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 need to cross the Thames – either with a horse and cart or in a carriage – often needed a 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.
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 harness.
Having had the good fortune to know several watermen we have discussed the subject of horse ferries with them. So little is written in the history books that I needed to get some idea of how such a vessel could be operated from the people who are best qualified today to have an opinion. Some of my findings from those conversations will now be set out. The vessel was obviously 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, in fact, that it is dangerous even to swim in the river. A heavy raft could easily be swept down- or up-river by the tidal currents and both the cargo and the vessel could easily be lost completely.
For a waterman, even today with his powerful tug or river-boat, 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 that 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 large effect on the vessel. My watermen friends 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 moving 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 ferry-man 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 begun in stone in 1176. That could mean that the ferry at this point started some time 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 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 were 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 communication between Lambeth and Westminster was the ferry-boat near the palace gate, which was the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and granted patent under a rent of twenty pence. On opening Westminster Bridge, in 1750, it ceased and £2,205 was given to the See as compensation for loss of income. Previous to that time, there were two considerable inns for the reception of travellers, who arriving 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 weather 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.