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The Isle of Wight's Floating Bridge

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The Floating Bridge, Cowes to East Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK

The floating bridge moving from Cowes to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, UK

The large, tidal River Medina on the Isle of Wight separates the two towns of East Cowes and Cowes1. To get from Cowes to East Cowes by land involves a six mile journey south to Coppins Bridge, Newport, crossing the Medina there, and then a further six mile journey back north on the other side of the river. Fortunately there is another means of getting between the towns – the chain ferry, usually known as the Island's floating bridge.

What is a Floating Bridge?

The floating bridge or chain ferry is essentially a ferry that travels between East and West Cowes. Although the floating bridge is a ferry, it is called a bridge as, like a bridge, it goes from one side of the river to the other and, also like a bridge, cars and pedestrians cross the river on it.

It travels along two heavy chains anchored on either side of the River Medina. The chains go through slots beneath the cardeck of the ferry, and the winch machinery inside pulls along the chain, taking it from one shore to the other. The chains are kept loose so that they sink to the river bed, allowing other vessels to use the river and sail above the chains. The use of chains means that it is all but impossible for the ferry to go off course, even in the very strong tides the river Medina experiences2, nor can the ferry become lost in the fog.

The floating bridge operates at a point in which the river Medina is at its narrowest in the nearby area. At low water at this point, the Medina is 240 feet wide and 9 feet deep. At high water, it swells to 500 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The ferry transports both cars and pedestrian passengers, with the cardeck in the centre and two passenger seating areas at the sides. It is a roll-on roll-off ferry, with a hydraulic ramp at both ends to let cars drive on and off.

Floating Bridges in the UK

The floating bridge moving from Cowes to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, UK

James Rendel FRS, a Fellow of the Royal Society, invented the steam-driven chain ferry in Dartmouth in 1831. Within ten years of the invention, other floating bridges had been installed in Britain; examples near the Isle of Wight included both Southampton, transporting passengers across the river Itchen between 1836 and 1977, and Portsmouth, where passengers were transported to Gosport from 1840 until 19593.

The Cowes Floating Bridge is one of only a few floating bridges left in the UK, with most former chain ferry routes now replaced by conventional or swing bridges. The other remaining floating bridges are:

  • High Dart Ferry - crossing the River Dart, Devon
  • King Harry Ferry - crossing the River Fal, Cornwall
  • Reedham Ferry - crossing the River Yare, Norfolk
  • Sandbanks Ferry - crossing Poole Harbour, Dorset4
  • Torpoint Ferry - crossing the River Tamar, the border between Cornwall and Devon
  • Windermere Ferry - crossing Lake Windermere, Cumbria

Why not a Normal Bridge?

The river Medina is a busy, working river, frequently used by various sized ships and yachts. Cement factory ships regularly use the river and, until recently, the river was used to transport large wind turbine blades. Although East Cowes' proud maritime history is sadly all but over, the shipyards that once dominated both sides of the river are being replaced by yacht marinas and luxury flats, and the river is still an important highway. It is one that brings in trade not only to East and West Cowes, but also to the quays further south in Newport, the Island's capital.

A conventional bridge over the Medina would have to be extremely high in order to allow large ships and yachts with tall masts to pass easily underneath, even at high tide. West Cowes, after all, is the home of international yachting - it was at Cowes that the America's Cup yachting competition was born in 1852, and Cowes held the 150th America's Cup Jubilee event in 2002. The Round-The-Island Yacht Race and Cowes Week yachting regattas are vital parts of the Island's economy. As both sides of the Medina at the towns of Cowes are developed, there is no room to construct a gradually sloping bridge that would achieve the required height at a reasonable and usable incline.

There are, of course, other alternatives to a conventional bridge. Plans to build a tunnel under the Medina were first considered in 1883, and legal permission for construction was granted under the 1884 Medina Subway Act. The £43,000 needed for the project was not raised. Other attempts to build a tunnel were made in 1893 and 1906, but again lack of funds prevented any development beyond the planning stage. A swing bridge is possible; it would open to allow ships to pass, and then close to allow foot and vehicular traffic to cross. Both a tunnel and a swing bridge would be extremely expensive not only to construct but also to maintain. They would almost certainly result in expensive and unpopular tolls in order to pay for them. Another possibility would be the construction of a bridge further down the river Medina, outside Cowes and East Cowes, where suitable land makes construction practical. This indeed was suggested in 1992, at a site a mile south of the floating bridge. However, this plan did not prove popular with pedestrians, requiring an extra two miles to get from Cowes to East Cowes. The elderly and those with young children considered it a bridge too far.

The truth is that the people of Cowes and East Cowes and the Island as a whole like the floating bridge, and enjoy its quirky and rare nature. It is, after all, one of the last seven remaining floating bridges in the UK.

Floating Bridge Painting

Southampton City Art Gallery owns a painting of the Isle of Wight floating bridge, painted by Southampton artist Eric Meadus in 1956. This is an imaginary ferry, rather than based on an actual boat. It portrays a steam powered bridge, even though in 1956 both ferries still in use were diesel powered. The floating bridge shown is shown as looking similar to a river paddle steamer, in a charming image.

