Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:23 pm

A source of irritation for people who want a fixed bridge, of amusement for those who think it an anachronism, and of good service to ever-increasing numbers, the Cowes to East Cowes Floating Bridge is as much a part of the Cowes waterfront’s tradition as are H.M. Customs launch or the Cowes Pontoon.

In his book, Joys of Life, Uffa Fox has recounted how Mr John Roberton of East Cowes, for his ingenuity in helping the Governor of the Isle of Wight to cross the Medina on horseback and thus win a wager for riding round the Island without dismounting, was granted the first ferry rights. Roberton, we are told, lashed two rowing-boats stern to stern; the horse was induced to put its forefeet in one of them and its hind legs in the other. The boats were then rowed across the river with the rider still in the saddle.

Thanks to the courtesy of the current (at the time of writing) Ferry Manager, Mr Norman Green, I have information that, in 1859, the rights held by Mr Roberton were sold to the Floating Bridge Company who kept them until 1868 when they were bought by the Southampton and Isle of Wight Team Packet Company.

Uffa Fox has told us also that Roberton’s interest was exchanged for a pension; William Hillyer, a clerk for Bannister’s Rope Works, having annually to collect from the Rev. Rowland Prothero a certificate to confirm the pensioner was still alive.

It is recorded that Queen Victoria, having been kept waiting, requested the local councils to acquire the rights and thus control the ferry. In 1901 an Act of Parliament enabled this to be effected, authority remaining with the East and West Cowes Councils until 1972 when it was taken over by the Isle of Wight County Council.

From Miss K.M. Hollis, of East Cowes, I received some interesting notes concerning her grandfather, Mr Henry Hollis, who could remember when Queen Victoria resided at Norris Castle, and who often helped the Royal Family’s nurse to put her young charges aboard the boat which plied between Cowes and East Cowes. Contained in Harry Guy’s biography, Memories of a Cowes-born Lad, there is a reference to horse-boats for vehicles and rowing-boats for pedestrians – these being the monopoly of the Hollis family.

Another piece of information in the same book tells us that the first floating bridge was built by Messrs Hodgkinson & Co. of Southampton – presumably around 1860. This vessel, later known as the Winter Bridge, was the first of four steam-driven bridges; the second and third being built by Messrs William White & Co. in 1896 and 1909, and the fourth in 1925 by Messrs J. S. White & Co.

Following the above, two diesel-electric bridges were ordered: the first in 1936 from J. S. White & Co., the second from J. Bolson & Co. of Poole in 1952.

Date built   Price        Date sold      Selling price
1909          £3,200     1936             £240
1925          £8,426     1952
1936          £12,000
1952          £26,530

The first and second bridges were sold for £100 and £150 respectively, the latter being purchased by Uffa Fox, who converted it into a combined dwelling and factory. In Joys of Life Uffa has stated that he bought the last steam-driven floating bridge. This is incorrect. After his, which was called the Summer Bridge, there were two more. In the chapter describing his Medina-based floating home, he has praised for its longevity iron of which it is made. Steel, in his opinion, would have lasted not more than forty years.

With great skill, Uffa utilised the original design to ensure utility and comfort; his drawing-office occupying what was the engine-room, and the former boiler-room being used as a spare bedroom and bathroom. A door from the Empress Eugenie’s yacht was fitted to separate the drawing-office from the workshop. Tanks collected rainwater which was used for all purposes.

With his living accommodation panelled in light oak, Uffa was able to live under conditions he considered to be ideal. He could work at all hours and, by stepping ashore, he could use his twelve-bore while enjoying the rural beauty of his surroundings. And he paid no rates, for when pestered by tax demands, Uffa so confused H.M.’s collectors by moving his home into different parishes, i.e. Whippingham, East Cowes, Northwood, and Cowes, that in the end he paid nothing.

The seventh floating bridge was constructed at the East Cowes works of Messrs Fairey Marine Ltd, from whose records comes the following data:

Overall length: 110 ft.
Length of pontoon: 87 ft 6 in.
Overall breadth: 42 ft.
Draught loaded: 4 ft 6 in.
Dead weight: 65 tons.

The prows and ramps were raised and lowered by hydraulic cylinders. The hydraulic circuits were designed to permit the prows and ramps to float when they were in the down position and to lock in the closed position. The hydraulic pumps were driven by the main engines at a normal operational speed of 1500 rpm. Propulsion was effected by two Caterpillar D330 four-cylinder diesel engines, and the electrical supply was provided by 3kW generators, each driven by the main engines.

Whilst regretting the disappearance of the steam-engine (always a fascinating sight), one realises the advantages of replacing it with a diesel-electric propulsion unit. Many years ago the saving in fuel alone stood at £200 a month; the price of coal being £300 against a monthly total of £100 for fuel oil, although the economics may be somewhat debatable nowadays.

For any reader interested in statistics, those given below relate to the last steam-driven floating bridge:

Indicated horse-power: 25
Revolutions per minute: 40
Working pressure: 100 pounds per square inch.
Speed: 2.5 miles per hour.
Chain speed: 220 feet per minute.
Size of main shaft: 5 inches diameter.
Size of crankshaft: 4 inches diameter.
Sizes of cylinders: 9.5 inches and 18 inches diameter.
Length of stroke: 18 inches.

With the bridge nowadays operating between 05.00 and 00.10, making on average 220 crossings per day, it is inevitable that so much starting and stopping will result in costly maintenance. The life of a pair of chains, for instance, was only three years. These, in 1936, could be replaced for £178. At the time when Mr Green’s notes were compiled they were costed at £1,248.

In the early days foot passengers were charged ½d during the day and 1d after 9 pm. A weekly ticket cost 6d. For a motor car or horse-drawn trap the toll was 6d. Nowadays foot passengers travel free, with vehicles paying between £1.30 and £3.05.

The number of pedestrians carried in 1901 was 1,674,355. By 1974 the total had risen to 2,000,000. Of greater significance, however, are the figures for vehicles, which for the same years were 23,702 and 366,228 respectively. A far cry from the day John Roberton conjoined two rowing-boats.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

  • - Church News
  • - Church Diary
  • - Church Diary (past)
  • - Parish Church Officers
  • - Burial Database
  • - Church History
  • - Church Photo Gallery
  • - Parish History
  • - Northwood Clergy
  • - Parish Map
  • - Church Web Links
  • - Northwood News
  • - Friends of Northwood Church

  • - Village Forum
  • - Northwood Village Map
  • - Village News
  • - Village Diary
  • - Village Diary (past)
  • - Village History
  • - Local I.W. Councillor
  • - Village Photo Gallery
  • - Village People
  • - Natural History
  • - Local Links
  • - Community Partnership
  • - Local Groups and Clubs

    Parish Council
  • - Parish Council Diary
  • - Parish Council Diary (past)
  • - Parish Council News
  • - Parish Plan