Open main menu

Wikipedia β

Woolston Floating Bridge

Coordinates: 50°53′31″N 1°23′10″W / 50.892°N 1.386°W / 50.892; -1.386

The remains of Woolston floating bridge c. June 1999, on the east bank of the River Itchen south of the Itchen bridge and converted for use on an industrial estate as offices and works.
The Woolston Floating Bridge crossing the River Itchen shortly before it was taken out of service, seen from the Itchen Bridge, the concrete structure that replaced it
The Woolston Floating Bridge embarking passengers on the Southampton side of the River Itchen on its last day of service (11 June 1977)

The Woolston Floating Bridge was a cable ferry that crossed the River Itchen in England between Woolston and Southampton from 23 November 1836[1][2] until 11 June 1977.[3] It was taken out of service when the new Itchen Bridge was opened.

Initially there was one ferry, built and owned by the Floating Bridge Company, increased to two in 1881. In 1934 they were sold to Southampton Corporation.[4]

In the 1970s two diesel ferries operated side by side during the day with a single ferry late in the evening. There was a bus terminus at either side of the crossing, connecting foot passengers with the centre of Southampton and the road to Portsmouth. The third (or spare) diesel ferry was often to be found moored off the wires on the Southampton side of the river to the North of the slip.[5]


Planning stageEdit

The original plans were introduced in 1833 for a conventional bridge with a swivelling section in the middle.[6] Opposition came from a number of sources including local fishermen and the Northam Bridge Company.[6] An attempt to obtain an article of parliament for the bridge's construction was made in early 1834 but at this point the Admiralty voiced its objection arguing that the bridge would interfere with the navigation of the Itchen.[6] The Admiralty suggested a steam driven floating bridge as an alternative and a revised bill was passed on the 25 July 1834 despite further opposition from the Northam Bridge Company.[6]


When introduced in 1838, it was a wooden-hulled chain ferry designed by engineer James Meadows Rendel.[1] Initially there was one pair of chains across the river, both being used for propulsion. With the introduction of the lighter iron-hulled ferry No 2 in 1854, only the north chain was used for propulsion, the second chain being for guidance only.

In 1879 a pedestrian-only ferry was introduced, followed by a second in 1881 to service the growing workmen traffic heading for the Thorneycroft shipyard just downstream from the crossing. This necessitated the installation of a second set of chains to allow both types of ferry to operate simultaneously.

In 1880 the ferry was still using chains,[7] replaced by cables between 1878 and 1887. They are first seen in pictures of Floating Bridge No. 7, built in 1892 by Day, Summers and Co.[7] Each rope weighed nearly 2 tons and had an average life of nine months in normal use. Each end was attached to a short length of chain that was connected to counterbalance weights housed in chain wells to maintain tension. As the ropes stretched with use, chain links were removed to compensate.

Floating Bridge No. 11 and the two subsequent ferries were powered by diesel engines.

Originally the ferries were lit by oil lamps. Ferry No 3 was fitted with gas lamps from new in 1862 but reverted to oil in 1869. In the early 20th century, electric lights were fitted to No 8, powered by a steam-driven dynamo, replaced by a Lister diesel in 1949.[8]


Ferry Builder Service Engines Notes
1 Richard Hocking of Stonehouse 1836–1854 Two single-cylinder beam engines Wooden-hulled craft with a central cabin containing the boiler and engines flanked by twin roadways. The latter had cross-battens to give horses a better footing.
2 Joseph Hodgkinson of Southampton 1854–1896 2-cylinder grasshopper engine Iron-hulled craft with a central roadway with two side sponsons. The boiler was in one sponson and the engine in the other.
3 Joseph Hodgkinson of Southampton 1862–1900 2-cylinder grasshopper engine On withdrawal, the hull, along with that of No 2, was used as the basis for a houseboat on the River Hamble
Woolston Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1878–1883 A steam launch designed for pedestrian traffic. She proved to be unsuitable, with a number of accidents to passengers while boarding and disembarking.
5 Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1879–1901 A pedestrian-only ferry to cope with shipyard workers commuting to Thorneycroft's Woolston yard.
6 Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1881–1901 Sister to No 5
7 Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1892–1928 Triple expansion steam engine Slightly smaller than the earlier carriage ferries. She sank on 8 March 1928 after a collision with the tug Fawley, but was salvaged. She was not used again and ended her days as a pontoon at the Supermarine works.
8 Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1896–1961 1 steam powered 2 cylinder compound Overhead grasshopper beam engine Declared unsafe for further service, she was sold to Kemp's yard at Bitterne Manor as a fuelling pontoon for the marina. The engines were removed and preserved at Wendron Forge in Cornwall. Now a floating restaurant moored at Bursledon as "The Ferry Restaurant"
9 Mordey Carney & Co of Woolston 1900–1964 1 steam powered 2 cylinder compound centre-pivot beam engine Sold to Kemps yard on withdrawal, she was due to be transferred to the Medway in 1974 but is believed to have sunk under tow off Selsey
10 Day, Summers & Co of Northam 1928–1967 1 steam powered 2 cylinder compound centre-pivot beam engine Built in a hurry to replace No 7, she was completed in under six months. The last steam-powered ferry, she also ended up at Kemp's yard where the upper works were removed ready for use as pontoon.[9]
11 J I Thorneycroft of Woolston 1962–1977 2 159 hp Leyland Atalanta bus engines
12 J I Thorneycroft of Woolston 1964–1977 2 159 hp Leyland Atalanta bus engines
14 Vosper Thorneycroft at Portsmouth 1967–1977 2 159 hp Leyland Atalanta bus engines Also sold to Kemps.


