A thrifty beginning

A short history of the Springer narrowboat

Photo: Alan Fincher / Canalworld.net

 

Even in the seemingly egalitarian world of boaters, there’s a social pecking order and this is rarely more pronounced than where Springer boats are concerned. Springer was a company based in the Midlands that began mass-producing cheap and cheerful live-aboard narrowboats in the 1960s. While their affordability allowed countless people to join the boating lifestyle, the standard of their construction is sometimes, perhaps unfairly, questioned by the sniffier residents of converted working boats or higher-spec residential craft. But there’s still something hugely endearing about the Springer. These are boats made solidly and entirely without pretension, and as a consequence Springer boats have provided a friendly and affordable introduction to the canal network for thousands of boaters.

Sam Springer spotted the growing market for purpose-built live-aboard boats in the late 1960s when he was working as a steel fabricator making water tanks in Market Harborough, close to the Grand Union and River Welland. He decided to move into boat-building later claiming “I used to build water tanks, building boats is the same thing but in reverse”. Although his boats were well constructed, Springer had a reputation for using whatever steel was available, meaning that his hulls weren’t always as thick as they could have been. His approach can be summarised by the popular yarn that early in his career, Springer acquired some scrap steel that had once formed an old gasometer and drove back and forwards over it with a truck to remove the bend so it was flat enough to use. Because of such shortcuts, his boats were recognised as providing great value for money and his yard was soon knocking out 400 a year, accounting for almost 50 per cent of the market and at a much lower price than any competition.

Springer boats were built to all sizes but most have two distinguishing features: a raised splash board at the bow and, less visibly, a v-shaped hull rather than the usual flat bottom. They were also among the first boats to be built entirely out of steel rather than with a wooden cabin. Springers do have a tendency to look a little boxy, which does nothing for their reputation among waterways connoisseurs, but they are still lovable boats with a colourful history that, as the years have passed, has lent them a certain rakish charm. Belying their reputation, Springer boats also appear to be impressively hard-wearing with thousands still in use despite the fact the company closed down in the mid-1990s. And Springer boats aren’t just confined to the English waterways – in 1990, the boatyard built the Typhoo Atlantic Challenger, a 37-foot craft shaped like a bottle that crossed the Atlantic from New York to Falmouth. Not bad for a company whose first boats were made from a scrapped gasometer.