Published on April 8th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington
Thelwall’s Penny Ferry
A ferry across the ship canal.
Since 1894 a small rowing boat has been taking passengers from one side of the Manchester Ship Canal to the other in order to maintain a long-established public right of way. Known locally as The Penny Ferry but officially called The Thelwall Ferry, its current ‘captain’ is Kevin Wilkinson. In Autumn 2014, All Things Warrington, hopped aboard to discover facts a-plenty about the waterway wonder on our doorstep…
Every now and again a story hits the headlines about a sink hole appearing in someone’s back garden. Imagine waking up to find one that’s 120ft wide, 28ft deep and 36 miles long. Worse still, imagine its full of water and you need to get to the other side. There’s only one thing for it: call the ferryman! And if you live in Thelwall, you’ve been able to do just that since 1894.
Give or take some key facts, the description of the ‘sink hole’ above is that of the Manchester Ship Canal. Okay, it didn’t happen overnight – the ‘big ditch’ was a man-made phenomenon built between 1887 and 1893 at a cost of £15m (£1.8b in today’s money) – but its impact on Warrington was immense. The ramifications of the project go on today with the canal’s owners, Peel Ports, being urged not to open its swing bridges at peak times to avoid traffic chaos.
But let’s return for a moment to a time when life was much more peaceful; to 1 January 1894 when the canal was first opened, much of Warrington was countryside and most road traffic was horse-drawn.
The canal’s emergence, for all of the trade opportunities it created, made getting across Warrington more difficult. Where there was an established right of way, the ship canal company was duty bound to keep it open. In most instances this meant a road bridge or viaduct but in Thelwall, where the canal cut through a farm and footpath, they opted instead to provide a small ferryboat service. The Thelwall Ferry has been in operation ever since.
“The ride across the canal used to cost one old penny, hence it’s nickname The Penny Ferry,” says today’s ferryman, 55-year-old Kevin Wilkinson. “It used to run from six in the morning until ten at night but these days it operates for two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon and two in the evening.”
The initial ferry service wasn’t just one man and his rowing boat. Because the canal cut through a farm, it was required to ferry cattle, horses and carts too, something that wasn’t possible using a small wooden boat. The answer was an ingenious one.
“If you look closely on either side of the canal there are two indents in its banks,” explained Kevin, “That’s where the pontoon used to go. The pontoon was a floating raft that carried animals and farm produce across. It was operated by two men using a wire pulley mechanism. I believe a cart fell in the water in the 1940s and the service was abandoned soon after for safety reasons.”
Kevin’s pleasant disposition and the beautiful weather on the day we made our trip suggested the job of a Thelwall ferryman is a tranquil one.
However, as Kevin pointed out, it’s not without its difficulties: “When the weather’s fine manoeuvring the boat is relatively easy but when the winds are high it’s a different story. The wooden rowing boat we used to use had a keel which made it easier to steer than the flat bottomed aluminium boat I use today. Sometimes it can be quite a battle landing it in the right place.”
The boat is propelled by a single stern-mounted oar that Kevin operates using an ancient technique called ‘sculling’ which involves him moving the oar from side to side whilst changing the angle of the blade to generate forward thrust.
So how did Kevin, a van-driver by trade, become a skilled ferryman?
“I used to be one of the ferry’s passengers,” he revealed. “I worked on Woolston Grange and every morning I would set off from Thelwall on my bike, catch the ferry and then cycle to work across the Eyes. I got friendly with the previous ferryman Derek Warburton who asked me to stand in for him when he was on holiday. Then, in 2002 after I got injured at work, he asked me if I wanted to share the job with him on a more formal basis.”
LOCAL BEAUTY SPOT
When Derek retired in 2007, Kevin took the job on full-time. Since then, in addition to ferrying around 600 passengers a year, he’s spent many hours improving the jetty from which the ferry sets sail, so much so that it is now regarded as a local beauty spot.
“I like to keep myself busy so when I’m not in the ferryman’s hut, I’m outside keeping things neat and tidy,” said Kevin.
The ferryman’s hut reveals a lot about the life – and in one instance the death – of a ferryman. It’s where, in the depths of Winter, Kevin spends much of his time alone and it contains a small wooden box, the lid of which displays little snippets of Thelwall’s nautical history as recalled by previous ferrymen.
The scrawlings on the box include one from 1974 that reads: “Terence James Balmer (Ted), Thelwall Ferryman, Died in Ferryboat on Wed 4th December 18:45 hrs (6.45pm).” Ted, who lived on the Latchford side of the canal, was 53 at the time. He reportedly died halfway across the canal in poor weather conditions and had to be brought ashore by a passenger. Another note reads: “Thelwall ferryboat found sunk, yes sunk, on January 3rd 1976”.
A WONDERFUL TRADITION
“I’m not sure how many ferryboats there have been over the years but there’s been a fair few ferrymen,” continued Kevin, “People who come here are fascinated by the history of the place and the fact we’ve been transporting people across the canal for so many years. It’s wonderful to think I’m part of a tradition that goes back so far.”
Kevin’s busiest shift in recent years involved taking 52 ramblers across the water – “I was pretty tired by the end of that one,” he recalled – but the shift that resonates with him most is the one when an Australian family stopped by: “After sailing on some of the world’s largest commercial vessels like the QE2 they wanted their picture taken on one of the world’s smallest – the Thelwall ferry!”
One imagines the Australian family’s QE2 fare was a little more expensive than the 11p Kevin charges today.
Thelwall’s Penny Ferry can be found at the end of Ferry Lane (entry opposite the Pickering Arms in Thelwall Village). It is open 365 days a year from 7am-9am, 12noon-2pm and 4pm-6pm except on Sundays and bank holidays when it operates from 12noon-2pm and 4pm-6pm only. All times correct at October 2014.The journey across the ship canal takes around four minutes.
A Tale of Two Ferries
At 36 miles long, hundreds of footpaths, roads and farm tracks were cut in two by the Manchester Ship Canal. But if the canal’s owners were compelled to keep such routes open, why aren’t there more bridges, viaducts and crossing points?
In actual fact, due to the canal’s proximity to existing waterways such as the Bridgewater Canal and the River Mersey, the number of established rights of way along its length were relatively few. In Warrington, for example, the River Mersey had created a prohibitive border between Lancashire and Cheshire for many centuries. Therefore, where the Ship Canal ran parallel to the Mersey, all that was required was a similar number of crossing points. For example, between Hollins Green and Warburton where a toll bridge had spanned the River Mersey since 1863 (replacing a more ancient ferry service) all the owners had to do was provide another bridge over the Ship Canal.
It was a similar story in Thelwall where a means of crossing the Mersey had existed since before the village was even named (in old English Thelwall is said to mean “a pool by a plank bridge”). It is not known how long the plank bridge lasted, but a ferry service across the Mersey definitely operated from Thelwall for many centuries. In his book ‘No Mean City’, author Michael Taylor refers to a ferry, known as the Thelwall Manor Ferry, operating from the end of a cobbled street off Eyes Lane, and states that the last Thelwall Manor ferryman was probably called William Berry.
Eyes Lane, William Berry and the Thelwall loop of the River Mersey (see map) are long gone but the ferry service itself lives on at the bottom of Ferry Lane, ably captained by current ferryman Kevin Wilkinson.