Samuel E. SAUNDERS (1857–1933)
Boat builder and engineer, pioneer of air and marine craft
Former boathouse and showroom by the bridge at Goring-on-Thames
Samuel Edgar Saunders was born at The Swan, Streatley, son of the innkeeper, Cornelius Saunders. He started building boats at The Swan in his teens, already demonstrating innovative engineering skills as well as business acumen. He capitalised on the growing leisure boom, meeting the need for every kind of boat from college barges to racing skiffs. He was a natural engineering genius who made full use of the new electric, steam and internal combustion engines. His steam launch, The Flying Dutchman (later renamed The Lorna Doone), was said to be the fastest boat on the Thames, reaching 17.4 miles per hour. His most famous invention at this time was a lightweight, tough hull made by sewing together layers of plywood with copper or brass wire interspersed with layers of water-proofed canvas. He patented this material as ‘consuta’ (Latin for ‘sewn together’). The steam launch Consuta built by him in 1898 as an umpiring boat for Henley Royal Regatta was used for many years for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race by the BBC and still takes to the river.
The Consuta, photographed by Mike Hurst
To cope with the expansion of the business, he moved his boat yard first across to Goring Mill and then commissioned the architect Percy Stone to build the boat works and handsome showroom by Goring Bridge in 1894. The thriving business soon needed even more space and construction was moved to the Springfield Works, upstream at Withymead. By now, however, he was turning his attention to the exciting possibilities of speedboats and air and marine craft and by 1906 had transferred the business and his home to the Isle of Wight. Work continued at Springfield Works until 1911 when they were sold together with the Goring boat house and showroom to the boat builders Hobbs of Henley.
At the Columbine Works, East Cowes, in 1912 he built his first flying boat with consuta hull and the business went on from strength to strength, adding power racing boats, gun boats, air ship gondoliers, lifeboats and aircraft to the repertoire. Its success attracted the attention of Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe, aircraft designer and manufacturer (Avro). In 1928 he invested in Saunders’ company, henceforth known as Saunders-Roe (Saro). Famous Saro products over the years were the flying boats Saro Cloud (1930) and Saro Princess (1952), the Saro Skeeter helicopter (1951), the SRN4 hovercraft (1967) and Sir Malcolm Campbell’s speedboat Bluebird (1937). Sam Saunders himself died in 1933 but his remarkable legacy has flourished in various reincarnations and mergers: as the British Hovercraft Corporation it was later taken over by Westland in 1959 and in 1994 by GKN Aerospace.
- Sources: Sam Saunders in Goring & Streatley – The Thames Years by Janet Hurst, GSLHS Journal 2010; From river to sea: the marine heritage of Sam Saunders by R. L. Wheeler (1993); From sea to air: the heritage of Sam Saunders by A. E. Tagg & R. L. Wheeler (1989), Cross Publishing
- Henley Standard, 4 August 2013: “Blue plaque honour for ‘Brunel of boat-building’”
- Speech given by Raymond Wheeler at the unveiling ceremony (PDF)
Photographs taken at unveiling ceremony:
- The plaque being unveiled
- Mike Hurst and Raymond Wheeler
- Mr & Mrs Tony Hobbs, Raymond Wheeler, and Janet & Mike Hurst
- Robert Evans, Chairman of the Blue Plaques Board
- The former boathouse
- College barge at the Swan Hotel, Streatley
The plaque was unveiled on 7 September 2013 at the former boat works and showroom by Raymond Wheeler, Saro aeronautical engineer and biographer.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Boat builder and engineer
born at The Swan, Streatley
Pioneer of air and marine craft
Founder of Saro Ltd of Cowes
built and sold boats here
and at Withymead