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Mexborough Ferry

Mexborough Ferry 1927. Note the railway carriage, living accommodation for the Nelson Family, which was burned down after the death of Mrs. Nelson in 1928

The Ferry, is remembered by most of us for those school trips to ‘Bluebell Woods’ (Old Denaby Woods), picnics, or a day spent with a fishing net at ‘Denaby Duck Ponds’ (The Old Don) trying to catch Tadpoles. But not many people know much about the long history behind it, so I thought this month it would be interesting for us to cover this small but vital area which has played such an important part in the development of our town. In fact I believe that it was this particular crossing, and the fact that firm building land was available with an abundance of good sheltered grassland for animals, that caused the first of our inhabitants to settle here initially.

The first time I found mention of our ferry was in a book relating to the English Civil War. During one of the sieges of Pontefract Castle Captain Paulden and twenty others left the castle to try and capture Admiral General Rainsborough, a Cromwellian, at Doncaster. They left Pontefract under the cover of darkness and arrived the following morning at Mexborough, obviously using the old road from Pontefact to Barnburgh and Harlington and then to the ferry at Mexborough. It then states “where there was a Ferry Boat”. They rested here until noon, and then continued their journey to Conisbrough, again along the old road through Old Denaby Wood to Conisbrough. The following day they went to Doncaster to try and capture Admiral General Rainsbrough, but unfortunately he was accidentally killed. I have been told that some people were captured and that on the return journey one of them was decapitated outside the Ferryboat Inn, but as yet I have found no documentation verifying this.

The next time we find mention of the ferry is approx 1694-1695 when there was a lawful dispute between William Savile and Sir William Reresby. The document informs us that it culminated in William Savile, instead of using the ferry for which a toll was charged, drove his Tithe Cart through the Nether Ford, which was situated 100m east of the ferry, and for which no toll was payable.

In 1650 Cornelius Vermuyden built the Dutch River, connecting the River Don to the River Humber, thus making the Don into a tidal river. Therefore the level of the water in the River Don was higher at one time of the day to another, making it more difficult to cross. This is the time that the ferry came into its own to enable people to cross in safety.

The next reference I found to the ferry is on maps, the first being 1812 followed by 1849, but by this time the canal had been built, the area was beginning to become industrialised and traffic over the ferry, both pedestrian and goods, 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 home was also built for the Ferryman and is to be found, on all maps thereafter.

The ferry was actually owned by the same firm as owned the canal, and each summer, along with the river, the firm would send a gang of men to dredge the river and weir, and repair the weir wall and ferry because of damage done during the winter floods.

After the 1st WW there was a Typhoid Epidemic which was thought to be caused by overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions. It was the job of Mr. Symcox, the Health Inspector for Mexborough Urban District Council, to inspect at all the houses in our area and consider whether they were fit for human habitation and if not to have them demolished. It was he who condemned the Ferryman’s two roomed home. However, unlike some places which were condemned it was not demolished but turned into a workshop, from where to make brooms, besoms etc., by the family who lived there at the time. The Nelsons.

In 1891 the census returns tell 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 1st WW, for which they were paid ten shillings (50p) per week.

In addition all the takings from the ferry became part of their wages.

Mr. Nelson farmed Broom on the Old Denaby side of the River Don and the whole family helped to make brushes and brooms of all kinds. Their main trade was in Besoms, made out of Heather sent down from Scotland by a relative who lived in the Highlands. These resembled a Witch’s Broom and was used in the iron and steel industry for removing dirt from items when they were removed from the moulds and so sold vast quantities of them to the local forges. The Nelson Family were said to be River Gypsies and in 1928, when Mrs. Nelson died, the railway carriage in which she and her family had lived, since the Ferryman’s Home was condemned, was burned down.

The navigation company then sent Jack Bell, of Swinton, to man the ferry and swing bridge, 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 son, a barge owner of Church Street, Mexborough.

After George Ryalls the Ferry was always manned by an employee of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation Canal and the first of these was Herbert Martin of 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, who 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. In the summer it was said that he had a lie in bed and didn’t start work until 7a.m.

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 worked, which, when averaged out, amounted to sixteen hours per day seven days a week. They gave instructions that he would have to cut his hours by half and work a shift system. This made him very angry and he left to work as a general farm labourer, at Manor Farm, then owned by Mr. Sutton. The running of the ferry, and swing bridge, were then taken over by Jimmy Cramp.

In the Mexborough Local Board Book we find further reference to the ferry. On 8th January 1874 the Local Board (forerunner of Mexborough Urban District Council) met 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 a small gate for access to the ferry, but this did not stop the 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 Local 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 by both Mexborough Local Board and its successor Mexborough Urban District Council, and it wasn’t until 1963, 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 special, and certainly when we take our children for their trip to Old Denaby Woods and fishing for Tadpoles in the pond. We know they are safer, but where is that sense of adventure felt by us when boarding that boat which took us over the river to a special place with special memories.

First written on 25th May 1993.

Information Obtained from:
Memories of Jim Rownsley.
Books: The Siege of Pontefract Castle ‘The Capture of Admiral General Rainsborough’. ‘The Inclosure of Mexborough’ by John Goodchild. ‘The Early History of the Don Navigation’ by T.S. Willan
Maps to be found in the archives of Mexborough & District Heritage Society.

Copyright: This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety without the permission of J.R. Ashby