18 January 2023

Ferry Boats, Portslade

Judy Middleton 2002 (revised 2023)

copyright © J. Middleton
A postcard of the Aldrington Canal, showing a ferryman picking up passengers from the banks of Portslade Gas Works on the east ferry route from near the southern end of St Leonard's Road, Aldrington, Hove. c1920.

The small ferry boats that carried workers to and from Portslade Gas Works on the south side of the canal were constructed in the carpenter’s workshop at the Gas Works. The boats had a double-bowed construction because this was found to be the most stable design for a stretch of water that was often beset by fierce squalls; none of the boats ever foundered. A ferry boat could take twenty passengers at a time, and always carried two pairs of oars.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
1909 map modified to show the ferry routes at various times through the 20th century.

1930's maps show two ferry routes. The west route started off from a jetty south of the
Sussex Arms in Fishersgate Terrace, Fishersgate, Southwick and travelled south-east. In Edwardian times the east route originally  started from the bank opposite the southern end of St Leonard's Road in Aldrington, Hove, In 1920 a new ferry boathouse was built 120 yards to the west over the Hove Council's boundary in Portslade, opposite the southern end of Station Road, with the ferry still running from Aldrington (Hove) side of the boundary.

Late 1950s maps show the east ferry at Aldrington closed because of land development and replaced with a Portslade ferry crossing near the south end of Church Road opposite Flexer Sacks in Wellington Road. In the 1970s there was one canal crossing left and that was the Portslade ferry, marked in red in the above map, this ferry crossing served the Brighton 'A' and 'B' Power Stations in Southwick as the Portslade Gas Works was soon to be closed down. Use of the Portslade ferry gradually declined with wider car ownership in the 1960s-1970s, workers of the Power Stations would make the long car trip around the Aldrington Canal via Hove to 'A' & 'B' Power Stations.

 copyright © G. Osborne
An aerial view of the Portslade ferry boathouse with boats lined up in the water. The black fence marked the boundary between Portslade Urban District Council and Hove Council, to the right, out of view, is the refreshment hut in Aldrington, Hove.

In July 1913 when the Gas Works held their Annual Sports Day, the boats were placed at ‘the disposal of visitors and the boatmen were kept very busy’. According to Charles Ernest Moore, who was born in 1901, when his father worked at the Gas Works, one of his children would take his dinner wrapped up in a red-spotted cloth across the canal to him by boat.

 copyright © G. Osborne
1930s view of the building marked Ferry, which was the refreshment hut and starting point of the ferry crossing, which was just over the Portslade Urban Distict Council's boundary in Aldrington, Hove.

In 1920 a boathouse was built on the banks of the canal at the southern end of Station Road. It measured 24-ft in length, 15-ft in width, and 6-ft 7-in height. Nearby there was a small building, also erected in 1920, that served refreshments during the summer which was over the Portslade Urban District Council's boundary in Aldrington, Hove. It was of timber construction with a weather-boarded roof, and was 12-ft in length, 8-ft in width, and 7-ft in height. The business must have done well because in 1926 Mr W. Hamblin requested Council permission to extend his temporary building. There were many families with children who also used the ferries to reach the beach on the other side of the Gas Works. It was well worth the one penny fare because the beach was secluded and sandy – indeed the best beach for miles.

 copyright © G. Osborne
The Portslade ferry boathouse in the background, the refreshment hut with ladies at a counter and starting point of the ferry was over the Portslade boundary in Aldrington (Hove), at the top of the path is the Halfway House in Station Road, Portslade, c1920.

In the 1930s and 1940s Frank Lucas was the Gas Works ferryman. He enjoyed amateur theatricals and music, and he was often part of the Gas Works Concert Party. He also played the piano for the Gasco Rhythm Makers. Lucas was of ample girth, and he must have brought the house down the time he dressed up as a South Sea islander and sported a grass skirt.

 copyright © G. Osborne
This 1930s photograph shows four ferry boats on the west route, leaving Portslade Gas Works to cross to the Fishersgate (Southwick) side of the canal.

