Tony Hobbs, MBE

A True Water Man

Tony Hobbs, MBE, comes from a long line of boatmen and boat builders and, indeed, his family has been traced back to 1490.  Originally from Hambledon where, in 1860, there were 16 Hobbs families recorded, it was his great-grandfather, with his wife and ten children, who moved to Henley to run a pub – the Ship in Wharf Lane, back then a commercial wharf.  Hobbs of Henley started as a boat building company and then hired out fishing boats.  Eventually he bought Thames Meadow and built his boat house there.  As was the custom, his oldest son, Tony’s grandfather, worked seven days a week in the family business and expanded the business yet further when he took over. With the onset of WWI he went off to fight in France but returned to continue building the business and bring his own oldest son, Tony’s father, into the business.

Tony HobbsTony came along in 1933 – he went to Henley Grammar School and attained his School Certificate but in those days it was the norm to go straight into an apprenticeship.  Very few young people, including his fellow pupils, went to university.  Happily, Tony thoroughly enjoyed ‘messing about in boats’ so he was happy to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and go into the family firm.  He took a break when he was called up for National Service in 1954, was assigned to the Royal Marines and, because of his knowledge and experience, became a coxswain on landing craft.   What he didn’t anticipate was that his father would die prematurely and he would take over at the age of 36.  He had learnt about boat building but knew very little about running the business so he set to and taught himself.  By that time fibreglass had arrived and Tony took the opportunity to build more passenger boats and introduced a small fleet of holiday boats.

Even at the fine age of 84, he is still involved.  He was delighted when his son, Jonathon, investigated other career paths and then chose, without coercion from his parents, to become the 5th generation of Hobbs to run the company.  Tony goes along most days to help with administration but leaves all the financial transactions and customer facing tasks to Jonathon.  Having had back and hip surgery he has lost the agility that is required for being on board boats but enjoys the activity of the office. Although the family was well established in Henley, Tony and wife Jackie and their family of three children moved to Peppard 39 years ago and love it here. He loves being able to step out of the gate and be in the middle of the countryside.  In fact, they have thought of downsizing and going to live in Henley near shops and other facilities but now he wonders ‘Why the hell would I want to leave here?’

As his working life was centred upon Henley, so was his leisure time: he participated in what he calls the three Rs – rugby, running, and rowing.  He was a founder member of Henley Rugby Club and was President for seven years; he ran for 20 years and competed in many international marathons and for 20 years he organised the Henley half marathon; he is also the longest serving member of Henley Rowing Club. He is still the President of the Henley Sea Cadets and has been President of the Henley branch of the RNLI for 45 years and can still be seen out and about with a collection tin, selling flags.  He was a Trustee for 40 years. and Chairman for 15, of the Henley Municipal Charity which owns and maintains 26 houses in Henley. He was awarded his MBE for services to the Henley community.

His greatest pride, however, was being a Royal Waterman to Her Majesty the Queen. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the Sovereign regularly travelled on the River Thames, either on State occasions or between the Royal Palaces of Windsor, Westminster, Hampton Court, Greenwich and the Tower of London.

The men who rowed the Royal Barges on the river Thames were known as Royal Watermen.  Today there are still 24 Royal Watermen under the command of the Queen’s Bargemaster, one of the most ancient appointments in the Royal Household. They are chosen from the ranks of the Thames watermen whose business is manning tugs, lighters and launches, therefore earning their living on the river. The duties of the Royal Watermen are now purely ceremonial; they escort members of the Royal Family on the River Thames, and visiting Heads of State who arrive in London on the river, such as the King and Queen of Norway in 2005.

Duties on shore consist of attending on royal carriages during state visits, royal weddings and Jubilees, and walking behind the Bargemaster at Coronations. At the State Opening of Parliament, the Watermen travel on the carriages guarding the regalia as a reminder of the days when it was brought by boat from the Tower of London. He performed these duties on many occasions and his greatest memory is of the terrific turnout that welcomed Nelson Mandela: Tony had never seen anything like it.

Regrettably, Watermen have to retire at 65 but the Royal Warrant is used on Hobbs’ letterhead and is still on display in their premises.  During his time as a Waterman he welcomed the Queen to Henley to open the River and Rowing Museum and Royal Regatta Offices.

Although Tony’s life has been spent on the river, he just loves being on the water.  He enjoyed going on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal but also loves going to Lake Garda in Northern Italy and travelling around by ferry.  When the family were young, they also enjoyed the seaside down in Cornwall and bought a cottage there to spend the maximum amount of time there.

Tony is a true water man in every sense of the word.

Rita Hadgkiss