The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Two

Horseferry Road, SW1

The modern-day Horseferry Road is shaped rather like an alum key, running from Greycoat Place to Millbank where it leads on to Lambeth Bridge. Whilst it is regularly name-checked in the media as the address of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, it has a more fascinating history.

Until 1750 when Westminster Bridge was completed, there was only one bridge across the river Thames, London Bridge. There were plenty of boats shuttling up and down and across the river for foot passengers to hire or to transport goods but if you arrived at the riverbank with a horse and cart, you had to find another means of getting across, a horse ferry.

These were little more than rafts, wide enough to accommodate a carriage and long enough to allow the horse to travel whilst still harnessed to its load. They would have been very heavy and difficult to manoeuvre, probably by pole rather than oars, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the Thames was tidal and had strong currents. It is highly likely that the ferries only operated when tidal and weather conditions were just so. A ferryman would have been a skilled operator, one who knew precisely when the window of opportunity presented itself. For the customer, it often meant a long and frustrating wait on the bank, although there were taverns positioned at either side of the river to enable them to while their time away and get some Dutch courage.

There were a number of such ferries along the Thames, including one at the eastern end, plying its trade from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs and one in the west connecting the villages of Putney and Fulham. But the most important, primarily because of its connection with the seat of political power, ran from close by St Mary’s church in Lambeth to the banks of Westminster and from which our street takes its name.

It is difficult to date precisely when the ferry first started operations. The earliest specific reference to it dates to 1513 when the Archbishop granted the ferry rights from Lambeth to Westminster to one Richard Trevilyan for a rent of 16d per annum and the proviso that the Archbishop’s entourage and goods went free. But the suspicion is that it is much older and may even pre-date the building of London Bridge in 1176 and, possibly, even was a Roman crossing point.

Accidents were not unknown. The arrival of Archbishop Laud at Lambeth was marred by the sinking of the ferry heavily laden with his goods, chattels and servants. No one died but the accident was taken as an omen presaging Laud’s eventual demise. A similar accident befell Oliver Cromwell in 1656. From the time of the Civil War to the restoration the Archbishop lost the rights to operate the ferry but when he got them back, true to form, he rented them out again. With the rights to operate the ferry came some obligations to maintain the adjacent streets, something, judging by the complaints from local residents at the turn of the eighteenth century, that a Mr Leventhorp failed to do, instead he preferred to pocket all of the profits.

On the night of December 9th to 10th, 1688, Mary of Modena, James II’s wife, together with her baby son and two nurses, made good their escape following the overthrow of the Stuarts by the horse ferry. It was a stormy, dark night and accounts suggest that the passengers could barely see each other as they made their perilous crossing of the river.

An Act of Parliament, passed in 1700, allowed the ferry to operate on a Sunday. However, the watermen’s earnings on the Lord’s Day had to be donated to the “poor, decayed watermen and their widows of the parish of St Margaret, Westminster”.

The building of Westminster Bridge in 1750, it was originally planned to replace the ferry at where Lambeth bridge now stands but the location was moved, put a severe dent into the demand for the ferry but it struggled on for another century. Lambeth Bridge was constructed in 1862 on the site of the ferry and that was the end of a dangerous and uncomfortable means of crossing the Thames. The Archbishop was given £2,000 in compensation for lost income but the watermen had to find alternative employment.

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