Martin Limon takes nostalgic look back at Britain's once extensive network of river ferries and discovers a surprising number of survivors………
(first published by Waterways World, May 2006)
If, these days, people talk about catching a ferry we tend to think about the sea-going type familiar to anyone taking a car across to the continent. However until comparatively recently ferry travel across Britain's rivers and estuaries was also commonplace. In Worcestershire alone there were over fifteen ferries crossing the River Severn. Many of Britain's river ferries, some of them dating back centuries, were operated by the landlords of the public houses that stood close to the ferry crossings or by the breweries which owned them. On the east bank of the River Hull, in East Yorkshire, stood the Windham Arms Public House from where Wawne Ferry provided an important link between the villages of Thearne and Wawne as well as serving places like Beverley and Sutton. Until its closure in 1946 the ferry craft carried foot passengers over the river for 1d, cyclists for 2d and the owners of small cars for 6d (abut two and a half new pence in modern money).
In an age before bridges, or when bridges were few in number, ferry boats of varying types and dimensions could be found closing gaps in the road network caused by Britain's extensive inland waterways. Sometimes ferries took the place of earlier fords and because the water here was usually shallow a simple wooden boat could be punted across narrow rivers using a pole. Where the water was wider or deeper a rowing boat might provide the ferry service and by the late nineteenth century some ferry operators were using pontoons or floating bridges hauled by chains or cables to carry horse-drawn vehicles and farm animals. At the other end of the scale were the steam-powered or diesel-powered vessels carrying large numbers of cars and passengers across Britain's wide estuaries.
Although the arrival of the motorcar did, initially, provide more opportunities for some river ferries in the long run they sowed the seeds of downfall for many. With the arrival of motor vehicles came pressure for road improvements and for the building of more bridges. Some ferries had already disappeared by the 1920s a good example being Booth Ferry over the River Ouse near Goole, replaced by a swing bridge which opened in July 1929. The decline of traffic on some river ferries was already evident from the 1930s and by 1946 the government was so concerned that they set up an enquiry.