In the hearts and minds of some older residents of Southampton, there lies fond memories of embarking on a voyage aboard the historic floating bridge that once connected Woolston on one shore of the River Itchen to the bustling town on the opposite side.

Spanning almost a century and a half, the ferries buzzed with activity, ingraining themselves as a beloved fixture in the community.

The busy scenes of morning and evening rush hours may stand out in the memories of some, with vehicles crowded closely together on the bridge, and the presence of swans eagerly trailing behind in anticipation of any treats from passing passengers.

Daily Echo: The Woolston Ferry ('the floating bridge'). Southampton [April 1962].

The idea of using floating bridges first came to fruition in 1836 thanks to the brilliant mind of engineer James Meadows Rendel.

What many may not remember is that the floating bridges were originally bustling with horse-drawn traffic instead of the modern internal combustion engine.

In a memory recounted by Rendel, he vividly recalled a day on the ferry where he witnessed a procession of three carriages pulled by four horses each, another carriage drawn by a pair of horses, along with seven saddle horses, and a group of 60 foot-passengers all crossing at once, yet miraculously experiencing no sense of crowding or discomfort.

Daily Echo: Floating Bridge, November 1972.

Later, during the First World War, one local historian who knew the floating bridges well, wrote: “The traffic, apart from the pedestrians, was almost exclusively horse-drawn. The single-horse van fare was one shilling (5p) and a cart sixpence (2p).

“There would be, not all at the same time of course, timber trolley horses in tandem and single contractors tipcarts, one and two-horse vans, pony carts, and even donkey carts.

“When the bridge grounded the walkers would keep the middle of the hard well clear, the reason being that every animal came off the bridge at a gallop with the drivers running alongside.

“No matter how low the tide was they had to make it to the top of the hard in one go.

“It was quite a sight to see those brewers’ dray shire horses thundering off and galloping up the hard. The draymen sat high up hollering at the horses and bellowing at anyone who looked like getting in the way. They seldom did!”

Daily Echo: Floating bridge in  1973.

To commemorate the retirement of the floating bridges in 1976, a booklet titled Saying Goodbye to the Floating Bridges was released. The compilation was put together by John Horne, a member of the University of Southampton Industrial Archaeological Society.

Within its pages, a story was shared about a horse that slipped on the metal deck of the bridge, struggling to regain its balance.

The publication included a description of how one horse lost its footing on the metal deck and fell, and thrashed about unable to get to its feet.

“The deckman would sit on the horse’s head to quieten it while the driver and others removed the harness,” reported the publication.

Daily Echo: Floating Bridge 16/11/72.

In certain instances, accidents occurred as horses continued moving onto the bridge without stopping, either leaping over or breaking through the gates and plunging into the water.

The root causes of these incidents varied, with some attributed to intoxicated drivers, notably those on brewers' wagons, while others were primarily due to skittish or high-spirited horses.

The worst incident occurred about 11pm on a very cold Friday night in the winter of 1908, when a grocer’s van belonging to the well-known company Misselbrook and Weston was returning to Southampton.

A pair of large and frisky horses drew the van. The driver, a Woolston man named Bunday, could not stop them and they dashed along the bridge and into the black river. All were drowned.

Daily Echo: Floating Bridge 23/7/1949.

In addition to horses, various other animals utilized the floating bridge, as farmers frequently transported livestock across from the Woolston side to a nearby market close to the Central Bridge.

By 1890, the Floating Bridge Company found it necessary to announce a new regulation prohibiting the passage of any "horned beast, sheep, or swine" on the bridges after dusk. This rule aimed to prevent potential harm to pedestrians and passengers.

animals to use the floating bridge, for farmers often took cattle “on the hoof” from the Woolston side to market, situated near the Central Bridge.

In 1890 the Floating Bridge Company was forced to issue a notice that it would no longer permit any “horned beast, sheep or swine” on the bridges after sunset to avoid the danger to pedestrians and others on board.