The current fleet consists of three vessels, which were all originally from the 1960s and were named Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch. All three ferries have been extensively refurbished and re-named Royal Iris of the Mersey, Snowdrop and Royal Daffodil respectively. The ferries share the workload of cross-river ferrying, charter cruises and the Manchester Ship Canal cruise. The service is managed by Merseytravel.
In 1317, a royal licence was issued, granting permission to the Priory to build lodging houses for men crossing the river at Woodside. King Edward II visited Liverpool in 1323, and the royal accounts show that he used local ferrymen to sail up the river to Ince. In 1330, his son Edward III granted a charter to the Priory and its successors for ever: "the right of ferry there… for men, horses and goods, with leave to charge reasonable tolls". At the time, there was only a small hamlet at Birkenhead, and a slightly larger village at Liverpool.
The Chester Indictments record criminal activities on the Mersey ferries in the 14th and early 15th centuries. In 1355, Richard, son of Simon de Becheton, was murdered on the ferry; the murderers escaped and took refuge at Shotwick. In 1365, it was recorded that there were four ferryboats operating without a licence, from Bromborough and Eastham. In 1414, William de Stanley, the servant of John Talbot, later Earl of Shrewsbury, was on the ferry between Birkenhead and Liverpool when about 200 men assaulted him, and stole his bay horse valued at £5 (over £2800), a bow and 14 arrows valued at 3s 4d (current value - over £95) and a barge valued at £10 (current value - over £5700). The thieves were fined.
A licence was issued in 1357 to the Poole family by Edward, the Black Prince, for a ferry from Eastham. The licence then passed to the Abbey of St Werburgh, in Chester, and became known as Job's Ferry. Early ferries also existed across the Mersey further upstream, at Ince and at Runcorn.
During this period, the private owners began to use fully rigged sailing ships. The use of sailing ships meant that bigger vessels could be employed, but in reality these boats were even more at the bidding of the weather. The Mersey is famed for its thick fogs, and during these times during winter there was little wind and ferries could not operate. The frequency depended on demand and the weather.
By the 18th century, the commercial expansion of Liverpool and the increase in stage coach traffic from Chester spurred the growth of the transportation of passengers and goods across the river. Ferry services from Rock House on the Wirral – that is, Rock Ferry – were first recorded in 1709. By 1753 the Wirral side of the Mersey had at least five ferry houses at Ince, Eastham, the Rock, Woodside and Seacombe. The service from New Ferry to Liverpool was first mentioned in 1774.
At Woodside, a small slipway was built on the beach to allow the boats to berth, and in 1822 the paddle steamer Royal Mail began commercial operation between Liverpool and Woodside. The town of Birkenhead was just starting to develop at this point. In 1820, the Birkenhead Ferry began operating from a new site just to the south; this closed in 1870. The Woodside, North Birkenhead and Liverpool Steam Ferry Company was formed in 1835, and the slipway at Woodside was widened and constructed as a stone pier. In 1838, the Monks Ferry Company began operating rival ferries from a new stone slip and hotel about 400 metres south of Woodside, but this service closed in 1878.
By the 1840s, Birkenhead was developing into a busy new town. The railway to Chester had opened, the town was growing quickly, and the docks were under construction. There were also competing ferry services and disputes over the rights granted to the monks, and there was a need to improve the facilities at Woodside. In the early 1840s, the old slipway was replaced with a new stone pier with a small lighthouse at the end. However, this soon became inadequate.
In 1847, the first floating landing stage, which rose and fell with the tide so that boats could dock at any time, was opened at Liverpool. The first portion, known as the Georges' landing stage, was designed by William Cubitt and was 500 feet long. It was rebuilt and extended in 1874.
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 and, in 1861, the Wallasey Local Board took over the ferry services at Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. 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 Cheshire, 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.
In 1886 the Mersey Railway Tunnel was opened, providing competition for the ferry services. The Woodside ferry service began using twin-screw passenger steamers in 1890, which replaced paddle steamers. In 1894 trains were carrying 25,000 passengers per day and the ferries 44,000 per day. The ferry service at Tranmere, which had operated since mediaeval times, closed in 1897. The pier and landing stage at Rock Ferry was built in 1899, and Birkenhead Corporation also operated the ferry service at New Ferry.
