It must have been realized many centuries ago that once you reached Shirehampton or Pill by land there was nowhere further downriver for you to cross the Avon safely: both banks, in Shire and Portbury, were marshland.
The spot where The Lamplighters stands was the last bit of riverside terra firma in Gloucestershire, and the banks of the creek at Pill more or less the last in Somerset. So the Shire-Pill ferry which connected cobbled slipways at these points was an important element in the local transport network, from time out of mind till its demise in 1974 when the slightly more ambitious M5 bridge opened. But however convenient it was, it was attended by practical difficulties. The boat had to
beach in deep mud on both banks to let the passengers out across a wooden gangplank onto the slipway, especially at lower tides, and the strong tidal flow meant that rowers ‐ and the later motor-boat ferrymen ‐ had to describe a broad arc upstream or downstream to counteract it.
Importance of the crossing
Its importance may have been enshrined in medieval times in special arrangements about which lord held what land here. Shire, in Westbury parish, formed a big hole in Henbury parish (but it was within the administrative hundred of Henbury). Pill, sharing a parish in later times with Easton in Gordano, formed a big hole in the ancient Portbury parish (but it was within Portbury hundred). If we knew who held responsibility for these
holes in Anglo-Saxon times it might give us an insight into why, and for whom, the ferry was important, but things are quite obscure. Henbury hundred belonged to the bishop of Worcester, a powerful magnate; Portbury hundred was in royal hands before the Conquest and was held afterwards by Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances (a particular favourite of William the Conqueror), who was lord of large tracts of land elsewhere in Somerset too. Within those hundreds, Shire was held from early times as part of the endowment of the religious institution which became Westbury College, and Pill (with Easton) was held by persons or bodies unknown. Ælric held Pill/Easton in 1066, and Roger son of Ralph was lord in 1086, but we do not know who either of these men was. After the Conquest, Robert FitzHamon was granted the earldom of Gloucester (including Bristol and its castle) by William II, and also the manor of Easton in Gordano, so he too would have had reason to use the ferry when going direct from Gloucester to Easton, and will have exercised some measure of control or influence over it too by virtue of his earldom.
To get a fuller sense of the importance of this crossing: the Avon was an international boundary for much of the early Anglo-Saxon period.
Somerset was in the kingdom of Wessex; what became Gloucestershire belonged to Wessex for a short time before falling into the hands of the king of Mercia. If the ferry belongs to this early era, then at that time there would have been no bridge across the Avon lower than Bath. Bristol Bridge dates only from the time after the two kingdoms had united to become England in the tenth century. So there can only have been ferries during this early period, and no other crossing downstream of the Avon Gorge is recorded. That puts the Pill ferry in a position of considerable importance.
may well therefore have been ancient
The ferry may well therefore have been ancient already, after the Conquest and the period of interest of the Earls of Gloucester, when members of the Berkeley family held not only Berkeley Castle and hundred, but also Portbury hundred and the governorship of Bristol. They sometimes found it convenient to go directly from Berkeley to Portbury rather than via Bristol Bridge, for example when spending Christmas at their Portbury manor, as their 17thC historian John Smyth tells us:
The abidinge of this Lord William [whom Smyth calls
Waste-All] in his fathers life time, was for most part at Portbury; Afterwards at Berkeley Castle, between which places his usuall travell was by water and over at the passage called Crokarspill [Crockern Pill, i.e. Pill].
The Berkeleys apparently asserted a right to cross the river free of toll towards the close of the fifteenth century, to the annoyance of the ferryman and the lord of Easton manor who collected the dues. John Smyth again:
The passer [ferryman]… in the time of Henry the sixth, exhibited a petition against this lord William to Richard Duke of Yorke… then lord of the manor of Easton… complaining that this lord and his servants passed and would passe at their pleasure without paying anything for their feryage … [document date 1491]
way to the ferry
The earliest definite evidence for the ferry’s existence is in the name of the hamlet of Lodway next to Pill, adopted from the name of the ancient track from Portbury to Pill. This is from the Old or Middle English for ‘way to the ferry’ (OE (ge)l?d-weg > ME lod-wei). There is a possible mention of the ferry in the 1380s, involving rent paid by John the ferryman of Keterenpull', i.e. Katherine Pill, the creek east of Ham Green. But since there is never any other mention of a ferry there, it is probably a mistake for Crockern Pill, the historic name of today’s Pill. The first indisputable mentions come in 1430/1 when a payment was made
custodi passagij apud Crokkernepul (‘to the guardian of the ferry at Crockern Pill’) for rowing Lord Berkeley and his retinue across the river; and in 1465, when Isabel, the daughter of Philip Mede (Mead) of Failand, was warned that she
crossed the ferry at her peril on her marriage, daringly above her station (or so it used to be thought), to Maurice Berkeley, de jure 3rd Baron Berkeley (1435-1506) during the latter’s feud with his elder brother
operation always rested on the Somerset side
Later in the 15th century, after the petition against the Berkeleys, Richard, Duke of York, as the current lord of Easton manor, appointed a Welsh minder, Thomas Morgan, to ensure all passengers paid their fare, and this service remained in the Morgan family for many years. They also came to hold Easton manor, and therefore to own the ferry, from 1544. The ferry-house is mentioned in 1633/4 when Richard Morgan was accused of a range of offences tending to deprive the Crown and the Bristol merchants of revenue, and he was ordered to remove several obstructions, including houses, except for one to serve the ferry. These facts also indicate that the rights and responsibilities for the operation always rested on the Somerset side and may always have been bound up with the lordship of Portbury hundred or the manor of Easton.
It needs to be said that the ferry was not the only maritime operation at Pill, and the boatmen’s other well-known occupations included piloting and hobbling, the escorting of deepwater vessels up the Avon to Bristol docks. Many families were involved in more than one activity. But we will concentrate only on the ferry.
The usual western English word for a ferry in recent centuries was passage, as in Old Passage at Aust and New Passage at Severn Beach, and as we see in the quotation from John Smyth above. The passage here turns up as early as 1711 in a local field-name on the Shire side, Passage Leaze, which still survives as a street-name uphill from The Lamps.
Despite its potential importance, it seems nothing very remarkable ever happened at, on or to the ferry. But its mundane existence was acknowledged by the turnpike road, whose iron
milestones can still be seen, built in 1758 from Bristol through Clifton to Shirehampton, and on down Station Road to the slipway at The Lamps. The position of The Lamps is no accident: more of a commercial opportunity taken by Mr Swetman, the Bristol lamplighting contractor, to rebuild the Old Passage House as a reputable inn.