Harbour Hobblers

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to call over to Waterford Airport to see the materials that were uncovered by Noel McDonagh at Creaden Head, Co Waterford.  While there we got into a conversation with Michael Farrell of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society and Brendan Dunne and his son Ian about the area around Creaden and one curious place name that jumped out at me was the Hobblers Rock.  The feature is on the upper side of the headland, in a sheltered spot, and was a departure point for the hobblers and their boats in a vital element of our maritime trade, ship pilotage and docking.

The term Hobbler was first introduced to me as a boy, listening to the stories of my father and the older men of Cheekpoint. Their definition has been challenged by others, enhanced or diminished, depending on who you listen to.  Indeed many look at you, if you mention the word, like you had another head.  Thinking more likely about Hobbits!
Hobbler attending the MV Julia at Waterford circa 1950
Shortall via the Andy Kelly collection
According to my father a hobbler was defined as one of a team of men who rowed down the harbour in long punts and vied with each other to have the right to guide a ship into Waterford or New Ross. He admired them as hard working, tough and resilient men who could row miles off the Hook to engage a craft, and if need be, tow a ship past Cheekpoint up through the Kings Channel and into the city. (Or via the Barrow to New Ross) Crews were made up from all the villages and the towns and the competition between crews was fierce. 

The method of securing the right to take charge of a ship has variations in its telling too. Some said that it was a straightforward race; first hobbler team to get a rope aboard the incoming vessel secured the prize. However I have also heard that bidding wars took place with ships masters, when conditions allowed. Competing hobbler teams would be forced into a bidding war, resulting in bad feeling, scuffles or much worse. My father had one story of a man named Whistler who lost almost all his teeth in a row with another hobbler. As my father had it, thereafter you would hear the Whistler coming because of the wind blowing through his damaged teeth! 

Other accounts say that it was just a couple of men in a boat, which met incoming boats and won the right to tie them up. Others talk of winning the right to discharge or load ships. Whilst others again talk of them almost in terms of a modern era tug boat, used to move ships from moorings to berths and vice versa.  Another curious aspect of the hobbler story is that in Cheekpoint one theory of the site known locally as “the Lookout” was also linked to them.  I’ve speculated before on a link to this site and other lookout points as a signaling system employed within the port.
Hobblers mooring a WWI era troop ship. Artist Charles Pears.
First published in the Illustrated London News Jan 1916
With the formation of the Waterford Harbour Board[1] in 1816 piloting became more organised and pilot boats were employed to put recognised pilots aboard ships.  This must certainly have impacted the role of the hobbler, but not completely (I've seen accounts of hobblers piloting as late as 1894). I also read that on the south coast of England “Hovellers” [2] were a description of the craft or men that sailed as far as Lands End at times in search of incoming ships in need of a pilot. Indeed the term also existed in Cork and Dublin (I haven't seen it recorded elsewhere as yet). David Carroll has only recently sent me a book[3] highlighting their courage and skill, including one poignant story of a hobblers crew demise.
The Hobbler memorial at Dun Laoighre.  Photo via Derek Carroll and passed along by page regular David Carroll
I’m now convinced that the reason so many definitions or accounts of hobblers exist, is because the stories I have heard come from at least two hundred years of maritime trade. Their roles altered as times changed, perhaps initially with the formation of the Harbour Board and the formalisation of pilotage. Increases in sailing ships with auxiliary engines, and steam boats must have been the next phase. 

For me, Hobblers Rock in Creaden is a very important maritime place name connection with the port of Waterford and New Ross’ past.  A point from which I’m sure men had a lookout post, and where a wary eye was kept on the horizon, and hardened fishermen waited impatiently for a sail to be sighted and the cry to go up of "sail ahoy".  Mighty men, deserving acknowledgement.


[2] A Dictionary of the Worlds Watercraft.  The Mariners Museum. 2000.  Chatham Publishing
[3] A Maritime History of Ringsend.  2000.  Sandymount Community Services


I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
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