Wight Life

Yarmouth - Lymington

One Hundred and Forty Years of Ferry Service

By David Burrell

Picture of Lymington Harbour

The 'Solent' (1863) and the 'Mayflower' (1866) in Lymington harbour circa 1897

AS WE DRIVE over the ramp of the 'Cenwulf' or 'Cenred' to cross to Lymington, we embark on the remnant of a service that in past years was probably of greater importance to the area than today. To appreciate why, we must recall the changes in the transport scene over the past 150 years.

Travel on land was so difficult that the economy was, to a large degree, locally based with small towns at short intervals providing a market, mill and other required services. For instance, prior to the arrival of the railway at Plymouth, the journey to London needed 'three very fair days posting', whilst in the June/July issue of WIGHT LIFE, the stage coach 'Civility' reminded us that even on improved roads in Edwardian summer weather Ryde holidaymakers visiting Alum Bay by horse-drawn charabanc were undertaking a real day-trip before they saw their landladies again.

Consequently, the sea was important to areas bordering it. Despite reliance on weather and current, and the influence they had on the small ships of the time, it was often easier to travel by water. The first step in reducing the importance of shipping came with the building of the railway network in the decades preceding 1850. In the next 75 years this network was slowly completed prior to the next onslaught on coastal shipping, that of the internal combustion engine after the first world war. In the years between the two world wars changes in the Yarmouth ferry bring us to the scene with which we are familiar today.

Both Yarmouth and Lymington are natural ports of long standing, although little or no evidence of their past importance is now to be seen by the casual observer. In the dim past there was little trade passing between them; until 1830, it was confined to small, often open, boats using oar and sail to cross both the tidal stream and prevailing wind with fog, calm and storm liable to imperil the traveller, who would also have chosen to take boat, and not stage, to virtually any point between Portsmouth and Poole, and possibly even further afield.

The first harbinger of things to come was seen on the Solent in 1815 when the steam yacht Thames arrived on passage to London; but some 15 years were to pass before this means of travel was to become available locally.

The initiative came from a group of Lymington businessmen who bought the Newcastle built and owned wooden paddle steamer Glasgow and placed her in service on April 5 1830. Lengthened the following year by six feet, she was commanded for 18 years by Richard Dore of Yarmouth.

Although a great advance, we would still consider her rather Spartan. With a beam of 13ft, the 30-minute crossing was shared with packages, livestock and even carriages, whilst protection from inclement weather was limited to a very small cabin. The service was in summer only, leaving winter, when steam would have been appreciated, to sail and oar.

On three days a week, the sailing was from Lymington via Yarmouth, Cowes and Ryde to Portsmouth; the other three weekdays took her to Southampton after the Cowes call instead of further east, whilst Sunday saw only a service to Yarmouth. Passenger response to sharing the crossing with the travelling farmyard can be imagined and led to the introduction of small barges to be towed by the steamer to carry such cargo, a practice that continued until the introduction of the Lymington in 1938.

For many years, the Glasgow sailed alone, relying on a relief from the Cowes to Southampton service when not available. With hopes for a railway connection in the near future, the owners formed the Solent Sea Steam Packet Co and took delivery of a new 84ft wooden paddler in 1841. Named the Solent, she shared the service with the Glasgow, even though the London & South Western Railway abandoned their branch to Lymington after the collapse of the railway mania, and the extra traffic failed to materialise. Normally the Glasgow cared for the Yarmouth railings, leaving those to Portsmouth and Southampton to the new vessel.

This situation continued until the Glasgow was offered for sale in 1849. Finding no buyer, she was laid up until broken up three years later.

After having obtained an Act of Parliament in 1856 an independent Lymington Railway finally built the branch to terminate on the site of the present Lymington Town station, the service commencing in July 1858. In the previous month, another wooden paddler had been bought from the Admiralty and placed in service to cater for the expected traffic. Named the Red Lion she had been built at North Shields in 1856, was of 54 tons and measured 76.8ft x 15.7ft x 8.3ft. Plans to rename her Vectis were shelved when it was realised that a fine of £100 would be levied.

