9 -11 Victoria Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6HZ - Tel: 01502 725600 email
Chain-driven pontoon ferry . Click to enlarge.
In the beginning
The Sea
Natural Southwold
Southwold at war
Christianity in Southwold
Arts & Crafts
Holidays & Leisure
Southwold the town
Southwold Shops & Trades


  Navigating the Blyth

A sketch (c 1820) by Henry Davy showing barges on the Blyth Navigation, looking downstream towards Southwold. Davy was born in Halesworth and lived in Southwold. He studied under the renowned East Anglian painter, John Sell Cotman

Simplified map of the Blyth Navigation derived from A T Clarke's Survey of 1821 and John R Wright's Survey of 1840. In addition to the re-channelling, shown in pink, a number of locks were created upstream as well as a tidal 'staunch' near Blyford to preserve water depth in the upper reaches during low tide. Many miles of new river 'wall' or embankment were built to allow saltings and marshlands to be reclaimed for patrure. For a more detailed version of the map please click on the image.

In 1759 work started on creating 'The Blyth Navigation'. This was a scheme to make the River Blyth navigable for cargo vessels from its estuary in Southwold to Halesworth. The river was embanked and straightened, locks and bridges constructed and the saltings reclaimed as productive grazing. Despite numerous problems and delays, the first barge-load of coal was carried upstream in the summer of 1761. Within a few years this became the cheapest and easiest route to transport cargo between the two towns. Heavy raw materials were shipped up-river to Halesworth, while agricultural produce was carried downstream to Southwold and thence, by sea-going vessels, along the coast. By the end of the 18th century the Blyth Navigation had transformed the economies of both towns and carried most of the commercial traffic between them until the arrival of the Southwold Railway in 1879. All the reclaimed land on both sides of the river has now reverted to tidal mudflats.

Coming across on the Ferry
The first reference to a ferry across the River Blyth between Southwold and Walberswick is in 1236. Margery de Cressy, Lady of the Manor of Blythburgh and Walberswick, was instructed to keep a ferry on her side of the river. By the 19th century the ferry franchise and the income from it were in the hands of the Blois family of Yoxford, who leased it to an operator. An early ferry man was a Mr Todd of Walberswick who provided the service in a rowing boat for many years.

By 1885 the lease had transferred to a public company, the River Blythe (sic) Ferry Co Ltd., which was formed with capital of £500, who modernised the operation by installing a manually operated, chain-driven pontoon, which was reputed to have been built at Blackshore. By 1889 enough people were using it to justify the company fitting a steam-driven engine to the pontoon at a cost of £111. In 1927 an even larger steam-driven pontoon was introduced. These pontoons were capable of taking vehicles and animals. The Museum has a photograph of a circus, complete with elephant, being transported across the river and of a large chauffeur-driven limousine also coming ashore. In 1942 it was discontinued and it was beached on the Walberswick side where it remained for many years as a sad and derelict reminder of more expansive days. It was finally cut up for scrap. After the war the ferry resumed but as a rowing boat which continues today and with which the Cross family have a long tradition.

Arriving by Steamer
In response to the growth in visitor numbers, in 1887, the London, Woolwich and Clacton on Sea Steamship Co. was formed to operate a service between London and Ipswich. Ten years later, in 1897, the name changed to one which became much more familiar, Belle Steamers Ltd.

A model of a Belle paddle steamer To learn more about Belle Steamers, click here and to see a short movie of a paddle steamer arriving at Southwold Pier, click here

Use the links below to explore the history of Southwold’s other methods of transport:.

By Road
By Rail

Mr Todd, the Ferryman in 1883
Mr Todd at work in 1883 P1201

Click the picture to enlarge
Meet Dani Church
Dani Church
Dani is the latest member of the Church / Cross family to earn her living at the oars.
Click the picture to read her own story of the Southwold Ferry.

Southwold's Pontoon Ferry which ran until World War II
Southwold's pontoon ferry which ran between Southwold and Walberswick from 1885 until the start of the Second World War.

Paddle Steamer at Southwold Pier early 1900s
A Belle Paddle Steamer arriving at the new Pier from Great Yarmouth in the early1900s. P057



Southwold Museum & Historical Society, 9 -11 Victoria Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6HZ
Tel:01502 725600 email

A Charitable Incorporated Organisation, Registered Charity No 1159790,