A city of ferries

This year, Bristol Ferry Boats announced the refurbishment and relaunch of one of its oldest vessels, nearing 100 years old. Here, Andrew Swift looks back at the history of Bristol’s beloved water network…

Bristol today may be a city of bridges, but it was once a city of ferries. Until the early 19th century, there was only one bridge across the Avon – Bristol Bridge – so, for many people, unless they were prepared to make a lengthy detour, the only way across the river was by boat.

Ferries played a vital role in the life of the city for over 500 years, but it’s not that easy to track them down today. One place you can catch a glimpse of Bristol’s lost ferries is at the end of Lower Guinea Street, a little way along from The Ostrich Pub, where a slipway runs down to the water. A sign on the wall reveals this to be Grove Ferry Slip, and it still looks as though, if you waited long enough, a boat might turn up to carry you across. Unfortunately, the last one left in 1931, and if you look across to the opposite bank you will see the slip to which it ran now lies under the River Station.

There were three other ferries across the river in the 18th century, but virtually all trace of them has disappeared. The oldest was the Gibb Ferry, dating back to 1247. It ran where Prince Street Bridge now stands, but stopped in 1809 when a wooden bridge replaced it. The present bridge followed 70 years later.

A little way upstream, a ferry ran between Welsh Back and Redcliff Back. It survived until 1930, but the only reminder of it is a narrow alleyway called Cheese Lane that led to the slipway on the Redcliff side.

East of Bristol Bridge was a ferry which went by a variety of names, including Bathavon Ferry, Counterslip Ferry, Temple Back Ferry, St Philip’s Ferry and Queen Street Ferry. It ran where St Philip’s Bridge now stands, and closed when the first bridge was first built here in 1841. It was in operation by 1673, when a map depicted it with two men and a horse being rowed across, but may have been much older.

Four ferries may have been enough for 18th-century Bristol, but as the city’s population boomed and new industries were established along the waterfront, new crossings were needed. The creation of the Floating Harbour meant that ferries along its course were no longer subject to the tides, while the opening of the New Cut created yet another obstacle to free movement around the city.

Two ferries opened along the New Cut – Gaol Ferry around 1828 and Vauxhall Ferry in 1862. In the Floating Harbour, a ferry opened in 1837 to carry workmen from Gasworks Lane across to the yard where the SS Great Western was being built. The landlord of the Mardyke beerhouse, a little further west, also started running a ferry service around this time.

On St Augustine’s Reach, just north of where Pero’s Bridge stands today, Green’s Slip Ferry (later renamed Dean’s Marsh Ferry) started up a few years later. In the 1890s, as the redevelopment of Canon’s Marsh got under way, another ferry service was introduced, running from the steps by Prince Street Bridge across to what is now Millennium Square.
By the end of the 19th century, as well as the two ferries across the New Cut, there were no less than six across the Floating Harbour.

The New Cut ferries were long ago replaced by footbridges – Vauxhall in 1900 and Gaol Ferry in 1935 – but building bridges across the floating harbour was a different matter. Despite many proposals over the years, there is still no crossing – except by water – between Prince Street and Cumberland Basin, a distance of over a mile. Yet, one by one, the ferries closed – Welsh Back in 1930, Grove in 1931, Canon’s Marsh in 1932, Gasworks in 1936, Dean’s Marsh in 1960 – until only Mardyke was left.

Around 1901, when a railway was built along the harbourside, the Mardyke Ferry was moved from where the Grain Barge is moored today to a new jetty, accessed by a subway under the line.

In its later years the Mardyke Ferry operated ‘day and night’, as a large sign informed prospective passengers, and in 1962 it made a memorable appearance in the opening sequence of the film Some People. But, as trade in the docks leached away, it made its final crossing five years later.

Two other ferries lay beyond the Floating Harbour. Rownham Ferry, which ran from Hotwells to Bower Ashton, dated back at least to the 12th century, when it belonged to the Abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey (now Bristol Cathedral). In 1866 it was moved 175 metres upstream to make way for a new entrance to the Floating Harbour. The following year it received a new lease of life when a station on the Portishead branch opened next to the slipway on the Somerset side.

At high tide, the ferry was attached to a cable to prevent it being swept away, and at low tide passengers had to pick their way along gangways linking boats beached on the mud. It sounds hazardous,
but seems to have operated without any major incidents until it finally stopped running in 1932.

Five miles downstream from Rownham was a ferry that outlived them all, and was also immortalised in song by Adge Cutler. The crossing from Pill to Shirehampton is said to have been running since the 11th century, and in the 1960s, when pubs closed half an hour later in Somerset than in Gloucestershire, was used by regulars from the Lamplighters in Shirehampton to grab an extra pint on the other side. It closed in 1974 when the opening of the M5 bridge at Avonmouth took much of its business away.

That left only one ferry still running across the Avon, four miles upstream from Bristol at Conham, operated – as it still is today – by the Beese family, who also run tea gardens on the south bank. Back in the Floating Harbour, though, things were beginning to stir. The Bristol Packet Company started running trips around the docks as well as venturing upstream to Beese’s Tea Gardens and farther afield. In 1977, a boat abandoned on the riverbank when the ferry at Pill closed three years earlier was rescued, restored and brought to Bristol to start a regular service around the docks. She was called Margaret, and almost 50 years later is still going strong as one of the stalwarts of the fleet of Bristol Ferry Boats, whose yellow and blue craft are now as much a part of the city’s DNA as the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Banksy. In 1999, meanwhile, a service from Hannover Quay to the SS Great Britain was introduced by Number Seven Boats, reviving the route of the old Gasworks Ferry. Although such a renaissance would have seemed impossible back in the late 60s, Bristol’s ferries are today busier than ever before and one of the assets of which the city can be most proud.
• akemanpress.com