History of Wallasey Ferries

Wallasey Ferries In The 1890s

There was a reversion to paddle steamers in 1891 when ‘Thistle’ was built by J.Scott of Kingham. She had a 150ft long steel hull and a passenger certificate for 1,200 passengers.  She resembled ‘Daisy’ ‘Primrose’ and ‘Violet’ but was easily distinguished by her single rather squat funnel placed forward of the paddle boxes. Her powerful diagonal engines gave her great speed but she only remained in the fleet until 1910 by which time paddlers were considered obsolescent. ‘Heatherbell’ was withdrawn, sold and renamed ‘Erin’s King’ to work pleasure cruises between Dublin and Kingstown.

The Woodside iron paddler steamer ‘Woodside’, built in 1865, was purchased from Birkenhead Corporation for £750 in 1891 and used as a standby for the luggage service.  Much of the sum was spent on clearing her decks and making other improvements and this vessel, now renamed ‘Shamrock’, had a dual role as a relief for ‘Wallasey’ and a landing boat. She was eventually sold in 1902 as she was not satisfactory on the luggage service.

‘Daisy’ certificate was renewed in July 1893 for 6 months. Her boilers needed to be lifted and thoroughly repaired or steam pressure would have to be reduced to 10lb which was completely impractical. The work, which included replating, was done by D.Rollo & Co. and she re-entered service in April 1894. A proposal to increase accommodation by lengthening the cabins was shelved but revived in September 1897 when work started by direct labour to extend the forward cabin by six feet, with a rounded end and lengthen the upper deck by 15ft with two additional staircases.

Three further vessels were ordered in 1895 with J.Scott of Kinghorn. The first was a steel-hulled coal barge, ‘Emily’, a slightly larger than the wooden flat ‘Maggie’, which was described as ‘in a very detective condition’ but was taken part-exchange to the value of £260. ‘Emily’ was launched on 18th December 1895, cost £2.041 and remained in the ferry service for 39 years. She was used to collect coal from various coal berths on the Mersey Docks or from Garston and deliver it to Seacombe where it was unloaded by a grab crane. The other vessels were virtually identical steel paddle steamers which were rather long for ferry service at 160ft. They were named ‘Pansy’ and ‘John Heron’, the latter in honour of the Ferry Committee chairman, and were authorised to carry 1,240 passengers.  Whilst technically similar to ‘Thistle’, they were of different appearance having a single raked funnel and a foremast. The specification was changed during the build, the cabins being lengthened by 10ft and made continuous. It was agreed that their trials should be on the River Forth so that the makers could quickly remedy any faults but ‘Pansy’ failed to achieve her contract price of 12.75 knots. A 6-hour continuous reliability trial was satisfactory completed on the River Mersey in December 1896 but the Council still demanded the full penalty of £200 from the builders for the lack of speed.

At 11.00am on 24th March 1898, in thick fog, ‘s.s. Lake Winnipeg’ was in violent collision with ‘Wallasey’ and ‘Thistle’ whilst moored at Seacombe stage, causing considerable damage to all three vessels. The stem and bows of ‘Lake Winnipeg’ were so firmly embedded in the starboard side of ‘Wallasey’ that as the former drifted up-river, ‘Wallasey’ was torn from the her moorings and eventually beached on Tranmere shore. Water was pumped out and she was placed on the gridiron at Egremont. The incident caused serious damage to Seacombe stage, one of the hydraulic gangways being broken and both goods lifts put out of action, one being restored only by cutting away part of the stage. It was several weeks before operations returned to normal.  

During the 1890s New Brighton was developing rapidly as a bathing resort and attracted many day trippers. On fine weekends the ferries were hard pressed to cope with the traffic. The last section of the riverside promenade, from Holland Road to New Brighton, was completed in 1891 and this enabled people with tight budgets to cross by Seacombe ferry and walk at any state of the tide along the promenade to New Brighton, enjoying the panorama of passing ships as they went. If they tired they could settle for the beach at Egremont. The Local Board agreed to the operators of pleasure cruises calling on New Brighton pier, i½d per passenger landing fee being charged. In 1980 agreements on these lines were made with the Southport, Preston & Blackpool Steam Packet Co. and the Birkdale, Southport and Preston Steamship Co. Vessels sailing between Liverpool and North Wales also called at the pier occasionally on the same conditions. Between 1898 and 1900, the impressive amusement grounds, dominated by the 600ft high Tower (almost 100ft higher than Blackpool’s), were laid out and greatly enhanced New Brighton’s attractions. There were now several hotels of quality and considerable optimism about the resort’s future. However, the year 1895 was best remembered for the exceptional weather in February, when the River Mersey froze and the steamers had to fend off ice floes.

