History of ferries

The ferry is a ship providing a regular link between two ports. The ferry is especially designed to carry passengers as well as road or rail vehicles with their loads. A ferry is generally composed of decks for passengers and holds reserved for vehicles. The frequency of service and speed of the connections mean that ferries dock very easily.


Over the years, the capacity and speed of ferries has changed.


Ferries are to be found in places such as:


– Straits: the Strait of Dover, the Strait of Gibraltar…
– Archipelagos: the Scottish Islands , the Caribbean…
– Small seas: the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea…
– Lakes: Lake Constance, Lake Garda, Lake Como…


The ferry is a safe, practical and economical means of transport.


Before 1900: The origins of cross-Channel traffic

Before 1900, the Channel crossing was only done by sea. The history of the Channel ferry network is not a recent one!


In 1550 B.C., a boat made of oak planks and yew twigs able to hold cargo and a dozen passengers left Dover bound for France. This boat, rediscovered in 1992, is the first evidence of a crossing of the Channel in History.


In the eighteenth century, Channel crossings between ports of Dover, Calais and Ostend increased with the carriage of mail and parcels. This small fast sailing boat is recognised as one of the first Channel ferries.


In the late nineteenth century, Channel crossings were made by paddle steamer, considered as a technical feat of the age. The growing interest of travellers to travel to the continent marked the beginning of an era when cross-Channel shipping started to change.

From 1900 to 1970, the rise of Channel crossings

Forde boat - Channel crossing


At the beginning of the century, personal cars started to become more and more numerous. Recognising this, Captain Thomas Townsend saw the opportunity to convert a coal ship into a ferry. The Artificer was born. On 28 June 1928, the Townsend Brothers Company, with the Artificer, launched the first regular ferry service linking the port of Dover with the port of Calais.


At the time, the Artificer crossed the Channel between the ports of Dover and Calais in 2 hours 30 minutes and was able to carry 15 cars.


In 1929, the ferry service between Dover and Calais became permanent and the Royal Firth replaced the Artificer before being itself replaced in 1930 by the Forde. This was actually a former minesweeper converted into a ferry carrying 30 cars and 168 passengers.

In 1931 the Southern Railway Company opened a Dover-Calais line with the Autocarrier ferry. This Channel ferry had a capacity of 120 passengers and 35 cars and travelled at a speed of 15 knots.


In the inter-war period, demand increased for Channel crossings by ferry recording over one million travellers. In 1936, the Southern Railway Company and the SNCF invested in docks. At that time, Channel ferries were then equipped with rails on their decks and a system for adjusting the water level allowing trains to disembark on the docks.

Halladale - Channel crossings - Channel routes


Over the years, more and more vehicles crossed the Channel: over 6,000 cars were loaded onto the ships by cranes in 1936 and increasing to 31 000 in 1939.


In 1938, with World War II on the horizon, the number of Channel crossings and passenger traffic decreased. In 1940, the ferry Autocarrier brought back British and French troops from the port of Dunkirk seeking to escape the German invasion.


After 1945, new car ferries went into service such as the Halladale in 1950.


The number of routes also increased with new ferry terminals such as Dunkirk, Cherbourg, Folkestone and Portsmouth.

From 1970 to 1990: The development of Channel crossings

During the 1970s, cross-Channel traffic experienced dramatic growth with an annual increase of 10% on short journeys between British and French ferry terminals. At this time, there were only two daily services between the port of Dover and the port of Calais.

Fast ferry - Channel ferry network

Fast ferry

In 1973, Great Britain, after joining the EEC, began running many more ferries. This event in particular resulted in the development of maritime and port infrastructure on both sides of the Channel.


Since the late 1970s, ferries can carry thousands of passengers in addition to hundreds of vehicles. With ships at the forefront of technology, the Channel ferry network entered a new era.


In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of catamaran ferry emerged. The catamaran Agnes 200, a surface effect ship was the first fast ferry to be used for crossings between the Channel port of Brighton and the port of Dieppe.  It carried 193 passengers at speeds of over 30 knots.

Channel crossing traffic at the dawn of the 21st century

In 1999, 22 million travellers crossed the English Channel. The ferry then represented 80% of Channel crossings by boat.


The reopening of the Newhaven-Dieppe crossing in 2007 and the opening of the Dover-Boulogne-sur-Mer route in 2009 demonstrate a growing interest in cross-Channel traffic. Now, ship owners distinguish the eastern Channel, extending from Dieppe to Calais from the western Channel, which extends from Le Havre to Roscoff.


The French ports of Dunkirk and Calais are the two busiest ferry terminals. The port of Calais has even become one of Europe’s leading passenger and accompanied freight terminals. In England, the Channel ports of Dover and Portsmouth are both major players in cross-Channel traffic.


Nowadays, crossing by ferry is increasingly like a « mini cruise » because of the increasing number of services offered on board (cinema, brasserie, restaurant, club, video games room, etc.). Families and groups on board can start enjoying their holidays straight away.


The goods remain on lorries accompanied by their drivers