Back to Top

Hundreds of years of tradition

Michael Johns talks to us about his family's history as ferrymen:


There has been a ferry of some kind between Appledore and Instow for centuries, but it was not until Appledore developed and the railway came to Instow in the 1850s that it became an important means of transport. 

With the arrival of the railway, Instow station was easily accessed from Appledore by the ferry for both goods and passengers, and there were a number of ferrymen on both sides of the river who made a living operating the ferry.  The standard boat used was 18ft clinker, locally built, with a short mast and lug-sail, when there was no wind the mast and sail could be taken down and stowed in the boat and the oars could be used.  Twelve passengers could be carried legally but usually up to about six could be carried comfortably; this number could be increased if the mast and sail were taken out of the boat making more room. 

a1The ferrymen all had their regular passengers and clients for collecting goods to and from the railway and would wait and tout for passengers on Appledore Quay and Instow station, sometimes coming to blows as to who should carry the passengers. On many occasions two ferrymen would be arguing over a fare and a third would pick up the luggage and carry the passenger in his boat. They all would wait at Instow station when the London train was due and carry the passenger’s luggage to the boat, sometimes this would be a good walk if the tide was out and the boat was out on Instow Ridge.  Up until the 1930s the ferry boats could be operated at all states of the tide, when the water left the quay at Instow a high gravel ridge was used which gave water for the boats to go down stream to the beach at Appledore. In the twenties and thirties when the visitors were about, most of the ferrymen had some kind of sideline apart from the ferry. This could be fishing trips, taking people sailing, taking picnic parties to Crow Point and to Old Wall prawning, this was down the estuary near where the old lighthouse used to be situated. Taking a party to Old Wall meant that when you were there you had to stop with the passengers during the low tide period and come back with them on the flood tide.

Before the second world war, the ferry fare was 4d each way with children half price this went up to 6d in 1940 and to a shilling in the mid 50s. When the ferry changed hands in 1963 the fare was 35p, and if there was a family of two adults and two children, the ferryman would ask for a guinea, of course this was well after decimalisation, the passengers would look puzzled and invariably pay £1.10p, and the ferryman would say, “a shilling change sir !” this would confuse them even more. 

One of the early 19th century ferrymen was William “Daddy” Johns of Appledore, easily recognised by his tarred bowler hat.  He was operating before the railway came to Instow.  He could remember sailing up the valley in a barge where South Yeo Farm is now and loading clay in a clay pit that was there at the time. “Daddy” Johns had several daughters and two sons; William who was a rigger in the shipyard and Richard “Dickie” who married an Instow girl and moved across to the other side of the river and who also became a ferryman.  If “Daddy” Johns happened to be busy or a bit pushed he would have one of his daughters pull an oar and help him out and also sometimes his wife Betsy.  “Dickie” settled down in Instow in a cottage a few yards from the quay and quickly became known as a ferryman who could be relied on to be always available at any time if anybody wanted to cross to Appledore. He always had a boat available at low tide and became known as “Low water Dick”. He carried on as a ferryman until he was in his seventies.  A few years after the war, by this time many of the ferrymen were putting Seagull outboards on their boats and taking out the mast and sails, but “Dickie” would have nothing to do with the new fangled “out-door motors” and still worked up until he died in 1952 with sail and oars. 

Fred-Johns2During the war, Instow front was closed to civilians, access to the beach was controlled and the only full time ferrymen allowed to work were Mr John Fishwick of Appledore and Dickie Johns.  When the Americans arrived in Instow in 1943, they were billeted in all the big houses along Instow front and there were only two pubs in the village, the Marine Hotel bar was out of bounds to them for some reason or other, probably because it was kept for officers only.  Dickie did a roaring trade on Sundays carrying the “Yanks” over the river to the pubs at Appledore, usually receiving more than the 6d that he asked for the fare.

Dickie’s son Fred was in the Royal Navy from 1940 to 1946, being the mate of the Lundy supply ship Lerina, since the beginning of the war after the original mate was called up in the R.N.R. When the situation became desperate in 1940 the Navy commandeered Lerina and her crew and used her for a patrol vessel in the Bristol Channel, so Fred was in uniform and a few months later when the skipper Captain Fred Dark died he was promoted to skipper of the Lerina and later of the larger Belgian trawler the D.H.F. that replaced Lerina when she became unserviceable. 