In 1956 H. Baker, an apprentice at boat-builder James Taylor’s in Shoreham, and his mate Bill Parkinson, built a 22-ft clinker double-ender ferry boat for the Gas Works at a cost of £600. Parkinson had collected the moulds from the Gas Works, and their boat was the last boat to be built for the Gas Works. (Evening Argus 29 October 1997)

copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
These ferry boats were photographed on 1 March 1934, in the background are buildings of Portslade Gas Works.

In October and November 1997 there was a flurry of letters in the local Press concerning the ferries and the ferrymen. It started off with a letter from Sheila Morris from New Zealand who remembered using the ferry to go and collect her father’s wages from the Gas Works. She said she did this errand in around 1937, before she was old enough to go to school, and it was the highlight of her week. She thought the ferryman was Mr Huggett. (Evening Argus 7 October 1997)

However, Sharon Ives was of the opinion that Sheila Morris was wrong about Mr Huggett, and that it was her grandfather Wallace Sharman who was the ferryman. (In fact there were several ferry boats). Mr Huggett lived next door to Mr Sharman, and he worked in Baker’s timber yard. (Evening Argus 17 October 1997)

Hazel Skribis wrote in to say that the Fishersgate ferryman was her grandfather John Wadey. He was a boat-builder, and took workers across the canal to the Power Station. Wadey also saved the lives of quite a few children who got into difficulties in the water. Wadey died in 1943. (Evening Argus 16 October 1997)

The ferryman issue had caused such interest that on the 18 October a large portrait of the very last ferryman was printed in the paper; it was taken in October 1937. John Mathias, a reporter from the Brighton & Hove Gazette intended the photo to accompany a story he had written about the ferryman but it was never printed. This was because of lack of space due to the extensive coverage of the Maria Colwell Inquiry. Unfortunately, Mr Mathias could not remember the ferryman’s name.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Workers squeeze onto the ferry boat to take them across the canal to Portslade Gas Works, c1930.

Three days later the ferryman’s son stepped forward to identify the Fishersgate ferryman as his father Fred Harlott who started to row workers to the Gas Works and Power Station after the First World War. He would also row passengers across the canal to reach the beach. Then Harlott’s god-son, Hector Watson, aged 75, of Worthing, said Harlott named all his boats after his daughters.

Peter Marshall’s letter stated that when he and his mates were youngsters in the 1960s, they would hire one of the boats from Fred Harlott for an hour, which cost 2/6d. Marshall always chose a boat called Doris because that was his mother’s name. Before their expedition took place, Harlott would lecture them about the dangers of the canal. (Evening Argus 7 November 1997)

In February 1931 it was Fred Harlott who lent his boat to go on a deep pond (where Vale Park is today) to search for a boy who had fallen off a makeshift craft, and it was he who recovered the body. Harlott died in 1987.

'Portslade Gassie'

On the east corner of Church Road and Wellington Road there is an artistic feature composed of a small rowing boat with a skeletal figure wielding the oars. On the north side stands an information board headed ‘The Portslade Gassie’. The text runs as follows:

During the last century, gas works were constructed across the canal to supply the increasing local population with their demand for gas. By 1926 the site occupied some 40 acres and provided work for local residents. These workers were ferried back and forth over the canal by small boats nick named “gassies”. The “gassies” were the most direct route for the staff and avoided a long walk along the coast to Aldrington and then back the other side.

copyright © J.Middleton
An artistic feature on the corner of Wellington Road photographed on 4 December 2015.

 copyright © D.Sharp
A volunteer spent many hours carefully restoring the Portslade Gassie. his boat and the immediate surroundings. The project was just nearing completion when sadely it was vandalised in April 2016.

However, this nickname 'Gassies' was not used for boats but for the men and women who worked at the Gas Works. People were proud to be known as Portslade Gassies. But the piece is still a pleasant reminder of an important part of Portslade’s history.
 copyright © G. Osborne
This rather uninspiring  'Greetings from Portslade-By-Sea' Edwardian postcard, only shows the end view of the Portslade Gas Works on the far bank of the canal, all other photographs shown are of Aldrington Shoreham and Southwick.

See Also Portslade Gas Works page 


Evening Argus

Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade

Mr Garry Osborne

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Thanks are due to Mr G. Osborne for allowing me to reproduce five of his wonderful photographs

copyright © J.Middleton 2023
page layout and additional research by D. Sharp