Tales From Fiddlers Ferry: Ferry Cross the Mersey

 To tie in with our current exhibition ‘Fiddler’s Ferry: Cloud Factory’ in which artists Shaun Smyth and Lee Harrison have documented the decomissioning of Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station we’re posting an occasional series of blog articles that look into the history of the Fiddler’s Ferry site. Last time we looked at the local legend of Bold Rob and the Cuerdley Griffin. This time we’re looking at how Fiddler’s Ferry actually became known as Fiddler’s Ferry.

Fiddler’s Ferry Power station actually takes it’s name from the Ferry Inn, now known as the Ferry Tavern, which stands on the site of an old ferry which once plied it’s trade across the River Mersey at one of the narrowest points in the river for miles in either direction.

The Ferry Inn, 1970s

This ancient ferry seems to have been linked to the nearby Norton Priory in some way, and probably existed as early as the 12th century, providing a short cut between Penketh on the north bank and Moore on the south. It was originally quite an isolated spot on the border between the historic counties of Lancashire and Cheshire, surrounded by the salt marshes of the Mersey estuary and agricultural land given over to pasture and growing crops such as barley, oats and wheat.

But where does the name “Fiddler’s” come from? Indeed, it might be better to ask where the name “Fidler’s” comes from as any local organisations maintain that the traditional spelling with a single letter ‘d’ is the correct one. The earliest use of the name dates from around 1831, and looking back through a number of historic documents reveals that since that time the name has been spelled variously as “Fidlers”, “Fidler’s”, “Fiddlers” and “Fiddler’s” for around a hundred years – often in successive paragraphs – until the Central Electricity Generating Board opted for “Fiddler’s Ferry” in the 1960s and this is the spelling that has subsequently stuck.

As for where the name “Fiddler’s” (or “Fidler’s”) comes from, there are three main theories …

The first is that name came from a former licensee of the Ferry Inn called “Fidler”. The problem with this is that no-one has yet traced a licensee of the Ferry Inn called Fidler. The first licensee of the Ferry Inn in 1762 was a Mr Warburton, who held the license until 1775. It was then held by members of the Ellison family until 1831, by which time the name “Fiddler’s Ferry” was already established.

The second theory is that a fiddle player accompanied the ferry on its journeys across the river. It’s a lovely idea, but there is simply no evidence for it.

The third, and most popular, theory is that the name maybe comes from the 12th century landowner Adam Le Vieleur. Adam had been granted the land on which the ferry operated in 1166. The theory runs that over time Vieleur’s ferry became “violer” –  i.e. a viol player – and then this became “Fiddler” (or “Fidler” in Middle English).

Former Pub Sign from the Ferry Inn depicting the Fiddler’s Ferry, 1970s

Whatever the truth of the matter Fiddler’s Ferry remained a relatively isolated spot until the 18th century and the coming of the first modern industrial canal in England – the Sankey Canal. In 1762, a 1.5 mile extension was built at the Southern end of the existing canal from Sankey Bridges to a new lock on the River Mersey at Fiddler’s Ferry. This was in order to bypass a particularly narrow and winding stretch of the Sankey Brook, one which was only navigable at high tides. Fiddler’s Ferry soon became a popular stopping off point for the river barges known as “Mersey flats” as they transported their loads of coal from the Lancashire coalfields to Liverpool, and it’s likely no coincidence that the Ferry Inn was founded the same year that the canal was extended to the spot.

With the arrival of the canal Fiddler’s Ferry was now the meeting point between four modes of transport – the River Mersey, the ferry, the Widnes to Warrington road and the canal. It was not long before a fifth mode was added with the arrival of the railway. “Fidler’s Ferry & Penketh Station” was opened here in 1853, part of the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway, later acquired by London and North West Railway Company. It was situated at what is now the south end of Station Road in Penketh.

The ferry service across the Mersey was discontinued in the late 19th century when the Manchester Ship Canal cut off access to the southern bank, whilst the Sankey Canal began to fall into disuse in the 1930s. The station operated for a little under a century until it was closed to passengers on 2nd January 1950 and then closed completely on 2nd December 1963. The tracks through the station site stayed in almost constant use until the 21st century however, primarily used by trains delivering 100,000 tonnes coal every day to Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.

‘Fiddler’s Ferry: The Cloud Factory’ runs at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery until Sunday 2nd October 2022.