamed ‘Freebooter Noir’ and was last seen in Cyprus!!!!!