The White Rock Ferry, its Ferrymen and Customers

Remarkably despite the substantial metal and mineral enterprise built upon and alongside the River Tawe in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a harbour and fixed crossing at the mouth of the river was not constructed until 1850. The wealth and influence of entrepreneurs such as the Vivian’s had to contend with established landed interest which remained unconvinced that the fortunes of Swansea lay in industry rather than that of a fashionable resort.

Photo #1 Town ferry from east side of the river. WGAS

The New Cut development saw the construction of the first bridge across the Tawe below Wychtree, Morriston and made redundant (compulsorily) the town ferry, (operating near the Sainsbury store car park), in an area which had become known as Ferryside.

For centuries travellers had used fords at low tide, at the mouth of the river and further upstream. These means of crossing were unpredictable and precarious. In the absence of a bridge, a ferry boat available at different tide levels, however uncomfortable and with a ferryman to be paid, would provide a drier and somewhat safer alternative.

A ford was in use at White Rock at a point in the river where at low tide it was possible to walk between White Rock and the lower Hafod.

George Clarke, “… where men worked …”

White Rock Origins

Although not the first Copper works in the town the White Rock Works established in 1736 marked a significant early stage in the growth, scale and development of Copper Smelting in Swansea.

“In each of the years from the 1750’s at least until the 1770’s the firm of John Freeman and Copper Co. operating at White Rock was one of the four largest purchasers of copper ore in Cornwall and occasionally the largest.” “By 1830s 1/5th or 1/6th largest producer of Copper in Britain.” ‘The White Rock Copper and Brass Works, near Swansea 1736-1806’. R.O. Roberts Glamorgan Historian Vol. 12 pp136.

Photo #2 White Rock Works before reclamation.  Crown Copyright

The level of activity and employment at White Rock for a week in September 1771 is fully described in an Account prepared by John Phillips who managed  the works. In the early years the operation was managed jointly or by assistants on behalf of the owners. John Phillips had followed on from his father Richard Phillips, a Cornishman:-

Weekly Account   20th to 27th September 1771

“We have this day at work 6 calciners on ore and 6 on metal, 10 furnaces on ore and 3 on metal, 12 on slag and 6 wasting(sic) … 43 in all …”

Photo # 3 Down river from White Rock ferry access

It would not be surprising to find a ferry in operation however intermittent, in the late 18th century, given the activity at White Rock. A ford was certainly in use.

The crossing appears to have been one of the narrowest points on the river and whereas the navigability of the River Tawe through to Morriston was a most critical element in the growth of the coal and metals industry in the Swansea Valley, in part at the expense of the River Neath, navigation was difficult for anything other than small vessels because of the silting up of the river.

Photo  #4 Illustration of narrowing of river WGAS

Along with the dumping of ballast, contamination of the land allowed debris to be washed down from the barren hillsides. “The partial silting up of the river and the formation of paddocks continued to be a source of great expense to the Swansea Harbour Trustees and a full report on the subject by Mr Edward Martin and Mr William Bevan is entered in these minutes on the 12th December 1803. (Fig. (i)  Swansea Harbour Trustees meeting 12th December 1803). The co-author of this Survey of The River Tawe commissioned by the Swansea Harbour Trust proposed also “the removal of paddocks from White Rock ford to Landwr (sic) for 7d a yard…” The report includes measurement of the silt material along the river with location, including 600 cubic yards on the Hafod side of White Rock Ferry.

Fig (i)

Extract pp88-89; 99  “History of the Port of Swansea” by William Henry Jones, Hon. Archivist of the Corporation of Swansea 1922.

The Height of Copper

“In the early nineteenth century Swansea became one of the great metallurgical centres of Europe and the growth and development of modern industrial Swansea was closely linked with the growth of the copper trade. The population grew apace-from a little over 6,000 in 1801 to 40,000 in 1851. Even more striking was the development of Swansea shipping. In 1814 only four vessels traded out of Swansea to foreign ports. By 1849 the figure was 771-mainly engaged in the copper trade. “Dr Muriel E. Chamberlain, ‘The Grenfells of Kilvey’, The Glamorgan Historian Volume 9, p 128

Photo # 5 River Tawe  1850

Following this growth White Rock Works was to sit amongst significant further operations including those developed by Pascoe Grenfell and successors  at Middle and Upper Bank on the east Side,  and Vivian & Sons  at the Hafod Works and Foster and Williams at the Morfa Works on the west side. This growth in scale and output required worker accommodation on both sides of the river including in time that provided by owners at Trevivian and Grenfell Town. However in the earliest days employees at White Rock, Foxhole  would have had little choice in terms of accommodation, sharing a few existing larger properties e.g. White Rock House and occupying poorly constructed cottages on the river side.

