BROTHERS Chris, Keith and Jeffrey French had summer jobs on the river when they were growing up so it was probably no surprise when their mum, Margaret Anne, suggested the three brothers should join together and set up a venture offering trips on the river to paying passengers back in 1978.
The three lads followed their mother’s advice and the firm of French Brothers was born, based at what was then a fairly run-down old boatyard close to the Magna Carta tearooms in Runnymede. The brothers had a fairly good notion of what kind of a business they wanted to operate and, having looked around for boats that might suit the bill, they decided that there was nothing on the market that fitted their requirements – so they built their own.
She was called the Lady Margaret Anne, in honour of their mum, and the brothers started simply by offering short trips on the river along the length of Runnymede itself but quickly discovered there was a real demand for their services and, over time, added more boats and staff to their enterprise.
Now, 30 years after they began, French Brothers are going from strength to strength with a fleet of 19 boats and up to 100 staff during their peak summer months catering for upwards of a quarter of a million passengers a year. One thing the company has retained during that time is the feeling of a true family business which encourages people to stick with them.
Don Yates, for example, who is now the company’s sales manager, started with French’s in 1986.
“I was walking along the towpath at Runnymede,” he recalls, “and I saw the noticeboard outside the boatyard that was advertising for crew. I thought it sounded like fun and applied – and I’ve been here ever since.”
Don worked his way up until he qualifed as a launch skipper before moving into the company’s cosy headquarters in Clewers Court Road, Windsor to take on the responsibility of trying to broaden the appeal of riverboat trips – and to identify new opportunities for French Brothers.
Their launches have featured in a number of films and TV programmes and they are certainly attracting a wide variety of clients – last year, they took the Manchester United football team out on a cruise just before the FA Cup Final.
During the summer months, the company will be offering regular services between Windsor and Maidenhead, Runnymede and Windsor and Runnymede and Hampton Court along with several shorter duration round trips designed to encourage people to try the launch experience. Adult prices range from £4.90 for a 40 minute round trip up to £14.70 for a full day return trip from Runnymede to Hampton Court. There are reductions for children and OAPs.
While day trips are at the core of French’s business, they’ve also diversified into theme trips – which are particularly popular for those celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and Christmas parties.
“We offer everything from a plain old riverboat shuffle disco through murder mystery trips, a James Bond theme night, a New Orleans jazz cruise and a Hawaiian night cruise,” says Don.
“We’ve also introduced special summer trips that include an evening at Windsor races followed by a boat cruise which is very popular.”
French’s are now concentrating on establishing links with local hotels and guest houses to try to encourage people to take a river launch cruise as part of their stay around the Staines and Windsor areas.
To that end, they are holding two open days – on Friday, May 16 and Sunday, May 18. The Friday event will take place at the Runnymede boatyard while the Sunday one will be held at the French Brothers landing stage on the towpath at Windsor by the tea gardens. Both trade and public are invited to take a look over some of the fleet of launches to get a feel for what’s involved.
Having talked to the guys that run it, I have a feeling that French Brothers are going to be encouraging a lot more people out on the river in years to come.