In the first half of 1859, a 25 per cent increase in passenger traffic on the Cowes route was reported, caused by the fare war between the London & South Western, and London, Brighton & South Coast Railways after the 'Battle of Havant'. Whilst this war lasted, it was cheaper to travel to London by first taking ship to Portsmouth and then by rail, rather than direct via Brockenhurst.

Beyond the town station, a jetty was built to enable passengers to board the steamers with the least inconvenience and avoid the long walk to Dennett's Wharf. But despite the removal of mud and a lenthening by 120ft, the railway jetty quickly confirmed early fears that regular delays would be caused as the ships could only berth at high tide. Frequently, passengers had to clamber across cargo boats or take a small boat down-river to the steamer which could get no further. This situation lasted until 1884.

In April 1860, one of the boilers of the Red Lion burst, fortunately without injury to any- one. Then the following year saw the with- drawal of the Solent, leaving the Red Lion alone until the completion of a new Solent two years later. Completed at the Lymington yard of George Inman (a Solent Sea SP Co shareholder), her construction was supervised by the engineer of the company, Charles Hayball, who at the same time completed a steam road carriage weighing under two tons when loaded with 12 passengers. Unfortunately no drawing or picture of this interesting machine seems to have survived.

The 56-ton 85ft Solent of 1863 was the last wooden ship to join the fleet. Three years later came the first iron paddler, the 69 ton 98ft Mayflower from the yard of Marshall Bros, Newcastle. Then, as to this day, the dimensions of the ships were restricted by the shallowness of the Lymington River. The Red Lion left the service in 1880, going to South Shields and being broken up in 1886.

From the first sailing of the Glasgow, passengers bound for Yarmouth would have landed at the quay up-river from the Castle and facing across the open estuary of the Yar. Protection was afforded to this spot by the construction of the breakwater in 1843-7, but later, when the pier was opened in 1876, the steamers moved out into open water again and berthed there.

The next big change came when the Solent Sea SP Co offered to sell to the London & South Western Railway. Negotiations were con- ducted through the station agent at Lymington, Mr Bullard; being concluded with the transfer, at the end of June 1884, of the Solent, Mayflower and four horse and cargo barges at a price of £2,750. This purchase followed closely on the extension of the railway by 34 chains to a new pier further down-river on the opposite bank. Built on a reclaimed spit of land, the pier was only approachable by rail and foot, the present car park and road approaches and slipway being a later reclamation. By this means the complaints of the previous quarter-century were overcome and the ships were enabled to berth and sail whatever the tide.

The railway strengthened the service with the considerably larger 130-ton steel paddler Lymington, built at a cost of £6,000 in 1893.

Lasting until 1929 she was sold out of service and became well-known as the houseboat Glengarry at Yarmouth. As an illustration of the change in value of money, the price quoted in 1898 to charter a steamer for a private trip from Lymington to Yarmouth was £10.

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With the Lymington operating the public service, Marconi employed first the Solent and later the Mayflower in December 1897 to work with his radio station at the Needles Hotel, Alum Bay. This work was carried out to prove the feasibility of radio and, weather permitting, the steamers daily followed a triangular course between the piers at Alum Bay, Bournemouth and Swanage whilst signal strengths were noted.

The transmitter, as well as the receiver, was tried on board in all sorts of conditions; often the SW gales were so bad that the operators worked up to their knees in water whilst battened down in the cabin. But the results proved beyond a doubt that radio communication was a practical proposition.

A new steamer, to be named Solent, was ordered, but sold to the Metropolitan Asylums Board as their Red Cross before registration. So a new 161-ton Solent did not appear until 1902 when the old vessel of that name was laid up, being sold in 1905. To enable the passenger steamers to avoid delay in handling cargo barges, a steam tug, the Carrier, appeared in 1904 and remained in service until 1931 when she was converted to a barge. The last adjustment to the fleet before the first world war was the sale of the to London owners in 1905; she was broken up in 1912.

At this time, a threat, in the form of the Solent tunnel project, loomed on the horizon.

