Greenwich Book Boat
“I just wondered if anyone had ever asked you about the Greenwich Bookboat - I used to love going there when I was little as it combined my love of books and boats. In particular I’d quite like to know why it went away and if anyone has as fond memories of it as I do.”
The Phantom replies:
The Bookboat was one of those wonderful, exciting quirks that Greenwich used to excel in and, thanks to so many things – not least H&S regulations – just don’t get to see the light of day any more. Oh, that someone would do something as innovative as that again – though in truth just getting more bookshops back in the town would be a start.
The best thing to do, I thought, was to contact Bob Cattell, one of the original Bookboat Captains, and ask him to tell us about it. Bob’s now a children’s book author, specialising in sports stories (including a of cricketing tales) and has moved away from the area, but he is still very proud of his Bookboat years, and kindly sent me some pictures and his history of the project…
Bob tells me “the Bookboat sailed into Greenwich in the summer of 1978, ploughed straight into the bank, was almost shipwrecked by the retreating tide, broke its moorings and had to be sailed off again.”
Despite the inauspicious beginnings, once the aging, 60-foot Humber-keel barge called the Hegaro had been moored next door to the Gipsy Moth IV (sadly also now disappeared; for a maritime town, we sure can’t be trusted to look after historic boats…) it was a favourite destination for children for the next 20-odd years.
The three owners, Chris Moore, Bob Cattell and Christine ‘Nong’ Pierce, all worked full time in advertising, and I love that it just didn’t occur to them to farm out the conversion of an old barge that used to ply the South Yorkshire and Calder Canals to an Aladdin’s Cave of children’s literature to a professional - they did the work themselves during evenings and weekends in the barge yard across the river. Bob recalls that the yard was owned by “the eccentric Ennis brothers, and very handy for the Ferry House pub.”
Of course we live in a society totally hamstrung by H&S, but even back in the 70s the authorities were suspicious of a floating children’s book shop, though the kids in the flats next door were also what Bob describes as ’a challenge’ – as was the river itself. “ Early visitors might recall having to hold onto their children as the bow wave from the passenger jet foil rocked the boat and threw books off the shelves.”
But, he says, “problems were overcome: the river police became allies against vandals and thieves, the Port of London Authority was partly won over, though still charging a fortune in rent, and local kids started to become increasingly engaged in the venture.”
Two of the young children from the council flats, Terry Hosten and Chris Robbins worked regularly on the Bookboat at weekends and Terry became the shop’s manager when he left school. There’s a charming article Bob’s sent me that tells how Terry started off, volunteering at first, and paid in books.
I sigh when I think of what we’ve lost here – the Bookboat was the only specialist children’s bookshop south of the river and probably the only floating children’s bookshop in the world. And for its size it packed quite a punch - by 1984 it was carrying over 7,000 titles, many of which were paperbacks. Apparently even then the death of the hardback was being predicted…
Bob remembers highlights such as three highly successful book fairs, with tents extending the length of Cutty Sark Gardens. “The first of these was opened by Harry Secombe and other literary celebrities over the years included Rolf Harris, Roald Dahl, Andrew Davies, Gyles Brandreth, Raymond Briggs, Pat Hutchins and poets John Agard, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Kit Wright.”
What has happened to us, Greenwich? I mean – I know a certain class at Meridian School had a bit of a surprise last week – but that was very much a one-off. This was a local bookshop organising regular visits by authors to local schools for local children…
There were a few entertaining scandals too – I’ll let Bob list some of them for you…
“Fungus the Bogeyman got in the papers for insulting a local mum who was incensed because her son hadn’t won the fancy dress competition. Father Christmas had a few too many at lunchtime in the Gipsy Moth pub and scandalised a few mums by asking them instead of the children to sit on his knee. But most of the problems were smoothed over by Rene Pierce, Nong’s mother, who worked on the boat for many years and took on the local ‘tea leafs’ and visiting toffs with the same gusto.”
To get closer to local schools in the area the Bookboat guys came up with a genius idea - the Bookbus, “which again became a familiar sight stuck in school playing fields, wedged between gate posts or across narrow streets. It was driven by retired bus drivers and managed by Anne Sarrag and Maggy Park and it took hundreds of authors and illustrators into primary and secondary school playgrounds in S E London.”
I’m not aware of anything organised like that nowadays – if authors go into schools, they have to do it off their own bat – and live with the threat of CRB checks. But don’t get me going on that…
In the early 1990s the Bookboat was sold to Ann and Siobhan Keely who continued to run it until the cost of maintaining the rusting bottom , albeit highly subsidised by very friendly neighbours at Pope and Bond’s boatyard , finally took its toll.
Of course I guess a bookshop where you have to cross a tiny gangplank and climb down steep steps to get to the treasure is never going to be even grudgingly passed as ‘safe’ by authorities again, but I can’t be the only Phantom that mourns a time when Innovation and Vision were freer to follow their dreams.
Where is the Book Boat now? Who knows, but Bob himself is working on his latest novel for 8-11 year-olds, Bowl Like the Devil, which should be hitting sadly just land-locked bookshops sometime next year…
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