Crossing the estuary

© Maxwell Adams

Version 25 May 2007

Before the causeway road was built people wanting to cross the Hayle River into westernmost Cornwall went by way of the bridge at St Erth, where according to John Leland there was a bridge by the fourteenth century and before that a ferry (Leland 1538), or by way of Relubbus, or they crossed the sands on foot or horse between Lelant and Hayle at low tide. Several tracks are known to have been used and there have probably been ferries at the river estuary for many years to take people across.

Nowadays people cross along the Causeway. This road was built in 1825-1826 and officially opened to the public on 20 March 1826. Carts had been able to cross since 29 October 1825 (Philbrick 1973, pages 68-70). There was a toll charged from 1826 to 1878. During excavation for the Causeway there was one death (Royal Cornwall Gazette 10 September 1825). In 1825 during excavations for the causeway coins were discovered:

"Some of the workmen employed on this Causeway, in taking away the upper part of the eastern cliff, and of the adjoining field, in order to bring them to a level with the road over the sand, found a copper vessel containing a large quantity of coins, - probably some thousands. It was discovered only a few feet within the cliff or edge of the field, and about three feet and a half below the surface" (Carne, 136-7). These coins were described by Carne as very small, Roman, poorly made, and dated around 260AD.

Interestingly, Carne argues that as the coins were buried in the sand, probably by Romans, this suggests that "the first accumulation of sand on the lands in the vicinity of Hayle took place prior to the final departure of the Romans from this country" and he suggests that sand inundation over the centuries was probably gradual rather than sudden (Carne, 147).

In the first year of the causeway tolls raised £244 but cost £50 to collect, a cost which was expected to decrease with the imminent erection of a toll house at the eastern end of the Causeway and the need for only one toll-collector (Royal Cornwall Gazette 7 July 1827).

There were numerous tracks across the sands. Maton, an eighteenth century visiting writer, said that because of the quicksands people crossing needed a guide (in Chope 1918, page 261).

A few years later, Warner, another visiting writer, said that they crossed at low tide fearful because of numerous stories of travellers trapped by quicksands. However, he admired the view of the river mouth and the bay (in Chope 1918, page 135-137).

And in 1824 another visitor wrote:

"At low water, a certain part of the river may be crossed in a chaise, but when the tide is coming in it is very dangerous, owing to quicksands" (Stockdale 1824, page 91).

In 1850 a mishap was recorded in detail by the West Briton. A Mr Lang from Bristol heading for St Ives from Hayle was told it was safe to cross the sands:

"Mr Lang at once proceeded at a sharp pace, but had not reached more than two thirds across, when, to his great surprise and alarm, his horse suddenly disappeared, and he felt his carriage sinking rapidly into the quicksands. Mr Lang immediately made a spring from his seat, and with much difficulty struggled his way till he eventually got upon terra firma. With the aid of about twenty men, who fortunately observed the accident at a distance, and who ran to his assistance, he succeeded in releasing his horse from the harness and shafts, and when the horse heard his master's summons, 'Come out Old Bob,' he gallantly, but not without desperate efforts, plunged until he got out of the quicksands, in which he was nearly submerged. By means of rope and tackle the carriage was also brought up, and Mr Lang having handsomely remunerated the people who had thus rendered him such timely service, was enabled to get on to St Ives, resolving never again to trust himself on Hayle sands, but to go round by the Causeway in future. If this accident had happened after dark, or had the tide been flowing, the chances of escape would have been almost hopeless" (West Briton 7 June 1850).

There was certainly a real danger from crossing at the wrong state of the tide. The River Hayle has strong currents and runs fast. John Wesley nearly drowned himself and his driver a hundred years before when he foolishly insisted, against his driver's advice, on being taken across in a coach. Peter Martin, the driver, recounted the tale years later (see Pearce 1964, page 49). When they got to Hayle the tide was coming in and the sands were covered. He told Wesley it was dangerous to cross at this time but Wesley insisted they cross.