Authorised by an Act in 1901, the South Western & Isle of Wight Junction Railway would have run from the Lymington branch starting at a point some 11/2 miles north of the town station. Running south through Pennington, a tunnel 21/4 miles long was entered on the Keyhaven Marshes in the lee of Hurst Spit.

Entered on gradients of 1 in 40, the single line iron and brick-lined tunnel would have been operated with electric locomotives; it reached the Island just west of Sconce Point. Once on the Island, spurs connected with the Fresh- water, Yarmouth & Newport Railway giving direct connections both in the Totland and Newport directions.

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Two years later, further proposals gained approval when an ocean terminal was planned as an adjunct to Southampton. This was not the first port proposal for the Lymington area; a stillborn 1864 Act envisaged reclamation of the marshes from Pennington to the Lymington river. The port basins would have been entered from the Solent through a lock on the site of Jack in the Basket. The new 1903 facilities were planned just to the east of the tunnel and a water depth of 42ft would have permitted the largest liners to use the terminal and avoid a visit to Southampton: a rail link from the railway would have provided communication with London. The form of the terminal varied from time to time but included, in 1909, a train ferry pier complemented by another pier on the Island extending 1,200ft into the Solent on the eastern edge of Yarmouth, some 2,500ft east of the present pier and served by a spur trailing into the Freshwater, Yarmouth & Newport Railway in the direction of Yarmouth station. The first world war shattered the hopes of the promoters, although plans were revived afterwards, but they were finally abandoned during the 1930s, leaving us to wonder what changes would have taken place had they been acted on.

Through and after the war the Solent, Lymington and Carrier continued in service.

The London & South Western Railway had dropped the routes eastward to Cowes and beyond when they took over the service in 1884 and did not reopen the Alum Bay call after the war. That to Totland Bay was also to cease in 1927, leaving only the single trunk service between Lymington and Yarmouth.

The grouping of the railways in 1923 brought a change in name to Southern Railways. All the railways serving, and on, the Island were now under single control for the first time, together with all the passenger steamers except those from Cowes to Southampton. Catering for the growing popularity of an Island holiday saw a seaward extension to Lymington Pier early in Southern days and the arrival of the largest ferry yet.

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Much preparation was needed before the Freshwater could come into service in 1927 and allow the withdrawal of the elderly Lymington two years later, mainly in dredging the river up to the pier at a cost of over £15,000.

Of 264 tons, the Freshwater could carry 500 passengers at 12 knots and, with her staysail used to assist berthing, provided the last link with the early steamers. In 1902, the Solent cost £9,000 but by 1927 the Freshwater was to cost 21/2 times as much.

Cargo and vehicles were still catered for by the barges, now normally towed by the Solent or a hired tug, the Jumsey. Barges were about 20 tons and measured 45-50ft by 16-17ft beam, whilst only just over 2ft of water was required to float them when loaded. Road traffic was whilst the barges loaded and unloaded at a slip under the walls of the castle. Here the Town Quay was widened and a new pier and slip built for the service. Built in 1938, the Lymington was a double-ended vehicular ferry fitted with diesel-driven Voith-Schneider propellers. The unique feature of these propellers enabled her to move sideways, which soon earned her the nickname of 'the crab'.

After some initial teething troubles, she entered service, allowing the barges to be withdrawn, but the outbreak of war the following year gave her little chance to settle down and show her ability in her designed role. The Island ceased to be a holiday centre, and civilian traffic was curtailed and restricted by military needs. The Lymington continued to carry what civilian traffic there was, including goods sent across daily in a railway-owned Lymington based lorry for West Wight delivery.

The importance of the route until the end of hostilities lay in the ease with which military vehicles could be transported to and from the Island. To handle it at times required the assistance of the Portsmouth-Fishbourne ferries, such as Wootton in December 1940 when relief of the 12th Infantry Brigade on the Island by the 214th Infantry Brigade involved, over a period of nine days, the transport of 5,570 men and 544 vehicles. In considering the size of this undertaking, remember the capacity of the two ships was 15 and 18 cars respectively, rather smaller than the 52 of today's ships.

