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Updated:  31 March 2012 

In January 1790, in the reign of King George III, the Carew and Saint Aubyn families obtained an Act of Parliament for a ferry from Torpoint to Morice Town on the Devon shore.  It started operating the following year and was soon named the New Passage to distinguish it from the Saltash ferry upstream.

One of the earliest of the Torpoint Ferries, with the engine room in the centre.

One of the earliest of the Torpoint Ferries, with the engine room in the centre.
From a postcard.

It became so popular that the carriage of the Royal Mail was transferred to it from the older ferry crossing.   At that time the ferry operated from 4am until 10pm from 24 March to 29 September, with reduced hours for the remainder of the year.

It was operated by rowing boats until 1829 when a steamboat modelled on one that had been introduced at Dundee in Scotland was introduced but this proved short-lived as it was found that it could not cope with the strong tides found in the Hamoaze.  The plan was then changed to installing a chain driven floating bridge similar to one that had been started at Gosport, in Hampshire, some years earlier.

Horses and carts coming off the ferry from Torpoint.

Horses and carts coming off the ferry from Torpoint.
From a postcard.

The width of the Hamoaze at the point where the ferry was to be established was stated to be 2,550 feet at high water or 2,110 feet at low water.  The greatest depth at high water was 96 feet but only 78 feet at low water.   The course had to be directly across the river because of the moorings for the men-of-war.

Torpoint Ferry.

From a postcard.

Mr James Meadows Rendel was invited to design the vessel and in April 1834 it was installed.  It was flat-bottomed, of wooden construction and almost as wide as it was long.  The hull was divided in to three sections, the central one for the machinery and the two on either side for carriages and general traffic, each being capable of taking two 4-horse coaches, for which the charge was five shillings (25p) each.  These two side sections were apparently raised some 2 feet 6 inches above the line of floatation and access to them was by means of drawbridges at either end.  It was powered by two small condensing steam engines, each having a cylinder of 19 inch diameter and 2 feet 6 inch stroke.  They worked at a boiler pressure of 3 lbs per inch and the average speed was 35 strokes per minute.  The steam engines drove the cast-iron wheels upon which the two guiding chains rested.   By this means the vessel was hauled across the Hamoaze.  It was reckoned that the breadth of the vessel ensured stability to such an extent that motion was almost indiscernible, thus preventing even the shyest of horses from being frightened.

To prevent the chains becoming so tight as to interrupt navigation of the harbour or to endanger their breaking, the ends of the chains were not moored to the shore but hung in shafts and heavy weights fixed to the ends.

Dockyard workers pouring off the 12.30 lunchtime ferry at Torpoint.

Dockyard workers pouring off the 12.30 lunchtime ferry at Torpoint.
From a postcard.

On May 1st 1871 work started on replacing it with a brand new one.  The hull was built by Messrs Hocking at Stonehouse while the engines and chains were constructed by Messrs Willoughby Brothers of Plymouth.  Built of iron, it was 58 feet long by 46 feet wide amidships and 41 feet at each end.   Like its predecessor it had three sections, the central one  containing the machinery.  Unlike the previous vessel, the central section, which was constructed of timber, also included two saloons and accommodation for the crew and firemen.  From the smaller saloon, steps led up to the roof of the deck-house, where passengers could sit outside.  One novel feature was that the doors to the saloons were folding ones.   The draw-bridges, at 31 feet in length, were much longer than on the previous vessel.

Power was supplied by means of two horizontal, high-pressure, condensing engines with 14 inch diameter cylinders and a 2 feet 4 inch stroke.  The steam was supplied by  two multitubular boilers.  The vessel can be identified by its single, very tall, funnel.  The hull was launched in July 1871 and was taken around to Messrs Willoughby's in the Great Western Docks to be fitted out.

A new additional floating bridge was brought in to service at Mid-day on Saturday October 26th 1878.  Within the higher, central structure were two cabins for passengers, one at each end, and a separate one for the crew.  Two flights of stairs led to an upper deck furnished with what were described as 'ornamental iron garden seats'.  There were two funnels instead of one as on the 1871 ferry.  Great improvements had been made in the lifting of the prows but the lifting was still done by manual labour rather than power from the engines.

Shorts and shirt-sleeves indicate this is a summer's day picture of the Torpoint Ferry.

Shorts and shirt-sleeves indicate this is a
summer's day picture of the Torpoint Ferry.
From a postcard.

Unfortunately the chains on which the ferry worked were not tight enough on the first day and this caused it to swerve around a bit.   In the evening, on an ebb tide, it swayed a bit too much when in mid stream and hit the older ferry as they were passing.  It was considered that this was in retribution for the fact that during a recent gale the old ferry had hit the new one while it was moored on the slipway but not in service.  The old ferry was slightly damaged and brought to a standstill, causing much excitement among those on board.  Once steam was renewed normal service was resumed and the chains on the new one were tightened.