Fig (ii) Extract Ordnance Survey 1879 Published WGAS 1997

“From the latter part of the eighteenth century onwards, as the population and general prosperity of the Swansea area increased, so too did the number of immigrants, most of whom came from the rural hamlets and farms of West Wales … They all brought with them to their new surroundings, however, the language, customs and religious beliefs and traditions of the districts they had left behind.“

“The Stairway to Cefn; A step by step account of the Baptist cause in Bonymaen. Nance Keevil and Philippa Grove (2000) p17

“For those Baptists living on the east bank of the Tawe, around Foxhole and Pentrechwyth, … ”Back Lane” was the most convenient house of worship, the nearest other Baptist meeting –houses being at Llangyfelach and Neath, The journey to Back Lane however, (opened 1788, and situated near present day Orchard Street) involved an often perilous fording of the river. The Tawe was subject to strong tidal currents as far upstream as Morriston. Further difficulties were banks of stones and gravel washed down from the slopes of Kilvey by heavy rains, and separated from each other by several deep and treacherous channels. Nevertheless, there were many who were prepared in all weathers and at all times of the year to face the hazards of floods and high tides in order to attend services at Back Lane, both on Sundays and midweek. For a small payment they could avail themselves of a ferry boat, though this method of crossing, too, was not without its dangers, and over the years many are known to have lost their lives during the attempt.” Ibid p63

Tabernacle Baptist Chapel opened at White Rock, Foxhole in 1829 providing a local east side meeting place for Baptists. Canaan Congregational Chapel opened on Pentreguinea Road in 1839. All Saints Parish Church, Kilvey was built in 1843.

The First Ferry

Photo #6       Ferry boat and passengers White Rock

George Clarke, “… ferry boat to town …”

Whatever the demand for a ferry crossing may have been in the last quarter of the 18th century, a ferry is not marked on …

“The Plan of the River Swansey (sic) in Glamorganshire taken in 1771 by B. Jones”

(ibid History of the Port of Swansea)

A ferry is known to have been worked near the Cambrian Pottery until the closure in 1870. Comments attributed to family member Mrs Alma Rice suggest that this ferry on closure was moved northwards to White Rock, by the Owens family (fig (iv). This may however have been a reference to the acquisition of the vessel itself.

An additional ferry crossing was introduced much later by the Vivian’s linking their interests at Hafod Copper Works and the White Rock Lead and Sliver Works which they developed, firstly sharing White Rock with Williams and Foster and then taking full ownership from 1871. The steps leading to the river below the Hafod wharf and V&S Engine shed are visible today. It is not clear how well the crossing was used but given the effort expended to keep production techniques secret, general access would presumably have been prevented.

Photo # 7 Vivian Shed steps

The Ferry Families

Richard Owens had a long association with the works at White Rock and lived close to the river. At the time of his death he was employed as an “Agent”, managing some aspect of the operation and may have reached an arrangement with his employers for the operation of a ferry

“ 3rd March 1854, aged 56  Mr Richard Owens, agent White Rock, deeply regretted by a large circle of friends and acquaintances. For a period of 48 (sic) years he was in the employ of Messrs Wm Freeman and Co. He was a truly faithful and upright man.”   ‘The Cambrian’   3rd March 1854’

John Freeman Copper Co. at White Rock was sold to Vivian and Sons (Hafod) and Williams Foster & Co. (Morfa) in June 1858.

“Sale of everything….whole of the White Rock Copper Works situated at Swansea…………………and the houses and cottages thereon with the rights of Ferry across the river…………….Sold for £36,000 and value of ores and copper on day handed over…………….”  Extract Conveyance dated 12th June 1858   Richard Burton Archives Swansea University LAC/122/C22

To have gained the rights of ferry it might be assumed that John Freeman or predecessors paid easement to the Beaufort estate for the privilege and would not have done so if they had neither intended at some point to install a ferry nor thwart another attempt?   (N.B Soil in tidal rivers up to high water mark presumptively belongs to the Crown. These rights were vested in the Duke of Beaufort as Lord of the Manor.)

