Gainsborough’s Port and River Memories

Ever since the Middle Ages, the River Trent has been an important channel of communication between the towns of the Midlands ensuring sources of raw materials travel to markets in other parts of the British Isles and overseas. The staple items traditionally carried along the Trent were wool, building stone and supplies for the up-river towns. The article using original transcripts tells the story of Gainsborough’s river as a significant port and also shares some memories of the town’s river from the Gainsborough Heritage Association’s Oral History Archive.

However, the story starts with Torksey, which is about six miles south of Gainsborough. Torksey was the third largest town in Lincolnshire and due to its location at the junction of the Fossdyke and the River Trent, it was very essential as an inland port and was noted as a very important port when the Domesday Book was produced. Today Torksey is only a village with little sign that it once was an important borough in the Middle Ages, however, wool from the surrounding countryside was transported by river to Torksey and up the Fossdyke to Lincoln which was a wool staple town. Munitions for the King’s castle at Nottingham also passed through Torksey. Goods intended for certain towns along the River Trent above and below Torksey could only be landed at Torksey. Merchants came by land and sea to Torksey and the town must have been very busy indeed, with warehouses and shops, the quays along the Fossdyke and the River Trent crowded with ships, the streets and market place full of sailors and merchants. By 1546 however, when the Royal Librarian John Leland visited it, there was little to show that Torksey had once been an important and busy port, and he was told that ships no longer sailed up the River Trent to Torksey but went instead to Gainsborough, five miles downstream.

In the 16th century Gainsborough took the place of Torksey as the main inland port of call for ships making the passage along the River Trent, and during the next 300 years trade along the river became increasingly important. As a result, Gainsborough became the point at which goods from the up-river industries were transferred to sea-going vessels for carriage down-river to London or overseas. Wares from down-stream were transhipped here into shallow-draught boats for shipment into the upper reaches of the Trent to supply the needs of the industrial town’s further inland.

The sketch above of the town of Gainsborough, pre-dates 1791 as there is no bridge over the Trent. Several buildings can be seen in the image that was of importance to the town, including the original All Saints Church, which is clearly shown by its massive scale compared to all the other buildings. The Old Hall stands close by and at the right-hand end of the sketch Pillared House is facing straight out towards the river and the original ferry is also clearly depicted, and take note of all the windmills on the hillside.

As their trade increased merchants and manufacturers campaigned for improvements to be made to the River Trent. One of its drawbacks was that in places it was very shallow and in summer months it frequently almost dried up so that boats ran aground and the boatmen had to throw their cargoes overboard in order to refloat their barges. In winter, the River Trent was often in flood, so that its channel was lost and even altered. Then in its lower stages, where the river reaches its maturity, the stream meandered, sometimes so far that it was said that a boatman could put his hat down on the bank and come back to it three miles further on, having travelled around the loop in the river and back to his original point. Besides these natural disadvantages, there were also some man-made problems for the river boatmen to overcome. Local landowners with land along the riverside charged tolls for the use of their land as a towing-path and sometimes blocked the stream with stones or chains to force the boatmen to pay higher tolls. Often the river was blocked by milldams or by weirs. Responsibility for repairing river banks and keeping the stream clear of obstructions fell to the villagers or landowners who lived beside the river. Sometimes they were not able or willing to carry out the work properly. The result was that, although the river was certainly a much more reliable means of carrying heavy or fragile goods than the roads, even it needed improvement before it could be a really efficient means of transport.

In 1604 attempts to carry coal from the Nottinghamshire coal pits of the Willoughby family fell through because of the insufficient depth of the river. At the end of the sixteenth century the Willoughby family, owners of coal mines at Wollaton on the outskirts of Nottingham, had warehouses and servants at Gainsborough. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, they planned to break into the Newcastle colliers monopoly of the London coal trade and, had the depth of the Trent at that time been more reliable, if this plan had been successful Gainsborough would have been the point at which the coal was transferred to deep-water craft for shipment to Hull. As it was, however, the scheme had to be abandoned. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the tolls on coal landed at the Gainsborough staithes paid for the rebuilding of Gainsborough Parish Church. A minimum depth of 4 feet was required for the coal barges, but even in the late 18th century in the summer months, the Trent at Torksey was often only 1foot 6inches deep. The increasing production in the 18th century from the industrial areas of the East Midlands and the construction of canals brought increasing traffic onto the Trent. At the end of the 17th century, the channel of the Trent above Nottingham was deepened under a private act of Parliament. The channel between Nottingham and Gainsborough was deepened and widened by the Trent Navigation Company engineer William Jessop.

Towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558 – 1603), the merchants of Hull complained that their trade was suffering because London merchants were being attracted to Gainsborough. In spite of a Star Chamber order that any merchants engaged in the north-east coasting trade had to be members of Hull Corporation, London merchants continued to come to Gainsborough in large numbers in the seventeenth century. In 1636 a number of them complained that the three days of Gainsborough fair were not long enough for them to do all their business and the Lord of the Manor was allowed to extend the length of the fair by a further six days and to hold another fair as well. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Gainsborough shipmasters felt that Gainsborough had become so busy that the town ought to have its own customs house. As their petition was not granted, and ships destined for Gainsborough continued to be subject to examination by the customs at Hull. As there was no wet dock at Hull until 1778 this meant that they had to unload their cargoes in Hull roads, which could be a dangerous business in foul weather. During the Industrial Revolution Gainsborough was the point where the products of the rising industries in the Midlands met the incoming raw materials from the Baltic and the rest of the British Isles. This trade increased even more during the Napoleonic War and after. On three occasions the Gainsborough merchants petitioned for the official recognition of the town as a port on the grounds of the risk and inconvenience attached to having to transfer all goods in foreign vessels to English ships in the crowded anchorage at Hull before they could go up-river. Their petition was finally granted and Gainsborough opened officially as a port in 1841. This meant that foreign shipping could now come right up the river to Gainsborough instead of having to discharge their cargoes to river craft at Hull. However, the opening of Gainsborough as a port coincided with the beginning of the decline in river traffic. Duties from custom peaked in 1844 and then dropped sharply (Eastbourne House History – sourced from Stark & Beckwith).

Steam paddle boat near Lord’s Staithe

The riverside villages acted as centres for the dispatch and unloading of goods for the local areas and small wharves were built at these points, often with warehouses, malting and oil-mills. Many of these small ports had boatyards. The last riverside boatyard to work on the Trent was Watson’s at Beckingham on the Nottinghamshire side. The construction of canals in the eighteenth century brought Gainsborough into communication with many of the growing industrial towns by means of an extensive network of waterways. This, together with the much-needed improvement of the Trent’s channel, made the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and the first thirty or forty of the nineteenth the heyday of Gainsborough as a river port. The shipping reports in various provincial newspapers and commercial directories reveal the extent of Gainsborough’s river trade at this time. Boats left the various wharves for the towns in Staffordshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire every day. There were weekly sailings to the east coast ports, such as Colchester, Ipswich, Lynn, Wisbech and Boston. Goods could be sent as far afield as Gloucester and Bristol by water. Cotton for Strutt’s mills at Milford and Belper came up-river to Gainsborough and was transhipped to barges for carriage to Derby. In the Napoleonic Wars, 300 tons of ammunition passed through Gainsborough each week from the Butterley Company works in Derbyshire. In the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century (after the town had officially been designated a port) goods from the North European ports came in in increasing numbers. Stone, timber and limestone to feed the railway construction inland came up the river. The traditional cargoes – cheese, London wares, coal – still travelled by water. In 1794 it was estimated that 300 vessels loaded or unloaded coal at Gainsborough in the course of a year.

Tug pulling a sailing ship on the River Trent

The Hull Port Books show the cargoes of ships sailing outwards from Gainsborough in the first ten years of the eighteenth century. They contained commodities like timber, iron, scythe-stones, ale, cheese and coney skins. The iron and scythe-stones came from Derbyshire. Daniel Defoe, writing about Bawtry in 1724, said that “lead, from the lead-mines and smelting houses in Derbyshire, wrought iron and edge tools, of all sorts, from the gorges at Sheffield, and from the country called Hallamshire…… Also, millstones and grindstones, in very large quantities, are brought down and shipped off here, and so carry’s by sea to Hull, and to London, and even to Holland also.” Defoe also reckoned that about 4,000 tons of cheese came down to Gainsborough from Derbyshire and Staffordshire each year. The coney skins came from the numerous warrens around Scunthorpe and Brigg and were used for making gloves and hats. Some of these cargoes were destined for Kings Lynn and the other east coast ports but the bulk of them were intended for London. Prof. J.D.Chambers in The Bale of Trent 1670 – 1800 said that “the Trent provided the channel of exchange between the west with its predominance of extractive industries of lead, coal, iron, millstone, lime and building material, and the predominantly agricultural region of the east and south.”

