Courtesy of Russell Eyre

The history of

The ferry boat inn

1665 to 1887

Russell Eyre 2011

One night at Ferry House, as the Ferry Boat Inn is now called, I read a story called the” Fisherman and the Fiddler”, by Thomas Cooper published in 1845, (click for full text) about the wedding of Lucy, of the Ferry Boat Inn, to young Farmer Brown. I also discovered that the history of the Inn went back to, at least, 1820, when William Wilkinson paid for a licence for the Ferry Boat Inn.

This caused some discussion and Andy presented me with a file of documents, maps and letters relating to Ferry House and the Ferry Boat Inn. He asked, in his inimitable way, if I could “do something with this lot”.

This was the start of a journey that had me looking up “Wills and Probates 1681 to 1911” at 2am and crawling round churchyards, photographing and recording gravestones.

I’ve tried to provide more than just a list of names and dates. Through this journey in time, I’ve come to know these people, better than some of my own family and much better than the man who lives across the road. Where I could, I’ve tried to give a picture of the people who lived, worked and died in this house. This is a story of the families who ran the Ferry Boat Inn. This is their story, their lives, success, failures, triumphs and tragedies. I hope I’ve done them justice.

But, the big question I wanted to answer was. Did Polly exist; did she marry young Farmer Brown and dance to the Blind Fiddler, Phil Garrett in this very kitchen of the Ferry Boat Inn?

Now read on.

The Ashtons

1665: In April, 1665 at the Parish Church of Bole, John Ashton of Sturton-le-Steeple married Mary Maultbey of Littleborough. John had borrowed money from his father, also called John, of Sturton High Hall, and his brothers Bryan and William Ashton also of Sturton. With the money, he bought land and the Ferry Rights and was the founder and the first Landlord of the Ferry Boat Inn, opened to cater to people making the crossing of the Trent at Littleborough.

John was a newcomer to Littleborough, but he soon settled in and in 1675 he became the churchwarden at Littleborough church.

1684: John Ashton died on the 14th September.

The Ferry Boat Inn passed to John’s eldest son, Willyam, christened 5th February 1665, three months before his parents were married. William (as his name was now spelt) married Sarah Branston on 20th April 1674 and had a son, again called John Ashton, born in 1690.

1714: John Ashton married Margaret Bilby, 20th April 1714

1749: John Ashton died 22 September.

The Ferry Boat Inn was definitely run by John Ashton. On his death a detailed inventory showed he had a stock of ale valued at £12 and brewing vessels and implements worth £18. 10s.0d. a farm labourer would earn about £15 per year in 1749, so there was enough beer in John’s cellar to keep a man drunk for a year.

He also owned a boat, valued at £90, which indicates that he also ran the ferry.

John would also have been the landlord when William Stukeley arrived in Littleborough, in September 1722, to investigate the Roman remains of Agelocum (ed. Segelocum). For many years the village pigs had been digging up Roman coins. So common were they that they were called “Swine Pennies” in Littleborough.


William Stukeley was one of England’s first archaeologists and the first president of the Antiquarian Society.

He observed that two Roman altars were being used as “piers in a wall on the side of the steps that lead from the waterside to the inn”.

Littleborough Roman Altar

He also drew the first detailed plan of Littleborough, marking the Church, Ferry, Inn and Gibbet. This plan confirms, what we know as Ferry House, was the Ferry Boat Inn in 1722.

Daniel Defoe passed by in 1734 and wrote in his book “Curious and Diverting Journies, thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain.”

We were obliged to go over the river in a ferry boat and then we saw Rhetford, a pretty little borough town of good trade, situate on the River Idle; the mayor treated us like gentlemen, though himself but a tradesman; he gave us a dish of fish from the River Idle, and another from the Trent, which I only note, to intimate that the salmon of the Trent is very valuable in this country, and is oftentimes brought to London, exceeding large and fine; at Newark they have it very large, and likewise at Nottingham.

John Ashton had three children who survived him, William (born 1720), Benjamin (born 1722) and a daughter, Mary (born 1717).

Mary Aston married William Wilkinson, a neighbour and a farmer on 22nd December 1740.

William Ashton left Littleborough to be a farmer in Fenton and married Anne Peck on 1st November 1748.

Benjamin Ashton took over the running of the Ferry Boat Inn, married a woman called Catherine and ran a prosperous business.