In 1815, 1822, and 1866 there were noted accidents:

"On Sunday morning last, about three o'clock, as several gingerbread bakers, of Redruth, were crossing the sands from Lelant to Hayle, on their way home from St Ives fair, which had been held the previous day, one of the carts, drawn by a single horse, and having six persons on it, stuck fast nearly in the centre of Lelant River. Those in the vehicles immediately jumped out. Five of them safely reached the shore; but one woman, fast advanced in pregnancy, was unable to extricate herself from the tide, which was then rapidly flowing, and the morning being very dark. A man who had crossed before, with his cart, heard her cries and went back to her assistance. He succeeded in getting the body out of the water, and had it conveyed to the house of Mr Frenery, innkeeper, where it was put in a warm bed. Mr Curvey, a surgeon in the neighbourhood, was immediately called; but his active exertions to restore suspended animation were unfortunately ineffectual" (West Briton 8 December 1815).

"Last Saturday an inquest was held on the bodies of two young men named Whiford and Smitham, found drowned at Hayle, on Friday morning. They left St Ives about nine o'clock on Thursday evening, with a horse and cart, for Crowan, and attempting to cross Lelant river before the tide had ebbed from the ford were with the horse and cart swept away by the current. The cart and horse and the body of one of the men were discovered on Friday morning lying in the channel; the body of the other man was found a few fathoms below them. Verdict Accidental death" (Royal Cornwall Gazette 17 August 1822).

The reference to a "ford" suggests that there was a regular crossing place in the estuary.

In July 1866 thirteen young people, who had been to a Band of Hope gala on Hayle sand hills, crossed the river in a boat that overturned and two drowned (Cornish Telegraph 18 July 1866).

A safer way of crossing was by boat at a ferry. Thomas describes an ancient track, the Watershed Way, coming from the tinlands to the west. This is along the present Church Lane (formerly called Vounder Lane) and the track runs across the golf course and meets the river at Pedna Cruk, the dog's leg opposite Carnsew hillfort. Thomas suggests that there was once a ferry at this point (Thomas 1947-48, pages 76-77).

Part of the track can still be clearly seen on the present golf course a few metres from Pedna Cruk.

Noall, discussing the various crossings, says that R Morton Nance, identified two important crossings, one from Lelant Quay and known as Quay Lane Passage; and another from Lelant Church, presumably the Pedna Cruk one (Noall 1960). An archway was formerly left under the quay at Hayle for the passage and this can still be seen though blocked up. Quay Lane is now called Station Hill.

Quay Lane Passage was in use down to at least 1820, according to Noall. Remains of an old slipway, used by carts crossing the mudflats at low water, may still be seen immediately to the south of Lelant railway station and access to the right of way was rigorously inspected every year by the old Lelant parish council until the council's demise in 1934 as I explain in the article Lelant parish council 1894-1934. Noall says that although Quay Lane Passage is described by Nance as 'a crossing over the sand at low water,' he believed that the crossing would also be made by rowing boat when the tide was in. Other crossings of the Lelant River suggested by Noall were from Griggs to Carnsew; and also possibly from Trendreath from the southern part of the Saltings, formerly called Sea Lane.

However, the ferry for which there are some definite though recent records and which everyone thinks of nowadays as the Lelant/Hayle Ferry is the one that was north of Lelant Church. Sullivan explains that in medieval times there were two main pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. One went through the ford at Relubbus to St Michael's Mount. The other went through Phillack and to the mouth of the Hayle where there was a ferry to Lelant (Sullivan 1995). This latter route has recently been marked as St Michael's Way.

The first known ferryman hereabouts was Thomas Ball. In a crime report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 26 March 1825 he is described as the "ferryman at Phillack" and he unwittingly ferried the criminal across to Lelant. Contemporaneous with Ball was John Russell who died in 1832. Our sure records begin with them and the papers reported Russell's death:

"Died. At Hayle, on Sunday last, aged 76 years, John Russell, the well-known ferryman of that place. For the last twenty years, Russell, and his daughter who assisted him in his occupation, made one of the ferryboats their only residence, and in that boat he expired" (West Briton 4 May 1832 and Royal Cornwall Gazette 5 May 1832). Alas, this obituary, identical in both newspapers, is tantalisingly brief, does not specify exactly where Russell ferried, when he started, and does not give his daughter's name.

Russell's successor was Thomas Gall who was certainly working at what we now think of as the site of the Lelant/Hayle ferry.