In 1914 King George V and Queen Mary travelled on the ferry S.S. Daffodil from Wallasey to Liverpool. During the First World War the steamers Iris and Daffodil were taken out of service from Wallasey to be used as troop ships in the naval raid on Zeebrugge in Belgium. The ferries had a shallow draft, allowing them to skim over the mines floating beneath the surface, and were robust enough to approach the heavily defended mole curling into the North Sea. They both saw action, which was described on 24 April 1918 by Vice–Admiral Sir Roger Keyes of the Royal Navy in a message to the ferries' manager:
"I am sure it will interest you to know that your two stout vessels carried Bluejackets and Marines to Zeebrugge, and remained alongside the Mole for an hour, greatly contributing to the success of the operation... The damage caused by enemy gun fire has been repaired".Because of their work King George V allowed the vessels to use the word "Royal" in their name. They needed extensive refitting before they could resume peacetime activities.
In the boats themselves, there was quick development. The early incarnations of today's modern vessels can be seen in some of the early propeller driven ships, mainly the 1906 pair, Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil. The Wallasey twin screw vessels all had flying bridges with an enclosed wheel house and open navigation boxes. They were all fitted with ahead and astern reciprocating engines and most vessels could achieve a speed of around 12 knots, which is about the same as today's trio of ferries. The navigation boxes were open largely due to the transition from sail to steam, and most ships at the time had open nagigation bridges with the ferries being no different. Birkenhead did not use flying bridges, instead having a central wheelhouse and two outer navigation boxes which were raised up higher above deck level. Wallasey ferries employed a funnel livery of white and black and Birkenhead red and black. After World War II, this was changed to orange when Mountwood and Woodchurch were introduced.
When the railway tunnels were constructed and opened, the ferry service did suffer somewhat but it always remained popular. It was really the advent of the road tunnels that caused trouble. When the Queensway road tunnel opened in 1934, the ferry service from Seacombe lost two million passengers because people started to use the tunnel rather than the ferry. The opening of the road tunnel also had an effect on the luggage boats which were introduced in 1879. Both ferry companies earned a substantial amount from luggage boats, which carried vehicles and goods across the river. When the road tunnel opened, traffic dropped by 80%. By the 1940s, luggage boat services from both Woodside and Seacombe to Liverpool had ceased.
Due to financial losses incurred from a gradual reduction in patronage, Birkenhead Corporation gradually closed its southern terminals; New Ferry (officially) on 22 September 1927, Eastham in 1929 and Rock Ferry on 30 June 1939. The closure of Eastham marked the last use of ferry paddle steamers on the river. Wallasey were always trying to close Egremont, but faced stiff opposition from locals who got petitions to keep the ferry open. The chance came to close Egremont during World War II for economical reasons, after the pier was damaged in a collision. This was in similar circumstances to the demise of New Ferry twenty years earlier. As a result, the Egremont service never reopened.
In 1941, mines which had drifted into the River Mersey stopped ferry crossings. The Oxton and Bebington vessels were fitted with cranes to enable them to unload United States aircraft from mid-river and deliver them to the Liverpool landing stage. The Upton vessel was taken by the army and used as a ferry and supply vessel for the anti-aircraft forts in Liverpool Bay.
In 1950, the ferries carried almost 30 million passengers a year, including 11 million on the Woodside ferries and 15 million on Seacombe ferries, but by 1970 the total number fell to 7 million. Night boats across the river were withdrawn and replaced by buses through the tunnel in 1956.
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 1970s economic situation in Britain saw costs escalating, with funding limited by the MPTE, which was embarking on an expensive operation to construct the Merseyrail "Liverpool Loop" extension. Compounded with the opening of the Kingsway road tunnel on 28 June 1971 and a further decline in passenger numbers (only 4,000-5,000 a day), the future of the service was uncertain. It was sentimental, rather than economical grounds which resulted in the retention of the ferries, after much public protest to keep them. However, service frequency was reduced, with ferry fares being linked to bus and rail fares. During this period, manitenance on the ferries was limited considerably, with the Woodchurch being laid up as a salvage for parts for Mountwood and Overchurch. At this time, the large brass helm from Overchurch was damaged and was replaced by that from Woodchurch. After the damaged helm was repaired, it was placed on Woodchurch. This has remained the case, even after both vessels were extensively rebuilt.
