Greenwich Book Boat

Stephanie asks:

“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.

Bog Cattell and Chris Moore

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…

the attachments to this post:

Book boat Local children low
Book boat Local children low

1 bookboat low
1 bookboat low

1 bookboat 2 low
1 bookboat 2 low

1 Book boat Terry Hosten
1 Book boat Terry Hosten

Bog Cattell and Chris Moore
1book boat Bob Cattell and Chris Moore low

21 Comments to “Greenwich Book Boat”

  1. JW Mum says:

    Speaking of illustrious authors who have visited Greenwich schools, Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne spent a day at James Wolfe Primary School about a year ago. I know he’s not Johnny Depp, but he’s just as charming. He didn’t leave until all the books had been signed, and ended up staying until after 5 p.m. The children loved him.

  2. methers says:

    What a fantastic tale, Phantom. It’s almost unbelievable, until you remember all the other quirky bits of Greenwich past which have slowly been erased.

    Oh well, at least we have Waterstones…

  3. OldChina says:

    That’s amazing, I’d never heard of this. What a great idea, kids must have loved it. I wish there were more shops based on boats.

    Actually, why don’t we have any restaurants and bars based in boats down our way? I was down in Richmond yesterday and they have loads. Is it because we have more/ larger river traffic?

  4. Dave says:

    We have the Wibbly Wobbly pub at Greenland Pier

  5. OldChina says:

    That was the closest one I could think of down our way and it’s not actually on the river itself, great though it is.

    I think the clippers can produce quite a wave, I expect that’s why our stretch of the river doesn’t have a single floating retailer. Shame, this Book Boat looks amazing!

  6. Ruth says:

    When you say ‘only specialist children’s bookshop south of the river’ I presume you mean at that time? I’m just thinking of the excellent Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, a great independent children’s bookshop, although unfortunately not on a boat!

  7. Stephanie says:

    Since have written that email i’ve sadly found myself out of a job – i wonder if H&S really would get in the way of a book boat revival (and a very new career) – hummmmm

    I suspect sadly I would be more thwarted by the dominance of waterstones and amazon.

  8. nec says:

    I remember going to the Bookboat. It’s exactly that sort of quirkiness that has been progressively squeezed out of Greenwich over recent years. On one visit, there was an illustrator (the name Caroline Holden springs to mind)doing drawings for people and she drew me a picture of my next door neighbour’s pet duck!

  9. Robert Number16 says:

    I will now make rare comments on the Great Phantom blog because of a the very few unkindnesses towards me.”The Phantom is so right about sole traders disappearing in Greenwich”.I will continue flying the flag “Individuality”

  10. Rachel says:

    This was wonderful to read. I was 8 when the Book Boat opened and I remember the thrill and excitement of a visit there. My Mum and Dad would take me and my sisters every so often. I remember clearly the effect the tide had on the gangplank. Curiously I also live in a house in Charlton whose previous owner but one was an Ann Keely. I’m hoping it is the same one mentioned in the article as the last owner of the Book Boat!

  11. [...] Greenwich Book Boat | The Greenwich Phantom Posted in Boat | Tags: boats, Books [...]

  12. Nicky Evans says:

    I absolutely loved going to the Book Boat at the weekends. Getting on the boat and feeling it move was always really special. I was heartbroken when they got rid of it and would love to see it return. How about getting together a “Book Boat collective”? Count me in!

    Children would go to hear speakers and just enjoy being around books. It was wonderful. The impact things like this have on children shouldn’t be underestimated.

  13. Nick says:

    Thank you for this! I have one very strong and fond memory of visiting the Book Boat – I also remember the Book Bus knocking down one of the goalpost frames in our school playground and am pleased to see they were the same team. Amazing!

    Had to comment though, about the specialist children’s bookshops issue. I also remember visiting the Mother and Baby Bookshop as a kid, and that was in Greenwich itself. Think that was the name, at any rate…

  14. Emma says:

    I have very fond memories of the Book Boat as a small child. It was one of my favourite places to visit. I now have small children of my own and live in Somerset. I wanted to take my children to visit Greenwich Park and the Book Boat soon but after reading this blog have realised that along with the Cutty Sark, it is no longer there!

  15. Jessie says:

    I had just remembered the book boat so was pleased to read this post – it brings back many memories.

    I think Discover in Stratford has been great for developing children’s interest in books and involving authors (I recently went to an event with Anthony Browne and would agree that he is fantastic) and would love to see more of this in South East London.

    Even a book bus would be great – especially with all the closures of local libraries…..

  16. [...] the Greenwich Book barge? We talked a year or so ago about this charming enterprise that bobbed alongside the Cutty Sark and [...]

  17. Helen says:

    I don’t know why I thought about the book boat today, but was pleased to find this article when I googled it!! I used to visit it when I lived in London as a child and remember having a little ‘passport’ that you could buy a 10p ink stamp so that you could save up for books. Very happy memories, it was an amazing place, a real aladdin’s cave!! Such a shame it is no longer there!!

  18. Bob Cattell says:

    Just read the latest comments on the Bookboat – I had completely forgotten about the 10p stamps saving scheme…but I do remember the Bookbus demolishing the goalpost (I wasn’t driving). It’s the first time I’ve come back to the GP site after doing the original piece and sending the photos and it is wonderful to read everyones’ recollections.

  19. [...] She was definitely living in Greenwich, with her husband and two young children, at the time she wrote Wet Day Witches and before becoming an illustrator, taught in primary schools in Deptford and Bermondsey. And that’s pretty much where I run out of information. But I’m guessing there will be local residents who either know her – or local illustrators who know her work. I’d be curious to learn more about her – not least that I’m willing to bet she was a regular at the Greenwich Book Boat. [...]

  20. Ann Keely says:

    Lovely to read about the dear BookBoat. We bought it from our friend Bob Cattell and ran it for more than 10 years. It brought great joy to Siobhan and me as well as our extended family and friends. Many of them were brought in to help at weekends and events across the Summer. We had to let it go because of three major blows all at one time: it’s bottom was too thin and let the water in too often; the Docklands Railway wanted it out of the water for a year; and the pier was destroyed by a Polish Ship and it too was gone for a whole Summer. So she was taken away for scrap. I have loads of lovely photos of all those happy times on The Bookboat & Bookbus.

    ps. to the blogger from Lovely Little Heath … yes the same Ann Keely

  21. badger says:

    I also remember the book boat fondly. We used to come down from Birmingham to London every October half term. My sister and I were allowed to pick 4 or 5 books from there every time.
    A few years ago I was on a week long course in Greenwhich and went looking for the boat barge which was of course no longer there.
    Fab memories.