We do not know when he began his work but the 1841 Census for Lelant, nine years after Russell's death, records him as a "Waterman." He often had help in his work from his family. He was helped, according to the 1851 Census by his fifteen year old son, Thomas. Each is described as a "Waterman." The 1861 Census shows him helped by another fifteen year old son, Joseph, described as "Ferryman's assistant." The 1871 census shows Thomas Gall working as ferryman with his young grandson, William N Whatty, as "Ferryboy." The word "Barge" is added after Gall's 1871 census entry which suggests the sort of boat he worked.

The story that Thomas Gall drowned sometime in the 1880s is false. It was Edwin Whatty the ferryman, and a full account of this is in Death in dark waters

Martin Hosking, revisiting Lelant in 1889, a year before Gall's death, saw the ferryman again and reminisced that as a boy he had helped Gall by sometimes rowing people across the river. (Hosking 1905).

Thomas Gall was succeeded by Edwin Whatty as ferryman and on the latter's death from drowning, Whatty's son-in-law, Charles Neilsen from Norway, became ferryman. Another grandson, sixteen year old Thomas Gall Whatty, who has his grandfather's surname as one of his forenames, is described there as "Assistant at ferry, waterman." By 1891 Neilsen who, along with Whatty, appears to have been forgotten in later ferry reminiscences, was dead and Thomas Gall Whatty was ferryman, helped in the summer by his uncle who in winter fished for herring.

We are fortunate in having accounts of this Thomas Whatty and his work. The earliest detailed record seems to be a long and somewhat sentimental article 'The passing of the ferryman' in the Western Morning News for 10 March 1910, Whatty having died the previous month. This gives details of his work and life as a ferryman.

Dorothy Meade recalled her youth in the village in the early part of the twentieth century and her experience of the ferry, remembering Thomas Whatty with affection. He would invite any children who were around to hop in his ferry boat when he rowed across to Hayle to pick up passengers. He charged each passenger 1p (Meade 1972).

Meade came to the village as a young girl around 1908 (and Whatty died in 1910) and says that that the ferry was busy during the 1914-1918 war but thereafter the increase in cars and buses reduced business.

On 6 February 1975 the Cornishman published an interview with Dolly Roach whose father was Thomas Whatty, the ferryman who was subject of the 1910 article. I am afraid that some of the family relationships are wrong, Charles Neilsen is unmentioned, and the wrong ferryman is drowned. However, Hudson's celebration of Tom Whatty in Land's End, a naturalist's impressions in West Cornwall is noted.

Dolly Roach said that on her father's death it was thought that one of her brothers would become the ferryman but one was to become a mining engineer and the other was a professional golfer. Consequently, Joe Whatty, a relative from Mevagissey, became the ferryman until just before World War I and Tom Pomeroy, another relative, succeeded him. (Cornishman 6 February 1975). During Pomeroy's time as ferryman the navigation lights became worked by electricity.

Joe Whatty of Mevagissey had been Tom Whatty's summer helper. Pomeroy also came from Mevagissey and built himself a bungalow between the former cafe, now called Beach House, and Dynamite Quay. That was nearer to his work. The bungalow is now gone and the site difficult to identify.

The last-but-one ferryman was Jack Couch who died aged eighty three in June 1963 having been ferryman from 1935 to 1962. There are plenty of memories of him. Sullivan says:

"The best remembered ferryman was the late Jack Couch, more usually known as Jan. A former seaman, and a man of great physical strength, even in his later years. His main occupation was the inspection and maintenance of fixed navigation lights across the harbour for which he was paid a retainer by Harvey and Company, the owners.

He could be summoned by passengers from either end of Carnsew Spit, or from Harvey's Towans by calling or whistling, when he [would] row his small boat across to collect the people for a small fee.

He lived in a small cottage to the right [northwest] of the railway bridge on Lelant beach. This cottage has been rebuilt and greatly extended in recent years. He was a robust man with florid features with cropped grey hair and a grey moustache. He invariably wore a shirt without a collar, and sturdy workingman's trousers held up by broad heavy-duty braces and belt.

As befits an old seaman, he had a full and salty vocabulary, to which he would give full vent if called to the Towans side by a lone person near to the top of spring tide when the water [was] at full flood and when he would have to row a diagonal course against the tide to fetch up on the opposite bank.

