A visit to Topsham Museum recently revealed a new exhibition looking at the crossing of the Exe at Topsham. As you might expect, both the ferry and pub were featured in it and it was with much interest that I read about the history of our beloved ferry. Given that we celebrated our annual Topsham to Turf Ferryman’s Swim last weekend (raising money for Estuary League of Friends), I thought exploring the heritage of the ferry and it’s connection with the pub might be the perfect first post for this blog.
Although there would have been folk crossing the Exe by small boat for a long time before and an unofficial crossing at the Strand during the Civil War, it wasn’t until 1736 that Benjamin Buttell and John Wear were granted permission to make a path suitable for ‘man and horse’ at a landing place on the Newlands Salt Marsh across from Topsham. The annual rent was a princely 2 shillings and sixpence accompanied with the vague condition of repairing the landing place when necessary. The Passage actually preceded the official ferry though with a pub opening on the current site in 1721.
From the inception of both, the ferry and pub have been intertwined both through ownership and supply of ferrymen. By 1800, the ferry had several owners including one Thomas Parker, probably the son of the T N Parker whose name is on a plaque by the front door of the Passage dated 25th July 1788. Another ferry owner who left his mark at the pub was Charles Hall whose name is engraved on a stone trough with the year 1859. His daughter married Edward Harbottle whose heirs eventually sold the rights to the ferry to Heavitree Brewery in 1928, a connection that has remained until this day.
Before the rights went to Heavitree though, it was a Robert Bolt who was publican of the Passage from 1891. From the information in the museum, apparently he and his eight brothers were all known to have manned the ferry at times and were something of a novelty in that when residents strolled by, there always seemed to be a different Bolt boy onboard. Robert himself though, was the real ferryman and, seaman until the end, he rowed the ferry until his death in 1936 aged 86.
The ferry rights were then sold to St Thomas Rural District Council in 1943 and so the commercial link with the pub ended. Following this, the rights were handed to Exeter City Council in 1966 who from that day, have employed a ferryman to run the crossing. Over the last 40 years there have been 3 ferrymen, Stan Pym, Mike McCabe and since 2004, our beloved Mike Stevens who oversaw the launch of a new ferryboat, named ‘Shimmer’ in 2011. And although the Council might now run the ferry, it’s intertwined roots with the Passage House Inn were commemorated at the same time by the stain glass panels that hold pride of place over our bar. Aylesglass were commissioned to make six panels that combined fused glass and leadwork and they created a stunning piece that simultaneously fits in with the old building around it but also grabs your attention. As well as featuring St Margaret’s Church and some of old Topsham, Mike himself is pictured rowing a ferry back to Topsham from the other side.
So there you have it, the Topsham ferry and Passage House Inn have endured together since 1721. I’ll pause for a second, 1721…almost 300 years ago (I foresee an almighty birthday party in 2021)! I just find it incredible that an establishment can have endured for such a phenomenally long time. It has remained standing and strong through major wars, the death of Kings and Queens, the changing of governments and on a more local level, through floodings, births, deaths, weddings and numerous publicans. Take a moment to pause and think about all that has happened over the last 300 years next time you walk through that crooked wooden doorway and all that the ancient walls have witnessed – I know I will.
Thank you to Topsham Museum for their exhibition ‘Crossing the Exe’ which provided much of the history for this post.