Some idea of the variety of shipping employed on the Trent in the early years of the nineteenth century is given in the following description from Thomas Cooper’s autobiography. “There was not a busier scene on a small scale in England”. He wrote about the loading and unloading of vessels on the Trent in his years of growing up. “Numerous large brigs, and many sloops and keels, with a great number of ‘Ketches’ or flat-bottomed boats from Staffordshire crowded the River. Sailors enlivened the streets of the little town by their merriment.” The use of the ‘brigs, sloops and keels” described by Cooper was confined to the river below Gainsborough. The “keels” are mentioned as early as 1605 in the plans for taking coal from Wollaton to London by the river. Keels survived in use until well within living memory, is found exclusively on the rivers draining into the Humber. The ‘Humber’ or ‘Yorkshire Keel’ was designed essentially to carry cargo, with vertical sides, blunt bows and stern, and a large hold. It had a single square-rigged mast and could sail very close to the wind, being handled by one man and his family who lived on board.

On the upper reaches of the Trent and on its tributaries, such as the Idle, the “ketches’ described by Thomas Cooper were employed. Cooper described them as “flat-bottomed”. A reference in 1663 suggests that they were probably open boats. Sometimes they appear to have been called “catches” or “lighters”. They are shown in eighteenth-century prints as single-masted boats, although at times they were hauled by horses or men, particularly when the river was low.

Paddle steamers appeared on the River Trent as early as 1814 with the Dundee-built ‘Caledonia’ which made her first run from Hull on October 23rd of that year, only two years after Symington’s ‘Comet’ had been launched on the Clyde. The first steamboat to be built in Gainsborough was the ‘John Bull’, launched in the following year. Soon a regular passenger run was being operated by rival firms with five steam packets from Gainsborough to Hull daily. They did the journey in five hours compared with the three to seven days of the old sailing packets. The steamboats were either packet boats which carried mainly passengers or tugs which carried parcels and towed sailing ships up the river against the wind or tide. The packet companies in the early days carried on a fierce competition, racing each other up and down the river, and at one time slashing the fare to Hull to sixpence. In the nineteenth-century‘ market boats’, which collected passengers and produce from the riverside villages, served the function which the village ‘bus performs today. Steam packets continued to use the river up to the first decade of this century, although increasingly employed after the 1850s for pleasure trips such as excursions to Cleethorpes.

In 1843 it was said that about 100 boats navigated the upper reaches of the Trent. Some of these would have belonged to the Companies operating boats on the river, such as the Shardlow Boat Company, which in 1794 was said to be running 12 boats between Gainsborough, Liverpool, Manchester and to Bristol. Others belonged to Nottingham Corporation and were hired out. Lighters could be hired for 1/6 a day. In the 1820s there were several important family firms in the town, some of which had been involved in the river trade since the middle of the previous century. Of these family firms that of William Etherington on Bridge Street was regarded as the largest. Then there was the partnership of Goodger and Furley, wharfingers and shipbuilders with premises at Trent Port on the other bank of the river. Another firm of shipbuilders was that of Henry Smith at the end of Lord Street. After 1830 he took over the business premises of another wharfinger, Robert Flower who was established in Caskgate Street with a warehouse and wharf there. The wharves of these firms were the points of departure for the daily packets and for vessels sailing for London and the east coast ports. Indeed many of these Gainsborough wharfingers had agents and their own wharves in London or Kings Lynn.

Trent Port opened in 1791 to replace a chain ferry, it is where a public house called Trent Port now stands. Although today this is the only building on this side of the river in the 1830s there were two shipyards, an oil-mill, several warehouses and wharves. This was known as Trent Port and seems to have developed as an overspill from the development on the other bank since the Trent Port wharfingers were certainly Gainsborough men. The most considerable premises on this side of the river were those occupied by Richard Furley, which included a spacious mansion and gardens, warehouse, wharf, and shipyard. By 1851 little of this was left and all that can be seen today are the piles of the wharves at the water’s edge and the walls and chaos of the now ruined garden, an area known now as Dog Island and marked on the O.S. map as a ‘moat’.

The building of the original bridge over the Trent was authorised in 1787 and built in 1791 at a cost of just over £10,000. Its architect was William Weston. He designed the bridge and the turnpike road that ran from Gainsborough to Retford. The Lord of the Manor received £800 compensation for the loss of ferry tolls. There was originally a toll on the bridge and the former tollhouses can still be seen. The only other road in the Gainsborough area to be turnpike was from Bawtry to Louth, passing just north of the town after crossing the Trent at the Walkerith Ferry. (Unknown source – probably Stark or Beckwith).