1984 was a momentous year for the ferries and can be seen as the beginning of the ferries rise from the slumps of the 1970s. For the duration of the International Garden Festival, a special ferry service was provided to Otterspool Promenade. This service was usually operated by the Overchurch. The ferries also began to operate summer Manchester Ship Canal cruises, a service which had been popular for many year since the canal opened, but declined somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s. Sailing ships from the Tall Ships' Race visited the river in August 1984, which helped bring patronage to 250,000 over four days, a level unseen for forty years.
The Leasowe and Egremont were built by Philip and Co. in Dartmouth, Devon and entered service in late 1951 and early 1952 respectively. Named after suburbs of Wallasey, both vessels were commissioned by Wallasey Corporation.
They were of a traditional design by naval architechts Graham and Woolnough, who are based in Liverpool, but boasted ultra modern equipment including Crossley multi-speed engines for versatile control. They only had one single boarding gangway and their forward saloons extended to the whole width of the ship. The forward saloons also had a bar area and dance floor, which meant the vessels could be used for cruising. Unfortunately, the lack of a forward gangway made these vessels less suitable in their primary roles as ferries, as it was necessary to embark and disembark passengers in two stages.
Egremont differed externally to Leasowe in that she had a canvas awning fitted around her funnel. Early photographs of Leasowe and Egremont show them carrying what look like binnacle shrouds (the brass lids that sit atop of a binnacle) on the roof of their wheelhouses and wing cabs. It is not understood what these were. Some people have said that they were in fact ventilation devices. Upon the bridge there were numerous modern devices. Chadburn synchrostep telegraphs and rudder angle indicatiors, hydraulic steering telemotor and an automatic whistle control could be found in both the wheelhouse and the navigation boxes. There was also an internal communication system, a ship to shore radio and PA system and three binnacles on the bridge. Similar types of navigation equipment and deck fittings used on these vessels are extant on the Edmund Gardner Pilot Boat at Merseyside Maritime Museum. The Leasowe and Egremont were popular ferries with their crews as they had much improved crew accommodation compared to the earlier steamers, where much of the lower deck space was taken up with boilers and machinery. When the ferries entered service they all had Wallasey white and black funnel liveries. There was, however, a major design fault with Leasowe and Egremont. In order to reach the bows of the ship when casting off etc, crew members were required to either push through the hoards of commuters and climb down a ladder from the forward promonade deck or walk along the rubbing strake and climb over. In flat calm conditions this was not a problem, but in a force 8 gale with the vessel bobbing around wildley, it could be considerably dangerous. The simple reason for such problems was because there was no door leading from the main saloon to the bow area of the ships!
The Royal Daffodil 2 was constructed by James Lamont and Co. at Greenock and entered service in 1957. She was a large and bulky ship compared with the other vessels of the Wallasey fleet, as she had three decks and was designed for the dual role of ferry and cruise service. The gross tonnage of Royal Daffodil 2 was 609, but despite her size she only had the same engines as the smaller Leasowe and Egremont. Aside from the engine order telegraphs, she also had docking order telegraphs in the wings, the only Mersey ferryboat to ever have them. Due to the vessel having smaller engines than it required, it was said to be somewhat hard to handle in heavy seas. The ship's second deck was intended for use as a bar and function area, however this did not happen due to cost limitations. Instead the it was simply a draughty space with seating and a semi -closed basic saloon.
With the merger of the Wallasey and Birkenhead fleets in 1969, the ferries lost their Wallasey colours to be replaced with the primrose yellow and powder blue of the MPTE, and latterly emerald green and black. In the mid 1970s, Leasowe and Royal Daffodil 2 were sold to Greek owners and have been heavily modified since. The Leasowe is still cruising around the Greek islands. The former Royal Daffodil 2 hit headlines when it sank in November 2007, 20 miles off the coast of Cape Andreas, in heavy seas. The cause of the sinking was main engine and steering gear failure, and she claimed the lives of both her captain and mate. TheEgremont was laid up in Morpeth dock whilst on sale offer and in fact sprang a leak which flooded her engine room and ruined her engines rendering her inoperable. She was stripped of her machinery and bridge fittings and towed to Salcombe, where she is now used as a floating headquarters for the Island Cruising Club in Salcombe, Devon, not far from her original birthplace.