Although Benjamin Ashton was a staunch member of the community, on the 16th October 1754 the churchwarden presented to the Archdeaconry Court, “Benjamin Ashton for being the reputed father of Margaret Parkinson’s bastard child”.

1765: Benjamin Ashton died on 28th November at the young age of 43. In his will, dated 26th November 1764, he left £50 to his daughter Anne, £50 to his daughter Mary and only one shilling each, to his sister Mary Wilkinson and brother William Ashton, the remainder to his wife Catherine and son John.

1812: Catherine Ashton died. She left £600 and the Ferry Boat Inn to her son John, £300 to daughter Mary, £100 to grandson William Wilkinson and £40 each to grandchildren John Wilkinson, Ann Wilkinson, Catherine Wilkinson, Mary Wilkinson and Maria Wilkinson. Daughter Mary Ashton also got the Plate, Linen, China, Beds, Bedding, Household Goods and Furniture from the Ferry Boat Inn. In total a sizeable bequest from a very rich lady of the time.

They were so well regarded, that a plaque to their memory was placed in the chancel of Littleborough church

The Ferry Boat Inn passed to Benjamin and Catherine’s son John and at a date unknown: John Ashton married Margaret.

John’s sister, Anne, married a John Wilkinson and gave birth to the five children named in Catherine’s will, including two sons John, the elder, and William.

1837: John Ashton died

The Wilkinsons’

I can’t find any evidence of when the Ferry Boat Inn was passed on to William Wilkinson from, his uncle, John Ashton.

It should have gone to his elder brother John Wilkinson, but he returned to Sturton-Le-Steeple to be a farmer.

1816: William Wilkinson married Elizabeth Fox on 21st November.

1820: William Wilkinson recorded as paying £20 for a yearly licence to be Innkeeper at the Ferry Boat Inn, Littleborough.

1820: Roman ford removed as a hazard to navigation.

1821: Accounts lodged showing that William Wilkinson, as well as being a Farmer and Innkeeper he was also a Fishmonger; more than likely dealing in Salmon..

1822: Inn inspected and found to be legally complying with the law to display a sign: “Ferry Boat.”

1840: Elizabeth died. It appears that William and Elizabeth did not have any children.

1841: Census, William Wilkinson is down as a Brewer in Littleborough with his sister Ann Wilkinson. Although the Census does not mention it specifically, it can reasonably be assumed that the Brewery was part of the Ferry Boat Inn.

1843: William Wilkinson dies aged 60. A plaque is placed, in his memory, in the chancel of Littleborough church.

Following the death of William Wilkinson, the Ferry Boat Inn passes into the hands of William and Lucy Black.

Ann Wilkinson continued to live in Littleborough.

1851: Census, down as a farmer with a ”servant of all work”, Hannah Scott, age 16.

1861: Census, down as a farmer of 60 acres living with her sister Maria and a House Servant, Emma Eyre age 27. (I knew an Eyre would appear somewhere. We always do. R. E.)

1871: Census, still down as a farmer, with Maria down as a Company Keeper plus a housekeeper and a servant. Ann is registered as a Lunatic.

1873: Ann Wilkinson dies aged 85.

Ann is a woman of a varying age, according to the records she was 85 when she died, but her gravestone shows 89. She also appears to have acquired a letter E in her name. Something she never had in life.

1874: Maria Wilkinson dies 26th October, leaving less than £200.

The Blacks

1843: Following the death of William Wilkinson the Ferry Boat Inn is run by William and Lucy Black.

1844: White’s Directory states, “Here is a good Inn”. William Black, farmer and victualler. Ferry Boat Inn. Victualler is a supplier of food & drink, usually referring to an Innkeeper.

Every year, for three weeks, Horncastle held the Great August Horse Fair and by the 19th century was the world’s largest. In 1847, Col Bulmer, Major Pierson and Major Starkey, together purchased 200 horses. A 4-year-old hunter could fetch 80 guineas and a good coach horse £30-£40. The Breeders / Dealers employed Caddees, or Cads, to take their purchases away to London, Oxford, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, or via the Barton horse boat to Hull for export to the continent (St Petersburg and Rotterdam). The Caddees seem to have been a distinct class of improvident, happy-go-lucky men who earned plenty of money and spent it freely at the inns. The main road in and out of Horncastle used by horses; from the west and north (particularly from Yorkshire) crossing the Trent at Littleborough Ferry, along the Roman Tillbridge Lane and through Scothern to join the old Roman Ramper Road to Horncastle.