Fig:  (iii) The early White Rock Ferrymen

On the west side of the river in the later 18th century the ferry crossing[SS66251:BNG94505] was by a series of wooden steps and walkways down the river bank via Maliphant Street from Neath Road, Hafod, under the South Wales Railway (GWR) across the Swansea Canal, and over Vivian land outside their Works boundary.

Photo # 8  Maliphant Street

George Clarke, “… a halfpenny fare …”

Access to the White Rock Ferry on the East side of the river [SS66296:BNG94532] was within the White Rock Estate but outside the Works boundary.

Photo  #  9 White Rock ferry access point

George Clarke, “… on pollution …”

The ferry operated on behalf of the White Rock Estate (originally John Freeman and Copper co.) was controlled from the East side and sculled with one oar at the stern of a flat bottomed boat . The boat itself passed from operator to operator, and from the mid nineteenth century onwards just two families were involved in managing the service until 1942.

++TH01-1f++ ???
The ferry would be propelled during flood water conditions by use of a “fresh wire” fixed winched rope with the bow kept into the current for security of passage. The mood of the river is much more predictable since the construction of the barrage in 1992. Traditional crossing on a flood tide required skill, experience and a good knowledge of the river.

George Clarke, “… on river in flood …”

The service while primarily timed to serve workers from both sides offered other passengers a shorter route to access the town and continued to provide this service well after closure of White Rock Works in 1924.

Known Ferry Operators on behalf of the White Rock Works/Estate:

Fig:  (iv) The last White Rock Ferrymen

Photo #  10 David Clarke and son David Clarke

Photo # 11 George Clarke

Photo # 12 Mrs Olive Clarke

The Ferry in the 19th Century

A threat to the established White Rock ferry arose in 1901 when Swansea Corporation proposed the construction of a two span swing footbridge across the river almost exactly where the White Rock ferry was worked,  “to replace the inconvenient and dangerous ferry”. (Ibid W.H. Jones)

Photo # 13 Heavily laden ferry on Hafod side

In 1901 the Solicitors Strick Bellingham and Hanson of Swansea who acted on behalf of the Vivian family for many years wrote to Charles Eden Manager of the Vivian Copper Works concerning the origin of the White Rock ferry.

“There is no reference to a Ferry in the title deeds before 1858 but in the Agreement for purchase of the White Rock property in that year by yourselves and Messrs Williams Foster and Co. from John Freeman and Copper Co. the words “with the rights of ferry across river appear”.

Richard Burton Archives Swansea University     LAC/126/K1

In addition: “We have ascertained that about two years after the Swansea Harbour Act 1854 was passed the Trustees summoned a man for keeping the  ferry but as he proved that he had exercised the right for about 15 years the Summons was not proceeded with.”  Richard Burton Archives Swansea University LAC/126/K1

{Charles Hamilton Eden (1855-1921) a mining Engineer from Durham and executor to the will of Graham Vivian, became General Manager  of the Vivian  Smelting, Manufacturing (Metal)and Collieries. His grandson Robert Eden married Rosemary Vivian, daughter of Odo Richard Vivian 3rd Baron of Singleton.}

The bridge was not built. Ostensibly the argument between the Corporation and Vivian and Sons concerned the access to a bridge rather than the bridge itself although the latter estate was keen to value the ferry as an asset to assist any subsequent claim for compensation.

Photo  # 14 Ferry c 1880

Ferry Economics

White Rock Ferry Evaluation:

One week of observation (Strick Bellingham & Hanson) in May 1889:-

  • 724 persons on average used the ferry per day reckoning both ways.
  • 362 persons going to and fro.
  • Majority pay 3d per week.
  • Free passage for family of workers conveying food to works.
  • Allowing 54 free passages per day, 302 paying 3d per week = £200pa gross revenue.
  • Vessels passing the ferry to and from Hafod Phosphate Works; The White Rock Works; the Alkali Works; the Copper Works etc. is about 150 p.a. which would require a bridge to be opened 300 times in the year.

Mr John W. Bevan replied on 7th February 1902 to the Hon. Odo Vivian about the “privileges enjoyed by our workmen over the present ferry” confirming the fare at 3d per week and that “..I believe that anyone can cross the ferry as many times per day as they like for 1/2d so that the 3d per week is not really a privilege.” Richard Burton Archives Swansea University  LAC/126/K1

White Rock Lead Works, in 1901, was managed by John W. Bevan born in Redruth, Cornwall.

