History of the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company and its Connection With Knoll House.

A hundred and fifty years ago there was relatively little need for transport across the mouth of Poole harbour. Swanage was a small fishing village and a convenient place from which to ship the stone taken from the coastal quarries between Swanage and Worth Matravers. Studland was a backwater dedicated to smuggling, farming and fishing - probably in that order. Sandbanks was a large isolated sand dune. Bournemouth and its suburbs only existed as a collection of small villages. Wareham had been quite an important town centuries before; for many years smaller sea-going vessels could sail up the river to its quay. Poole was the main centre of commercial activity and had strong links with Newfoundland. Any residents of Studland wishing to go to Poole and the mainland would take the track across the heath behind Knoll House, still visible, and then a boat from Goathorn Point or from one of the bays on the harbour side of the peninsula. Below Knoll House, on what is now the ferry road, the heath draining into the Little Sea formed a swamp which could be crossed precariously at what is known as Pipley Bridge.

The Bridge History

In 1904 a curious scheme was proposed by a company formed by Lord Wimborne, Sir John Burt (Swanage) and Mr Bankes (Kingston Lacy; owner of Studland peninsula). Branksome Park and Swanage Light Railway Scheme was formed with capital of £68,000. They had in mind a tramway between Canford Cliffs and Swanage. At Sandbanks it "was proposed to erect a tower on either side of the water, and, by means of a cage and chain arrangement, to swing the cars across to the opposite bank and thence continue the system to Swanage". A similar method to the Middlesborough transporter bridge. Eady and French were the engineers. By 1906 its capital had grown to £266,000. Power was to come from the Bournemouth Electricity Supply Co. An enquiry was held by the Light Railway Commissioners on 26th March 1906. The scheme was opposed by the Poole Harbour Commissioners and Poole Corporation and the commissioners refused it.

In 1929 - 30 the Ferry Company's own proposal that a bridge be built was defeated in the House of Commons by 4 votes because there was no local support. The plan shows a circular ramp leading to a bridge suspended on two towers 120 ft above the spring tide high water mark. The central span was to be 600 ft between the towers. The bridge would have taken a SW direction and then SE to land by the boatyard.

Another proposal came in 1955 and also failed for lack of local support.

Every few years, letters appear in the local press urging that the ferry be replaced or supplemented by a bridge. There has never ever been any real prospect of a bridge being built. At a guess, a 3 acre piece of Sandbanks, the highest-priced land outside central London, would have to be purchased for access, and the houses demolished. The final bill would be so enormous, £40m - £50m, that either a high toll would have to be charged or local ratepayers would be saddled with a subsidy. Central government could not justify such a scheme. In the summer months Studland reaches saturation point early in the day. The ferry service has always stemmed the flow to a degree.

The height of the radio mast and antennae of Brittany Ferries' `Barfleur', in empty state, is 139 ft above the waterline, making any previous bridge plans on the small side and even less likely to be taken up than before.

Formation of the Ferry Company

Early last century a row-boat service operated in the summer months, when the tidal race was favourable. The name `Shell Bay', for South Haven, began to be heard, coined by the ferrymen as a tourist lure. In 1908 James Harvey started a motor boat service; his successors operated it until the 1960s and then a general harbour boat service until 1997.

In 1914 Poole Harbour Commissioners were keen for a vehicle ferry service to be operated across the harbour mouth between North and South Haven but plans were shelved until after the Great War.

The impetus behind a car ferry service in this location came from Mr Frank Aman, businessman and hotelier (Alum Chine Hotel) of Totland Bay on the Isle of Wight. He was assisted by his two sons, Gerard, an engineer, and Arthur, a stockbroker. They were instrumental in starting the company and were also the largest individual shareholders, maintaining their family connection until 1961. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was the first chairman.

The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company came into being on 31st July 1923 when an Act of Parliament received the Royal Assent, so becoming law and giving the necessary powers for this statutory company to be created. The Act allowed the company to charge a toll on the road it was to build from South Haven to Studland. Land was acquired from the Bankes Estate under the provisions of the 1923 Act. The road was to be laid on a strip 50 ft wide; 25 ft for the road and 12.5 ft either side for the verges, as far as Hardy's Road leading to the main beach car park below Knoll House. Its responsibility then extended to the 'phone box in Studland village but no toll was permitted for this section, recently adopted by Dorset County Council.

Capital for the venture was raised by the issue of shares and work commenced on building the slipways and the new road from Studland. An order was placed for Ferry No. 1, with J. Samuel White, a firm of shipbuilders on the Isle of Wight.

