Humber Ferries: a summer job stoking the fires

The student summer job is a tradition that stretches back generations. Kirk Martin, (BA Economic and Social History, 1976) developed a fondness for the Hull-New Holland ferry during his time as a student the mid-1970s, and became a familiar face to the crew. When he needed a summer job, he found work as a ‘fireman’ on the Wingfield Castle.

In this poignant first-hand account of a crossover moment between Hull’s engineering and student history, Kirk recalls working summers on the river with all its grit, graft, and the occasional refreshing breeze across the estuary. 

Britain’s last paddle steamer ferry

Students coming up to Hull nowadays find a modern and vibrant city with good museums and a fine awareness of its heritage. I arrived at Hull University in the autumn of 1972 and exploring the narrow streets of the Old Town I came to Corporation Pier. Trawlers still passed by on their way to and from the Icelandic fishing grounds. It was at Corporation Pier that I discovered the last regular ferry service in Britain still being worked by coal-burning paddle steamers.

At that time, there were three vessels: the Lincoln Castle and the Wingfield Castle, which were operating the ferry service, and the Tattershall Castle, which was moored at New Holland Pier, having recently been withdrawn. You bought a ticket for the ferry at the booking office and walking down the ramp to step on the ferry was to go back in time. Crossing the car deck, you entered one of the side passageways that led past the engine room, where the triple-expansion steam engine was fully open to view, and then on past a small door, where you had a glimpse of a stokehold with a pile of coal in front of a boiler, and into the buffet.

Kirk Martin by the Humber
Kirk Martin by the Humber, 1970s

After watching the fireman in the stokehold, and lingering by the engine room to witness the mesmeric rising and falling of the connecting rods as they turned the heavy shaft linking the two paddles, you could go up to the deck to be buffeted by the breeze that always seems to blow across this wide estuary. A faint haze of smoke trailed behind you and, in the distance, and some way upstream, the long pier at New Holland could be seen and the other steamer approaching. Soon it is close enough to give a clear view of its paddles and the passengers leaning, like you, on its hand rail.

When not attending lectures at Hull University, I became a regular passenger on the ferries, taking photographs and making a cine film of both steamers in action. Making frequent crossings, I became friendly with the crew on both the Lincoln Castle and Wingfield Castle and, in particular, the firemen, one of whom invited me to join him in the stokehold after I told him I had fired steam engines on the railways. Firing the Wingfield Castle took some getting used to because, although the centre of the three fires was at a similar height to that on a locomotive, the two outside, or wing, fires were at face height and it took special skill to lift a full shovel up that high and send the coal hurtling over the fire to reach the back of the long, barrel-shaped firebox. I got to know John very well and had several trips with him on the Wingfield Castle, writing a short story about him in Green Ginger, the University literary magazine.

Summers trimming and pitching in the stokehold

At the end of my second university year, in June 1974, I needed a summer job and so went to see the ferry manager, in his office opposite Corporation Pier. I asked if they needed a fireman for the summer. I was sent over on a trial run and, grateful for my unofficial sessions in the stokehold of the Wingfield Castle with John, I was offered a job as a temporary fireman on the Lincoln Castle, starting the next day, covering for firemen taking their summer leave. I ended up working for the whole of that and the following two summers – often working 12 hour shifts if they were short handed. By this time Wingfield Castle had been taken out of service and the diesel-electric paddle vessel Farringford, which had been brought up from the Isle of Wight as a replacement, was operating the ferry alongside Lincoln Castle.

01-15 KMSCAN 23-18_Edited
The author at work, 1974

What was a day stoking a coal-burner like? Cycling down the ramp just before six in the morning, if on the early shift, I would clamber down the steps under the engine, dump my bag on a small table where we kept our tea things and duck under the edge of the boiler to enter the stokehold. Lincoln Castle had four fires, two central ones a couple of feet above the floor and two ‘wing fires’ at about face height. I would find that two fires had usually been cleaned by the fireman on the night shift, leaving the other two to be cleaned by the morning and afternoon men respectively. With luck, the nightshift fireman would have left me a long pile of coal shovelled out from the bunkers and laid opposite the fires; this was known as ‘trimming’ the coal.

