The Great Western Railway reached Hereford from Ross by 1855 and continued on to Hay in 1865. This inevitably signalled an to trading on the river by boat. And, with increasing wealth, growth in car ownership, and the closure of these two lines, there was a further move away from the river. And yet, even during these times of revolutionary change, some forms of river transport continued, quietly plying their trade.
As recent as 1965, ferries on the Wye at Hereford were carrying people, goods, bikes and prams across the river, and in the early part of the 20th twentieth century, there were three river crossings in Ross-on-Wye alone. And of course, in that tourist beauty spot of Symonds Yat, old habits have continued with little change. Chain ferries still cross the river and motorised boats take tourists up and down short stretches of water. The men and women continuing the tradition are still known today as ‘boatmen’. In their time, they could be rabble rousers when their ancient work practices were threatened, and in September 1971, they made headline news when they ‘invoked a 1696 statute to fight a by-law’ that threatened their livelihoods.
The boatmen are still there of course and work the river at Symonds Yat, but their numbers are a far cry from the heyday when the likes of the Williams, Pughs, Arscotts, Jenkins, Hattendorfs, Thornes and Robins worked the river in their war- vintage boats, with names like Indian Princess, Princess Pat, Imjin River, and Aboukir Bay.
In the early 1920s, Tom Preedy took over the ferry crossing business at Hunderton. Tom Preedy lived a few short strides from the ferry steps. No matter what the weather was like or the conditions of the river, he always turned out smartly for his river crossing job, usually in a three-piece woollen suit and always with a hat, wearing heavy leather boots, no neoprene or hi-vis jacket in sight. In quiet moments or slack times, he kept himself busy: he wasn’t just a boatman, he was also a shoemaker, and was often seen making shoes on the riverbank while waiting for customers.
The ferry crossing quickly became a family affair. Tom’s son, Walter, trained alongside his father from an early age, taking over the business in 1940, soon after his father retired. Walter kept the business running in the post-war period, renting the boats from the council for 2/6 a week. It was a busy period for the river crossing. Workers from the Hunderton area commuted to work at Bulmers or Barton yard sidings via the ferry, or walkers spending the day ambling up to Breinton and back, would take advantage of the crossing; it would be another 20 years before Greyfriars Bridge opened and the old railway bridge became available for walkers. The fare was one penny for adults, half penny for children and two pennies for a bike or pram.
During Walter’s tenure on the river, rival boat business (in pleasure boats hire), Jordan's, continued their boat trade downstream close to the old bridge (and closer to where the Greyfriars Bridge was built in 1967), but in 1950 it closed down. With the council deciding it no longer wanted the expense of a ferry boat, Walter took the decision to take on the ferry as a private concern in 1952/53. This proved to be popular and the family business continued. With his death in 1961, it fell to Ken, one of his eight children, to take over the business. Maybe the writing was on the wall even then, the world was changing, and Hereford was developing. Ken was to be the last Preedy to run a river crossing in Hereford.
Ken died on March 12th 2013. At St Martin’s Churchyard in Hereford his headstone bears the remarkable epitaph, ‘the last ferryman in Hereford’. It is a title he would have wanted and it was what his widow insisted upon. This well-liked man was the third and last generation of his family to operate the city’s ferry crossing at Hunderton, and his death bought to an end the city’s only remaining river boat crossing.
The opening of the Greyfriars Bridge in 1967 and the increase in car ownership had a knock-on effect on Ken’s business. Reluctantly, he increased the fare to sixpence per child and one shilling per adult to cover rising expenses. However, there was one passenger who never paid - a cat that travelled across the water daily and would reappear on the south bank some hours later ready for its journey home!