The Freshwater's war service included the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, followed by naval examination service in the Weymouth area from November 1940 until April 1944.

This left the Solent as relief at Lymington, but ships were so short that when the Portsdown was mined off Portsmouth in 1941 she was pressed into service at the other end of the Island. Later, in 1944, she was one of the ships used to ferry troops to transports in Spithead for the invasion of Normandy.

Back at Lymington, the new slipway was widened in April 1942 to accommodate two LCTs in preparation for D-Day. When the time for the landings came, civilian traffic ceased growing and thought was being given to a more efficient method than the barges.

In the mid-1930s, proposals were made to transfer the ferry to a newroute 1½ miles long, as compared to the old and still with us 4½ miles. This would have reduced transit time from 45 minutes by barge to seven minutes.

The work would have involved a new road to the west of Lymington leading to a ferry berth approximately on the site of the proposed Keyhaven ocean terminal. The Island berth was intended to be the War Department landing stage at Sconce Point. Two ferries would have been employed similar to those on the Liverpool and Birkenhead Ferry, capable of carrying 20 to 30 cars.

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Nothing came of this proposal. Instead, a new ferry arrived for service between Lymington and Yarmouth. Preparatory work in 1937 involved reclamation alongside the railway leading to the pier at Lymington to provide a slipway and berth for the new ship, named the Lymington. On the other side of the Solent, the paddle steamers berthed at Yarmouth Pier without notice and the pier was used entirely for military embarkation, manned by naval personnel from the maintenance base HMS Pauline.

Peace brought the Freshwater home and enabled the service, fortunately with no ships lost, to prepare for the return of the holidaymaker. The Southern Railway ordered a new vehicular ferry to cater for the growing road traffic which employed a novel method of meeting the manoeuvrability required in the river. At 489 tons, twice the size of any previous ship, the Farringford was launched in 1947 and featured diesel-electric drive to independently controlled paddle wheels. With her extensive saloons, she was able to provide sheltered accommodation at all seasons of the year.

With two car ferries and the Freshwater as relief, the Solent was retired in 1948 and sold to HG Pounds of Portsmouth, being converted for use as Bert's Cafe at Portchester. The Freshwater in her turn was sold in 1959 to be used on South Coast excursions under the names Sussex Queen and Swanage Queen until scrapped in 1962.

The Freshwater was replaced in 1959 by a new car ferry fitted with Voith-Schneider cycloidal propellers, the name Freshwater being transferred to her. This time she did not mark another step in size, being of 363 tons.

To this time most of the ships had carried names with obvious local connections, although the omission of Yarmouth is to be noted.

Before the next generation of ferries sailed into the Solent, British Rail were to adopt a new theme for names, the Cuthred, named after an early king of the West Saxons, being the first when she arrived for the Fishbourne service.

The latest development at Yarmouth has been the arrival of three new Voith-Schneider ferries, entering service this year. The largest yet at 760 tons each, they are named Caedmon after the Anglo-Saxon poet, Cenwulf in memory of two abbots of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Cenred, a 7th-century king of Wessex. The last two serve Yarmouth.

At the end of 1973, the Lymington and Farringford were withdrawn. The second left Lymington in January this year under tow to the Humber where, after conversion to side loading, she has joined the Hull to New Holland ferry. The elderly Lymington was offered for sale, being bought by Western Ferries (Argyll) Ltd for service on the Clyde under the name Sound of Sanda.

Even though the present ferries are nearly four times the length of the Glasgow, which in her day was a great advance on the boats previously employed, the old boatmen from the days of George IV would soon find themselves at home carrying today's travellers past the same familiar landmarks on the way to the mainland, although their remarks on the improvements made over the years would be most interesting. They would probably notice immediately the lack of commercial shipping, fishermen and pilots off Yarmouth, colliers like the Hope, Bessie and Rapid in the Yar with coal from the North of England, coasters loading Alum Bay sand for Runcorn and glass manufacture and ships lying in the Roads, some locally owned, waiting for a fair wind to distant ports.