If there was time before the first crossing, I would get started on the fire that had been burnt down for me by the night man. Cleaning a fire involved using heavy fire-irons, first to shift the burning coal down the box and then break the clinker at the near end, dragging it out to fall at my feet on the metal stokehold floor. I could then tackle the clinker at the far end of the firebox by pushing the live fire over to one side and breaking and dragging the clinker back. Dousing the pile of red hot clinker with buckets of water filled the stokehold with swirling ash and steam.

Next I needed to spread the live fire over the grate and build it up with fresh coal, which was known as ‘pitching’. I could then see a healthy glow in the ashpan, which had formerly been quite dark, through the now-clear fire-bars. I would then pitch the other three fires and, with all the fire doors shut and ashpan doors open, the steam pressure would start to come round towards the 200 lbs per square inch mark. With luck I got all this done before the bells rang out from the engine room telegraph, which told me that the ferry was about to depart on the first crossing. Once underway the fires might need a bit more pitching, especially if we had to go the long way around because of low tides and sandbanks. About half way over I would ‘box-up’ the ashpans by closing the doors, to bring the steam pressure back for the lay-over at New Holland.

The Humber's famous 'Dead Bod' landmark, Photo: John Daniel
The Humber’s famous ‘Dead Bod’ landmark, Photo: John Daniel

Dead Bod and hot handrails

As the tide receded we started making the longer crossings necessary to avoid the sandbanks. This could take up to forty minutes, and meant a journey downstream to ‘Dead Bod’. I wondered about these trips known as ‘Dead Bods’, until one day I was up on deck and a crewman pointed out some graffiti on a riverside warehouse. It was a picture of an upside down bird with its feet in the air – now the subject of a campaign to save it as a Hull and Humber icon!

I was occasionally booked to fire on a river cruise down to Grimsby or up to Goole. Once we had a one-way booking from New Holland to Grimsby, where our passengers left us. We returned empty, making fast progress on the run back to Hull. The stokehold became hot in the fierce glare of the fires and the hand rails were almost too hot to touch as I climbed up on deck for some fresh air, my face smutted with coal dust. It reminded me of the older firemen telling me of their time firing large ships in the merchant navy, with sealed stokeholds and forced draughts, where the hand rails were too hot to hold without rags in their hands.

I returned to the ferry each summer but the year 1976 was my last at the University. I left the Humber ferries in July as I was going on a long camping trip to the USA with my girlfriend but we returned to Hull in 1977 when I had the opportunity of a post graduate course. We were sorry to see the Lincoln Castle withdrawn in 1978 due to boiler problems but the ferry service continued with the Farringford until the bridge opened in 1981.

Ferries across the HumberThe Humber is very quiet now with nothing like the number of ships and trawlers passing up and down as there were in the 1970s and, of course, you can no longer take the ferry across from Hull to New Holland. The 1970s were exciting times for me but I still enjoy coming back to Hull and have had a book on the ferries, and the last coal fired paddle steamers, published. Called Ferries across the Humber it came out in October 2014 and is available from Amazon or direct from the publishers Pen & Sword for around £25.

©Kirk Martin (BA History, 1976)

14 thoughts on “Humber Ferries: a summer job stoking the fires

  1. Really evocative and nostalgic article of memories before the Bridge. It describes a quite different era which was not all that long ago…..or was it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A different era? Yes, in oh so many ways. It was only 40 years ago, yet it seems like a lifetime. I used to enjoy walking round the old derelict docks with my camera, and wish the negatives at least of those photos had survived. Sadly, over many moves, they’ve all disappeared. Modern digital photography and storage is so much better!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi John
        Even in the ten years between our times at Hull, things clearly changed rapidly. In the mid sixties both the docks and the fish docks were still very active and not a derelict dock to be seen. Things like containerisation, personal computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and the Internet were science fiction…….clearly all make live easier but I still like a bit of nostalgia. What will the next forty years bring.?…..quite frightening to think but I doubt I will see it, unless they invent the ‘everlasting pill’ by then!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s the most interesting vacation job I’ve come across! I was a postgraduate sudent at Hull from 1972-4 and on 25 August 1974 I went on a cruise to Goole aboard PS Lincoln Castle organised by the Humber Paddle Steamer Group. Were you firing on that, Kirk?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tim. Just dug out my diary for 1974 and see I had a long weekend off so missed that one. It is good to see the responses to my article and I am glad it has brought back some memories as well as letting current students have a glimpse of the old Hull – a fascinating city then and now. Kirk


