Wise Folly

A newly restored historic varnished mahogany launch


If you are looking for a new boat but actually want something traditional and wooden then look no further. Wise Folly is exactly that. She was built in 1915 by John Hart in Surbiton near Kingston on Thames which was a busy area at that time for boat building. The builder’s plate is clearly visible on the forward gunwale. She was named on launch as Vacuna by her owner who ran the Elephant and Castle pub and lived locally. His chauffeur looked after the boat as was the custom at that time.

In 1973 Robin Newlands was given the boat. He ran the boat for 12 years and entered her into the first Henley Traditional Boat Rally. There were 27 entrants in all and Wise Folly carried off several trophies. She was the founder member of the Thames Vintage Boat Club and carries the Number 1 plate to prove it. Knave of Hearts carries the Number 2 plate and is also for sale at the moment through Henley Sales and Charter.

Robin had what remained of his boat under wraps for more than twenty years as he undertook some much required maintenance including replacing some planking and eventually replacing the transom which proudly bears the name Wise Folly today.

Robin asked Dennetts to take the boat and restore it so that it might find a new owner. For a boat of 102 years old she is looking amazing. At the 2017 Southampton Boat Show she certainly drew admiration from the thousands of visitors to the show.

Robin Newlands the previous custodian of Wise Follow for the last 40 years writes :

“For your information I knew the daughter of Ernest Strange who had known the boat from its launch until her father sold it I 1936.  She came for a ride on it 40 years later and all the information I have of that time came directly from her. She had seen an

River Thames Society article after a rally and contacted us. She lived in Weybridge, she also still had the original record player under her bed and the ensign which she told us her father believed had to reach from heaven to earth and was therefore exceptionally large for the boat.

The work recently done by Dennetts should more properly be described as refitting and most did not follow original. It was necessary to completely renew the internal panelling and the original would have been impossible to copy due to availability of suitable wood. However the old deck and teak cover boards were useable but were replaced with all mahogany and wider. The stem used to come above the deck with a silver metal capping. This is now flush with the deck. The original seat back and stern coaming would no longer fit due to the side decks being wider.

Originally the boat had 4 frames in the bilge. Due to her age I fitted 7.

The original engine bearers had been cut down to about 3 feet to accommodate the Vedette engine and drawing the shaft forward about 2 feet. I fitted 15 foot long hardwood bearers as I considered I might one day fit a steam engine. The main part of the hull was also re-ribbed but I was unable to complete the fastening of the stern ribs due to lack of assistance. The sternpost and ends of the planks were therefore unsupported and had to be propped to keep the shape for the 30 years that she remained laid up.

The stern was made from a plank of aphromosia which I got out of the river and will therefore go darker in the sun not lighter as mahogany does. The planking that I put in is Honduras mahogany of which I used one 22 foot plank of the two that I had. These had been bought in the 1950’s. The ends of these planks still needed fairing in when the boat went to Dennett. I do not believe the original full length planking had been steam bent or it would not have reacted as it did when removed from the hull. Within 6 hours the sections removed had straightened out despite being in partially soft wood along the edges.

I cannot recall the name of the proprietor of the Bell Hotel at Hampton although I was once informed of it – It was something like Barker.

I spoke to the Duntons Bros. when they were still running the Shepperton Lock boatyard and they gave me the information about the Upper Thames Patrol and their joke about the owner picking the boat up after the war and wanting a push start.

We knew the Coleman family very well. As with the Stranges this boat had been part of the family and the holidays for the children just as it became for us. No-one wanted to get rid of it. John asked us if we would look after it for him as he didn’t want to sell. I eventually managed to persuade him to sell it to me.

In the end he was not disappointed as with the changes back to original we made this boat became the example that transformed the traditional boat scene on the Thames.

She was built as a Surrey Topped Gentleman’s launch and remained as such throughout her life. There is a postcard in existence showing her moored at Raven’s Ait, I have a photo of her (given to me by Strange’s daughter) at Runnymede in 1924. There is a postcard in existence showing her moored at the end of the ferry stage at Hampton and there are many photos of her at various rallies from 1973- 1985. All of these she is Surrey topped with a frill and full cover canvas curtains. The frame of the top was given to Mike with the boat.”

The construction was in 5/8th Honduras mahogany planking on oak ribs with teak covering boards. The planks are full hull length, matched and steam bent into shape. The metal work at that time was Germany silver plating rather than chrome which was not yet fashionable. However Dennetts have used brass throughout.

It is possible that her engine would have been a Gaines universal according to a description given by the daughter of the owner at the time. In 1922 she was bought by the owner of the upper part of Ravens Ait who had a summer house on the island. He was one Earnest Alfred Strange and it was he who renamed the boat Wise Folly. I guess he considered it to be a wise purchase although he already had a couple of boats so this was perhaps an unnecessary addition to his fleet, or “folly” being so handsome a craft.

After a scandalous elopement by Ernest’s daughter the boat passed a couple of years later (in 1936) to the owner of the Bell Hotel at Hampton where it was moored at the end of the ferry staging. During the war it was moored in Shepperton and is rumoured to have been used by the Upper Thames Patrol as a Home Guard boat for 3 years. Following the war the boat was returned to its owner.

In 1952 Mr John Colman of Monksbridge Sunbury bought the boat for his mooring opposite Sunbury Lock. He and his wife Freda were owners of Gresham Lion Electronics so it is appropriate that the boat is now electric although he did in fact exchange the original engine for a Morris Vedette side valve engine. He used the boat for family holidays and as an umpire launch for Sunbury Regatta. He had another boat built with a cabin called Folly Two and then a large Broom which he called More Folly. Wise Folly had become surplus to requirements. In 1957 some youths had stolen her crashing into a barge up the weir stream and causing extensive damage to the bow and to some ribs.


Robin asked Dennetts to take the boat and restore it so that it might find a new owner. For a boat of 102 years old she is looking amazing. At the 2017 Southampton Boat Show she certainly drew admiration from the thousands of visitors to the show.

Wise Folly is looking for another owner now to take her into her second century. She is electrically powered and sports a smart pair of brass navigation lights, a champagne bucket holder and smart green cushions. A half or full canopy could be added for a new owner.

For more information and to view please call the office on 01491 578870.