John Dredge – The Night Ferryman
by E.J. McBarron
This story was inspired by chats with the late Jack Dredge, whose father John Dredge was under contract to Wollondilly Shire to operate a row-boat ferry service during flood time over the Nepean River at Douglas Park for residents of St Mary’s Towers and beyond (about the time of World War I).
Though the rain had eased that evening after several days, the night train from Sydney pushed through the mist and drizzle to disgorge the locals at Douglas Park. Heavy rains at Robertson the previous week had made the Nepean run a banker.
They formed a melancholy procession, huddled under oilskins and umbrellas, plodding in the soft mud between wheel ruts, which bore streamlets, scored even deeper by the recent rains.
Led by the ferryman with hurricane lantern which blinked through the criss-crossing of his legs, they walked slowly down the road and shuffled into the boat, paddling in the free water between boat and shore.
At first the rowboat progressed upstream, creeping along the bank. The creak of rowlocks and splash of oars blended with the “lap lap” of the tree tops, which were caressed by eddies of side currents, as if the water paused there before joining the turbulence of the main stream.
Taking a diagonal course, the ferryman turned the boat into the main stream, pulling to the full, for the destiny of his cargo lay within his two strong arms and his knowledge of the river.
Verily, it might well have been the grim Charon rowing his macabre passengers over the Styx. The Stygian darkness was broken only by the storm lantern left on shore and the light in the boat; a sombre prospect for the passengers, few of whom could swim. In the event of capsize they would be sucked under by the swirling waters, especially the womenfolk with their voluminous clothes of the period.
No mooring line, just a clutch and hold to a tree branch, served to stay the boat while the passengers alighted and clambered up the slippery bank.
Then, for the ferryman, came the slow creep upstream along the bank and the diagonal traverse back to his starting point.
Mission accomplished, all for one shilling per head!
On the morrow, the scum of driftwood and crescents of newly-deposited sand bore mute testimony to the previous night’s drama.
With heavy irony, fate was to decree that the ferryman’s son Ted would drown in the flooded Nepean River in later years.
Copyright © 2005 Campbelltown & Airds Historical Society Inc. All rights reserved.
(“Grist Mills” Vol. 1 No. 5, December 1983)