From the earliest days of municipal ownership charter and cruise work had been undertaken as it is on record that on Whit Monday 1875 a Wallasey steamer was sent to Runcorn to carry a group of pre-booked excursionists to New Brighton at an inclusive price of £21. A similar trip was organised on 11th June from Gartson at £16. ‘Seymour’ was hired to the Rock Ferry Co. for three days from 1st May 1875 at £2 per hour, with a minimum of six hours. In November 1876 the same vessel was chartered by the L.N.W and G.W. Joint Railway companies at £12 per day to run the railway ferry between Monks Ferry and Liverpool.

The opening of the £15 million (£1.27 billion today) Manchester Ship Canal created a demand for vessels to cruise the new waterway and in June 1893 the Ship Canal Passenger Steamer Syndicate Ltd, formed specially to meet the demand, enquired about hiring a steamer of three months though this apparently proved over-optimistic. Nevertheless ‘Crocus’ and ‘Snowdrop’ spent several days on the canal at rates of between £10 and £12 per day. Not all these trips were in the summer as ‘Crocus’ was hired by the Manchester Ship Canal Co. on 7-8th December and both vessels on 1st January 1894 when the canal officially opened. The following day
‘Waterlily’ managed to collide with the Birkenhead steamer ‘Claughton’ on the canal. The Co-operative Wholesale Society wanted to hire both ships later that month for the ceremonial opening on 25th May but the Committee told them to enquire again nearer the time. In June 1894 the syndicate offered £20 per day but the Committee, sensing that demand exceeded supply, demanded £30. During Whit Sunday 1894 steamers were hired for private trips between Runcorn and New Brighton and from Manchester to New Brighton and back. These occasional charters continued as a useful source of extra revenue and, following the loss of a hire because of delay awaiting a committee meeting, the chairman and manager were allowed to quote.

Another source of charters was R.A. MacFie, owner of New Ferry, which was just about holding ots own with one old steamer, ‘Firefly’ which broke down frequently. ‘Violet’ and ‘Daisy’ and perhaps some other Wallasey vessels spent many days working the New Ferry service in 1893-1894. In August 1897, a vessel was hired to the Eastham Ferry Co. each Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the rate of £40 per half day.

20th Century Wallasey Ferries Steamers

Two twin-screw steamers, named ‘Rose’ and ‘Lily’ were built on the Mersey by John Jones & Son in 1900. They were wider in the beam at 42ft 1in than any previous passenger steamer and had certificates for 1,831 passengers.  As built the three lookouts were at deck level and the single funnels were rather squat. There were five portholes between the gangway doors, ‘Lily’ having the sheeting painted white whilst ‘Rose’ had buff. ‘Rose’ was equipped with a flying bridge of skeletal form, apparently in 1901 but no pictures of ‘Lily’ have been found with this addition.‘Seacombe’ was the name given to a new steel double twin-screw luggage boat built by Cochran of Annan at a cost of £18,000. She was launched on 28th September 1901 and, at 50ft, her beam was five feet greater than the successful ‘Wallasey’ which had been in service for 20 years. Her arrival enabled the second-hand ‘Shamrock to be disposed of. Her deck was completely clear, and apart from a brief spell as an oil-burner in the early 1920s, she had an uneventful career, being withdrawn in 1929 and broken up.

Further Reconstruction at Egremont

In 1884 the crumbling slipway at Egremont was renovated and the engine house renewed the following year. Following the accidental death of a boy who had been crushed by the running-out stage, a ferryman walked the slip carrying a red flag to give warning that the stage was about to move. Any suggestions of closing the unprofitable service were met with strong protests from regular passengers of whom there were really insufficient numbers to justify operation. The ferry closed in March 1888 at periods of low water to avoid disruption of the New Brighton service, contracts being made valid for use at the other terminals.

