The origins of motorboating, as recorded by MBY.

The power and the passion

Alan Harper looks back upon a century of the magazine and sets the scene as it was when Motor Boat & Yachting launched itself upon an unsuspecting world in 1904.

Into a world of Edwardian courtesies and elaborate moustaches was born The Motor Boat, “encouraging and recording progress” in a new sport using new technologies. A century on, we’re still here: the boats and the places we go are very different, but our passion is undimmed.

Most of us nowadays know, or fancy we do, how to make money. But our trouble, if successful, is that we do not always know how to quit trying to make it for a while — how to clear out, close down, and take a rest without actually retiring.

George Sharp, the first editor, hit the nail on the head. From a cramped warren of offices near London’s Farringdon Road he was launching a magazine at the very start of a new nautical craze, and had identified at once as his target reader the wealthy, work-obsessed middle-class male. Boats had always been a popular plaything for the well-off. Now it was boats powered by the new internal combustion engines.

Gottlieb Daimler started it all, back in 1886. He and Wilhelm Maybach put a 1.1hp petrol engine in a boat on the River Neckar, having first festooned the craft with wires and porcelain knobs to seduce fearful onlookers into believing that it was a harmless electric vessel.

The German inventor soon moved on to the cars for which we now remember him, but other pioneers, particularly in France, Britain and the US, were quick to follow his lead. Fear of petrol’s combustible qualities in the early days led to the development of paraffin or kerosene engines, even though many of these needed petrol to get them going, but progress was extraordinarily rapid. In 1902 the 38ft (11.6m) Abiel Abbot Low, built as a demonstrator by the New York Kerosene Engine Co, crossed the Atlantic, taking 36 days to reach Falmouth. The following year saw the inaugural British International (later known as the Harmsworth) Trophy meeting in Cork, won by the 40ft (12m), 70hp Napier at 19 knots. And across the Atlantic the first of the famous Gold Cup competitions was run in June 1904.

This was the world into which The Motor Boat was launched on July 14, 1904. It was a pretty normal turn-of-the-century day. The British Army was setting about Tibet and making up borders in the Middle East, the Russians were on the back foot in the war with Japan, and the Germans were suppressing a Hottentot rebellion in Africa. There was even a small civil war going on in Kentucky. Anton Chekhov died, the Panama Canal was under construction, the World’s Fair in St Louis was attracting 20 million people, Sigmund Freud had just published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Yorkshire had just beaten Hampshire by an innings and 18 runs at Portsmouth.

Although Britain could no longer claim to be the ‘workshop of the world’ as she had been at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, her sprawling, smoky conurbations were still centres of industry, light and heavy, and London was no exception. Just yards from the magazine’s Rosebery Avenue offices, the Motor Castings Company of 101 Gray’s Inn Road was just one of thousands of small manufacturers contributing to the business, bustle and smog of Edwardian London, typical of the grassroots engineering industry that still underpinned the world’s first industrial society. They made marine engines, and advertised their ‘launch and punt motor’ in the first issue of The Motor Boat for £17 5s 0d on two days’ approval.

Then as now, no amount of enthusiasm was enough to guarantee a magazine’s success. Edmund Dangerfield’s Temple Press had been set up on sound commercial principles in 1891, and was already well established in the cycling and automobile markets when he decided that the time had come to dip a toe into marine motoring. The first issue was a well-rounded 40 pages, with 20 pages of closely set editorial and 20 pages of advertising, including the front cover. We don’t know how much seed money Dangerfield ploughed into his new title to see it through into profit, but by all accounts it was hardly necessary, for the magazine was an immediate success.

In an example of the entrepreneurial genius that was only rarely to characterise the magazine’s promotional efforts in later years, that August The Motor Boat chartered the fastest cross-Channel steamer of the day, the South Eastern Chatham Railway’s Queen, for 600 readers and special guests to watch the first (and, for nearly 60 years, the last) cross-Channel race, from Calais to Dover. There were 20 starters, a prize pot of £1,500, and the winner in just over 60 minutes was Mercedes IV, closely followed by Napier Minor.

Like many of his successors in the editor’s chair in the years that followed, Sharp was often at pains to point out that wealth was not a prerequisite to motor boat ownership. But at a time when a well-off civil servant might take home £3 a week, it was slightly disingenuous to suggest that the only thing between the reader and boat-owning felicity was “a few shillings’ worth of petrol and less than a hundred pounds’ worth of hull and motor”. Yet the starter boat of the day was indeed remarkably simple and cheap, perhaps something along the lines of an 18ft (5.4m) open clinker launch with a 2.75hp engine mounted amidships, like those turned out by Lister & Sons at Kew Bridge and advertised in the first issue.

