Ford Channel -man made gateway to Waterford Port

On last month’s blog which gave the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790, I mentioned that I was surprised to see the Ford Channel given as an option.  This area was previously a crossing point to Little Island from the Kilkenny shore and this month I want to explore the channel, seen as crucial to the development of the port in the modern era.

Although the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790 mention the Ford, it also stated its limitations.  The preferred deep water access was via the King’s Channel.  Although longer, winding and with dangerous stretches, it was at least navigable on most tides.  The Ford was accessible only occasionally, and I would imagine probably only really useful to the Lighters and lightermen for several centuries of our maritime history.

A video description I shot of the Ford this year.

Ford Channel is on the northern side of Little Island, separated from Co Kilkenny by the fast-flowing River Suir.   Almost certainly the Suir originally flowed around what is now the Island, when the land was part of the county of Kilkenny.  At some point, the river, as is its wont, breached the land, finding a faster route to the sea, as water always does.  The name suggests that it originates with the practice of “fording” the river or a crossing point.

Although modern charts refer to the area as the Queen’s Channel, we never, ever used this term at home.  I will come back to this.

A personal favourite image of the Ford of mine is the Guide Bank Lighthouse with the Ford on the right, Kings Channel on the left.

When the Waterford Harbour Commissioners were established in 1816 one of their key tasks was to widen and deepen the Ford Channel.  Mary Breen in her wonderful nugget of a book[i] on the establishment of the commissioners, quotes from an 1806 report of earlier work on the Ford costing £1,500 to deepen it by removing soil, mud, and sunken rocks.  However, the channel had filled with silt again.  The Board of Inland Navigation stated at the time that the King’s Channel was longer, but with much deeper water, however “…its winding course made passage difficult, and at times impossible”[ii]

After the Commissioners were formed, a loan of £10,000 was sought to develop the facilities at Waterford including the approach.  No time was lost it seems and on the 19th December 1816, a contract was signed with John Hughes of London to excavate the Ford.  The works were set to commence on May 1st the following year and to cost £14,500.  It seems the final cost was £24,588.[iii]

In 1838 the Commissioners sought a report on issues pertaining to navigation and siltation in the port and harbour from an engineer named William Cubitt.  His detailed report is outlined in the Waterford Chronicle at the time.

An ariel image of the Island and both channels, Kings to the left and the Ford or Queens Channel to the right, Waterford city is at the top of the photo, the house to the bottom left is Woodlands, Ballycanvan Pill is to the upper left and Woodlands/Faithegg Pill to the bottom right. I think this may be from the Britain from above series of the early 1930s

Cubitt states that the Ford is essential to the Port and that it needs to be deepened by at least another three feet to make it open to the largest class of ship of the era.  He also states that it might render the use of the King’s Channel almost redundant.[iv]   I find this fascinating, as it highlights that the King’s Channel was still essential to Waterford Port, and was for at least another 20 years, arguably longer.

The Munster Express of 1863 contained a large article expressing the importance of improving the Ford including the width of the channel, and that port dues should be increased to meet the cost.  Two approaches to the work are suggested, damming the upper and lower Ford and excavating by hand, or using a dredger.[v] A further article in the paper gives some specifications of what the work would look like including that the spoil should be used to create two guide banks at the lower end and reclaim almost 250 acres of land with the spoil deposited on the Kilkenny side [vi]

In Autumn 1864 newspaper advertisements were posted alerting contractors that the plans could be viewed for the Ford works in the WHC offices, and in December that year, it was secured by Patrick Moore of Limerick for the dredging of the riverbed at a cost of £15,700.[vii]

 The late Anthony Brophy gave an insight into the administrative difficulties associated with the work in February 1865, when it seems despite 6 applicants for the post of superintendent engineer to work under the consulting engineer, John Coode of London, difficulties were encountered.[viii]   

In January 1867 the contractors were looking for an extension of four months on the works.  Three reasons were communicated by Mr Coode as to why the extension should be granted.  Firstly the bottom was harder than appreciated, secondly, the weather was bad and finally, as steamers continued to use the channel, work had to be interrupted at times.  The Commissioners were less than pleased and no decision was reached at the meeting[ix]

There must have been many further twists and turns because it was May 1871 before the next phase of the Ford was completed.  The Waterford Standard[x] reported that the “…Commissioners as a body, accompanied by the members of the Corporation and the Chamber Commerce, proceeded down the river on Wednesday Iast to formally open the works. The river steamer Tintern was chartered for the purpose.”

An image from the 1890s highlighting the proposed works and what was completed. Accessed from Waterford History Group Facebook Page and posted originally by Vinny O’Brien

The piece reported on a portion of the work completed by Messrs Jameson and  McCormack (i think this was most likely the guide bank).  The works cost £12,000, which was to be repaid with interest in annual installments spread over forty years to the treasury.  The works were supposed to take three years but had met with unexplained difficulties.  Mr Coode (Consulting Engineer), certified that the new works had created a depth of 13 feet low water spring tides. This will give a total depth of 20 feet at high water neap tides, and 24 feet at spring tides.  The dignitaries viewed the works, then proceeded downriver on the Tintern to Duncannon and had an open-air lunch at Ballyhack supplied by the Imperial Hotel.

