The Fulham Ferry

The Hammersmith & Fulham Archives contain many old histories of Fulham including Faulkner’s Fulham (1813) and Fèret’s Fulham Old and New (1900) as well as more recent books and the pamphlets published by the Fulham & Hammersmith Historical Society. It also has old maps, prints and photographs including those used here. As I am interested in the history of Fulham and live near the river, I thought I would have a look at the early river crossing.

The Fulham Ferry

The Thames before the bridgeUntil the building of the Old Fulham Bridge in 1729, the ferry was the only means of direct communication between Fulham and Putney.  Some form of crossing must have existed since earliest times but the first direct allusion to it is in 1210 when there is a reference to the harnesses of King John’s horses being carried across the river at Fulham for 1d.

The ferry operated from a draw dock at The Swan Inn in Fulham to a slope at the end of Brewhouse Lane on the Putney bank. Both these locations were a short distance downstream of the present Putney Bridge. Fulham was on the main south western route out of London so the ferry was busy and inns and taverns grew up to cater for travellers while their coaches were loaded on to the ferry.  The Swan, built in 1695, was the most famous.

Swan Tavern
Passage across the Thames was often hazardous in rough weather.  Archbishop Laud mentions in his diary of 18 September 1633 that on one occasion when his servants were crossing, the ferry capsized.  He noted,

“… my Coach, Horses and Men sunk to the bottom of the Thames in the Ferry Boat which was overladen, but I praise God, I lost neither Man nor Horse.”

Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, General of the Parliamentary ArmyThe ferry increasingly created a bottleneck and in 1642, during the Civil War, a temporary bridge or pontoon was built at Fulham for the first time.  The Earl of Essex needed to cross the river at Fulham so he could attack the Royalist army from the south.  Sources at the time report:

“The Lord Generall hath caused a bridge to be built upon barges and lighters over the River Thames”
so that
“that the Lord Generall’s forces might march over the river into Surrey and be ready to attend the King upon all removes.”

It was not until 1729 that a permanent bridge was finally built and the ferrymen and owners of the rights to the ferry were ‘bought out’.  However the ferry continued to operate as long as the bridge was tolled and there are a number of prints and photgraphs showing both the bridge and the ferry. This old print of c1780 shows the ferries with Fulham Bridge to the left and the Swan Inn to the right.

Old print showing the ferry on the Fulham side, 1780
The photograph below, taken in about 1870, shows the garden of the Swan Inn and the aqueduct in the distance. The Chelsea Waterworks Company built the aqueduct in 1855 to bring water from Kingston as the Thames was so polluted that water had to be drawn from above the tidal reaches at Teddington.

Photograph from the Fulham side
The boats can be seen here on the Putney side in another photograph taken about the same time.

Photograph from the Putney side, 1880
The Phelps family was one of the oldest in the area, traceable in the Fulham parish register as far back as 1593 and during all these years they were either watermen or water bailiffs.

‘Honest’ John PhelpsThis photograph is of John Phelps who was born in May 1805 and died in December 1890. He was a waterman, a great rower winning frequent races and an umpire at some of the early boat races – and one of the last to operate a ferry at Fulham. When asked if he had given up his skiff, he replied:

“No, it gave me up pretty well when the old bridge was freed from toll, and now they have taken away Fulham Hard [his place of embarkation] for the purposes of the new bridge, which was opened in 1886.”

[Fiona, local studies volunteer]

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