A road construction company was formed within the ferry company. Edwin Burt of Purbeck House, Swanage, was the director primarily responsible. He was also a director of John Mowlem Ltd. Chalk was not good enough ballast for the foundations. Purbeck stone was used for the slipways and the road. It came from local quarries, mostly from the cliff-face quarry at Seacombe, between Dancing Ledge and St. Aldhelm's Head. Barges carried the stone round by sea for the slipway foundations whilst stone for the road was brought by primitive, one-speed lorries and Sentinel steam-driven wagons via Worth Matravers, Langton Matravers and Swanage. There was suspicion that the tonnage of stone delivered might not correspond to the amounts invoiced and so a weighbridge was set up beside the site office at the end of Hardy's Road.

The boggy ground at the Studland side of the Goathorn track swallowed prodigious amounts before a wide enough firm base was obtained. A 50 ft culvert and much stone took care of Pipley Bridge. Delays meant that the ferry was ready before the road was finished.

Photographs of the road construction, given by the ferry company, can be seen at Knoll House, next to the reception desk.

Start of the first ferry service to carry vehicles

It was almost three years after the Act of Parliament was passed before the ferry began its service on July 15th 1926. Ferry No. 1, built by J. Samuel White on the Isle of Wight, was coal-fired and steam-driven. Originally constructed for 15 cars, it was soon modified to enable 18 cars to be carried. The service was popular from the start and in the first rather short summer season 100,000 passengers and 12,000 cars were ferried across the 350 yard harbour mouth.

The Duke of Hamilton and Knoll House

Knoll House was built by the Bankes family in the late 1890's and leased (circa 1905) to the Duke for his long summer holidays. He, his family and servants would travel by rail in their private carriages from Scotland to Swanage. The thought of a road bringing charabancs through the front garden of Knoll House was too much to bear and the Hamilton family left in 1924. (The copper items displayed in the main lounge, marked E.A.H. or I.H., were forgotten in a cupboard.)

By 1930 Knoll House presented a sorry picture, boarded up, paint peeling and garden overgrown. A young hotelier from Dorchester, F. Chris Smith, and his wife Marjorie (`Poppy') saw its potential as a hotel and obtained the leasehold in December 1930 for £225 per annum with an option to buy the freehold for £7,000, swiftly taken up. Knoll House Hotel opened on 31st March 1931 with a handful of bedrooms for 20 guests, charging about 6 guineas a week. It is most unlikely that Knoll House Hotel would have been conceived without the arrival of the ferry road and Chris Smith's timely day out by the sea.

The service in war time

At the outbreak of World War II a restricted ferry service was introduced. Later, after the fall of France, the ferry and the whole peninsula were taken over by the military and closed to the public for the duration. Knoll House was requisitioned by the Army for a company (100 men) to be stationed there and closed in August 1940. The furniture was removed for storage. The NAAFI operated in the children's dining room. The beach and dunes were fortified with pillboxes, trenches and wire. In 1943 Studland Bay and the heath behind it became a battle-training area for the troops who were to take part in the D-day landings in France. Famous men of those days who visited the area and may well have travelled along the road, if not actually on the ferry, were King George VI, Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower. They visited Knoll House for refreshments after observing experimental beach defence exercises.

Resumption of the service in peace time

At the end of the war the ferry was in need of an extensive refit and the road, too, required substantial repairs to bomb and shell craters, as well as the removal of tank traps and `Dragon's Teeth' obstacles, so it was not until 1946 that the service was able to resume. Ferry No. 1 carried on gallantly for another 12 years but the refit periods became longer and the service was bedevilled by breakdowns.

Knoll House also needed much attention and did not re-open until July 1946.

The 1940's and 1950's

For a short while, a second ferry was used during the extended refits of Ferry No. 1. Ferry No. 2, as this additional ferry was known, was also steam-driven and had been purchased from its previous owners after it became redundant on the East to West Cowes service, across the river Medina on the Isle of Wight. It was a small ferry with space for only 8 cars and was really too small for use on winter service, even in those days. On the other hand it was better than nothing.

By the mid-1950's it was decided to replace the original steam ferry. The alternatives considered were a new ferry or a bridge, whichever met with most favour and support from local people. Many were against the idea of a bridge which would need to be at high level and would have dominated the skyline for miles. It was clear that any proposal to build a bridge would not gain sufficient support from the various local authorities and a new ferry was ordered instead.