One of the diesel ferries was moored at the Woolston slipway as "Floaters" nightclub for some years after withdrawal, until detroyed by fire in the late 1980s. Another survived until the mid 2000s after conversion to a floating workshop, it ended up moored on the West bank of the Itchen in a wet dock next to Belvidere Wharf, before being stripped to form a pontoon.


The Floating Bridge was technically the Woolston ferry.[1]

Floating bridge is an affectionate description of the technology rather than the name of the crossing. The term was first used by the engineer James Meadows Rendel, who had previously implemented a similar design of chain ferry at Torpoint in Cornwall and at Dartmouth in Devon. The same technology was applied to the Gosport Ferry in 1840[11]

No variant of the ferry took the form of a pontoon bridge spanning the whole width of the crossing, to which the term Floating Bridge is more widely applied and thought of today.

The term Floating Bridge has been commonly used in Southampton and it is still in use, more than 30 years after the ferry was taken out of service. The terminology was immortalised[citation needed] in the 1956 painting "The Floating Bridge" by L. S. Lowry.[12]

The term Floating Bridge has also been applied to the Cowes Floating Bridge, which still provides a similar service in a similar situation just a few miles away, across the River Medina in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Associated buildingsEdit

In 1820, whilst the crossing was still served by the small boats of Itchen Ferry village, a toll house was built.[13] This became a Coffee Tavern when a ticket office was built for the ferry in 1836.[13] The toll-house/Coffee Tavern building survived until 1970. The Ticket Office was demolished in 1954.[13]

Impact on the areaEdit

St Johns Road in Hedge End was constructed, starting in 1839, to serve the ferry.[14] This project was initiated by four of the proprietors of the Floating Bridge company, including James Warner the Younger of Botley, Hampshire, and was undertaken at their own expense.[14] There was competition between the ferry and the Northam Bridge,[14] which at the time was a toll bridge.[14] By building a road that linked the hamlet of Hedge End to the Portsmouth Road at Sholing, the proprietors of the Floating Bridge company were able to poach some of the passengers that would otherwise have used Northam Bridge.[14] The road cut through Botley Common and Netley Common.[14] The inevitable further development alongside the road further eroded the common land, and helped the hamlet of Hedge End to establish itself as a village in its own right.

"The Woolston Ferry"Edit

"The Woolston Ferry" is a 1977 folk song, by Gutta Percha and The Balladeers.[15][16]

If you are ever up in Sholing and you want to go to town,

Don't go via Bitterne, that's the long way round,
Take a trip across the ferry, take a trip across the sea
and if you're pedestrian you can go for free.

Oh, the Woolston ferry, it doesn't travel very fast,
It was never built for comfort, it was built to last.

The ferry todayEdit

The last surviving ferry is in the Elephant Boatyard in Bursledon, serving as the popular Ferry Restaurant on the River Hamble.

See alsoEdit

  • L.S.Lowry The artist visited Southampton when visiting his friend and fellow artist Hilda Margery Clarke and painted the bridge. The painting is now part of the collection in the Southampton Guildhall Art Gallery.


  1. ^ a b c Port cities website- Southampton floating bridge
  2. ^ Southampton. A pictorial peep into the past, Southern Newspapers Ltd 1980
  3. ^ Southampton Echo, June 1977
  4. ^ The Illustrated History of Southampton's Suburbs. Jim Brown. 2004. ISBN 1-85983-405-1.
  5. ^ Farewell to the Floating Bridges. SCT & SUIAG. 1977
  6. ^ a b c d Patterson, A. Temple (1966). A History of Southampton 1700–1914 Vol.I An Oligarchy in Decline 1700–1835. The University of Southampton. pp. 169–171. 
  7. ^ a b Southampton. A pictorial peep into the past. Southern Newspapers Ltd. 1980
  8. ^ Farewell to the Floating Bridges. SCT & SUIAG. 1977
  9. ^ Farewell to the Floating Bridges. SCT & SUIAG. 1977
  10. ^ Farewell to the Floating Bridges. SCT & SUIAG. 1977
  11. ^ South Coast Railways – Portsmouth to Southampton. Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith. ISBN 0-906520-31-2
  12. ^ Southampton Art Gallery
  13. ^ a b c Southampton. A pictorial peep into the past. Southern Newspapers Ltd 1980
  14. ^ a b c d e f The changing face of Hedge End. Joyce B Blyth
  15. ^ Forest Tracks – WOOLSTON FERRY/BACK IN SOUTHAMPTON Gutta Percha & The Balladeers FT CDS1 Bespoke CD-R
  16. ^ The Woolston Ferry Song

External linksEdit