Horse Ferry, Lambeth

Horseferry, Lambeth, 1710 (Screen Shot)_800x500_(c)

Above: Painting made in 1710 of the horse ferry between Lambeth and Westminster. It can be seen that it was in the form of a raft and, in this case, is conveying a coach and two horses. Lambeth Palace is to be seen on the right which means that the buildings on the left are at the river end of Horseferry Road. Quite what the three nude men are doing is anybody’s guess. The sailing vessel seems to have fired a gun or a cannon. A man on the ferry seems to have been hit.

In the area of what is now Inner London, there was only one bridge crossing the Thames before 1750. That bridge was, of course, London Bridge. In 1750 Westminster Bridge was completed which made a second crossing point available. Those who needed to cross the Thames – either with a horse and cart or in a carriage – often needed the means to get from one bank of the Thames to the other. Apart from London Bridge, there were several horse ferries available at various points on the river. One famous horse ferry plied from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs, another was the Putney Ferry which ran between the village of Putney to the village of Fulham. Most well-known of all was the horse ferry at Lambeth which ran from near St Mary’s church, on the riverbank at Lambeth to the Westminster shore. Today’s Horseferry Road is the only reminder of the everyday life of the ancient ferry crossing at this point on the Thames.

Horseferry, Lambeth, c1815 (Screen Shot)_800x600_(c)

Above: View about 1815 from Horseferry Road looking across the Thames at Lambeth Palace and the church of St Mary, Lambeth.

What is a Horse Ferry ?

There are several misconceptions about what a horse ferry was and so we will explain how they worked before talking about the one at Lambeth. Many people think that a horse ferry was so-called because it was pulled across the river by a long rope attached to a horse. That was not the case in London although there may have been such ferries in other parts of Britain. Another misconception is that such ferries were used only to convey horses. The use for a horse ferry was to carry both the horse (or horses) and a cart (or carriage) across the Thames on a vessel resembling a large raft. It had to be wide enough for a cart or carriage to fit onto it and it had to be long enough to allow the horse (or horses) to stand in front of the cart (or carriage) without being taken out of the harness.

Having had the good fortune to know several watermen, the subject of horse ferries has been discussed with them. So little is written in the history books that it is necessary to get some idea of how such a vessel could be operated from the people who are best qualified today to have an opinion. Here are some of the findings. The vessel was large and quite heavy. With the added weight of what it was required to carry, it would have needed great care to steer it across the river. Remember that we are talking about the days when no vessel had motorised power. The Thames is a fast-flowing river – so fast that it is considered to be too dangerous to swim in it. A heavy raft could easily be swept away by the tidal currents – with the result that both the cargo and the vessel could easily be lost.

For a waterman, even today with his powerful tug or riverboat, the essence of skilful manoeuvring is to carefully observe the flow of the water. The currents move more quickly in the middle of the Thames than they do near the banks. Watermen often observe leaves or pieces of wood floating on the surface of the water to see how fast the current is at a particular point. It is then possible to determine how it will affect the vessel they are steering.

Returning to the horse ferry, it is important to realise how heavy such a vessel would have been. It could not possibly have been rowed across the Thames. In shallow water, it could have been punted across – using a long pole. Even then, river currents would have had a great effect on the vessel. Watermen all agree that while the tide was going out or coming in the flow the Thames would have made a crossing from one bank to another virtually impossible. At high water, there is a time of about 30-60 minutes when the water is still. However, the water may also have been too deep in the middle of the Thames to use a long pole to move the vessel. The most likely time for the ferry crossing to be made was at what watermen call dead low water. There would have been hardly any water currents and the shallow water would have allowed the safe movement the raft from one bank to the other.

In what few accounts there are of horse ferries, it is sometimes mentioned that people waited overnight on one bank before crossing on the horse ferry. This could have meant that tidal conditions were not suitable for the ferryman to take his craft across the Thames on a particular day and that he had to wait until the next day before making the crossing. It all points to the state of the tide affecting when it was safe to take the raft across the river.

A few facts about the Horse Ferry at Lambeth

The horse ferry is believed to be older than London Bridge which was first built in stone in 1176. That could mean that the ferry at Lambeth may have started around 1100 or even earlier.

There were some years when the Thames froze and thick ice formed on top. In 1514, due to the frozen river, carts are known to have crossed the Thames on the ice at Lambeth. That would also have prevented the ferry from operating.

The ferry point is shown on the Agas map of c1561. The tolls and rights of passage belonged to the Archbishops of Canterbury who derived a considerable income from it.

Due to an Act of 1700, the watermen were not to be hindered from carrying passengers on the Lord’s Day, but the whole of their earnings was to be given up for the use of the poor decayed watermen and their widows of the parish of St Margaret, Westminster.

Until the building of Westminster Bridge, the only link between Lambeth and Westminster was the ferry-boat near the palace gate, which was the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, being granted patent under a rent of twenty pence. Once Westminster Bridge had opened, in 1750, the ferry ceased and £2,205 was given to the See as compensation for loss of income. Previous to that time, there were two large inns for the reception of travellers, who arrived in the evening, did not choose to cross the water at such an hour, or, in the case of bad weather, might prefer waiting for the conditions to improve.

The horse ferry became unnecessary in 1862 when Lambeth Bridge was built on the site. The See of Canterbury was granted compensation of £2,000 for the loss of revenue from the ferry.


This entry was posted in /Lam-Lambeth, /Wes-Westminster (Area), COMMON ITEMS, Subj_Thames. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Horse Ferry, Lambeth

  1. Roger SQUIRES says:

    A first class review of a lost landmark.
    Pity the ferry has gone.
    Roger Squires


  2. Thanks for your generous comments. Yes, I would have liked to have ridden on that ferry too!


  3. Penelope Tay says:

    I was interested to read the amount of compensation offered due to revenue loss when the bridge was built. But what about the individual watermen who were also done out of a job?


  4. As is usual in life, the Archbishop – who was a Lord – saw to it that he was compensated. Nobody bothered about the watermen.


  5. Tony Braithwaite(younger brother of Peter and Michael Braithwaite of B & D ) says:

    At Greenwich there is a Horseferry Place. Is it possible that this ferry was powered by horses ?


    • Yes, that is true. There were several horse-ferries (meaning that the ferry vessel carried a horses or horses as well as the carriage or cart) on the Thames. One was at Putney (Putney to Fulham), one was at Lambeth, one was at Limehouse (Rotherhithe to Limehouse), one was at Greenwich (Greenwich to Isle of Dogs). It is a larger subject that you might think. Good to hear from you and thank you for your comments.


      • Tony Braithwaite(younger brother of Peter and Michael Braithwaite of B & D ) says:

        Dear Adrian
        Thank you. I have another quite different query for you which is illustrated by photographs. Being a computer dummy may I have an e-mail address that i can send it to you please,?
        Seasons greetings
        Tony Braithwaite


  6. And a Happy New year to you !! Using email is always preferable. My email is –
    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Marilyn Nauman says:

    Hi Mr. Prockter,
    Thank you for your research of the Lambeth horse ferry. I learned of this historical landmark, unfortunately, due to the malicious attack on London citizens today when Horse Ferry Road was mentioned during a newscast. My thoughts & prayers to all affected .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.