It must have been like the Wild West with hundreds of horses coming across the Trent, and hard drinking Cadees spending money at the Ferry Boat Inn.

1849: White’s Directory and Post Office Directory, William Black, Ferry Boat Inn and farmer.

1851: Census, William Black, farmer of 153 acres employing 3 Labourers and 4 servants.

1853: White’s Directory; William Black, victualler, “Ferry Boat”.

1856: Lucy Black discovers her husband, William, is having an adulterous relationship with Elizabeth Catley, wife of William Catley, Toll Bar Keeper and farmer of 7 acres, Toll Bar Cottage, Littleborough. At the time Elizabeth Catley is 58 and William Black is 40. Lucy Black separates from William Black and takes over the Ferry Boat Inn.

In 1860 a Roman stone coffin, now in Lincoln Museum, was

discovered in the churchyard and those who opened it gazed upon the features of a woman who had lain there for fifteen hundred years but in a few minutes the body crumbled away into fine dust on exposure to the air.” Highways and Byways in

Nottinghamshire. J. B. Firth 1916

1861: Census, First mention of the Ferry Boat Inn. Lucy Black, Innkeeper, employing a barmaid, dairy maid, house servant and carter.

1862: Unusually for the time, Lucy Black divorces William Black. The case is so special it is reported in The Times, Saturday, 7th June 1862.

The Times, Saturday, Jun 07, 1862: pg. 13: Issue 24266; col E
Under: Court For Divorce and Matrimonial Cases, June 5.
Dr. Spinks appeared for the petitioner.
This was a petition by a wife for a judicial separation on the ground of adultery. The parties were married in 1842 and lived together at a farm occupied by the husband in the county of Nottingham. In 1856 the wife discovered that the husband had formed an adulterous connexion with a woman named Catley, and separated from him. He has since lived with Catley. –Judicial separation decreed.

From the Notts.F.H.S. – Anglican marriages in 1842 for ‘Black’
Black William = Wilkinson Lucy @ Sturton-le-Steeple on 20 Jul 1842

Due to the scandal William Black had to give up the tenancy of the farm and left Littleborough with Elizabeth Catley. He moved to Sheffield, where in the 1871 census he is registered as a Gardener living at 5 Hanging Water Road with an Elizabeth Black (Catley)

1869: Morris & Co. Directory of Grantham, Chesterfield and Gainsborough. Mrs. Lucy Black, “Ferry Boat”.

1871: Census, Lucy Black, Inn Keeper with House Maid, Kitchen Maid and 3 Farm Servants.

1880, at the age of 66, Lucy sold the Ferry Boat Inn to Elizabeth Radley and moved to Retford.

1881: Census. Living 123 Main Street, Retford. Aged 67. Retired farmer, with one servant.

1891: Census. Living 144, Buck Yard, Main Street, Retford. Aged 77. Living on own means with one servant.

1895: Elizabeth Black died, 3rd January, aged 81. Left effects with a total value of £2,523. 8s. 7d to Mr. Decimus Mallett Robbs. Ex. Captain 12th Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers, Solicitor of 61 Wrawby Street, Brigg and Clerk to Gainsborough Workhouse.

The Radleys

1880: Elizabeth Radley was widowed from her husband William Radley, a farmer of Thorney, Nottinghamshire and buys the Ferry Boat Inn.

1881: Census Elizabeth Radley 58, Ferry Boat Inn, farmer, 304 acres, employing 2 men, 2 boys. Children, William 32, Sophia 30, Priscilla 27, Charles 25 (Son, simple, still at home), Mary Ann 24, Elizabeth 22. 1 House Servant, 2 Agricultural Servants.

1885: White’s Directory, William Radley, farmer, victualler, Ferry Boat Inn and Ferryman.

1887: Elizabeth Radley dies

Radley family move to Retford.

This was the end of the Ferry Boat Inn. A collision between the Ferry and a Trent Navigation Co. barge sank the ferry. A court case between the Trent Navigation Co. and the owners of the ferry, the Foljambe family, resulted in the Foljambes losing and not providing a replacement.