Ferry No. 3

Ferry No. 3, built by J. Bolson & Son Ltd at Poole, was diesel-electric powered and carried a maximum of 28 cars. It had an overall length (including prows) of 157 feet, a beam of 42 feet 6 inches and a draught, when loaded, of 3 feet 6 inches. It was equipped with three Ruston diesel engines and normally operated on two of these, although it could run on only one engine when necessary. This was a useful feature and meant that at least one engine acted as a spare at all times. Also, repairs and strip-downs could be carried out without making any changes to the scheduled service times.

During the 35 years that it was in service Ferry No. 3 proved to be very reliable. Annually the ferry carried something in the order 650,000 vehicles of various sorts, up to the then 10 ton weight limit, and, if vehicle passengers are included, well over 1 million people. Ferry No. 3 helped enormously to popularise the service which, over the years, attracted a core of regular users and provided a unique experience for visitors to the area, many of whom were prepared to wait in quite long queues. Such was their affection for the ferry that on its last run, at 11 pm on 17th January 1994, it was accompanied by a full load of festive sentimental regulars.

J. Bolson's ship-building yard, now the RNLI headquarters, was closed in the 1972. (Thanks for the exact year to Mr Graham Blake, one of the engineering apprentices who were all made redundant.) Sadly, in April 1998 they announced the closure of their remaining ship repair facility. They made many of the landing craft used on D-Day, June 1944.

The 1960's and 1970's

The period since the last war has seen many changes. Knoll House was purchased by Col. Kenneth Ferguson in 1959 and is now run by his sons Michael (M.D.) and Christopher. The ferry's connection with the Aman family ended in 1961 when the Raglan Property Company purchased the vast majority of the shares. Frank Aman, had died just before the war and one of his sons, Gerard, died soon after it. His other son, Arthur, was not in a position to oversee the running of the company on his own and so Raglan were able to buy the business.

Raglan soon drew up plans for a larger ferry with a capacity of some 40 cars. Of much more interest to them, though, was their project for building development of the South Haven. These plans were presented to Mr Bankes, through his agent, Mr Rhodes. He had no need to sell land at South Haven, nor any wish to see land entrusted to him turned into another Sandbanks. He did not even grant the eager Raglan representatives the opportunity of a meeting, all to their utter amazement.

Before building of the new ferry could commence the property market suffered a recession due to the mid-1960's oil crisis. Raglan's interest in the ferry probably diminished after Mr Bankes' decision. The property market remained depressed for some time and as a result Raglan themselves experienced protracted financial difficulties and had to cancel their plans for the new vessel. In the early 1980's Raglan's problems increased and the ferry company, which at this time was held by their bankers as security, had to be sold as part of another round of financial restructuring. Property companies and banks do not normally operate ferry companies so it was not long before it was sold to its present owners, Fairacres Group Ltd (formerly Silvermist Properties [Chelmsford] Ltd., a firm with shipping experience in the South Atlantic).

New owners

Fairacres is very much a family concern. Mr Rodney Kean and his family take a deep interest in the company, its staff, operations and safety. In the relatively short period since the company came under the Fairacres / Silvermist wing, a good many improvements have been made. Both slipways have been completely rebuilt, mains electricity laid on to Shell Bay, the old wooden buildings replaced with a modern office, a roundabout and new toll booths with a computerised toll system. Some of the changes were made to improve the method of toll collection prior to the introduction of the present ferry. Until this time electricity at Shell Bay was supplied by generators of all sorts, even a small windmill erected by Mr Edmonds, an employee who lived there.

The original Studland side fare and toll collection point was from a wooden hut below Knoll House at Pipley Bridge, a place known for gnats and mosquitoes. A ferry employee had to stand on a rather exposed and risky island in the middle of the road, in all weathers, to sell and collect tickets. The toll box was moved to the middle of the road when Silvermist took over. After a short period it was removed altogether and fare collection was centralised at Shell Bay.

Electricity for the old toll box was supplied by Knoll House free of charge, via rudimentary poles and wiring down the roadside. The toll box was cold and damp in the winter, conditions alleviated by the permanent electric fire. In exchange for supplying the electricity members of the Ferguson family received season tickets for use on the ferry. On the odd times when the meter was balanced against a rough estimate of the number of ferry trips the arrangement was found to be of about equal benefit to both sides. Mains electricity now supplies the ferry office, the boatyard and cafe. In a generous gesture the ferry company granted Mrs Pauline Ferguson a season ticket for life.

