©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 02, 2017
Webpage updated: January 24, 2021




The right to operate a ferry from Sutton Harbour to Hooe dated from 1281.  No information exists, however, until circa 1860 when a Mr Dickie Pearn worked a service from Hooe Quay for 6d. 

Then in 1869 two companies started to run steamboats.

The Plymouth, Oreston and Turnchapel Ferry
at Phoenix Wharf, circa 1906.
From a postcard.

The Oreston Steamboat Company ran "Little Pet" and "Favourite", both built in 1869, and the Turnchapel Steamboat Company operated "Greyhound" (which was also used for towing sailing vessels) and "Eclipse".

A Turnchapel and Oreston ferry boat leaving Phoenix Wharf.
Note the full load of passengers on the top deck.
From a postcard.

A joint committee of the two Companies was formed in 1871 by Mr Henry E Elford, who later that year founded the Oreston and Turnchapel Steamboat Company.   To encourage punctuality, crews were fined 1s 6d if their boat left more than five minutes late.  By this time the boats were "Greyhound", "Eclipse", "Beagle" and "Lightning" although the first two were sold in 1873.  In 1874 there were two 22-ton boats, "Wideawake" and "Nick o’Time" but by 1880 only the "Lightning" was left, shortly to be joined by the "Lily", which was purchased from a Mr Greaney who had been running her in competition.

A ferry for Turnchapel and Oreston at Phoenix Wharf, Plymouth

The Plymouth, Oreston and Turnchapel Ferry
at Phoenix Wharf, circa 1936.
From a postcard.

In 1886 the "Lily" was rebuilt and renamed "Swift".  In 1885 Mr Greaney had been operating another vessel in competition, the "Teaser", but the Company dealt with that problem by buying a superior vessel, the "Express".

The service was from Oreston to Turnchapel to Plymouth’s Mayflower Steps, the fare being 1d between any two of the places served.  This was later increased to 2d or 3d return.  Skippers were paid £1 3s per week plus an extra 3s for working the Sunday half-day service.  Smoking and bad language were forbidden and the crews were required to pay for any damage they or their vessels caused.

Phoenix Wharf in 1938.
From the author's collection.

In 1881 the Company started to land at Mount Batten as well and this proved so popular that they ran a Plymouth to Mount Batten only service.  After the Phoenix Wharf Pier was opened in September 1895, the Company transferred its vessel from the Barbican to the new Pier.

On August Bank Holiday 1905 the ferries carried over 10,000 passengers.

By this time the fleet comprised the "Dart", "Rapid", "Lively", "Swift" and "May Queen".   River excursions were begun in 1894 with an iron steamer, the "Countess of Morley", which was sailed from Liverpool by the brothers C and B Elford.  She ran until 1903.

The "May Queen" was designed by Sidney Elford and also did excursion work from 1902 onwards.  Later excursion steamers were the motorship "City of Plymouth", new in 1929, and the ex-Torpoint ferry "Lady Beatrice", purchased in 1932.

The "Lively" was chartered during the Great War as a liberty boat but she was returned in 1915 so damaged that the Company would not accept her until full repairs had been carried out.

Henry Elford retired in 1916 and was replaced by his son, William, who continued until 1940.

The Royal Flying Corps took over Mount Batten in 1917 and closed it off to pleasure steamers.  In 1932 the Company could have purchased the ailing Tamar Trading Company but declined, which was a fateful decision.

Late in 1939 the "May Queen", "Lady Beatrice" and "City of Plymouth" were all requisitioned by the Admiralty and never returned to service.  In 1940 the service ceased at 9pm and William was succeeded by his brother Clarence.  In 1941 the "Swift" was badly damaged by an incendiary and in 1942 the "May Queen" was sunk near Saltash after colliding with an armed trawler.

After the Second World War a new, diesel "May Queen" was built for excursions work and occasionally used on the ferry.   But in 1948 the Western National Omnibus Company extended their motor bus service to Turnchapel and Mount Batten and decline set in.  However, in 1949 another vessel, the "Sweet Marie", was bought at auction for £1,270.  She did not survive long.

Henry Elford’s grandson, Harry, took charge in 1950.  The "Lively" was sold in 1951.  In 1954 the "Swift" was gutted by fire and rebuilt with diesel engine, a new wheelhouse and a squat funnel.  She re-entered service on Friday May 21st 1954 by taking part in a river trip for 600 school children from Exeter.  By 1955 Harry Elford was advised to retire for health reasons but when the Company was put up for auction there were no bidders.  Fares increased to 4d in 1955 and 5d in 1956, in which year the "Rapid" was gutted of her engines and boiler and sold as a houseboat.

In 1957 the Company was split up and sold in lots.  The "May Queen" was bought by the Millbrook Steamboat & Trading Company and renamed "Eastern Belle".  The ferry service was taken over by Mr C A Partridge of Plymouth and renamed the Plymouth & Oreston Steamboat Company and a motor oat, the "Tiger", was introduced.  She was no real substitute for the saloon steamers, apparently.

Two more vessels were acquired, the "Ivie" and the "Noela", which ran from Plymouth to Turnchapel in 8 and 13 minutes respectively.  The "Swift" was sunk in a hurricane and the Company abandoned the service in 1965.

Crews worked as follows:             Day 1 from 1pm until 10pm.

                                               Day 2 from 6.30am until 2.30pm.

                                               Day 3 from 6.30am until 1pm.

However, a 15-hour day was not unknown in the high season.