Littleborough Ferry was large enough to carry both carts and passengers. Judging by the remains of the winch and pulley still on the bank, it would have been a chain link ferry, similar to ferries still operating today in Poole Harbour, Truro and Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

This was the final blow to the Ferry Boat Inn. The population of Littleborough had declined dramatically, never a large village, it had fallen from a high of 84 people in 1851, to 49 in 1901. As it had, since Roman times, Littleborough relied on the ferry crossing for trade and without it; the Ferry Boat Inn became economically unviable. It turned into what it is now a private house.

A simple rowing boat ferry, for foot passengers, continued to operate until the early 1950’s.

From 1900 onwards there are no records of who lived at Ferry House, I am not even certain of what this house has been called over the years. I have seen references to Ferry Farm and Trent Bank Farm. (ed. It seems that is was known locally as the “Old Bar House” in 1901 an 1911 census, occupied by the Ellis family in 1901 and J Whitehead, J Barlow and Mrs. Ashworth in 1911)

For two hundred and twenty two years, from 1665 to 1887, from the Great Plague of London to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the Ferry Boat Inn had been providing hospitality to anyone who needed it, and it does to this day.

The Mystery of the

Fisherman & the Fiddler

Did the wedding, in the story The Fisherman & the Fiddler, actually take place, or was it just fiction.

If it really happened, who was Polly of the Ferry Boat Inn, Farmer Brown, Dame Dinah Brown and the Landlord? Did Zed and Phil play in this kitchen?

If the story is based on fact, then the wedding would have had to have taken place between 1805 and 1845, the year of Thomas Cooper’s birth and the publication of Short Stories. We know that William Wilkinson was the Innkeeper in 1820, when Thomas Cooper was only 15, so the story must be based later. However the big problem is that William & Elizabeth Wilkinson had no children. So who was Polly?

I then found a clue to the identity of Polly.

William Wilkinson had no children, but his elder brother, John, did.

1841: Census, John Wilkinson is living in Church Street, Sturton-Le-Steeple, with his daughter Lucy, aged 25.

1842: January, John Wilkinson dies.

1842: 20 July, Lucy Wilkinson marries, not Farmer Brown but Farmer Black and becomes Lucy Black, the next owners of the Ferry Boat Inn.

Now the pieces of the jigsaw all come together.

In 1842, after the death of her father, Lucy would be taken in by her nearest relative, Uncle William Wilkinson, her mother Jane having died in 1837. When she marries it would be from the Ferry Boat Inn, but the wedding would take place in Sturton, not Littleborough, because that is where she came from.

So we can place the wedding to 20th July 1842. Polly is Lucy, honest young Farmer Brown is to be the future adulterous Farmer Black, the bluff Landlord is William Wilkinson. It also fits with Thomas Cooper and I am sure he was there. In 1842 he had returned from London and was editing a Chartist Journal, “The Midland Counties Illuminator”. In 1843 he was charged with Sedition for his part in promoting the 1842 riots in the Pottery towns and spent two years in Stafford Gaol, where he wrote “Short Stories”, amongst other works.

The final confirmation came when I looked into Farmer Brown’s Grandmother, Dame Dinah Brown, who threw the shapes on the dance floor with the Landlord. In 1841, the year before he married Lucy, William Black was 22 and living in West Drayton with Thomas Black, 64, his Grandfather and Dinah Black, 64, his Grandmother. Dame Dinah Brown is Dame Dinah Black.

Unfortunately, in the 1841 Census for Torksey, I could find no references to Zed or Phil, fisherman or fiddler. Maybe they were fictional, but everybody else was real, although names were changed, so why not

Zed and Phil.

