Whilst the history books make much of the mansions and palaces surrounding the Thames, an unsung hero, the humble ferry, has played a vital role for the communities living along the riverside. At Hampton, the ferry is believed to date back to Doomsday in 1514, when the community comprised of about 48 fishermen. Records show that the ferry has been transporting passengers almost continuously ever since.
The Hurst, an area of Molesey directly opposite Hampton Church has a rich and diverse history. Settled since 2900 BC it is a site of Neolithic, Bronze and Saxon finds. During the nineteenth century, race meetings were held at Molesey; known as the Cockney Derby, these race meetings attracted huge crowds from all walks of life and the ferry played a vital role ferrying everyone from gypsies to nobility across the river.
The earliest cricket match ever recorded was played at the Hurst in 1731 (there is a painting of the occasion hanging in the Long room at Lords), and in 1758 the Hurst saw the first game of golf to be played in England. It was also a popular venue for duels and half of the prize fights recorded between 1805 and 1824 were fought here drawing crowds of up to 10,000.
'Race day" over on the Hurst… the large, ungainly ferry, a broad punt-like craft, crammed full of people. A sight that would give a safety inspector nightmares these days. Four beefy ferrymen, one at each comer, pole the excited crowd across the river, whilst doing their best to avoid the assortment of other craft that have been seconded into ferry duty for the day. Meanwhile the Hampton bobby controls the gathering crowds waiting on the slipway. Tradition has it that folks who found themselves around the edge of the ferry linked arms to ensure that no one fell overboard.
The racecourse with its four turnstiles to accommodate the huge crowds is now gone and the land was sold for housing development in the mid-sixties.
Several years ago, the lease covering the Hampton boatyard and ferry rights was won from Richmond Council by a local partnership who set about restoration of the badly dilapidated premises. The ferry landing had to be dredged which brought up some interesting finds! After six months the ferry was running again, and moorings were made available for an assortment of private boats. Today’s ferryboat is a retired army assault craft with the luxury of an outboard motor, and it is capable of carrying ten people, bicycles and pushchairs.
There is some commuter traffic on weekdays during the rush hours but otherwise use of the ferry is purely social. On a sunny weekend there is a continuous stream of cyclists and walkers crossing the Thames. Some are taking advantage of the open green space and towpath on the Molesey side or visiting the 'Heritage Marker' erected by the Hurst Park residents. Others like to sample the pubs and restaurants in Hampton, take a walk around Bushey Park or a jaunt in a self-drive motorboat. Whilst some simply wish to sit in the boatyard, enjoy an ice cream and take in the picturesque riverside surroundings.
For further information on local history see "Hampton and Teddington Past" by John Sheaf and Ken Howe, The Twickenham Museum