The earliest reference to the ferry seems to date from 1322, when Robert, Baron of Hilton, granted to his chaplain, William de Hilton, the passage of Bovis ferry, that is, the ox ferry where heavy cattle could cross, together with various other rights from land in Grindon and Ford. The same chaplain William was to provide a proper boat for the ferry.
In those days oxen rather than horses were used as draught animals, pulling carts and ploughs
It is clear that the main road from Sunderland to Newcastle and South Shields crossed the river at Hylton, and it is obvious from the above that the ferry was already in existence in 1322.
The next reference to the ferry is in a dispute which arose between the coal owners and the keel men on one side and the Hiltons and sundry tenants on the other. This was about 1711-13. A document exists giving information to the Crown on behalf of the plaintiffs, which is set out here in full.
Information to be laid against Thomas Hilton, gent, John Hilton, Esq., Henry Dobson, lessee of the ferry. Joseph Matthews, George Barkass, Edward Boone and Henry Hallyday, defendants, by Henry Lambton, attorney general of the Bishop of Durham, Richard, Earl of Scarborough, Wm. Lambton, Esq., John Hedworth, Esq., Jane Wharton, Widow, Thomas Smith, Henry Peareth, Thomas Allen, gent, Coal Owners, Ralph Harrison, Edward Robinson, Robert Shipperdson, Gawin Noble, Thomas Robinson, coal fitters; Thomas Simpson, Thomas Bulmor, Henry Stafford, Robert Chilton and John Hudson, skippers on the river Wear and on behalf of all other Her Majesty’s subjects trading, enjoying navigation on the said river to the Port of Sunderland by the sea and other where.
(1) That the river Wear is an ancient navigable river, the mouth of which opens to the ocean at or near the town of Sunderland by the Sea and is known by the name of the Port of Sunderland. Which by the inflow of the sea every tide, the same is a very considerable river flowing very near to Chesters being ten miles from the mouth thereof, and is a very good haven, capable of taking ships of very considerable burthen and three or four hundred ships may safely ride at once?
That there are many collieries adjoining to the river, the coals thereof have beyond memory been brought to the staithes adjoining to the river that they may be waterborne by keels or boats and conveyed and carried down the river to Sunderland and exported there from to London, Holland and other parts and thereby and by importing and exporting merchandises into and out of the river, Her Majesty obtains great profit from the duties and customs and navigation is increased and improved and the poor thereabouts are kept at work and maintained and the coal trade is a nursery fit for the service and defence of the kingdom is considerably advanced.
(2) That the keels or boats each contain 6 or 8 cauldrons of coal and for the better sailing, navigating and governing the keels up and down the river the skippers and keel men for all the time aforesaid as often as required moored their said keels for providing of them all along the shore of the river or any part thereof for their best convenience.
And the skippers and keel men, their servants and workmen and those by them employed, have for all the time aforesaid (as they had often) either where the river was shallow or sands rose up therein, or when any fresh or strong current of water or any other thing obstructed the sailing or rowing of their keels or vessels have used and accustomed by ropes to their keels or vessels and by the strength of men and women going up on any of the lands and ground adjoining to the said river and in places convenient for the purposes to haul or draw the keels or vessels along the river. Which right and privilege they constantly have enjoyed without any disturbance or interruption and without paying or incurring any toll, duty, custom or other satisfaction for the same with the Attorney and Resators concerned they might do of common right of the lands of this realm as a privilege incident to navigation on this navigable river having been always accustomed and in truth being the Queen’s common highway, are to be kept within the compass of the flood thereof; open and free without having anything upon any roller or pretence whatsoever placed or hung across with or upon the same or any part thereof to the hindrance or prejudice of navigation upon the same but that the keels boats or other vessels used thereupon may pass and re-pass within flood and thereof at all times (as often as required).
(3) Attorney and the proprietors and occupiers of land adjoining on the shore within the flood and dropping of the river won’t obstruct and hinder the keel men and skippers from mooring or entering their lands with the hands to haul or draw the keels and vessels by the means they have beyond memory used without interruption or any payment or satisfaction therefore or doing any other thing in disturbance of navigation on the river.
That the defendants confederating to destroy the trade and navigation on the said river for making the sailing, navigating of keels so changeable and precarious in abridging their incidents, privileges and liberties of common right both to the ancient navigable river and known beyond memory.
