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From Hard-Pressed Monks To Merseybeat, The Ferries Are Part Of Our City’s Heart

Column Mastheads and Credit Box.indd
Bob Edwards was born in Liverpool in the 1950s. He has been a policeman, a publican and a teacher in Further Education. He is keen local historian and the author of the book, Liverpool in the 1950s. Since 2010 Bob has maintained www.liverpoolpicturebook.com which has attracted more than 1.9 million visitors from around the world.

The spray of the salt from the river,
The sway of the boat on the tide,
The feel of the wind as it blows on your face,
As you go for a ferryboat ride.
I used to head off to New Brighton,
For an afternoon spent in the sun.
Back to Seacombe and then
On the ferry again, and back home
On the Liverpool run.

Bob Edwards 2015

PEOPLE have been crossing the River Mersey by ferry between the Wirral and Liverpool for almost 800 years; it is thought that a group of Benedictine Monks who established a priory at Birkenhead in about 1150 were the first to start a regular service.

The monks used to offer food and shelter to travellers making their way across the Mersey. As this practice caused the monks some expense, they petitioned King Edward III for the royal approval to run the ferry service, asking to charge reasonable tolls.

Most of the passengers came from Chester, they were either taking the quickest route to south west Lancashire, or travelling to the weekly Saturday market in the fishing village of Liverpool. At this time much of the Wirral and south Lancashire was forest, inhabited by wolves, bears, wild boar and eagles.

For 200 years the monks ran the ferry, until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The right of ferry passage change hands several times over the next 300 years, thus a number of different services began, none of them being reliable.

Some of the main ferries to Liverpool operated from New Brighton, Egremont, Seacombe, Woodside, Monks Ferry, and Runcorn. Early ferryboats would have been rowing boats, and were replaced by wooden sailing vessels. These were then replaced by steam vessels and later on by diesel-electric powered vessels. Even though many of these ferries no longer operate, the places where they used to come and go from are still known. Place names such as Monks Ferry, Job’s Ferry, New Ferry and Rock Ferry show where ferries used to run between the Wirral and Liverpool.

At Woodside, land between the Woodside Hotel and the end of the old pier was reclaimed, and in 1861 the floating landing stage was opened. The pontoons were towed into position, moored by chains, originally made for the SS. Great Eastern, and linked to the mainland by two double bridges. The ferry Cheshire was the first passenger ferry steamer to have a saloon, operated from Woodside in 1864.

The iron pier at Eastham was built in 1874. On 26 November 1878, the ferry Gem, a paddle steamer operated from Seacombe by the Wallasey Local Board, collided with the Bowfell, a wooden sailing ship at anchor on the River Mersey, five people died as a result. This was not the only accident to disrupt the Ferry service, the ship the Empire Commander embedded herself in the Egremont Ferry Landing Stage on 21st May 1932 causing £7,340 worth of damage.

Empire Commander
Empire Commander

The Corporation Years

Until the establishment of the Mersey Railway in 1886, the ferries were the only means of crossing the river, and so all of the routes were heavily used.

All of the ferry routes were owned by private interests before coming under municipal ownership in the mid 19th century. The Woodside ferry was taken over by the Birkenhead Commissioners in 1858,  in 1861, the Wallasey Local Board took over the ferry services at Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. In 1934 a challenge to the ferry service came from what was then the largest underwater tunnel in the world – The Queensway Road Tunnel. Now vehicles could cross beneath the Mersey without the need to queue for the luggage boats. The ferry service suffered, Woodside’s luggage service closed in 1941, and Seacombe in 1947.