Of course, more substantial cruising boats could also be had for those with the funds, but in these earliest days of motorboating one thing united almost all who went afloat under power – a love of competition. In a short feature on the nine British motor boat clubs in a 1912 issue, the writer remarks that of the 500 or so boats belonging to members, most were raced. The British Motor Boat Club’s Cowes meeting that year featured events for everything from 1.5hp motor dinghies to out-and-out racers packing 800hp, while cruising boats and motor yachts took part in handicap events.

By then a new editor had taken the helm, A. P. Chalkley, who was to steer the magazine through boom, depression and two world wars for the next 44 years. He was a known engine expert with at least one book to his credit before he joined the title, and he brought with him a healthy distrust of hype that his modern counterpart would recognise and respect. “Long-distance races and endurance runs are now becoming so numerous in the United States that the majority call for but little comment,” reads an item from one of Chalkley’s first issues. “The notable 1,554 miles run of the Br’er Fox II at 25.2 knots in 1909 is well within memory. Although the boat covered the distance in 53 hours 26 minutes net,” it records drily, “the actual time taken was ten days, the longest non-stop run being 1501⁄2 miles in 53⁄4 hours.”

But credit where credit is due — Chalkley goes on: “A new record was set up last month by the launch Charmalee, which made a non-stop run of 208 miles at 24.9 knots on the Columbia River on Sunday, 13th October.” And of course he provides the technical details of this ground-breaking craft: 36ft (11m) by 6ft (1.8m), with an eight-cylinder, four-stroke, 100hp Van Blerck motor and a fuel capacity of 100gal — of which it used 97, plus one gallon of lubricating oil, during its record run.

Only deluded loons, new advertisers and editors of unsuccessful titles imagine that magazines shape their markets. Successful magazines reflect them. Motor Boat & Yachting’s target market has always been the well-off middle class males that George Sharp so presciently identified 100 years ago. The ‘aims and intentions’ he set out in the first issue were admirably simple and still hold true:

• to interest the motor boat maker and user.

• to watch the interests of motor boat users.

• to foster the industry of motor boatbuilding by publishing details of all new inventions.

Of course any editor who is human will inevitably inflict his own passions, prejudices and enthusiasms on the magazine in his care, whether they are for sailing, narrowboats or MTBs. And so the particular flavour of Motor Boat & Yachting has constantly changed over the years, sometimes dramatically and sometimes subtly, but few editors have ever lost sight of George Sharp’s primary aims for very long. He only held the chair a couple of years before moving on to pastures unknown, but he had set the magazine on the right course. His remarks addressing the busy businessman reader, the man who couldn’t seem to get away from work long enough to enjoy any leisure time – this man for whom motorboating was the perfect pursuit — come from a long and rather wonderful essay in the first issue entitled, ‘Why the Motor Boat Should Become Popular’. He takes us, “the tired business man”, on a journey down the Thames in a simple motor launch — perhaps one from Listers at Kew Bridge.

“She is no flyer, it is true,” he says. “Six or seven miles — or perhaps knots — an hour being no doubt the limit at which her little three-horsepower engine can drive her. But even running at this speed, the breeze pours past our faces and into our lungs in one steady stream, health in every breath of it. There is no smoke-stack to hide the view ahead; no furnace to attend to, nor anything else that reminds us of work.”

Past hazel-dotted eyot, willow-hung bank, grey bridge and clear clean meadow the little boat sweeps us, through the factories and smokestacks silhouetted against “the opal of a London sky; while the whole northern bank, from Chelsea to the Tower lies folded in a golden haze. If this be London in reality, it is one we never knew.”

Further down with the stream as “the little motor thrums and throbs on”, under the bridges to the ships in the capital’s thriving port, “the only real things in the whole voyage of enchantment, with the stain and sweat of travel still upon them, and ragged as befits those who shoulder the pack of the world”. He edges over to read their names and ports of registry: Stockholm, Hamburg, Palermo, Halifax. On again, through Limehouse Reach, where “upper and lower topsails half-hauled up, and courses tripped ready to sheet home, is another brig hauling out into midstream to drop down with the ebb, leisurely as a swan”.

“Our little motor boat,” says Sharp, “gliding in and out among these, has admitted us to the freedom of forty ports, to the salt and scend of the long seas. But if we like we may go further; past the long green Essex flats, down through the Gore, and on to Burnham River before nightfall, as certainly as if we owned a hundred-ton steam yacht…”

There was no stopping him. The Motor Boat was on her way.

This series

Alan Harper’s features on a century of motorboating will be running in the magazine throughout 2004. You can see this example in the January 2004 edition with a wider and larger range of photographs.

Next month

The Pioneers. The Edwardian era, 1904-1914. The engineers, designers, racers, millionaires and madmen who put motorboating on the map.