Ferries have crossed the Thames for centuries, but in Ham the right to do so was challenged by the Earl of Dysart – leading to a court case which lead to huge support for a local ferryman
For centuries a ferry has operated across the river between Ham House and Marble Hill. The First Earl of Dysart, William Murray, leased Ham House from 1633 and 18 years later his daughter and son-in-law obtained the freehold including all the land up to the River Thames. There appears to have been a ferry across the river there since time in memorial.
While the Dysart family always claimed the right to run the ferry since they moved into Ham House, the first record of them licensing their own ferryman – a man called Richard Blower – was not until 1692. Over the following centuries the family continued to fight off any rivals who wished to take advantage of the public wanting to cross from one side of the river to the other. The ferry even appeared in the Dickens’s novel, Little Dorrit.
However, things changed in 1901 when Marble Hill was purchased by a consortium of local authorities and in the following year the footpath on the Ham House side became a public footpath by Act of Parliament. Marble Hill Park was now open to the public and this gave rise to an increase demand for an additional ferry service. In 1909 Roger Hammerton commenced a new regular ferry service from Ham to Twickenham, charging each passenger one penny. The ferry ran from the Ham side of the river to the boathouse of Marble Hill.
Four years later, the ninth Earl of Dysart brought legal action against Hammerton, claiming that only he had the right to grant a licence to operate a ferry here. Hammerton, having won at the first instance, lost in the Court of Appeal and it was only through financial help raised by public subscription that allowed him to take the case to the House of Lords. Lord Haldane, giving judgment on behalf of the court, held that as the towpath was now a public right of way no monopoly had therefore been infringed by Hammerton. The case resulted in considerable publicity for the ferryman and led to the publication of the song The Ferry to Fairyland, celebrating the case. Fairyland here was Marble Hill.
In 1947 Hammerton retired after 38 years and Sandy Scott took over, and the ferry is still in operation today. The Dysart ferry was sold to a private operator when Ham House was transferred to the National Trust in 1948 and ceased to operate in 1970.
(c) John Moses