By Gillian Clegg
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)
The introduction of electric power towards the end of the 19th century led to many new inventions, such as cinemas, and to an unproved means of propulsion for older inventions like boats. The most famous early electrically-powered boats were made in Chiswick, at the boatyard of Messrs Sargeant & Co, boatbuilder and electrical engineer of Strand Works, Strand-on-the-Green.
William Sargeant, the owner of the boatyard, became renowned for his electric boats. But Sargeant seems to have been a versatile man and is also important in Chiswick’s history for designing and building large and grand houses near the riverfront at Strand-on-the-Green.
William Samuel Sargeant was born in 1836 in Kentish Town. His father was a builder and it appears likely that William was initially apprenticed to him. He was certainly a proficient joiner (his great great-nephew, Tun Sargeant, possesses a lovely long case clock made by William Sargeant).
The first record of Sargeant in Chiswick is in 1871 when he was living in Grove Park Terrace. He is also listed as the owner of two large houses in Grove Park Road which he was in the proccess of building. By 1874 he had built four large houses in Grove Park Road, one of which he was occupying himself. These houses are those enormous Gothic constructions (numbers 68-74) just at the end of the river path going south-east; number 70 was called Grove Mount and later became the home of actors John Thaw and Sheila Hancock.
In 1877 Sargeant moved back to Grove Park Terrace. The Census for 1881 shows that he was the owner and occupier of number 11, perhaps another house of his own design. His occupation is given as “retired builder” although he was only 44 years old.
In 1888, the same year as Sargeant built his first electric boats, he moved to the much grander 18th-century Zachary House facing the river at Strand-on-the-Green. He was initially the tenant of someone called Humphreys, but by 1900 had purchased the freehold. He continued to live in Zachary House until the year before his death in 1918.
Sargeant’s boat-building yard on Strand-on-the-Green was already established by the time Viscount Bury and Moritz Immisch commissioned him to build electric boats in 1888.
Experiments with electric boats had been carried out from 1882 and, by 1888, the experimenters were convinced that electric propulsion was a practicable proposition with real commercial potential, particularly for ferry and leisure craft. The pioneer of this work, Moritz Immisch, was a German watchmaker and inventor of electric motors of all kinds, who went into partnership with Viscount Bury, MP and electrical engineer.
In 1888 Immisch and Bury purchased “a roomy hulk”, a large houseboat, 70ft long with a 14ft beam. They asked William Sargeant to adapt the hulk to take a 20 horse-power Fowler under-type steam engine coupled up to one of Immisch’s dynamos. This craft made its first appearance at the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race that year when it was moored off Mortlake and used as a corporate entertainment boat for Immisch’s friends and customers.
In the same year, Sargeant designed two other electric launches, Maiden, which was built by another boatyard at Strand-on-the-Green, Maynards, and the Viscountess Bury which Sargeant both designed and built.
The Viscountess Bury was the largest passenger electric launch in the world. She was 65.5ft in length, 10ft beam, 12.5 tons displacement and could carry 80 passengers. The two hundred accumulator cells supplied current to two 7.5 Immisch motors directly coupled to twin Thorneycroft three-bladed propellers. Her rudder was designed on an entirely new principle so that the boat would be easy to steer and the rudder easy to remove.
The Viscountess Bury was launched on 8 October 1888 from Sargeant’s yard and named after Sophia, the wife of Viscount Bury. The boat was in regular use on the Upper Thames during the next decade. Between 1889 and 1894 she was on charter to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. In 1909 her engines were converted for petrol and she was taken to East Anglia. When she came up for sale in 1994 she was bought by a Viscountess Bury Trust which plans to restore her electric drive.
Sargeant went on to build several more electric launches at Strand-on-the-Green. His success led to his business being taken over in 1890 by Woodhouse and Rawson United, manufacturers of heavy engineering equipment and “of every description of Electrical Plant and Apparatus”, with Sargeant remaining as manager of the Strand boatyard. This move brought more varied business to the yard and stretched capacity in Chiswick. In 1891 Sargeant bought a site at Eel Pie Island where he set up sheds and a new charging station which traded under the name of The Thames Electric & Steam Launch Company. At about this time Sargeant filed a patent for an electric canoe capable of carrying four people. Two of his electric canoes were demonstrated at Henley Regatta in 1892.
At the beginning of 1893 Sargeant reported that business was good but, sometime later that year, or early in the following year, Woodhouse and Rawson were declared bankrupt. How this affected Sargeant is unclear, but he continued to build his electric boats, notably the Victory, launched in 1905, which superseded Viscountess Bury as the largest electric boat in the world. She was 28 feet longer and could carry 350 passengers. In 1907 she was bought by Joseph Theophilus Mears who also took over Sargeant’s business and boatbuilding works; Sargeant presumably then took a well-earned retirement.
Sources used: Chiswick Poor Rate Books, Censuses for 1871, 1881, 1891; Electric Boats on the Thames 1889-1914, by Edward Hawthorne, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995; A Walk Around the Grove Park Estate, Grove Park Group & B&CLHS, 1980; Tim Sargeant (personal communication)
Gillian Clegg is the author of The Archaeology of Hounslow (1991) and Chiswick Past (1995). She is also the editor of this journal and production editor of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society’s Transactions.