At the opening ceremony, the Mayor made reference to naming the new opening. Having considered the “Golden Gates” – it seems the consensus was the call it the “Queen’s Channel” – after Queen Victoria I guess!  Although this name appears on navigation charts thereafter, we only ever knew it as the Ford, and this was used by the Harbour Board too – including in their Bye-Laws.

Interestingly the same paper had a number of letters expressing concern about the Ford works, with one anonymous letter writer stating that while on the Tintern he spotted the Waterford Steamship Company vessel Lara, using Kings Channel, and referring to a previous letter to the paper from none other than William Malcomson, expressing concern that the Ford was unfinished.

After this phase of development, there was much discussion about the need for a lighthouse to mark the Lower Ford, on what we call the Guide bank – a man-made wall that helps contain the river as it meets the King’s Channel off Faithlegg.  My good blogging buddy Pete Goulding has dated the erection of the light to 1878 and he gives a detailed description of the process in his blog of the same name.[xi]

In November 1929 the Harbour Board heard a plea from their chairman on the need to enhance the Ford further.   The position was outlined as follows:  “. Thirty years ago overseas steamers with maize for the port were 2,500 tons of cargo; today 5,000 tons is a small cargo, and the average size is about 7,000 tons. Coastwise tramp steamers were 200 to 500 tons of cargo: today 400 tons is a small steamer, and many coastwise steamers constantly trading with the ports are 700 tons, while some of the Clyde Shipping Company’s steamers are about 1,800 tons capacity.” [xii]

Making use of a company already on hand to deepen the North Wharf, particularly at Halls, the time was considered perfect for offering a tender for the work.  “The Committee considers this golden opportunity to carry out this essential work the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Co. have their rock breaker, bucket- dredger, hopper, and floating workshop in Waterford, and who have given the Commissioners an enticing offer to do the work for a lump sum price of £20,500, which, they assure us, could not be done for less than £25,500 if it was not for the fact that this work if undertaken will follow immediately their other contract with the Commissioners.”[xiii]

The proposal was accepted and although I don’t know when the work commenced, it was proceeding at a pace in April but by June there was an issue.  In the Upper Ford area, Tilbury workers had found 2,400 cubic yards of rock, that an extensive survey that they completed found previously to be mud!…, it slowed the work down, and added cost.  Meanwhile, more work was required in the Lower Ford, which was not part of the original tender apparently.  It was estimated by Captain Grover that they would need to dredge 12,000 cubic yards of material to provide 17 feet of water to shipping.[xiv] 

The Tilbury vessel Queens Channel – no, I’m not making it up…Working on the Upper Ford 1930- Poole image originally posted to the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page by Michael Butch Power . You can view the original at the NLI here. The vessel above is the rock breaker Thor W6. A third vessel, the bucket dredger Beaufort was also employed on the works.

By the end of June, there was an extensive account of the works, when a large deputation went down to the Ford to inspect the rock-breaking spear and the ongoing dredging.  Speeches were made, toasts were toasted and the progress of the Port was generally felt to be secured because of the developments.[xv]  The works were completed by the end of 1930. 

SS Rathlin (#2 of that name 1905-1933) of Clyde Shipping after steering failure grounded her at the Guide Bank. The incident happened on Monday 14th July 1913 when leaving port for Glasgow. A news report states that she was undamaged and expected to float on the next high tide. AH Poole photo, posted originally by Tomás Sullivan. WMH page

Speaking on the deck of the harbour launch that June the Chairman of the Harbour Board, M Cassin, expressed his thanks to the Tilbury dredging Co for the works, and also explained how such developments were essential to meet the growth and sophistication of modern shipping.  He gave credit to the Commissioners who had come before and for their foresight in opening the Ford and keeping it a pace with the shipping of their era.  He expressed a desire that bodies such as theirs look ahead 50 or 60 years to anticipate the needs and make plans accordingly.[xvi]

I guess in that sense, his words rang true.  The works gave access to the city for shipping up until the decision to move from the historic port in the city to the present site at Belview (Bellevue – the beautiful view).  Whether the people who made that decision were looking far enough ahead is still to be seen.

Interested in talk of rivers and rivermen, join me on Nov 4th to explore the Lightmen’s trade on the St Johns River. You can book on Eventbrite or email me to say you are coming please – in case of cancellation.
I’m speaking at the annual Booze, Blaas n Banter gig in Jordans on Saturday 28th Oct

My thanks to David Carroll for providing assistance with this article.


[i] Breen. Mary.  Waterford Port and Harbour 1815-42.  2019.  Four Courts Press.  Dublin

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