Although not born in Chertsey, Mr William B (Willie) Bates had lived in the town since childhood days and began business as an artist and photographer in Eastworth Road, where his father, who was one of the pioneers of photographic work, being one of the first to experiment with the Daguerrotype process in the 1840s, and collaborated with Mawson in a series of experiments which resulted in the production of collodion. He was one of the first, if not the first, to produce glass positives.
Now not far away from Eastworth road, there was a small coal and timber wharf operated by a family named Taylor, in the shadow of Chertsey Bridge. One day young 26 year old Willie Bates fell in love with Miss Taylor and before long they were married. Bates left the photographic trade to take charge of the timber business alongside the river Thames. Before long, Mr James C Taylor and Mr William B Bates had gone into boat building, encouraged by a Mr Devine who had formerly built steel-hulled craft. They started with houseboat and college barges, processing to steam boats, not only for sale privately, but also for hire.
Mr and Mrs Bates’ son, Leonard, was born in 1903 and he recently recalled how: We had several passenger steam boats. I think the engines they installed were Ex- government, from the R.N. Destroyers. We were lucky because we got hold of some good ones from the navy and my uncle James, who was a practical, unqualified engineer, who cared little for the paper work, put them together in our yard. The 100ft ‘Gaiety’ was our biggest craft, then there was the ‘Baramoral’, the ‘Victoria’ and ‘My Queen’. These boats were carvel-built in mahogany, supervised by our foreman boat builder, Mr Short. You learnt very young. Before long I was given the helm of one of these steam boats, even if only for a couple minutes!
With the arrival of the internal combustion engine, especially the Fafnir units which were currently being used in motor cars, with Uncle James sorting out the driver and my father, with his training and flair for oil painting and watercolour painting, drawing some of the most attractive and elegant outlines for our motorised river launches, before long we were doing a trade through the British Empire, the far east and south America. In fact, we even built a cabin motor launch, ‘The Old Anne’ for his majesty, King Edward VII.
During the 1914-18 war, as a limited liability company of ‘James Taylor & Bates Ltd’ we built coastal motor boats- wonderful craft! Way ahead of anything in our business! They were designed by Linton hope of Thornycrofts. Beautifully built, triple-skinned jobs, either in Honduras mahogany or ‘aircraft outs’, stuff such as spruce, which wasn’t quite up to aircraft work, to carry two 18 inch torpedoes, four depth charges and two small machine guns. Of course they had to be taken down the river where old ‘bossy’ Phelps (who had a yard at Putney, building sculls gave them trial runs up and down the admiralty measured mile. It was a real experience for a teenager like me to go in those boats, at 70 mph and drive them too! We used to be able to break the law alright then! We also built pinnaces, but I had no interest except in CMB’s.
I was called up in 1918, but never went in because Armistice was signed. After that I began tinkering with motor cycles and became interested in engines. At that time, I simply wasn’t interested in boat building. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it! Mind you there wasn’t anything that I didn’t know about the anatomy of a boat. So, I took an engineering course at Drummonds in Guildford until I received my papers, then I returned to the yard to work for Father and Uncle James.
They were just getting out of government work. Everything was a pinnace in those days, whether it were 20ft, 30ft or 40ft long. A royal naval officer and his ratings would come down to take them away. Nine-tenths of everything that was designed was Thornycrofts in those days.
In the 1920s we began to install Gardener, Parsons and Brooke engines into our river launches, selling them for £900. A fantastic price in those days! Uncle James also marinised the U.S. Continental automobile engine for those launches, but my goodness, my old dad knew how to draw the lines of a boat. I wish I still had some of his old books.
Sometimes we would turn out houseboats for the Indian Rajahs, such as ‘Raj Pippler’ and ‘Rangi Singhi’. They used to come down in these magnificently fitted out Rolls Royce’s which were kept alongside all their other expensive motor cars in their English country houses. We used to try and figure out who they were by the number of rings they had around their turbans. Every Rajah’s boat had to be different, yet include nothing but the best: smothered in rolled gold fittings, damask curtains, Moroccan leather upholstery etc., of course father had superb taste for this. You simply could not pronounce the names of some of these boats. The most startling thing we ever heard about was when one of these houseboats, 100ft long, which we built for the Maharaja, was pulled across the desert by a team of elephants!
Both Montague and Claude Graham-White were friends of the family. Claude brought the American sea sled idea over here and we built the first ones for him. The sea sled was like a boat but cut in half and put together again back-to-front, a tunnel-hulled job riding on its own wash; a small craft fitted with 75hp Rolls Royce engine and Paragon reverse gear. The idea never caught on. They just wouldn’t answer to the helm. Poor old Claude nearly went over a weir in his sea sled once!
