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Click on the photo above to enlarge. Photo kindly provided by Wouldham Parish Council.
Written and credited to Peter Cook of the Kent Messenger, published on Friday 4th December 2009
CROSSING the Medway, before the days of the motor car, could be fraught with difficulty. There are bridges at Rochester and Aylesford, but nothing in between.
People who lived in villages along the River relied on ferries to save the arduous trudge round. These were nothing more than large rowing boats, and the one that plied between Wouldham and Halling continued right up to the mid 1960s.
A history of the ferry was included in a book entitled "Across the Low Meadow", co-written by Ted Gowers, who died this year, and whose family lived in Halling for generations.
The ferry was run since 1898 by the Stevens family, and it all started as a result of an appalling accident.
Two men - one of them Uriah Stevens - were working in a kiln at Anderson's Cement Factory at Wouldham, when it collapsed on them. They were taken to hospital by horse drawn ambulance. Mr Stevens, then aged 46, had one of his legs amputated. His face and an arm had also been badly damaged. Mr Anderson, the factory owner, personally informed Stevens' wife Hannah of the accident, at their home in the Old Parsonage, Wouldham. He discovered at the same time that they were a family of 10 children, who would undoubtedly be forced into the workhouse unless something was done. He gave Mrs Stevens £50 there and then. But he also gave Mr Stevens, who would no longer be able to work at his factory, the ancient Halling Ferry business. He also set him up with a small chandlery catering for the barges that plied the River.
The ferry was operated by Mr Stevens' sons. Sometimes they were helped out by their young sister Mabe.
Then came the First World War. The sons signed on for their patriotic duty and Mabel, just 16, was left to run the ferry. She had to get up at 4am to row cement workers across to their factories. And sometimes the ferry was still running past 10 at night.
If there was an emergency and the doctor had to be called, she would have to fetch him from the Halling side. On one occasion, in thick fog, she lost her way on the return trip and finished up back on the Halling shore. When she did eventually reach the other side, the poor medic had to crawl up the muddy river bank on his hands and knees, presumably gripping his little black bag between his teeth.
While lost in the fog, she heard the crew of a barge which had dragged its anchor, and was heading downstream, unbeknown to its crew who thought they were still off Snodland. She called out to them and saved them from running aground.
Once her brother took the ferry across only to find that his passenger was an escaped convict. It was like something out of Great Expectations. He rowed him back to Wouldham whereupon the man asked Mrs Stevens for money. She gave him five shillings - 25p - and when he asked for clothes, she directed him to a workmen's shed where he found an old coat. Meanwhile her son ran for the police. Eventually the man was cornered by a group of cement workers and held until the policeman arrived. Hannah Stevens was ticked off for giving him money and the coat.
Mabel had a rebellious side to her. She used to hurl lumps of coke at bargemen and lightermen working on the River. One of them, the unlikely named Ben Johnson, decided to teach her a lesson. He captured her and imprisoned her in the fo'castle of his barge, until she should apologise. Meanwhile he got called away on other business and totally forgot poor Mabel. This was Saturday and he was not due back on his barge until the following Monday.
Fortunately he awoke in the middle of the night and remembered her. By the time he opened the hatch, she was too frozen to move. He had to lift her out and carry her home to her mother, who had given her up as drowned.
Never again did she hurl a lump of coke at a bargeman.
The Wouldham - Halling Ferry ran for 600 years when it closed down in 1964. The only break in service was during the Second World War, when the Royal Engineers built a Bailey Bridge across the River there.
Approximate location marked by the red circle. © OpenStreetMap Contributors.
Click on the photos above to enlarge. Photos kindly provided by Wouldham Parish Council.
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