Fred, with his wife Queenie ran the Quay Café on Instow front and still found time to operate his 18ft boat, Vera.  He had been a ferryman after his First World War  service and before he married, so when he was demobbed in 1946, together with his son Norman restarted work on the ferry, with the Vera and a 17ft motor boat called Erin, forming the partnership of F. Johns and Son.  They branched out in boat hire, having Messrs Hinks and Son to build the 4 – 12ft dinghies that they let out either for rowing or sailing for 4 shillings an hour or with a small Seagull outboard on for 6 shillings.a21  They also acquired the contract to transport the newspapers from Instow station every morning to the Appledore newsagents, the paper train arriving at 6.30am. They were also contracted to act as boarding boat for HM Customs, which meant that they had to be available 24 hours a day.  Fred was appointed the Bideford and Barnstaple Port Health Authority inspector, boarding and inspecting all the boats from foreign ports that arrived.  Also they won the contract to paint, service and launch the North Devon Yacht Club boats.  So the two of them were beginning to make a living on the river, one way or another, especially in the summer when the holidaymakers were about. 

Then in 1951 work commenced on the Yelland power station and the number of regular passengers crossing the river increased from about a dozen to over 60, with many Appledore men getting jobs at Yelland. The existing boats couldn’t cope with these numbers so the decision was made to contract Messrs Hinks to build a 26ft boat with a diesel engine to carry 36 passengers. 

I will now switch the story of the Appledore – Instow Ferry to the first person, memories begin to fade as one gets older but I will try and narrate what I can clearly recall over the past 61 years that I have been involved with working on the river and estuary. 

When the second World War started and at the age of 16, I travelled to west London to work in an aircraft factory which was producing Spitfire wings and engine nacelles for Wellington bombers.  I stayed there until I was 18 in 1941 when after a struggle, as I was in a reserved occupation, I joined the Royal Navy as a stoker.  During my time in uniform I was mined on two occasions and torpedoed on another, spending some time in the water after the torpedo incident.  After the war and when I was demobbed I was at a loss as to what to do. During my time in London I made many friends, and was seriously thinking of going back to my old job at Heston Aircraft.  My father Fred “Pop” Johns was also demobbed about the same time and he wanted to get back on the river as my mother was managing to run the Quay Café quite well on her own.  The two boats were laid up, and during my demob leave, “Pop” asked me to give him a hand to get the motor boat running again.  The engine was an Austin seven engine that was on the bench , so I turned to and rebuilt the engine and installed it in the boat and got Erin running again after her lay up from 1939. One day I thought that I would give her a trial run to Appledore and have a pint whilst I was there, pulled alongside the slipway at Appledore some people came down thinking that I was the ferry and boarded the boat, so I never went back to London.  I left the Navy in June 1946, so spent that summer just working when I felt like it and earning a few pounds and enjoying my leave.  The leave period finished in the middle of September and I realised that I had to get a full time job to pay my way.  Western National were recruiting in their Bideford workshops where they were bringing in old buses, stripping them right down, rebuilding the engines and chassis and sending them away for new bodies to be fitted.  With the engineering skills that I learnt at Heston Aircraft I was taken on as a semi-skilled worker.  I started there at the end of September 1946, and left in May 1947, after I had talked to “Pop” about the future and we decided to restart the ferry full time.  As was mentioned previously we formed the firm F. Johns and Son, ran the ferry full time and built up a steady regular trade and bolstered it with the holiday trade in the summer. 

All went well until the power station at Yelland began being constructed in 1951 and we couldn’t cope with the boats that we had, so we had the 36 passenger boat Swiftsure built.  She was commissioned in February 1952 and went straight into service.   Our first trip from Appledore was at 7am after we had taken over the newspapers, the boat would be full and we would return immediately to Appledore with Instow men who were working in the shipyard for a second load.  Firms' buses would be waiting to get the men to Yelland and those whose firms never supplied transport would catch the service bus to Yelland. 

