How an old hulk on the Thames became a magical family home in the shadow of the city, but with ducks and swans for neighbours. By Sharon Smith. Photographs by Chris Tubbs
The Thames houseboat that’s also a family home
‘IT WAS LOVE at first sight,’ says property developer Andrew Wadsworth, recalling the day he and his wife Julie first viewed The Harpy, their houseboat on the Thames, almost 40 years ago. ‘It was a former customs and excise boat and very rundown, but we thought: “Great! A two-storey house on the river with 1,850 sq ft of internal space [almost twice the size of the average home in the UK] and 2,500 sq ft of external decks.”’
The purchase almost didn’t happen, though. The couple were initially told by the estate agent that the boat was under offer, but subsequently discovered that it was owned by a nearby pub, and had been the world’s first and only floating custom house, until it was decommissioned in 1980. ‘The landlord told us, “We have this agent who keeps telling people it’s under offer just because he doesn’t want to row out there and get his suit wet,”’ says Andrew. He and Julie hired a dinghy themselves, and sculled across to where the boat was moored at Greenwich.
That was in 1981: Andrew was in his early 20s and had just secured a £3 million bank loan to redevelop New
‘It was wonderful – a detached house with the biggest garden in London, albeit often flooded’
Concordia Wharf in London’s Docklands. Having flunked his A levels and lost his place at university a few years earlier, he had become a successful entrepreneur. ‘I printed T-shirts with the logo “I Don’t Go To University”, advertised them in Private Eye and was inundated with orders,’ he says. He expanded into retail in his native Manchester, then later decided to go into property development.
The Wadsworths bought The Harpy
for £23,000 and sent it off for a £150,000, six-month refit, converting the lower deck into the head office for Andrew’s company Waterhouse, and the upper deck into a one-bedroom flat. ‘We moored it at New Concordia Wharf,’ says Andrew. ‘It was wonderful – a detached house with views of Tower Bridge and the biggest garden in London, albeit often flooded.’
They moved out two years later, to a house where they brought up their three children, and Waterhouse took over the boat. It was not until 2003 that they redesigned it as a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home and moved back in with their children.
‘We’d always regretted moving out because it’s such a unique space. Nothing can beat the gentle rocking on the tide, swans swimming alongside, ducks quacking by the bedroom windows and the stunning views of the city,’ says Andrew.
After the children left home, the boat underwent a third refit in 2016, which took 18 months. They redecorated throughout, sticking to a neutral cream for the matchboard walls and ceilings, resanded the original oak floor, replaced the appliances, and bought new furniture. There are 54 pieces of 1920s oak furniture from Heal’s on-board, part of a collection formed over 20 years. The interior also reflects that this is a family home. Artworks include a plaster unicorn head made by the couple’s daughter Rosannah when she was 12, and paintings by Julie, a graduate of Goldsmiths in London.
Over the years, The Harpy has seen highs and lows. One of the highlights was meeting Bill Weatherall, an officer on the boat for 37 years. When he died, the Wadsworths hosted his funeral on-board and scattered his ashes from the deck. Another was the Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012, which passed just yards away. ‘We had 170 guests and The Harpy was listing a bit. Despite the awful weather it was a spectacular occasion,’ says Andrew.
The worst day was the Docklands bombing by the IRA on 9 February 1996. ‘Suddenly there was a tremendous noise that set the whole boat rattling. We rushed to the window and saw a huge plume of smoke rising from Canary Wharf,’ he recalls.
He admits that a downside of houseboat-living is the cost of upkeep, partly offset by their renting out the boat for short stays, at which times the couple decamp to their house in Dorset. It is a small drawback, he says, and worth it to enjoy the view from the sofa of Tower Bridge lit up at night, or dining out on the deck with friends. ‘I love just sitting and watching life go by on the river,’ he says. ‘It’s a magical oasis in the city.’ theharpy.com
‘Nothing can beat the gentle rocking on the tide, ducks quacking by the windows and the views of the city’
Clockwise from right Artwork, such as a plaster unicorn head made by Andrew and Julie’s daughter, gives the living room a family feel; a large model of an American Vought F4U Corsair fighter plane keeps time with the rhythm of the tide; the family enjoy views of London; the oak staircase and floorboards throughout have been renovated; the entrance hall contains a model of an earlier HMS Harpy and an abstract oil by Julie
From right The Heal’s fourposter bed used to belong to society beauty Daisy Fellowes, who reportedly tried to seduce Winston Churchill; Andrew Wadsworth on the deck of The Harpy