DID you know that Richmond Riverside used to be a riotous place of debauchery in Victorian times?

Mark Edwards, owner of Richmond Bridge Boathouses smiles as he says he has seen it all since he first started working there aged 14, writes Lucy O'Loughlin.

He operates a strict no alcohol policy when it comes to customers hiring boats. "I have sat in the boat house and seen all kinds of things happen on the waterfront bad and good," he says.

"My crew and I have rescued several people who have jumped off the bridge. There is a boat here in summer and winter.

"The year before last half a dozen Glaswegians were jumping off the bridge and one went under. He was a big lad and I could see he was winded and struggling. I jumped into the boat and cast off, not realising one of the ropes was still tied. I got so far and then had to dive into the water to a huge round of applause. I pulled him out and sat him down. He was sick and then turned to me and this enormous amount of Glaswegian verbal abuse came out of his mouth. He was so embarrassed about having to be rescued and wanted to continue drinking, but I called an ambulance. Alcohol and water do not mix."

Mark is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the history of the waterway on which he works. In Victorian times gentlemen would take their girlfriends down to the riverside and rent a skiff. "Richmond river would be lined with covered boats mooring overnight. That sort of thing doesn't happen now," he reassures me.

Maintaining a 300-year-old tradition of boatbuilding in Richmond, the Richmond Bridge Boathouse prides itself as a specialist in building traditional wooden crafts including camping and racing skiffs, pleasure and racing punts and sail boats.

Mark first started working at the Boathouse over 37 years ago.

"My first job was helping to let out the boats. I was given my first skiff at 15. I restored it and went camping with some friends, three men in a boat style. We ventured as far as Manchester and Birmingham. It is a strange quirk that I have ended up here. I never intended to stay," he explains.

"After working here for a while I went to Kingston Polytechnic and did a geography degree, which I opted out of. I then went to work in Bushy Park for the Royal Naval Ships Carpenter and received a very thorough education in wood work."

However, his career path changed again. "I was at Bushy Park for four years. I didn't pursue a boatbuilding career because the business was becoming quieter. Interest in wooden boats was on the wane. I decided to go to agricultural college in Devon to do estate management. I had done a lot of park maintenance and had the practical knowledge of running a park," he says.

But a career in estate management did not materialise. After a job offer fell through Mark found himself back in Hampton. He began working as a boatbuilder and repairer at Constables Boat Yard, where he specialised in skiffs.

That is skiffs, not skips. "I was entered in the Yellow Pages under the skip hire section once. For the next three years I had a lot of confusing conversations," he laughs.

He stayed in Hampton for twelve years before moving his business to Richmond. "The truth is I was pushed out. A new owner came in and the rent became very expensive. The boat yard was turned into offices. Mr Turk offered me the three boat houses and boat hire business here in Richmond. We moved the whole business to Richmond on a barge in 1992," he says.

Born in Hampton, the 51-year-old, now lives in Chertsey with his partner and two step-children.

He builds an average of six new boats a year. The other half of his business is made up of maintaining and restoring skiffs, dinghies and canoes.

Mark also hires out traditional Thames skiffs, but steers clear of motor boats. "They are a lot of grief and trouble," he says. "I believe it is more suitable to enjoy the quiet pleasures of the river."

He looks forward to the peaceful winter days which he spends building boats. "There is a certain thrill from busy summer days seeing the river full of families, but for me, it is the quiet pleasure of constructing something that will last for a hundred years that keeps me happy," he confesses.

Mark has built a number of unpowered crafts for film and television, including the film Our American Friends and the BBC's production of Great Expectations.

He also constructed a replica of a 17th century submarine for the BBC TV series Building The Impossible.

"I was employed to build a copy of the first ever submarine, which had been designed by a Dutchman in London in 1621. It took twelve weeks and twelve men to build it. It became a race against time and we had no plans to refer to. It was probably the best project I have done as it was such a challenge. It is now exhibiting in Holland but I hope one day it will return to Heron Square," he says.

Mark explains that Richmond has a long standing history of traditional boatbuilding techniques. "Boat hire was an enormous business in the past. There used to be several thousand skiffs on this river and various boat houses employing hundreds of people. Now there is only one boat house and four full-time staff," he explains.

The first skiff (a small flat bottomed open boat with a pointed bow and square stern that is able to hold one or two people) was built in Richmond in around 1850. By then the river was used for pleasure rather than necessity.

The history of Richmond's waterways has made Mark aware of his role in ensuring the area does not lose its identity. "I have inherited a business but also a responsibility to continue a long tradition. I don't honestly believe there is a great future in wooden boatbuilding but I would hate to see the business close," he says.

"Last summer we were selling ice creams and a magazine reported that it was the beginning of the end for the business. We need to cover our costs and building a caf and gallery has helped us to survive. This is a seasonal job financially. People don't go out on the water as families in bad weather, but on the hot summer days we have a queue of people wanting to hire boats. The money we make on those days must last all year round and you have to be stringent and find other ways to pay the bills," he adds.

Mark admits it is difficult to make ends meet and that he struggles to run a small business with such massive overheads. The job is physically demanding and the lifting and moving of small boats takes its toll. Add these factors to the fear of river floods and it is clear that running such a business can be stressful.

Mark tells me he gets involved in one special project a year. "We built an eight oar row barge for the Queen's golden jubilee. You can see it here on summer evenings, it is used by disabled rowers. It also does film work, charity rows and even did a funeral last year," he says.

To mark the 150th year of the Boat Race in 2003, he built replica boats for the Oxford and Cambridge teams.

Last year he constructed a wooden catamaran with a copper bath on it for a comedian who wanted to row across the English Channel.

Mark is also closely involved with the Great River Race. "An enormous amount of my work revolves around the 23 mile race from Ham to Greenwich. I have built almost 30 boats for it in the past 10 years."

He offers work experience to children from local schools and believes he has a duty to the community to offer training to young people. "One of the boys who did some work experience with us when he was 16 still works here. He is 28 now and runs the boat hire business."

Mark works six days a week often clocking up over 80 hours. He is still enthusiastic about his profession but is unsure of what will happen when he retires. "I hope there is someone to take over from me," he says. "I have legal protection for the boat houses so they can only be used for the boat hire. This stops them from being turned into offices," he explains.

"Whoever legally inherits the business is the only person who could change that. All I can do is pass on the covenant for the business and hope it continues. It would be a terrible shame to see it turned into a wine bar."