The same gallery also contains two paintings of Southampton's own Floating Bridge, which was retired in 1977. These were painted in 1956 by Laurence Stephen Lowry, one of the 20th Century's greatest artists. Lowry is famous for his urban factory paintings and thin style of portraying figures. His work influenced Terry Gilliam, who in the film, Brazil, named his hero Sam Lowry. The 1978 Number One hit 'Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs', by Brian and Michael, is about his life.

History of the Floating Bridges

YearOwner & Bridge NameConstructed
1859The Floating Bridge CompanyHodgkinson's, Itchen
1882-1909The Steam Packet Company Napier & Son, Soton
1896-1925The Steam Packet Company William Whites, Cowes
1909-1936Cowes Urban District Council - Bridge No 1 William Whites, Cowes
1925-1952Cowes Urban District Council - Bridge No 2 J Samuel White & Co, Cowes
1936-1975Cowes Urban District Council - Bridge No 3 J Samuel White & Co, Cowes
1952-1982Cowes Urban District Council - Bridge No 4 J Bolson, Poole
1975-PresentIsle of Wight County Council - Bridge No 5Fairey Marine, East Cowes

Before the Floating Bridge

Long before the first floating bridge, people frequently needed to travel between the two towns on opposite sides of the river Medina, and would usually do so by rowing boat. It is known that the Island Governor granted the Roberton family ferry rights to row passengers across the river in 1720, a privilege the family enjoyed until 1859.

In 1842 the Roberton family installed a horse ferry at the site of the present floating bridge. This was a flat-bottomed boat winched by horsepower and was used to transport carts and animals across the river. The horse ferry continued in operation until 1872. When in 1859 the Floating Bridge Company was formed, John Roberton sold the ferry rights to the Floating Bridge Company and received a £50 annual pension.

The First Ferry

The Honourable Henry Petrie of East Cowes Park started the Floating Bridge Company in 1859, and purchased not only the ferry rights but also the first floating bridge chain ferry. Mr Hodgkinson built this wooden, steam-powered vehicle at Itchen, Southampton5. Although the exact specifications of the bridge no longer exist, it is known that it had a small cabin, a tall, black funnel on the south side, and open and upper accommodation on the north side. At 1pm on 24 November, 1859 the first trip by floating bridge steamed across the river, with the directors travelling in a four-horse carriage as the first passengers. The ferry operated throughout the day until 10pm.

In 1867, the ferry was involved in a collision with a French schooner carrying a cargo of cement, and sank. Fortunately the bridge was raised and repaired, returning to service within a month, during which time the horse ferry took passengers across the Medina.

The Steam Packet Company

Within a year of the 1867 collision, the Floating Bridge Company's ferry rights were taken over by the Steam Packet Company. This organisation, now known as the Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited6, or Red Funnel for short, was the Island's first ferry company, beginning operations in 1820 and traditionally taking passengers from Southampton to both Cowest and East Cowes. Until 1867, passenger ferries called on both sides of the Medina, but from then on passenger ferries called only at Cowes. They hoped that purchasing the ferry rights would enable them to charge passengers wishing to travel from Southampton to East Cowes in effect twice - once for the journey to Cowes, and again for the floating bridge ferry to East Cowes.

The Steam Packet Company also introduced steam launches, small passenger ferries that travelled between East Cowes and Cowes, which were a faster, but more expensive, way of travelling between the towns.

The Second Ferry

In 1882 the second ferry was constructed, at Napier & Son's, Southampton. This ferry was wooden, 46 feet long, 29 feet wide - wide enough for two vehicles side by side, and had four cabins for pedestrians, but no upper accommodation. A new boiler was built and installed by William White & Sons of Cowes at a cost of £298.10s.6d in 1902, and when in 1909 the second ferry was sold for scrap for £100, the comparatively new boiler was removed and used in the third ferry.

The Third Ferry

The 1896 ferry was the first to be built on the Island, by William Whites of Cowes, costing £2,772. It was the same size as the 1882 ferry, but had improved bow design allowing it to get closer to shore. It too was wooden and steam-powered. For 13 years the Steam Packet Company and later the West and East Cowes Urban District Council maintained both ferries, using one in the summer and the other in the winter, keeping one serviced and maintained while the other was in use, until the selling of the second ferry in 1909. This ferry appeared in a series of Edwardian postcards published in 1905.

In 1925 the ferry was no longer needed and was sold to Uffa Fox, a famous yacht designer and craftsman who lived in East Cowes. He built International and Olympic competition yachts on the deck of the bridge, living in the cabins. It was here that he designed his revolutionary lightweight airborne lifeboat. This was dropped from aircraft during the Second World War to stranded airmen in the waters around Britain, an invention that saved the lives of many. Uffa Fox, who is buried in the grounds of the Royal Church of St Mildred, Whippingham7, has a picture of his airborne lifeboat carved into his tombstone.