'Bramble Bush Bay'

The present ferry `Bramble Bush Bay' came into service in January 1994. It is the fourth ferry but the first to have a Name, taken from a small bay south of the boatyard, where several house boats have been moored for at least the last 50 years.

At some 244 feet overall it is 87 feet longer than No. 3; it is wider by 12 feet and has a beam of 54 feet but the draught is virtually the same, 3 ft 9 ins, when fully loaded.

The most effective difference between this ferry and all its predecessors is the increased car-carrying capacity. It has a nominal capacity of 48 cars but can accommodate 52 without difficulty. Buses, coaches and large trucks now only take up two car spaces instead of the four occupied by these vehicles on Ferry No. 3. Previous ferries were not always popular with older or nervous drivers owing to the lack of space between the lanes. Car occupants now have more room and can easily get out of their vehicles to look around. Regular users try to be in the two right hand lanes because they are unloaded first !

In the 70 years or so since the company began operations the car-carrying capacity of the ferry has increased by 220 %, rising from 15 in 1926 to 48 cars today. Despite new and improved roads on the Wareham route round Poole Harbour, this crossing remains as popular as ever, if not more so.

The cost of building `Bramble Bush Bay' (Richard Dunston Ltd, Hessle on the Humber) was approximately £3.5m, including the slipway and marshalling area.

The charge for a car and driver's one-way use of the ferry and road in 1926 was 12.5p (2s 6d plus 3d per passenger). Since 1997,today (2003) it is £2.20 per car. Using strict R.P.I. progression the charge today should really be in the order of £4.10 per car and as much as £4.80 with three passengers!

Some Interesting Facts - The Chain

The Sandbanks end of the ferry is the bow; it is classified as a `floating bridge'.

Chains have always been used in preference to cable. They are stronger and heavier. The main section's links used to be made of mild steel. The end sections, where the heaviest wear takes place were of hardened steel. Recently a better system for renewal of worn chain has been adopted. The entire chain now is made of hardened steel and is delivered with an extra 55 yards on top of the length actually required for operation. The extra length lies along the road at the Studland side and reaches to the weight pit which supplies tension to the chain.

The wear and abrasion on the chain is greater at the Sandbanks side; the deeper water there means that there is more chain/slipway friction. When necessary, the worn section, about 20ft, is removed at Sandbanks and an equal length of `old' chain is added at the Studland side, with shackles: an operation which can be carried out several times. It could not be done at the Sandbanks side because there is nowhere safe to store the extra length of chain and shackled links will obviously not go through the drive wheels.

Each chain is 1,235 ft long (376.5 m), costs £24,000 (2006) and lasts 15 to 18 months. The chain is only powered on one side at a time, thus requiring less power and bringing the vessel better onto the slipway. The powered side is away from the flow of the tide, i.e. when the tide is flowing in the in-harbour chain powers the vessel. The channel is 51 ft deep (17.81 m). At 50 ft from the 244 ft long ferry the chain hangs at 14 ft depth. The 'Barfleur' cross-channel ferry has a draught of 17 ft. The new longer ferry has the effect of narrowing the safe area for passage over the chain, particularly when the ferry is lying at the Sandbanks side because the channel is mainly on the Sandbanks side of the entrance.

The chain wears on the concrete slipway and also between the links themselves, resulting in a lengthening of the chain. Two links have to be taken out every fortnight to maintain the optimum length and tension.

The old chain used to be purchased by a Midlands firm as the base for salmon farm nets in Scotland. Ideal for the purpose. Now it is used by local fishermen and boat owners as ground anchorage for moorings

These are the annual figures for traffic using the ferry. 1992/93 has been used for comparison purposes, being Ferry No. 3's last full year. Years ending 31st March. Refits are now biennual events, 2002, 2004 etc; the totals ebb and flow accordingly.




03/04 04/05
Pedestrians 200,312 169,213 188,898 172,233
Cycles & m/c 60,741 61,230 71,271 66,808
Cars/Light Vans 539,951 782,791 856,698 778,130
Trucks (2 tons+) 2,195 4,386 6,435 8,338
Buses & Coaches 8,446 8,644 9,448 8,809

Christopher Ferguson

Written 1998 with much help from Mr Nick Gosney, who retired as Operations Director of BSMRFC in December 2005. Mr Neil McCheyne is General Manager. Their website is at www.sandbanksferry.co.uk

Last updated March 2006