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Harty Ferry in History

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Harty Ferry Boat
Ferryman with his boat, probably an oyster smack, c1895

Even if you’re not a boat-owner or bird-watcher Harty Ferry is one of the most magical places in Kent. Unforgettable is the sight of sailing barges, with their ochre-washed sails, massed for the annual Swale Barge Race; but so also are the views of The Swale, and the Isle of Harty opposite, when the only vessels to be seen are perhaps a fishing-boat and motor cruiser. The light seems ever-changing; and in this remote spot you may have the company only of the birds for which it is such an important site. 

Not that it hasn’t seen its fair share of history. Harty is in the hundred of Faversham, not Milton, like the rest of Sheppey, and this is a clue to its past. Originally all that separated it from mainland Kent was a narrow channel. The Swale then flowed north of it, following the course of New, Cable and Muscle Creeks, now mere drainage ditches.

Still, a ferry was still needed. On the mainland side till the 1870s this was reached by a long tidal causeway from near Harty Ferry Cottages, because the intervening saltings had yet to be reclaimed. Once they had been reclaimed, they became ripe for development, and early in the 20th century the big factory of the Cotton Powder Company at Uplees was extended eastwards across them as far as the present hard. And for the Eley fuse company just east of the hard a new factory was built. Of this survives only its artesian well, welcome source of fresh water for so many boat-owners.

Now that much of the Cotton Powder Company site is a peaceful nature reserve it is hard to visualise it as the setting for a hi-tech chemical factory, complete with its own offices, power station, railway network and process plants. The fact that it had once been industrialised prompted a marina scheme in the 1960s, but this was turned down after the Faversham Society and Kent Wildlife Trust pointed out that the factories had closed in 1918 and that the site was now of international importance for its bird life.

In the local transport network the Ferry itself was once a key link. Thomas Arden, a big Faversham businessman in the 1540s, used it often to visit Sir Thomas Cheyne at his palatial home at Shurland, Eastchurch. His wife, Alice, passionately in love with another man, hired assassins to kill him. An incompetent pair of ruffians, they failed several times in their mission - once at Harty Ferry - before finally killing Arden in his own home in Abbey Street.

Till it ceased day-to-day operation at the onset of World War II the Ferry operated on demand, rather than a scheduled service. An oyster-smack seems to have been used in the 19th century. If there was no wind, it had to be rowed - quite a demanding job, bearing in mind the strong Swale currents. Also a risky job at times: in May 1854 the ferryman, named Coleman, drowned when his boat capsized in a squall.

Operating a cosy monopoly, the ferrymen tended to be surly. Marshall, who was operating the service in 1884, took pride in taking his time and trying his passengers’ patience. They were also expected to help out, when necessary. "A’ve got to unload that thar caart, so jest yer hang on to the boat. Keep her nose well in shore, or she’ll be carried down to Whitstable on the tide." They didn’t have to hang on for just a moment, either. Marshall had to holler at a mate a long way off to help him unload the cart. By the time he returned, their arms were aching with the strain of hanging on to the boat. He finally got them to their destination (the Oare side of the Swale on this occasion) and then cast off again without a word.

Every few years there is talk about reviving the Ferry, but usually nothing happens. Since Harty is about 45 minutes from Faversham by car, a service would be genuinely useful. Within sight are a welcoming pub and fascinating medieval church, after all.

Text and picture courtesy of Arthur Percival