The chains that operated the ferry often attracted the of attention of children.  On Friday December 26th 1884 a six-year-old Devonport boy by the name of Master Alfred Philip Cheek was sitting on the beach below the ferry tank at New Passage, resting his feet on the chains.  When the heel of his boot became entangled in the chain, his leg was slowly drawn into the aperture causing him to scream with pain.  Some bystanders managed to signal to the ferry captain, who was in mid stream, and he stopped and reversed the bridge to enable the boy to be extricated.   He was rushed to the Royal Albert Hospital where, although his leg was badly damaged, it was decided not to amputate.   Sadly his condition got worse and he died on Sunday December 28th 1884.

On Wednesday September 5th 1917 passage on the Torpoint and Saltash ferries was made free for servicemen and nurses in uniform but not on duty.

In November 1922 the Torpoint Ferry was acquired by Cornwall County Council under the provisions of the Ferries (Acquisition by Local Authorities) Act 1919, which received the Royal Assent on December 23rd 1919.

A peaceful scene at the Torpoint Ferry.

A peaceful scene at the Torpoint Ferry.
Note the old ferry buildings on the Torpoint side.

By April 1930 work on extending the beaches in order to take two ferries was well underway.  On the Devonport side the boathouse of the Royal naval Engineering College had been demolished and the foundations removed.  One of the 18-ton chains had been delivered, having been sent by the manufacturers, Messrs Jones and Lloyd, of Cradley, Staffordshire, by rail to Saint German's Station.  It was hauled from there to Torpoint by steam tractor.  The new steel gantries for the beaches were ready for delivery.  [a]

It is worth recording that at that time school children from Torpoint apparently had to attend secondary school at Saltash.  Torpoint Urban District Council approached the Cornwall Local Education Authority to ask for free transport for the children across the Ferry.  They were allowed an annual period ticket, normally 1 1s, for ten shillings, of which the Education Authority then paid half.  It is not recorded how the children made their way to Saltash: tram or motor bus and Saltash Ferry or by rail from Devonport Station to Saltash Station.  [a]

On Friday July 1st 1932 two ferries were put into operation on a permanent basis and the steam launch "Lady Beatrice" was withdrawn.  It had provided a service for foot passengers only.  The first ferry then left Torpoint at 5.30am and ran a half-hourly service until 7.45am when the second ferry started.  They then maintained a 15-minute service finishing with the 9.45pm from Torpoint, which returned at 10pm from Devonport.  the remaining ferry then ran every half-hour until 11.45pm from Torpoint and 12 Midnight from Devonport.  The first ferry on a Sunday departed at 7am and both ferries ran all day until the end of September 1932.

A night ferry service was introduced in 1946. [b]

Torpoint ferry in February 1966. The same ferry landing its foot passengers first.

The Torpoint Ferry arriving at Devonport on a windy day
in February 1966.
  Brian Moseley.

The same ferry landing its foot passengers first at Devonport.
  Brian Moseley

After thirty-six years as manager of the Torpoint Ferry, 65-years-old Mr Thomas Percy Endean retired on November 30th 1956.  He joined the Ferry in December 1920 when it was 'a veritable scrapheap' he said.  The bottoms of the ferries were filled with concrete to keep the water out but on one occasion a motor coach went through the decking.  In the early days cattle and sheep were still moved to Plymouth Cattle Market "on the hoof" (Devonport did not have a cattle market) and he recalled witnessing teams of six or eight horses hauling huge metal plates for the construction of the Admiralty oil tanks at Thanckes.  But his most vivid memory was of the time a female elephant from a travelling menagerie fell into the river in mid stream.  When it finally got to the shore its mate bellowed such a loud welcome that the noise sent the crowds scattering.  [b]

Mr Endean designed new ferries himself, as well as the new offices, waiting-rooms, and workshops.  [b]

Until recently the service was operated by three chain ferries (or "floating bridges"), all installed in the 1960s and named after the local rivers, Tamar, Tavy and Lynher (pronounced "line-er").

A new generation of floating bridges is now in operation.  The first, named the "Plym II", arrived in December 2004.  Costing 5 million apiece, the ferries are the same length as the existing ones but two metres wider.  They have six lanes of vehicles instead of four and thus can carry 73 cars compared to 56.  The two extra-wide centre lanes can take lorries of up to 44 tonnes.

The three ferries have been built by Ferguson Shipbuilders Ltd at Port Glasgow on the river Clyde.  Other features are that the controller gets no exercise running from one end of the vessel to the other when it changes direction because there is only one, central control room, and there is a huge searchlight for finding people who fall overboard in the dark.

Continuing the river names theme, the other two ferries are named "Tamar II" and "Lynher II".

Sources (incomplete):

[a]  "Second Torpoint Ferry: Work of Preparing the Beaches", Western Morning News, Plymouth, April 20th 1930.

[b]  "Memories of Torpoint Ferry Chief: When Elephant Fell Overboard", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, November 21st 1956.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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