He was a leg puller of great renown with a rich fund of hilarious comments. His favourite targets, especially if he had some local passengers on board, would be elderly unmarried middle class lady visitors, or junior clergymen such as diffident curates; a clerical collar was a sure target. A full flow of comments would ensue as he pulled the oars. References would be made as to people's dress, or the size of their noses or feet, with at the same time large winks to the delighted locals, as the victims squirmed with discomfort" (Sullivan 1995).

Two vivid reminiscences of Couch, by JP James of Water Lane, Hayle and GS Radford, Trewartha Estate, Carbis Bay appeared in the Cornishman on 30 January and 6 February 1975.

Kathleen Jenkins, who during the Second World War lived with her mother, Jack Couch's housekeeper, in a chalet adjoining the ferry house, recalls Jack Couch as a "lovely, kind man who would do anything for anyone, would help anyone." She says there was some bluster in him and he would shout and bawl if woken up to ferry someone. He grew vegetables on a plot near the railway line and Dynamite Quay and used seaweed as fertiliser. He saved perhaps half a dozen people from drowning. She recalls the ferry as very much used in that War (Private conversation with Maxwell Adams 1996).

There were some moves to reopen the ferry which closed after Couch's death. In 1975 Cornwall county council, responding to coastal walkers, asked St Ives town council for their view on reopening. The town council responded favourably but asked about the public cost (Cornishman 30 January 1975). Eventually in 1981 the ferry was revived, but it was only short-lived. The ferry reopened on 1 May that year with Allan Thomas of Hayle as the ferryman. There was a formal inauguration and the ferry was to operate from May till 31 August from 11am to 5pm. Gone were the rowing boat and the oars. The last Lelant/Hayle ferryboat was an aluminium, flat-bottomed boat with a 25 hp outboard motor and with a small 6 hp spare for emergencies. The ferry was run by Tony and Tinker Lake who had owned the Ferryman's Cafe by the beach since the previous May (Cornishman and St Ives Times and Echo).


In the concise version of this article published in the St Ives Times and Echo on 17 February 1998 I wrongly state, following the twentieth century accounts, that the drowned ferryman was Thomas Gall. I discovered the nineteenth-century accounts later.


CARNE Joseph 'On the singular state of some ancient coins lately found in the sands of Hayle; and, on the evidence deducible from them relative to the period of the earliest deposition of sand on the northern coast of Cornwall' in Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall 1828, volume 3, pages 136-149 (Copy at RIC, Truro, and Cornish Studies Library, Redruth). See also: Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1843, volume 25, page 19 "Presents made to the Institution"- refers to "Mr Chilcott - twenty seven Roman coins, found in 1825, near the Hayle Causeway." There are references in RIC Journal for 1831, volume xiv, page 7; RIC Journal for 1875, volume v, page 201; and Royal Cornwall Polythechnic Society 12th Report (1844), page 69.

Censuses for Lelant (Gall and Whatty and Neilsen families)

1841 142/10/11 (piece, book, and folio)

1851 1917/238 (piece and folio)

1861 1588/59

1871 2332/26

1881 2340/49

1891 1853/49

Charles NEILSON, aged twenty eight, a mariner of Arendal, Norway, married Mary Ann WATTY, aged twenty one, on 8 Februaty 1875 at St Uny's church. Neilson's father was Charles Neilson, a baker. [St Uny's marriage register]

CHOPE R Pearse (1918) Early tours in Devon and Cornwall

Cornishman 30 January 1975 (possibility of reopening the ferry); 6 February 1975 (interview with Dolly Roach); and 30 April 1981, 7 May 1981 (reopening of the ferry)

Cornish Telegraph 18 July 1866 (drowning)

HOSKING Richard (1905) Incidents in the life of Martin Hosking

HUDSON WH (1908; variously reprinted) The Land's End Hutchinson, London (1908); Wildwood House, London (1981, mentions Thomas Whatty around 1908, pages 226-229 and 237-244)

JENKINS Kathleen (1996) Private conversation with Maxwell Adams about her reminiscences, October 1996

LELAND John (circ 1538) Itinerary

MATON WG (1794-96) Observations of the western counties of England. In CHOPE R Pearse (1918)