Mountwood and Woodchurch were built at Dartmouth by Philip and Sons. The Mountwood was launched on the 31 July 1959 and the Woodchurch on the 28 October of the same year. They were loosely based on designs of the Leasowe and Egremont of the Wallasey fleet, although they both weighed considerably less at 464 tonnes, compared with 511 tonnes for the earlier vessels. They are also larger than the older Wallasey pair, being approximately 19 feet longer, 6 feet broader and over a foot taller. However, the Wallasey vessels used much bulkier machinery and steel which added significantly to the gross tonnage. Both vessels were externally identical in almost every way up until the late 1970s when they were fitted with shrouds protecting their funnel aft vent. Mountwood had a round shroud whilst Woodchurch was fitted with a square one.
Compared to the earlier Wallasey twins, the Mountwood and Woodchurch were highly advanced. They benefited from an injection of cash from both Birkenhead Corporation and the Joint Tunnel Committee. They were given special Crossley eight cylinder engines which were fitted with gears and automatic air brakes. New style telegraphs by Chadburns were designed which had a facility for braking the engines for rapid reversal, the telegraphs were part of a brand known as "Synchrostep" and were all originally painted blue with shiny brass rimming. Woodchurch retained this telegraph colour, but Mountwood's became green and Overchurch had the same telegraph 'heads' however they were fitted into the wings and main control position in specially built units which also had instruments fitted to them. They entered service in 1960 and were an instant hit with ferry passengers. They were light, modern and boasted the latest in marine navigation equipment. They were given an orange and black funnel livery, with a red band just above the rubbing strake. In their early years of service both the ferries carried rope fenders to protect the strakes.
On the bridge was also a brass talk tube that linked down to the engine room. A popular prank amongst bridge crews was to call an engineer on the talk tube then pour water down it, thus soaking the engineer at the other end.
The Mountwood was used in the film "Ferry Cross The Mersey", a musical and subsequent Gerry and the Pacemakers song, with the video being filmed on two separate journeys across to Liverpool from Birkenhead. In her early years Mountwood was an unreliable ship. She broke down three times whilst crossing the river and had to anchor. Her passengers were rescued by Woodchurch. She also collided with Bidston whilst berthing, due to a communications error.
The last of the old Birkenhead steamers had gone by the time the Overchurch arrived, built at the Birkenhead shipyard of Cammell Laird and Co., Overchurch was of all welded construction and also had a bridge that was completely enclosed rather than a wheelhouse and navigation boxes like Mountwood and Woodchurch. The addition of a totally enclosed bridge meant that there only needed to be one binnacle upon it, whereas on the two sisters there were three, one inside the main wheelhouse and two in the docking/navigation boxes. The Overchurch also has much of its instrumentation fitted into specially built units, meaning the ferry had a spacious bridge, rather than the more compact and cluttered bridges of the Mountwood and Woodchurch.Overchurch had a high funnel immediately behind the bridge and also a small bridge deck, giving the appearance of a somewhat top-heavy look, as a result. The Overchurch was fitted with the same navigation equipment as her near sisters. She differed slightly by being a few tonnes heavier and a few inches longer. She was also believed to be faster than her near sisters, although as she was slighting heavier but with the same engines, it is unlikely she was.
In 1962, the Overchurch conveyed Princess Alexandra to open the new Cammell Laird dry dock.
The trio of ferries all remained in near constant operation up until 1981, when cost cutting measures saw Woodchurch withdrawn for almost three years. It was rumoured that she was cannibalised to help keep her sisters running. Whilst in lay up at Clarence dry docks, she was offered for sale, with one prospective buyer hoping to use her to operate cruises around the Isle of Man. She was not sold and after main engine repairs and a full repaint Woodchurch returned to service in 1983, freeing up Overchurch to work the new Otterspool service, set up for the 1984 International Garden Festival. The ferries all operated on a normal 20 minute route throughout this.
When the ferries were taken over by the PTE, they lost their original liveries and these were swiftly replaced with sky blue and primrose yellow. This was in turn replaced with black and green and then colours of the Union Jack for the garden festival.