The Fisherman and the Fiddler
Thomas Cooper
Published 1845

The little ferry of Littleborough was at length gained, and Zed leaped as
gaily on shore as if he were yet in his youth, and then handed Phil out,
with his fiddle-case under his arm; and when the skiff was moored,
away they hasted to the “Ferry-Boat Inn,” as the humble public-house
was loftily termed, and where the intended wedding and merry-making
was about to be held. After half-a-dozen hearty gripes of the hand, and
as many congratulations on their good looks, the two old men were
zealously pressed to “eat and drink, and not spare,” by the bluff
landlord. And, nothing loth, Zed and Phil sat down on the long-settle,
and made free with a good hearty beef-steak pie, and a tankard of ale;
and the landlord was ready to fill again ere the latter was fairly empty.
“Don’t ye be dainty about it, my hearties,” said he, “for the youngsters
will be downstairs soon: they’ve been dressing this I don’t know how
long; and you’ll ha’ plenty to do, I warrant ye, when they happen to find
that you’re come: so do justice to your fare!”
And anon the bride that was to be was brought downstairs by a crowd
of laughing lasses, and, blushing like the May, was placed in a chair
adorned with flowers; and soon the lads burst in with the bridegroom,
all in best array of plush and velveteen; and when he stepped up to the
chaired beauty for a morning’s buss [Ed.—’buss’—A caress with the lips],
the lads pulled him away and said “nay”; and then all clapped their
hands with delight when they first saw Zed and Phil in the corner, and
all shouted, as if they were mad, for a good thumping ditty that would
put mettle in their heels.
So Phil struck up first “Malbrook’s gone to battle,” and then “Gee-ho,
Dobbin,” and then “Grist the Miller,” and then “She will and she won’t,”
and then “Nelly is gone to be married”; and each lad took his lass, and
led up or followed the dance to the capers of Phil’s bow, till “The
parson’s come!” resounded through the kitchen; and the marriage-
procession was immediately formed, and the kitchen was deserted, for
even Zed and Phil went off, the one to see, and the other to hear, lovely
Polly of the Ferry-Boat Inn given away to sprightly and honest young
farmer Brown that morning, at the neighbouring parish church of
The ceremony over, and the kitchen regained, feasting, fun, and frolic,
were the order of the day. Phil’s fiddle and Zed’s throat were worked till
the owners of them could scarcely work longer; and oh, the tales that
Phil told, and the songs that Zed sung, in the course of that merry
wedding-day!—why, the like of ’em could not be said or sung by man or
maid, wife or widow, within all Christendom!
Don’t imagine, either, that the fun and frolic were partaken of merely by
the younkers: let me tell you, that even the fat landlord himself,
although verging on fourscore, caught so much of the spirit of the time,
that he jumped up, all of a sudden, after watching the nodding head and
smirking face of Dame Dinah Brown, the grandmother of the
bridegroom, and discerning how she began to fidget, like himself,—I say
he jumped up all of a sudden, and, seizing her hand, whirled her away,
not in the least unwilling, to show the young lads and lasses that they
had not forgotten a quick step, and all that, as old as they were. And, by
jingo! how all-alive did Phil look, while he screwed up his catgut for a
new strain; and never was anything seen in mortal man more wonderful
than the ecstatic changes of his blind face, while he struck up “Green
leaves all grow sere!” as an accompaniment to the frisking feet of Dame
Dinah and the fat old landlord.
And then he changed the strain for one of rich merriment, while his
sightless and strangely expressive countenance depicted every shade of
wild and wilder glee, and vibrated throughout its whole surface with
every thrill of the melody and gambol of the bow; insomuch that more
than one youth forgot everything around, and stood gazing at Phil’s
face, thinking they would never forget how it looked, if they lived even
to be as old as Methusaleh.
On and on the aged dancers skipped, and “crossed” and “set,” looking as
gleeful as if they had never known what it was to be grave, until,
streaming with sweat, and fairly wearied out with the mad employment
they had been giving their heels, and to which they had been strangers
for many a long year, they were constrained to sit down, avowing,
meanwhile, that “they only wished they were young again, for then they
would show the youngsters what a bit o’ dancing was in their time!”
When the sun had set, Zed began to feel some degree of uneasiness to be
gone. There was the Trent to voyage, for at, least three miles, in order to
reach their home at Torksey, and Zed knew the stream would be
somewhat swollen, but much more he feared the state of his own upper
story, since he had not been able to resist the pressing invitations and
challenges, first of one and then of another, and, consequently, his
potations had been somewhat numerous. Having given Phil the hint,
Phil began to complain of exhaustion as to his tale-budget, and of the
power of his nerves to direct the bow; but it was long ere this would
avail, and many a roaring ditty was launched forth from the thunder of
Phil’s catgut, amid the thundering heels of the country lads and lasses,
before the two aged cronies could manage to obtain leave, once more, to
launch their little boat, and strike off for home. The farewell chords were
at last struck, the fiddle was boxed; and, accompanied to the water’s
edge by a merry company, Zed and Phil pushed off from shore amidst
the hearty cheers of the merry-makers. Then, each taking his oar, as
usual, away they went with the tide that now swept up the river’s