West And East Cowes Urban District Council

In 1901 an Act of Parliament granted the rights to run the floating bridge to the West and East Cowes Urban District Council, initially on a 31-year lease, but in 1915 the ferry rights were bought outright. The Steam Packet Company, however, still retained their Steam Launch service between the two towns despite attempts by the council to get this stopped. The Steam Packet Company insisted that the Steam Launch service was part of their Southampton to East Cowes route and not affected by the East to West Cowes ferry rights. The Steam Launch, and later Motor Launch, service ran until 1939 when the Steam Launch Precursor II and Motor Launch Norris Castle, which had been built in 1938, were requisitioned by the Admiralty and sent to the Mediterranean for war duty.

The Fourth Ferry - Bridge Number 1

The fourth ferry was called Bridge Number 1 as it was the first ferry bought by the Council, even though the Council had operated both the second and third ferries. It was purchased in 1909 from William Whites at a cost of £3,200. The bridge again was steam powered, using over two and a half tons of coal daily. It was the first bridge built of steel and was also the first bridge equipped with electric lights. The cabins were two long passages either side of the carriage deck in the middle, and this bridge had upper accommodation. The 1909 bridge saw service until 1936 when it was sold for £240.

The Fifth Ferry - Bridge Number 2

The second bridge ordered by the council was constructed by J Samuel White & Co of Cowes, one of the Island's largest maritime companies, building ships, especially warships, since 1802. They also had a successful aircraft division during the Great War8. Bridge Number 2 entered service in 1925. She was the last steam-powered ferry and cost £8,426. She was 102 feet long, 16 feet wide, was wooden and weighed 100 tons, and was even capable of carrying up to eight cars. Bridge Number 2 was the reserve bridge, and during the Second World War was loaned to Poole Harbour, working as the Sandbanks chain ferry. In 1952 she was sold to the Sandbanks Ferry Company outright for £8,000, being surplus to requirements in Cowes.

The Sixth Ferry - Bridge Number 3

In 1936 the sixth ferry, officially known as Bridge Number 3, came into service. Built by J Samuel White & Co, it was the first diesel-electric floating bridge in the country. In order to increase carrying capacity, all the machinery was stored below the car deck for the first time. Because of this it was felt that upper accommodation would not be needed. This ferry cost £12,000.

The prices for travelling on the ferry after the Second World War were the same as they had been in 1921. A fascinating list of 49 different charges to use the ferry, depending on type of passenger, still exists. From it we learn that in 1945 it cost ½d to take a perambulator or wheelbarrow across, but 1d for a Bath Chair. An ox, bull, or heifer cost 5d, a sheep or pig 1d, and there was a whole list of different combinations of horse-drawn carriage, depending on number of horses, wheels and passengers. A four-wheeled car would cost 6d but a three-wheeled car only 4d.

The Seventh Ferry - Bridge Number 4

Another diesel electric bridge was ordered in 1950, to replace the aging 1925 bridge, and for the first time since 1882 a mainland company, J Bolson of Poole, was given the contract to construct it. She was capable of carrying 12 cars, had upper accommodation and cost £25,530 to construct. The seventh ferry saw service for 30 years, before being sold in 1982 for £2,005.

The Eighth Ferry - Bridge Number 5

In 1974, Fairey Marine of East Cowes was awarded the contract to build a new floating bridge. Fairey Marine was the marine division of the Fairey Aviation Company, which had built such famous Second World War aircraft as the Fairey Swordfish and Battle. Fairey Marine began on the river Hamble in the 1940s, concentrating on prestige motorboats, such as those used in the James Bond film  From Russia With Love. By the early 1970s it had taken over the East Cowes firm of Groves and Gutteridge Ltd, Isle of Wight shipbuilders since 1899.

Among the workers employed at Fairey Marine in 1974, during the time of construction of the floating bridge, were a young apprentice ship plater and a young woman from Cowes who travelled on the floating bridge over to East Cowes each day – she worked in the wages department. The ship plater fortunately managed to find enough time despite constructing the floating bridge to ask the wages clerk to marry him. The happy event occurred in 1975, the year Bridge Number 5 was launched and entered service, and five years later the Researcher writing this Entry was born.

The 1975 bridge was diesel powered, took 16 months to build and cost £280,000. It is the largest ferry so far and carries up to 19 cars, but sadly does not have upper accommodation. Since 1982, the 1975 bridge has been the only floating bridge on the route and since 1992 foot passengers have travelled free of charge.

On 24 November, 2009 the chain ferry celebrated 150 years of service.

1Cowes is occasionally known as West Cowes, when necessary to differentiate it from East Cowes.2Both the Solent, the stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland, and the tidal river Medina at Cowes undergo unique double-tides.3A second Portsmouth floating bridge operated between 1891 and 1900, between Portsmouth and Whale Island.4 Sandbanks is the second highest valued property area in the world. 5Joseph Hodkinson later built Southampton's third floating bridge in 1862.6The Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited is still the longest registered company name in Britain.7The Royal Church of St Mildred is just outside East Cowes. It was designed by Prince Albert and frequently used by Queen Victoria when staying in Osborne House.8The only surviving J Samuel White aircraft, the 'Wight Quadraplane', can be found on display in Solent Sky, the Southampton Hall of Aviation.

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