      1. Your note here that you had previously “fired steam engines on the railways” rang a bell – it now puts Chapter 4 of ‘Red Panniers’ in context for me! Tim.


  3. Hi… I travelled on a paddle steamer in the early 1970’s from Hull listening to a jazz band. I was drawn to the engine room and fascinated by the workings.

    As luck will have it I now find myself a shanty singer leading a song called Ned Rinkbinder, about a skipper on the Yukon river who ‘saved the day’ etc. when his paddllewheeler went aground. I would love to sing it on that ship sometime.
    Chorus (part) “you gotta load it up feed that fire…load it up get it hot..etc”

    Dave Wakeling 1971-74 Falmouth Shout shanty group (go on… do a search)


  4. Michael (Mike) Smith BSc(Econ) 1960 and PGCE 1961

    The comments concerning the Humber ferry brought back vivid memories of my time at Hull, travelling from home, in Lincoln normally by motor cycle. There was an attraction in the vacations and on teaching practice in Cleethorpes at Humberston Foundation. visiting my Cottingham girlfriend, fiancée before I left the university to take up employment with the RAF. I met Gill at the Union dance having gained entry anticipating playing, as usual, in the dance band and finding that we had not been booked – a saving of. 12.5 p (or in real money half a crown !). What a co-incidence that I have never regretted, marrying in March 1962.

    I spent the first term in Camp Hall, playing in the Smoker and subsequently on the rag float but made a financial error. If I left hall and went into lodgings thinking that I would be better off – oh no my LEA grant was cut accordingly.


  5. Hi there! I’m working with a group trying to set up a project based on the ferry journeys between the North & South bank of the Humber. Researching this I came across your article. Just wondering if you still have a connection to the Hull side and/or the other workers from the Ferry service? As we would like to link up with both sides to create a great community arts project for the City of Culture 2017! Would love to hear from you or if you have other ideas where we might get further information? Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m writing a short article about travelling on the Humber Ferries from around 1937 and have found all the comments from former students fascinating. My aunt would take her three small nieces across to New Holland, where my father had been born in 1909 when his father was the Coast Guard on the south shore., then we would take the train to Thornton Abbey, about three stops down the line and have a picnic, play some wide games then return having had a lovely day in the fresh air.
      I have lots of pother happy memories of the ferries, particularly when we had an entire family trip to celkebrate my father’s 70th birthday. Somewhere, somewhere I have a snap of us all which I hope to fnd in tme to include in the article for ‘Down Your Way’. Good luck with your research, Daphne Clarke, Richmond, N.Yks.


  6. By a strange coincidence I took a walk this morning around Hartlepool Marina and saw a largish boat called the Winfield Castle, awaiting restoration, is this the same one?


  7. I found this article as I was looking to see what happened to the 3 Humber paddle steamers that I knew back in the late ’50s and 60’s.

    I lived in Barton on Humber and Hull was our ‘big city’ for shopping and entertainment. Later I went to Hull Uni to read Physics and on many weekends, I returned home to Barton.

    I used to catch the first ferry on a Sunday morning before the buses had started and to do so I had to walk down Beverley Road, across the city, through the docks to Corporation Pier. Later, I became well enough known to the crews that I would get picked up by Skipper Harvey as he passed me on Beverley Road (if he was on early shift).

    Skipper Harvey used to invite me up on the bridge of his ferry where I watched on the radar as he threaded his way between the sandbanks through the mist and fog of an early winter morning.

    I left Hull in 1963 to go work abroad after graduating.

    Liked by 1 person

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