Luggage boat Churton
Luggage boat Churton

The Royal Family

The “Royal” prefix was granted to the ferries Iris and Daffodil, for their service during the First World War at Zeebrugge. Both ferries were badly damaged but returned home to a triumphant greeting. Since the original duo’s withdrawal, there have been other Royals. The Royal Daffodil 2 was arguably the most luxurious ferry ever built. She was hit by a bomb and sunk at her berth in the Second World War, but later raised and returned to service, with little of her pre-war splendour. Perhaps the most famous Royal is the Royal Iris of 1951. She was the best loved of all the Mersey ferries. She was the first diesel powered vessel of the Wallasey fleet. She had four diesel generators connected to two Metrovick marine propulsion units. She differed to all the other ferries as she had super smooth lines and a dummy funnel in place. She played host to hundreds of party cruises and bands such as Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Beatles and also Elvis Costello. She received a major refit in the 1970’s and her popular fish and chip cafe – which earned her the name “the fish and chip boat”  was removed and replaced with a steak bar. The Royal Iris remained in service for nearly 40 years before being sold in 1993, two years after withdrawal, for use as a floating nightclub.  

In 1967 a second Mersey road tunnel was opened. As a result passenger numbers on the ferries declined. Following the Transport Act of 1968, both Wallasey and Birkenhead Corporations merged under the single control of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive (MPTE) on 1 December 1969. By this time, New Brighton had declined as a tourist destination and coupled with silting problems near the landing stage, the ferry service was withdrawn in 1971, with the stage and pier subsequently demolished. In spite of the close proximity of Wallasey and Birkenhead and their respective ferry landing stages, both Corporations had used different gangway spacing on their vessels. This meant that a Wallasey ferry could not utilise both gangways at Birkenhead’s terminal at Woodside, and that a Birkenhead boat would be similarly disadvantaged at Seacombe and New Brighton. The Pier Head at Liverpool was obliged to have gangways to suit both sets of ships. When the combined ferry fleet was rationalised, Seacombe Ferry landing stage required the construction of an additional gangway to cater for the Birkenhead vessels. The ferries’ darkest hour came in 1977 when a bill was presented in the Houses of Parliament to close ferry services altogether. the ferries survived this attempt and survive to this day offering not only the normal cross river service but also river cruise.

The Royal Iris
The Royal Iris

The river and the ferry boats are a symbol of our great city and known throughout the world not least because of the song “Ferry Cross the Mersey” (sometimes written Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey) written by Gerry Marsden. It was first recorded by his band Gerry and the Pacemakers and released in late 1964 in the UK and in 1965 in the United States. It was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching number six in the United States and number eight in the UK. The song is from the film with the same name and was released on its soundtrack album. In the mid 1990’s a musical theatre production also titled Ferry Cross the Mersey related Gerry Marsden’s Merseybeat days, it premiered in Liverpool and played in the UK, Australia, and Canada.

The author Helen Forrester also makes reference to the river and the ferries in her book ,”Twopence to cross the Mersey”. 1974

 “I knew this part of town, because I had been shopping in it on many occasions with my Grandmother. I pushed the Chariot purposefully up Lord Street to the top of the hill, where Queen Victoria in pigeon-dropped grey stone presided, down the hill, through a district of shipping offices with noble names upon their doors: Cunard, White Star, Union Castle, Pacific and Orient, the fine strands which tied Liverpool to the whole world. Past the end of the Goree Piazzas, an arcade of tiny shops and offices, where out of work sailors lounged and spat tobacco and called hopefully after me, under the overhead railway which served to take the dockers to work, and a last wild run across the Pier Head, dodging trams and taxis to the entrance to the floating dock. At last I had found it! The river scintillated in the sunshine; a tow of ships was coming in on the tide; a ferry-boat and a pilotboat tethered to the landing stage rocked rhythmically; screeching gulls circled overhead and swooped occasionally to snatch food from the river. A cold wind from the sea tore at my cardigan, jostling and buffeting my skinny frame. The shore hands were casting off the ferry boat, and I looked wistfully out across the water at the empty Cammell-Laird shipyards in Birkenhead”.

Helen Forrester,”Twopence to cross the Mersey”. 1974



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