A survey by J.J. Webster in January 1896 revealed serious weakness in the tripod which vibrated at high tide when the impact of the boats gave greater leverage. The pier and bridge girders were adjudged satisfactory but the running-out stage was described as almost beyond repair. Its early replacement was advised.  On 29th November 1897 the landing stage was severely damaged by storms and a comprehensive inspection showed it clearly needed major rebuilding, the tripod having been eroded to the extent that it was only four or five feet in the ground. The bottom plates of vessels were being worn through by frequent grounding and vessels had to be hired as landing boats at £30 per day. There was clearly a case for closing the passage down. However, the Council continued to be swayed by the vociferous minority of regular users. The movable stage was patched up at some expense but in 1903 there was another serious attempt to close it down as the introduction of electric trams resulted in a drastic fall in the traffic at Egremont and an increase at Seacombe. The opportunity again was lost and matters drifted for another 5 years by which time Egremont traffic had picked up again though not to the extent to make it profitable. In February 1908, however, the Council decided that the terminal should be redesigned and rebuilt and again appointed Webster as consulting engineer.  Later in May Webster’s recommendations to extend the existing pier and affix a floating stage were accepted and the contract awarded to Alex Findlay & Co. Ltd of Motherwell for £13,361. 18s. 9d. The Acting Conservator of the Mersey, Admiral Mares, ruled that  approval for building the pier round the existing slipway would only be forthcoming provided the slipway could, at some future date, be broken up and to this the Council was forced to agree. An agreement was made with the Board of Trade to pay £5 per year for a lease of the land needed for pier piling and mooring the floating stage.

Egremont ferry closed for a month from 7th October 1908 while a bucket dredger accompanied by two barges deepened the river bed where the pier extension was to be built. On 2nd February 1909 the ferry closed for over nine months and work started on dismantling the tripod. Running-out stage and passenger bridge. On 19th February tragedy struck when the partially knocked down tripod collapsed, killing a foreman and injuring three others workers. The Council’s Works Department demolished the cluster of old buildings which had served as offices and workshops. The river walls were raised and the site adapted for recreational purposes with a shelter and a bandstand.

The gridiron on the south side of the ferry had been last used in 1908 and the rotting baulks of timber were gradually removed and carted away. All cleaning and repairs to the hulls were now done in the commercial graving docks.

The old high level pier had been 280ft long and the new one measured 342ft 6in being made up of six 52ft spans, one of 15ft 6in and one of 15ft. The structure was carried on cast iron piles of 12in diameter except for the cluster at the river end which supported the bridge which were 14in in diameter. The 153ft long bridge was 16ft wide and was connected to the pier  by rollers and by swivels at the stage end. It was built on the West Float and placed in position by the Dock Board floating crane ‘Atlas’ during September 1909. The floating stage was kept in position by dolphins consisting of greenheart piles braced together with creosoted pitch pine, the dolphins forming a groove between which the stage rose and fell with the tide. Thirty two of these 60ft long piles were driven to a depth of 12ft into the boulder clay of the river bed.

On 8th November 1909 the ferry was officially reopened by John Joyce, Chairman of the Ferries Committee who used the occasion to criticise the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board for failings to dredge the river sufficiently and also for the inadequate passenger bridges at Liverpool, a matter which was put right in 1913. The first steamer, ‘Iris’, departed at 9.30am on what was a grey and windy morning. At first delays were caused as stragglers hastened along the pier to catch the boat and eventually a warning bell was sounded five minutes prior to departure and again immediately before the gates were closed three minutes before the scheduled departure time.  It had been calculated that three minutes was sufficient time to allow even the elderly to reach the boat but many of the regulars objected and there were several cases of irate passengers vaulting the barriers and racing along the pier. A 15 minutes service was run between 8.00am and 7.00pm on weekdays from 12th January 1910 to encourage use of the ferry.

There was a crisis during the closure of Egremont ferry, when, on 12th February 1909, ‘s.s. Octopus’ – attempting to avoid colliding with other vessels – ran into Seacombe stage dislodging the north bridge which fell into the river. Emergency passenger facilities were provided at the south end of the landing stage. After recovery the north bridge was damaged by ‘Maggie’. During the repairs, hydraulic gangways were replaced by balanced gangways.