More on the Ferry Families

The Owens, Leyshon, Price family and the Clarkes who followed them were born in Llansamlet and lived in White Rock within yards of each other as did the other ferrymen who worked for them. Rows of cottages, most cleared before WW2, are included in the progress (not necessarily in a straight line!!)  of the 1901 census enumerator:

In 1881 ‘Bachelors Hall’ and ‘House of Content ‘ accommodated workers!!! At times, tenants occupied White Rock House and the boathouse itself.

Lambert Noel, “… on keeping pigs and chickens …”

The cottages in Samlet Row, Foxhole, in particular, built into the hillside alongside Pentreguinea Road, and immediately above the ferry access became home for generations of ferrymen.

Photo #  15  Ferry and boat house from west side

The Boat House housed spare oars and equipment. An oar would bend in use over time and bricks were kept in the boathouse to weight down and straighten the oar soaked in water. The left side of the boathouse served as a lodge where tea was brewed and passengers could wait and chat and local schoolboys would congregate and offer to man the ferry in calm conditions.

Photo  # 16 Boy sculling ferry boat

Mr Nathaniel, “… taken from school to work on the canal …”

Ferryboat men were well placed to maintain a source of local gossip and news becoming well known to those crossing for work or otherwise.

George Clarke, “Tugs on a busy river”


20th November 1908.

“At Swansea County Court, on Monday, J. Augustus Mutfley, Earl-street, Hafod, furnaceman, White Rock Silver Works, claimed from John Llewellyn, ferry boatman, on the Tawe, £50 for injuries caused through falling from the landing-stage. Mr T. R. Harris was for plaintiff; Mr S. Andrews defended. Plaintiff said on returning from work the landing-stage at the ferry overturned owing to the “dogs” not having been fastened. He fell, dislocated his shoulder, and bruised his arm. He was compelled to cease work for eight weeks. His wages averaged £2 a week. His tin was smashed and his clothes damaged. Defendant admitted he was in fault for not having the landing-stage properly fixed, and offered him £12.

Defendant agreed to meet him and his solicitor on July 13th, but failed to turn up. Mr Andrews produced a model of the landing-stage, or, as he preferred to call it, “little plank.” Plaintiff admitted that no part of the landing-stage had been missing or out of repair. The usual method of getting off the boat was not to use the landing-stage at all. It was only recently the stage had been introduced. No stage was used now. Mr Andrews: Where is it? You didn’t take it away. did you? Plaintiff I haven’t seen any stage there since I fell. Defence was that suggested by the admissions of last witnesses for plaintiff, viz., that the landing-stage was not ordinarily used except at quite low water. On the occasion in question the stage was thrown on one side and there was no occasion for plaintiff to have used it. Judgment was given for plaintiff for £14- —costs to follow.”

(The Cambrian  1908)

Photo  #  17 Ferryman and ferryboat and reserve boat.

“A cold coming we had of it” (T.S. Eliot)”

Securing coal stocks was a problem in each generation. On 30th September  1771 John Phillips Manager at White Rock commented to the owners in his weekly statement of accounts that: “Mr Townsend would not suffer any Coal to be put in the old coalyard, if he could possibly prevent it.—I remember about 50 weys there, which when shipped, was 5 weys short—and when the big coal is stolen, the small will be very unfit for our purpose …”

Richard Burton Archives Swansea University  LAC/122/C7

“Wife of respectable White Rock Ferryman imprisoned for theft of coal from Vivian & Sons yard.”

William Livingston originally from Haverfordwest was employed by the Owens/Leyshons as ferryman at White Rock lodging with various members of the family. His wife Margaret from Mold in Flintshire was apprehended, carrying a young child, in January 1877, attempting to steal coal from the Vivian Yard at White Rock. Mrs Livingstone was jailed for 10 days at the Swansea Assizes on 16th March 1877 for stealing coal. On 27th September 1878 Mrs Livingstone appeared in court again accused of being abusive towards her husband. (The Cambrian  1877/78)

The couple do not appear to have been reconciled. William continued to work the ferry and Margaret resumed her maiden name Edwards and returned to her parents in Mold.

In the early 1930’s “local boys would ride upon laden railway coal wagons through Foxhole and drop off coal to houses on the way down”.