MEADE Dorothy (1972) Lelant that was (CRO AD 1102/3)

NOALL Cyril (1960) 'The old harbour and Brewery Quay of Lelant' in St Ives Times and Echo 12 February 1960

NOALL Cyril (1985) The book of Hayle Barracuda Books, Buckingham

PEARCE John (1964) The Wesleys in Cornwall D Bradford Barton, Truro

PHILBRICK EM (1973) 'The Redruth to Penzance turnpike roads' in Trevithick Society Journal No 1, 1973

Royal Cornwall Gazette 17 August 1822 (drowning) and 5 May 1832 (death of John Russell, ferryman)

St Ives Times and Echo 1 May 1981, 8 May 1981 (reopening of the ferry)

STOCKDALE FWL (1824) Excursions in the county of Cornwall Simpkin and Marshall, London

SULLIVAN Brian (1995) 'Hayle/Lelant ferry' in Hayle Pump magazine Autumn 1995. Extract quoted with permission of Brian Sullivan ©.

WARNER Richard (1809) A tour through Cornwall in the autumn of 1808. In CHOPE R Pearse (1918)

WEASER Lawrie (1975) 'We love to ride that St Ives ferry' in the Cornishman 6 February 1975

West Briton 4 May 1832 (death of Russell, ferryman), 8 December 1815 (fatal accident to pregnant woman), 7 June 1850 (Lang incident)

Western Morning News 10 March 1910 'The passing of the ferryman'

THOMAS Ivor (1947-48) Studies in Cornish geography Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society

A provisional list of the ferrymen of Lelant/Hayle

This list is made from various sources: Dolly Roach's and Dorothy Meade's reminiscences, Cyril Noall's Book of Hayle, the local newspapers, and the censuses. The dates given for the ferry work vary from informant to informant and are in some instances approximate.

Thomas Ball, "ferryman at the passage at Phillack" tempore 1824/5. Evidence was given by Ball at a trial that he had "ferried the prisoner [Davis] over from the place to Lelant." This was September 1824; the trial was March 1825. (Royal Cornwall Gazette 26 March 1825). Presumably lived on the Hayle side of the river. He appears to be contemporaneous with Russell.

John Russell, died 1832. "Died. At Hayle, on Sunday last, aged 76 years, John Russell, the well-known ferryman of that place. For the last twenty years, Russell, and his daughter who assisted him in his occupation, made one of the ferryboats their only residence, and in that boat he expired" (Royal Cornwall Gazette 5 May 1832).

This obituary does not specify exactly where Russell ferried, and does not give his daughter's name, and does not tell us whether she kept on working at the ferry. Russell died "at Hayle" and was buried on 1 May 1832 at Phillack parish church so perhaps he lived that side of the estuary. He appears to be contemporaneous with Ball.

John Russell married Elizabeth MICHELL on 20 October 1781 at Phillack parish church. Elizabeth Russell was buried 28 February 1824 at Phillack, aged seventy seven.

Russell's daughter, helped her father

Thomas Gall, waterman in 1841 and 1851 censuses, ferryman in 1861 and 1871 censuses not ferryman in 1881 census, died at Lelant 2 August 1890 aged eighty three and buried at Lelant.

Thomas Gall (Junior) waterman aged fifteen in 1851 census (Gall's son)

Joseph Gall, ferryman's assistant in 1861 census (Gall's son)

William N Whatty, ferryboy in 1871 census (Gall's grandson)

Edwin Whatty, ferryman on his death certificate, died 22 November 1880, buried at Perranzabuloe 24 December 1881(Gall's son-in-law)

Charles Neilsen, became ferryman in 1880 on the death of Edwin Whatty ( Cornishman 16 December 1880), ferryman in 1881 census (Edwin Whatty's son-in-law). The surname is variously spelled.

Thomas Gall Whatty, assistant at ferry and waterman in 1881 census, ferryman in 1891 census and until his death in 1910 (Edwin Whatty's son)

Joe Whatty, ferryman about 1910-1911

Tom Pomeroy, ferryman about 1911-1932, died 1957 aged seventy four

Jack Couch, ferryman 1932-1963, died June 1963 aged eighty three

Allan Thomas 1981 (Cornishman 30 April 1981)