They have of late interrupted and disturbed several skippers and keel men navigating as they had used to beyond memory and if right may do, unless they would pay the money or give them other satisfaction for damage done to their grounds; though they know nothing was paid or satisfaction given, nor anything done, or demanded or paid for by the same and if anything has been paid or given it was done voluntary and in certain only in gratitude for assisting the skippers and keel men to shelter and warm themselves in their houses and if anything has been otherwise taken or demanded it is a late exaction and the poor skippers and keel men were forced to comply therein rather than lose their tide.
(4) That they have at Hylton Ferryboat landing lately set up or confirmed a rope across over the navigable river fixed on posts on each side thereon which hangs so near to the surface of the water that no keels or boats can pass with the sits or sails up as they ought to do, such keels and boats being made for then and very unwieldy; when any fresh or strong current of water is in the river or any wind blows high, they are difficult to be managed and the keel men can’t without great danger or hazard strike the masts or lower their sails, they contain for the most part 60 or 70 yards of canvas or more. They pretend it is an ancient ferry by grant from the Crown that is would be of no use without such a rope. Whereas they know there is no such grant and set up without right by the owners of Hilton who have lands on both sides of the river and that the boat may be governed by poles, oars and not by such rope; as Sunderland Ferryboat is; where the river is much more rapid and has been always so, as other ferry boats on navigable rivers ought to be.
(5) That they threaten to prosecute the keel men that will not comply with their unreasonable demands with innumerable suites at law or by indictments or information or by binding them for their good behaviour to appear at the Sessions or by great violence and force deter them and hinder their passing and re-passing along the said river and threaten to turn all their tenants from the said farms to do harbour or refresh the keel men who refuse to comply or suffer to go into or along their ground for the purposes aforesaid and threaten to keep up the rope across the river within the……. and……..thereof, though they know that several of the keel men or their boys or servants of late and heretofore have been swept off their keels and perished in the river before help could be gotten. All which leads to the destruction of the trade to the prejudice of navigation, to stir up trouble and discord, if their practices stir up other owners of land to make new encouragement to hinder the ready passage of keels on the river and so advance the price of coals in proportion to such extractions and levies.
(6) That John and Thomas Hilton and Dobson may set forth if the river be a navigable river or not and how far: if it run not by Sunderland, if there be not a great coal there by the sea end for other merchandise; how far above Hilton Ferryboat the tide flows and the number of keels are yearly employed how the trade is useful to navigation general. If in sailing and navigating keels up and down the river there be not a necessity of hauling the said keels for men and women along the usual paths on the adjoining ground and if such usage have not been beyond memory used without interruption. If they have known or heard of a track called the Keel men’s track, or such like name, how long they have known or heard of it and how many times. If the keel men have not…… required beyond memory or how long moored their keels on the shore or lands adjoining upon any place convenient at their pleasures.”
The rope in question was used on the falling tide to prevent the passenger ferryboat from being swept down river. The rope was stretched across from bank to bank and from about the centre of the span another rope was attached to the ferryboat. On this rope the boat could swing in a gentle arc across the river. The ferry site is the narrowest place on the river for miles on either side and consequently when the tide is running out the joint effect of ebbing tide and natural flow of the river can produce a very swift current through the narrows. There was an occasion when the rope become detached from the boat and it was swept down as far as Osborne Graham’s shipyard before it could be brought under control. It then had to be towed back by a motor launch.
On the rising tide the natural seaward flow of the river creates a placid gentle flow and the boatman used his oars, pulling against the tide and crosses with little effort. The solution to the problem was to raise the anchor point on the north side so that the rope passed well above the river. A post was set up on the bank on the north side, some 100 ft. above the water so that the rope stretched diagonally down to a post on the south side giving a mean height of some 50 – 60 ft. above high water. This rope was taken down once a year to allow for the River Wear Commissioners annual survey. Their rules stipulated that there should be no obstacle across the river within 90 ft. of high water level. To maintain this they made their trip up the river on a paddle tug which was specially fitted for the occasion with a 90 ft. mast. The Bovis ferry became known in more recent times as the horse ferry. It was, until its demise, a flat bottomed boat which was operated by a chain windlass. The chain lying on the bottom of the river and passing over the windlass which was turned by hand.
The completion of Wearmouth Bridge in 1796 would take away much traffic from Hylton ferry but nonetheless it still remained in use until the first world war.
The passenger ferry continued until 1955, the last Ferryman being Charlie Darby, who died aged 99 in 2002.
Further evidence of the navigability of the river is provided by a newspaper report of July 19th 1841. The steamer Sun from Newcastle on a trip up the Wear, struck an anchor in the river at South Hylton. The vessel was holed and sank. There were 200 passengers aboard who were rescued and conveyed to the river bank by keel. The whole occurred during a violent thunderstorm.