(Ken Frederickson Oral History WGAS Nov 2013)

Ken Frederickson Oct 2013  Boys riding coal wagons

The Clarkes, Owens and Leyshons

George and Olive Clarke regaled (Oral History TH01 WGAS 1975) about characters using the boat including regular Saturday drunken passengers who often adopted risky manoeuvres to avoid the fare. They describe a lady known as “Becca Pee” who used the ferry to convey quantities of urine collected from local cottages, and which could be sold at the copper works for use in bringing out the patina on copper plate. In later years a certain young Dylan Thomas made his mark upon them. Dylan crossed to attend Sunday School at Canaan Chapel Foxhole. His mother Florence was the daughter of George Williams an Inspector with the GWR, and living in Delhi Street St. Thomas. Mr Williams was a deacon of Canaan Chapel. The Clarke’s comment on a mischievous boy being required to leave chapel services by his grandfather, but also that riding the ferry allowed the writer to note sayings and mannerisms of fellow passengers!

Olive Clarke, “On Dylan Thomas”

George and Olive Clarke regaled (Oral History TH01 WGAS 1975) about characters using the boat including regular Saturday drunken passengers who often adopted risky manoeuvres to avoid the fare. They describe a lady known as “Becca Pee” who used the ferry to convey quantities of urine collected from local cottages, and which could be sold at the copper works for use in bringing out the patina on copper plate. In later years a certain young Dylan Thomas made his mark upon them. Dylan crossed to attend Sunday School at Canaan Chapel Foxhole. His mother Florence was the daughter of George Williams an Inspector with the GWR, and living in Delhi Street St. Thomas. Mr Williams was a deacon of Canaan Chapel. The Clarke’s comment on a mischievous boy being required to leave chapel services by his grandfather, but also that riding the ferry allowed the writer to note sayings and mannerisms of fellow passengers!  TH01-2a  Olive Clarke On Dylan Thomas

(The Clarke family reckoned to have operated the ferry for 54 years to 1942.(sic)  WGAS Oral History THO1 (1975)   In the 1891 census the first named member of the family, John Llewellyn Clarke is listed as a General Labourer. David Leyshon continues listed as responsible for the White Rock Ferry in an Agreement with the White Rock Estate dated November 1897 and paying a half share rent of £90 pa to the  Estate in 1904 and 1905. Richard Burton Archives Swansea University   LAC 126/K1

Ken Frederickson, sculled the ferry as a boy, on behalf of his grandfather, David Clarke and Uncle George Clarke. (Oral History Nov 2013 WGAS)

In later years the Owen/Leyshon and Clarke families were linked in friendship, through Mrs Alma Rice, [2nd r front row] neighbour of the Clarke family in Grenfell Park. Mrs Rice (great, great granddaughter of Mary Owens, ferry proprietress in 1851) joined with the Clarke family in celebrating Maria Clarke’s [3rd l front] 80th birthday.

Photo # 18    The Clarke family 1961

The Clarkes moved to a recently built house in Windmill Terrace , Grenfell Park, in 1922 and new tennants appeared in Samlet Row, (known locally, also, as ‘The Quarry Cottages’). Doris Weaver, of one family lived in Samlet Row for twenty years  until her marriage in 1946, and undertook war service welding Jerry Cans (fuel cans) across the river at the Richard Thomas & Co. Cwmfelin Works, becoming a supervisor and earning £3.10.0 a week. Doris used the White Rock ferry on her journey to and from work, 2d return fare.

(Oral History White Rock Trails , Mrs. J WGAS  Oct 2013)

Photo #  19 Welding Jerry Can

Oct 2013 Mrs. J  on welding Jerry Cans

The Ferry Closes

The White Rock Ferry closed in 1945. By that time the Corporation of Swansea had taken ownership from LMS railway and in the final years relied upon dock workers to skull the boat. On Christmas Eve 1942, on a stormy night, Arthur Rees, 14 year old apprentice at Aeron Thomas Timber yard fell from the ferry, when the boat was being worked on the fresh wire, and drowned. George Clarke on leave from war service was asked to locate the body. (Olive Clarke Oral History 1995) and (Swansea Museum Service Lower Swansea Valley Factsheet 1)

“The difficulties and dangers of the ferry can scarcely be appreciated in these days of bridges and it is hoped ere long the surviving ferry from Pentrechwyth to Hafod will be abolished in favour of a bridge.”
W.H. Jones History of the Port of Swansea (1922) p.189

The White Rock road and pedestrian bridge was opened in 2005.

Photo  # 20 White Rock Bridge

Tudor and Janet Price    November 2013


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