Then in the evening the men would return arriving at Instow from about 4.30 onwards, until about 6.30 to 7pm.  At the time the standard ferry fare was 6d each way, the weekly fare charged to the workers was 5/- for the six days.  The early 50s were the busiest the ferry had ever experienced in passenger numbers, and within a year Swiftsure was paid for.  As well as being used on the ferry she was also used for pleasure trips around the estuary during the slack times in the morning and afternoon. 

After about four years the number of men working at Yelland began to drop off and the 36 seater was not needed in the winter, so another diesel boat was ordered from Messrs Hinks, she was 20ft, heavily built to cross the river in the roughest of conditions and was licensed for 12 passengers, this enabled Swiftsure to be laid up and refurbished in the winter months. 

Things went well until 1963, when the railway was closed by the Beeching cuts.  This was a disaster for the ferry as it was the end of the newspaper contract and the number of regular passengers had dropped to a handful, so a decision was made to close the ferry down in the winter months, from the end of September to the Spring bank holiday. 

“Pop” Johns retired at the age of 65 in 1964, his health was not good, but he still found time to sit in the chandlers shop that the firm had started and do any yacht rigging that the yachtsmen required. So I was left to run the ferry on my own.  By this time the ferry was kept quite busy with locals and holidaymakers during the summer months.  Families staying in the local hotels and boarding houses would enjoy the trip across the river, and especially the children. 

One amusing incident happened one summer. A well known Gloucester match manufacturer was staying at the Marine Hotel in Instow with his family.  He approached me saying that he was there for a week and as he had hired a sailing boat at Appledore for the holiday and the two little girls were too young to go with him and his wife sailing, so would it be all right if he put them in the ferry whilst they were out and collect them on his return to Instow. “I will square you up at the end of the week”. I agreed. The children were no problem and well behaved and when the day of their leaving came he came running down the beach to where I was sat in the boat, I thought now is pay time, but what is he carrying? He said, “Thank you Mr Johns, we have had a lovely holiday and the children have enjoyed the time with you on the ferry”, and handed me a bundle of pencils, a pack of playing cards and a dozen boxes of matches, all marked “England’s Glory”, but no cash ! 

I always seemed to have loads of children in the boat.  The guests at the Marine hotel would leave them with me whilst out shopping etc.  When it was quiet I would find a length of rope and teach them a few knots and sometimes get one of the older ones to go around the boat and collect the fares to keep them occupied.  I used to tease them by saying that I could tell the time by the sun, I would have a quick glance at Appledore church clock without them knowing and say what the time was, then get my pocket watch out that I kept in a tin and say “There you are then, the sun was right again.”   They would think that very clever. 

Another job that the ferry undertook was to put boat-owners aboard and bring them ashore again, this was very profitable, a charge of about the ferry fare was made.  Sometimes I would leave Appledore with a dozen passengers and land at Instow Quay with a boatload of 36, but I had to keep a good eye out for people aboard who were waving for me, the ferry passengers didn’t mind as they were getting a longer ride. It also meant that I had to wait for the last boat to come in and moor up.   This service seemed to have been lost after I sold the ferry. 

Power-Station2All went on as usual right through the 60s and 70s and about 1982 I found that my knees were giving me a problem and I couldn’t get in and out of the boat as well as I could, so I decided to sell the ferry off to Mr Chris. Ommanney of Appledore . 1983 was my last summer working on the ferry and for a while I missed meeting the nice people that I had met over the years, but I didn’t miss the commitment of being on the river every day regardless of the weather. 

I kept the 12 seater boat that I had built in 1959 with the intention of taking on a few fishing trips, but as the chandlery business was taking a lot of my time, I never got around to it, but I did get her licensed and insured every year, and was able to take parties up the river to Weare Gifford for charity, this is a beautiful boat-trip, and a member of the charity would sell the tickets and as a rule I would get a full boat of 12, with a charge of £5 a head.  This boat was sold in 1995 and is still in operation, as is Swiftsure, at the age of 55.

I enjoyed every minute of the 37 years that I worked on the ferry, regardless of the weather being sometimes inclement, and I sincerely hope that it will be restored one way or the other to provide the Taw and Torridge Estuary with this worthwhile service.

Printed with permission from Norman Johns August 2011