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The thrill of the ferry

It was the best fun a few coppers could buy in Mexborough for many of us - a few pennies not only took you to the greenery of Old Denaby, they also transported you on a magical journey, a real thrill in itself.
The following is an extract from the May 1993 article by our archivist Julia Ashby: the 8mm movie which forms part of the video, was taken by former St John's School headmaster Mr Peter Cook, and we are grateful for permission to use it. Mr Cook was head of the school from 1964 to 1969, and oversaw the move from the old premises on Bank Street to today's building. He died in 2009.

"By the middle of the C19th the canal had been built, the area was beginning to become industrialised and traffic over the ferry had increased to the point where a larger boat with a deeper draft was needed, so a weir was placed there to lift the level of the water. A small house was also built for the Ferryman and is to be found with house and weir on all maps thereafter.

After the First World War there was a typhoid epidemic which was thought to be caused by overcrowded, unheathy living conditions. It was the job of Mr. Simcox the Health Inspector to look at all the houses in our area and consider whether they were fit for human habitation.and if not to have them condemned. It was he who condemned the ferryman"s two roomed house. However, unlike most places which were condemned it was not demolished but turned into a workshop by the Nelson family who used it for making their brooms etc.

The ferry was actually owned by the same company as owned the canal, and each summer they would send a group of workmen to repair any damage done to the weir or ferry because of the winter floods.
In 1851 the census tells us that the ferry was run by Mr. John Beldan, but after him came a family which a lot of our older members will remember at the ferry - the Nelsons. They took over the ferry and responsibility for operating the swing bridge over the canal after the First World War, for which they were paid 10s. (50p) per week. In addition all the takings from the ferry became theirs as part of their wages.

In 1928 Mrs. Nelson died and the railway carriage she and her family lived in after the ferryman"s house was condemned was burned down. The navigation company then sent Jack Ball from Swinton to man it on a temporary basis until a permanent employee could be found and an advertisement was placed in all the local newspapers to these ends. At last the job was taken by George Ryalls and his son, a barge owner of Church Street.

After George Ryalls the ferry was always manned by an employee of The Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation Company and the first of these was Herbert Martin from Swinton. It was he who removed the Manila Rope used to haul the boat across the Don and replaced it with a wire one.
When he left the job was taken by Freeman Shaw (he was nicknamed Shay), another character a lot of our older members will remember, who manned the ferry for many years, walking each morning from his home in Swinton.

But when the Second World War broke out and officials came from the government to list everyone working for the canal, companies, they.were shocked to find how many hours a week he was working, which, when

Please note: this video is retrieved from YouTube from the Heritage's channel. After playing, YouTube offer the chance to see videos it 'thinks' are relevant. Unfortunately we have no control over this content, so you are advised to exercise discretion.


 averaged out, amounted to 16 hours per day 7 days a week. (In the summer it is said that he had a lie in bed and didn't start work until 7.00 a.m.). They gave instructions that he would have to cut his hours by half and work a shift system with someone else. This made him very angry and he went to work for Mr. Sutton at Manor Farm as a general farm labourer. Jimmy Cramp then took over the job.

In Mexborough Local Board Book we find further reference to the ferry. On 8th January 1874 the local board had a deputation from the Coroner's Office, after an inquest into the deaths of two men who drowned in the canal at the bottom of Ferry Boat Lane on 12th December 1873. Plans were made to fence off the canal, and to put in a small gate for access to the ferry, but this did not stop the old problem of people accidentally slipping off the ferry boat into the River Don as they got on or off the boat) this being a particular problem with children.

At this meeting one of the men on the board, made the comment that "the especial remedy would be to build a bridge over both the canal and the river in place of the ferry leading to Denaby". This seems to have been spoken of many times over the years by both Mexborough Local Board and Mexborough Urban District Council, and it wasn't until nearly one hundred years later that at last we were successful in getting our bridge.

However, in gaining our bridge, I feel we lost something, and certainly when we take our children for their trip to Old Denaby Woods we know they are safer, but where is that sense of magic and adventure felt by us when we boarded that boat which took us over the river to a special place with special memories."

Awakening memories
Friend and contributor to the Society's web site, Brian Wright has jotted down his recollections of the ferry:
"We used the ferry to either go fishing in the ponds or to play in Denaby Woods. If the ferry man was not around we would take ourselves across, leaving the boat on the wrong side! We would also cross commando style along the cable if we were without the penny. Dipping in the murky waters around the weir I remember we pulled out cows' skulls on one occasion, which had no doubt been thrown into the river from the abattoir up near the engine sheds. An incident I wish I had witnessed involved the vicar, Rev A J Bishop. Apparently he was on his bike going down the slope to the ferry when his cassock got caught in his spokes pitching him into the river!! "

Preserving the past - with your help
If you have any photographs or documents which you think may be of interest to the society, please get in touch. The archive, while invaluable as a resource for anyone with an interest in Mexborough history, is also a way of preserving the past for generations to come. Your photos, videos or documents will be treated with the utmost care and will be returned promptly after copying. As you can see from the site, we cover history from the very early days of the community right up to recent years. So if you have photos of people and places now gone which you would like to share, please get in touch. This also includes any video footage you may have, or film transfered to tape or DVD.