During the 1930s, we built all sorts of motor launches and yachts. Father would draw one which somebody liked and said “I’d like to own one like that” so we built it. We always exhibited at the marine section of the Olympia Motor Show in those days. I can remember the superbly varnished hulls reflecting all those yellow daffodils on our stand. Typical of father’s superb taste.
In 1934 my father had a furious row with my Uncle, (my mother had died when I was only 12) and their 30 year old partnership came to an end. A fence was built dividing our Chertsey yard in two. The sawdust, boat-building end was kept by Taylor, whilst we continued in the business of hiring. Then in the late 1930s Taylor left and set up a new boat yard, calling it ‘Taylors (Chertsey) of Shoreham’, whilst we renamed ourselves ‘W Bates & Son’.
During the war, we again became an admiralty shipyard. By this time, I had taken over the design side and whereas in 1914/18 we had 100 employees, we had now expanded to 150 employees to build air sea rescue vessels, seaplane tenders, and marine target towers and harbour launches for the admiralty, the RASC and Ministry of Air Production.
Then came Dunkirk and as ‘river patrol’, knowing the location of all the boats we had built, we went around commandeering them.
We also ran a small business, calling it ‘Blitz family Robinson’, for the London workers who hadn’t had a good night’s sleep for some time, to come down and use our boats, anchored at various places along the river as bedrooms.
At the end of each war, although most of the other boat yards were hanging around the admiralty’s neck for further work, as W Bates & Son, we applied to be officially released. “Can we have a go on our own now, because we do not want any more government work, thank you?” They were absolutely flabbergasted!
But then they didn’t know the ace I had up my sleeve. Immediately before the war, the British market had been flooded by American light craft. I thought I would put a stop to this nonsense. After spending the latter part of the war years quietly reflecting about how I might produce a better boat for less money, I now drew out a design entirely by myself. But from the point of view of speed, I wanted to make sure that it was right. So I took it to my old friend Fred Cooper (who had designed the famous Miss England Hydro-planes) and said, “Will you vet this?” “Well you know how to put it together, Len” he said. “Well yes, more or less, I expect I do. What I’ve got designed is a touch between the American Richardson and Chris Craft cruiser.” “That seems alright” he said. “But Fred, I can’t make my mind up whether to build it as a chine boat or as a round-bilge job?” “Oh, I should stick to round-bilge if I were you, if you want to get it into the ordinary market,” This is what I did. As regards engines, at first I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether to build my own unit or to import some. In the end I decided to import (a good job too, or else I couldn’t have built enough). I originally tried to get hold of the Lincoln automobile engine; in the end I had to get the ordinary American Chrysler engines, which I had to pay one hell of a lot for.
At first I thought I’d have to start my new fleet as hire craft, because I had no market. So, I built a handful of 25 footers and hired them out. But before I’d really got through with half a dozen, I’d sold more than half. In 1946 people were paying such fantastic sums to try and get these American lighter cruisers over. Anybody could get hold of one, they could then sell it for as much as seven times the price I decided to ask. When they found out the price was so low (£200-£300) they used to flock to us in droves. We never stopped until we had built over one hundred.
Then we had to choose an individual name. My wife Beryl wanted to call it the White Star Line, as we were going to start a fleet. But we could not have that name as it was taken. So, she suggested “what about stars, what better can you have than that?” the first boat was called ‘Silver Star’, then ‘Evening Star’, ‘Golden Star’, ‘White Star’ and so on. We ended up calling them any name of a ‘star’ we could think of, as our hire fleet increased to two dozen; we resorted to consulting a book on astronomy!
At the marine section of the 1948 motor show, Stand No.33 was taken by W Bates & Son, with a 25-ft star class cruiser, and a magazine commented then: The planking is of mahogany, worked on a double diagonal system on English oak timbers and main framing. For overseas use the bottom would be copper sheathed. Much of the interior work is also mahogany and the metal fittings have been chromium plated.
There is sleeping accommodation on board for four persons. The saloon has Pullman-type seats in conjunction with a table which can be lowered, a double berth is formed. There is a side-board on the starboard side which is convertible in an emergency into a single berth. A gallery arrangement is also provided and in the forepeak is a toilet compartment. The helmsmen’s position is in the cockpit, where a lounge seat can be turned into a double berth. The cockpit can be completely closed off with a canvas folding hood and side curtains.”
The star class cruiser was perhaps way ahead of the field. The Chertsey boat yard was the first British concern (in Len Bates’ words): “To get this American stuff knocked out so there was no chance of them ever coming in here again!”
Since then, with the boats we have sold, we haven’t really altered the design much, except for the length: StarCraft 24; StarCraft 30; StarCraft 33. When these StarCraft are re-sold today, they are all fetching more than they cost new.
If you had asked Len Bates the secret of designing a good boat, a twinkle would come to his eye and with a chuckle he’ll tell you: “Be daft enough to do it”. And with a company as old as his, Mr Bates should know.