In 1989, Mountwood and Woodchurch were withdrawn and extensively refurbished internally which resulted in complete rewiring and main engine repairs. They were given new modern interiors and their separate bridge wings and wheel houses were plated over to form one large bridge, although none of the original equipment was removed from the new bridge. They entered service by July 1990 in time for the QE2's first visit to the Mersey and also operated the new "heritage cruises". They also were given a new black and red livery replacing the red white and blue given for the Garden Festival season of 1984. The Overchurch was withdrawn from regular service and subsequently moved to Bootle, were she was internally refurbished and rewired. She was then moved to the ferries regular berth on the East Float, where she saw little use for nearly a decade. The reason for this was somewhat unknown as Overchurch was more than suitable for ferry service.
The Mountwood and Woodchurch originally had a gross tonnage of 464. Since their refits and re-namings this has increased to around 640 tonnes per ferry. However, the new engines are very powerful and still propell the vessels at around 13 knots.
The ferries' masts now carry four red, one white and one green light at various points. Prior to refit, they had only a forward facing white light. This is because all the ferries have been upgraded to a class 3 certificate, enabling them to sail much further and to various other locations such as Llandudno and Barrow-in-Furness. The extra lights are only used in this situation. Briefly, the Royal Daffodil carried a white half mast light which was suspended within the rigging. This was due to an electric failure in her main mast head lamp and an auxiliary light had to be used.
The front angled bridge windows on the Royal Iris and the Snowdrop have been subject to much criticism, as they are contradictory to the classic ferry design, especially that on Snowdrop, which is extremely square and box like. Although the Royal Iris also has a large front angled wheelhouse, it greatly matches the contours of the ship as does much of the steelwork replacement by Cammel Laird. One a whole, Snowdrop's refit has been well received, but criticisms lie with the stark contrasts bettween the fine lines of the original Dartmouth builders and the somewhat crude welding of Mersey Heritage Ship Repair contractors, this is coupled with extensions to the forward promonade deck, which appears to be somewhat 'stuck on'. Snowdrop's refit results is in stark contrast to the excellent work carried out on Royal Daffodil
The ferries are known for their ability to operate in very heavy seas. The reason services are usually suspended is not because the ferries can't cope with the heavy winds and waves of the Mersey, it is because berthing the vessel can be extremely hazardous. When berthing the vessel, the captain uses a combination of rudder positions and engine movements. The ferries all have Fletner system rudders which make them much more manouverable. By ultilising the vessel's twin screws, captains can move the vessels away by using one engine to push the vessel from the stage and the rudders and other engine to point it into the correct direction.
As expected, the ferries have played a big part in Liverpool's European Capital of Culture 2008 celebrations. The ferries have been carrying record numbers of passengers, and on the 18 - 21 July, the Tall Ships returned to the Mersey. A combination of the Tall Ships and the Golf Open at nearby Royal Birkdale ensured over 1 million visitors to the city over the weekend, with many of these taking a trip on the famous ferries. Sunday 20 July saw an unusual sight of all three ferries out on the river at night, with the Snowdrop being berthed at Woodside and the Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil at Seacombe. All three ferries were packed to capacity over the weekend, with the Royal Daffodil operating a special cruise to witness the parade of sail and departure of the ships on Monday 21 July.
The ferries are expected to play a big part in the Capital of Culture closing celebrations.
The Queen Elizabeth 2, the famous Cunard liner, paid its final visit to the Mersey on October 3rd 2008. All three ferries were busy all day with both a shuttle service and special cruises near the vessel which was berthed at Princes landing stage. At 10pm the fleet sailed out with the liner for the last time, each of the ferries sounding thier klaxons in salute, with the QE2 responding. It was an emotional night for all aboard the vessels, as they said farewell for the liner which had launched the ferries as a new brand more than 18 years ago.
"Ferry Cross the Mersey" was a 1964 song, film, and soundtrack album. The song was written by Gerry Marsden, recorded by Gerry & the Pacemakers and was a hit in both the UK and US. In 1989, a charity version of the song was recorded by Liverpool artists The Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, and Stock Aitken Waterman, and was released in aid of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster. It held the #1 spot in the UK chart for three weeks.
The big day fashion winners... and flops ; Who chose wisely in the style stakes and who made wedding faux pas? Gail Walker reports
Apr 30, 2011; Poised and elegant, Catherine Middleton went from commoner to Royal bride in a stunning yet simple ivory and satin Alexander...