As you will probably have heard by now there are
two new books which are to be brought out in the near future about Mexborough,
one based on the 1891 census by Barrie Chambers and the other a pictorial
history of Mexborough. We are on the lookout for photographs etc. to help us
One place which I feel sure will be covered by our book will be the Ferry, 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 Pond" (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 buildable ground 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 which relates to the English Civil War. During one of the. sieges of Pontefract Castle Captain Paulden and twenty four others left the castle to try to capture Admiral General Rainsborough, a Cromwellian, at Doncaster. They left Pontefract under the cover of darkness and arrived at Mexborough the following morning, obviously using the old pack horse trail from Pontefract 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 pack horse trail through Old Denaby Wood to Conisbrough. The following day they went to Doncaster to try and capture Admiral General Rainsborough, 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 beheaded outside the Ferry Boat Inn, but as yet I have found no documentation to support this.
The next time we find mention of the ferry is around 1694-1695 when there was a lawful dispute between William Savile and Sir William Reresby, which culminated in William Savile driving a tithe cart through the Nether Ford (just below the ferry).
This proves that before the River Don was made navigable (in 1726 it had cuts put in and was deepened to enable cargo-bearing boats to go up and down it) it was possible to cross it at other points in Mexborough other than Strafford Sands. Please don't forget that by this time Cornelius Vermuyden had built his Dutch River, connecting the Don to the Ouse, thus making the Don into a tidal river. Therefore the level of the water in the Don was higher at certain times than others, making it more difficult to cross. This was the time that the ferry would come into its own to enable people to cross in safety.
The next reference I found to this is on maps. The first one being 1812. The next 1849, but by this time 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.
Mr. Nelson farmed Broom on the Old Denaby side of the River Don and the whole family helped with the making of brushes and brooms of all kinds. They also made "besoms" out of heather sent down from Scotland by a relative who lived in the Highlands (A besom being a long-handled brush used in the iron and steel industry to remove dirt etc. from the metal after it is removed from the moulds) and their besoms were sold all over this area.
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 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..., 1 q 6 3
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.
Julie Ashby. Telephone 581903