Gainsborough’s life as a port was a short one, the privilege being withdrawn in 1881 after only forty years. The main reason often given for the decline of the river trade is that the coming of the railways took away most of the freight that had usually gone by water. However, there are some indications that this was not the only, even if it was the chief (which is doubtful) reason for Gainsborough’s decline. In 1861 the Gainsborough traders came out in opposition to the Keadby Bridge plan, their spokesman W.C.Furley maintaining before the Parliamentary Committee that Gainsborough’s trade was on the increase and that the proposed new bridge would obstruct river traffic. Two years later it was stated that fifteen vessels had arrived in Gainsborough, including ships from St. Valery and Riga for the month ending September 5. It was also said in 1863 that plans were afoot to establish a new shipyard in Gainsborough. There is thus some evidence that Gainsborough’s river trade as far as freight traffic was concerned at least was still considerable. The passenger traffic, on the other hand, was apparently suffering from the competition of the railways to some extent. The United Steam Packet Company appears to have contemplated withdrawing the market boats on Tuesdays and Thursdays because it was stated in 1862 that the Gainsborough traders had prevailed with the Company to continue this service. Excursion trains put on by the M.S.& L.R. and by the South Yorkshire Company were said to be detrimentally affecting the United Steam Packet company’s excursions to Hull, Grimsby and the “German Ocean”, and to be stealing their passengers from the Isle of Axholme who had previously used the river steamers to go to the Easter Fairs and Markets at Gainsborough. That the river still had a future as a system for freight carriage in the eyes of the railway companies themselves is born out by the M.S.& L.R. project for a bridge-head to the Trent in 1851. However, it must be admitted that this idea was dropped on the grounds of the declining importance of the town as a river port.

Barge at Chapel Staith on the River Trent

Peter Ashton born in January 1948 grew up in London and moved to Walkeringham village. He started work for Newsum’s in Gainsborough at the age of 15 and the clip below from his oral history interview recalls his early memories of the barges on the River Trent.

Peter Ashton Oral history interview, 2015

The Aegir passing Dog Island

The River Trent is well known for the Aegir, a tidal bore that can happen at certain times of the year. The Aegir usually occurs when a high spring tide meets the downstream flow of the river and due to the funnel shape of the river mouth, it can exaggerate this effect, causing a large wave to travel upstream as far as Gainsborough.

Ken Spencer born in February 1940 in the village of Willingham-By-Stow recalls working at the Trent works and the excitement of the Aegir in the offices!

Ken Spencer Oral history interview, 2019

Rosemary Speck born in 1945 at 96 Bridge Street in Gainsborough recalls her memories of the Gainsborough Aegir.

Rosemary Speck Oral history interview, 2015

David Rogers born in March 1950 in the clip below recalls as a child his memories of the Aegir on the River Trent.

David Rogers Oral history interview, 2018

Another important story connected with Gainsborough’s river is the Flood that was recorded back in 1947. You can read more about the events of this flood in a past blog post called Gainsborough’s Black Saturday and the Flood of March 22 1947. 

Balfour Street in 1947

Listen to the clips below to hear a few personal recollections of the 1947 flood.

Phyllis Peart born in October 1919 lived with her family in Kebir Terrace, Gainsborough. However, during the floods of 1947, she was training as a midwife in Sheffield, and in the clip below she recalls how she found out about the flood and how she attempted to make her journey home in order to help her parents.

Phyllis Peart Oral history interview, 2015

Enid Burrell was born in November 1935 at 63 Church Street, Gainsborough.

Enid Burrell Oral history interview, 2018

Ropery Road in 1947

Shirley Dawe born in 1936 recalls her memories as she attempted to make her journey home after a regular Saturday morning visit to Gainsborough’s Junior Club.

Shirley Dawe Oral history interview, 2017

Morton breach in 1947

Janet Simpson born in May 1939 recalls her memories as a child witnessing the flood in Gainsborough.

Janet Simpson Oral history interview, 2018


  • Oral History Archive, interviews with Peter Ashton, Ken Spencer, Rosemary Speck, David Rogers, Phyllis Peart, Enid Burrell, Shirley Dawe and Janet Simpson.
  • GDHA, The Story of the Port Of Gainsborough, transcript by Archives Officer Rosemary Speck, Acc. No. (621) Cat. No. 1/14/541-12.
  • GDHA, Inland Waterways in Lincolnshire, documents from Gainsborough Public Library and Lincolnshire Archives Office.


  1. REPLY
    David Rogers says

    Excellent read Gemma, its nice to see a young person so interested in the history of Gainsborough and the Trent . I’ve certainly learned a lot about the history of the river from your very informative and interesting article, you’ve certainly done your research. I was particularly interested in what went on in the “ Dog Island “ side of the Trent.
    Thanks for including me in the oral history section, all the best David.

    • REPLY
      Gemma Clarke says

      Thank you, David, for your kind words, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my article.

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