Wallasey Mishaps

The Gem Disaster

On Tuesday, 26th November 1878, one of the worst fogs in living memory covered the Mersey. As was the custom in foggy conditions, the manager personally conducted operations and authorised every departure. There were strict rules for masters notably never to exceed half speed and strict observance of the code of fog signals in use on the river. On this occasion Seymour arrived from Liverpool and, after her passengers had disembarked, Gem was ordered alongside and proceed to embark about 250-300 waiting passengers, leaving half an hour later at 9.30 am commanded by Captain Cartwright, an experienced master, with 27 years ferry service. A Brocklebank sailing ship, Bowfell, the bowsprit of which swept the decks causing considerable damage including knocking her funnel down. Panic ensued and several passengers jumped overboard though, in fact, there was no danger of Gem sinking as she had not been holed below the waterline. Estimates of fatalities varied between eight and 20 as many bodies were never recovered. Gem finally made a landing at Woodside cattle stage.

At the subsequent inquest, the jury were to recommend that "...the time had arrived for the Dock Board to be unanimous in putting a stop to ships anchoring in the ferry track between Seacombe and George's Landing Stage, especially during winter months. Our inevitable conclusion is that it borders on criminality to anchor ships in the ferry track during foggy weather". But >>>

these sentiments were not shared by the Wreck Committee who presided over an Official Inquiry which opened on 10th December 1878. Cartwright was criticised for exceeding half speed as he had apparently ordered full speed to try to clear the bowsprit this increasing the force of the impact. The Inquiry concluded that "the blame, therefore, if blame there is, rests more with the ratepayers and the Wallasey Local Board who are the owners of the ferry steamer Gem in giving no discretionary power either to their manager captains to stop the Seacombe Ferry boats when it is dangerous to run". As soon as the Inquiry was over, Gem was repaired, an iron bulkhead replacing the staircase to the aft cabin. Early in 1879 both Mayflower and Heatherbell were fitted with extra watertight compartments, the latter having had a near miss in fog with an anchored vessel which was not displaying regulations lights or sounding a warning bell.

The outcome of the Gem tragedy had many repercussions. William Carson, the manager of the ferries, resigned, ferry services slumped, house prices fell because no one wanted to travel to and from Wallasey and the building trade went into recession as new houses in Wallasey were not being built. It was not until the opening of the new Seacombe terminal in 1880 that saw the ferries once again become popular for travellers.