History of Wallasey Ferries

Under The Local Board

On 1st August 1861 operations of all three ferries was passed from the Coulborns to the Wallasey Local Board. Employees were retained to ensure continuity. The opening ceremony was coupled with the opening of the municipal waterworks and 300 distinguished guests were taken on the Rock Ferry steamer ‘Wasp’ on a cruise from Egremont to New Ferry then to the Crosby lightship and back to Egremont. A banquet was held that evening at the water tower and was hosted by the Local Board chairman.

A house flag was adopted with the initials ‘W.F’ in white on a red background and the Admiralty-approved method of river signals was observed. At each terminal an employee was sworn in as a special constable. Bye-laws were introduced to control passenger conduct which banned singing, and the playing of musical instruments was relaxed to allow ‘music boxes’ to be played on the northern boats between 11.00 am and 3.30 pm. Hawkers and pedlars were barred from ferry premises, causing some protests from the public about the exclusion of an old woman who had sold oranges and gingerbread at Seacombe. W.H. Smith was allowed to open a newsstand at Seacombe and advertising billboards were erected at all three terminals.

All three passages offered a daily half-hour service except that there was no service to New Brighton on Sundays. First boats left Seacombe at 5.30 am, Egremont at 5.45 am and New Brighton at 8.15 am and the last boats from Liverpool were at 12.0 midnight, 10.30 pm and 8.30 pm respectively. The Seacombe service was augmented at peak hours. From 23rd August all contact holders were allowed to travel on all three ferries without extra charge and books of 12 ‘pass tickets’ were sold at slightly reduced rates. The practice of issuing reduced contracts to members of the families and servants of holders was continued. To aid public confidence through good timekeeping, a large clock was placed on the frontage of the Ferry Hotel at New Brighton, the proprietor being paid a rent of one shilling (5p) per annum. A Mr Cunliffe was appointed to maintain and regulate all ferry clocks for a fee of 30 shillings (£1.50) annually.

The Ferry Manager, Braithwaite Poole, soon set about making savings on the northern services. The New Brighton services, from 1st November 1861, were reduced to hourly with last departures from Liverpool at 6.00 pm and New Brighton at 6.30 pm; however, direct boats, not calling at Egremont, were introduced at peak hours. All three passage services were soon being worked by a maximum of four boats to reduce costs and coal contracts were renegotiated and tenders invited for several coal barges to be towed behind steamers to eliminate costly refueling stops during revenue earning hours. In the event of bad weather causing suspension of the Egremont and New Brighton sailings, flags were hoisted at the ferry terminals, and top of Tobin Street and at the junction of Victoria Road and Rowson Street. In fog no boat could leave Seacombe until the other vessel had been sighted and her paddles stopped.

Mr. James Hall was engaged to handle luggage and other goods to and from Seacombe at a fixed scale of charges and in October he started an omnibus service between New Brighton and Seacombe. Following the introduction of a ‘street railway’ in Birkenhead and flanged-wheel omnibuses along the docks at Liverpool, the Local Board was asked to approve a tramway but this was rejected in October 1861.

The old running out stage at New Brighton was unreliable and unstable, very often becoming dislodged during heavy seas, and despite £200 having been spent on dredging, Poole complained bitterly about the conditions. The public were still regularly required to transfer to a landing boat and occasionally the service was stopped. Poole recommended that the moving stage should run on rails fixed to the surface of a smooth incline some 150 ft long. Although his scheme was rejected, the Local Board accepted that the terminal needed completely redesigning. The ebullient Poole was frustrated by the Board’s failure to adopt a policy for modernising the whole ferry operation due to lack of funds. There were strong protests at a town meeting in September 1862 in regards to the ferry rate of 8d in the £. Impressive as Poole’s achievements were, they were insignificant compared with the improvements at Woodside. On 8th June 1863 he wrote to the Chairman as follows:-

“My duties have become onerous and the assistance offered me so inadequate. I feel much disposed to retire”.

On 30th September 1863, Poole left the ferry service and went on to become Secretary and chief adviser of the newly-formed Hoylake Railway Company. His last act was to write to W. & M. Scott of the Tranmere Foundry from whom balanced gangways had been ordered their Liverpool landing stage. A special boat sent to fetch them on 1st December was sent back empty and the gangways were still in a half finished condition on 9th.

On the 1st October, William Carson succeeded Poole as new ferry manager with a salary of £300 per year. Carson was a 27 year old engineer and designer who had been employed by the Cork Steamship Co. During the next 15 years he spent with the Ferries Department he was to transform the undertaking. An Assistant Manager, William Drummond, was appointed on 1st January 1864 at £90 per annum.

In June 1861 the Board refused to buy the steamer ‘Elizabeth’, being rejected for being too old, but on 22nd July they changed their minds and paid £500 for her and on 15th August the Board purchased the ‘Wallasey’ with the aid of a £1,000 bond. To supplement the fleet, two iron paddlers were hired from the Hetheringtons, lessees of Rock Ferry, ‘Ant’ for three months and ‘Nymph’ for one month. The contract to build a new steamer designed by E.W. Coulborn was awarded to H.M. Lawrence & Co. Of Liverpool who were also to design and install her boiler and engines. They recommended that the vessel should be redesigned to include two funnels and two boilers and increased in length. The Board agreed only to the latter and appointed a Mr. Furlong to superintend construction on their behalf.

The Ferry Committee decided, due to the age profile of the fleet, to order a second new vessel. They chose Jones, Quiggin & Co. of Liverpool as the new tenderer with whom an order was placed on 1st May 1862 for an iron hulled paddler with engine and boiler to be supplied by Forrester & Co. Meanwhile £247 was spent on ‘Elizabeth’ to convert her into a dedicated luggage boat after being declared unfit for passenger service.

Furlong was now engaged as the Board’s Consultant and Superintending engineer at £80 per annum. His first inspection resulted in the withdrawal of ‘Fairy’ on which some of the panels had worn to a thickness of one sixteenth of an inch. ‘Tiger’ was little better and Furlong advised that she be cemented on the inside to render her seaworthy. With three vessels out of service, the Board asked the Coulborns if they could hire ‘Gem’ (the former ‘Liscard’) but it was not available and to cover the Easter traffic, ‘Hercules’ was hired, complete with crew and coal, from Crouse and Downham at £14 per day. On 24th April ‘Invincible’ returned to her old haunts having been chartered for £9 per day while ‘James Atherton’ was undergoing emergency repairs. She was released on 22nd May when W.R. Coulborn agreed to hire ‘Gem’ for three months at £7 per day.

In conjunction with Jones, Quiggin, the Board placed an order with G. Forrester & Co., for an iron hull suitable to accommodate the engines and boiler taken from ‘Fairy’. The saloons were to be entirely below deck in order to leave a flush deck except above the engine space. The position was so desperate that, following the launch of the first new boat, ‘Mayflower’ or ‘May Flower’ on 14th May, 1862, she was pressed into service over Whitsuntide incomplete and unpainted. Faults emerged, the Local Board claiming £1,621. 15s. 4d (£1,621.76), before finally accepting delivery on 1st August. The second ‘flower boat’, ‘Waterlily’ or ‘Water Lily’, was launched on 14th June 1862 and after successful trials, entered service during August. Both vessels were broadly similar with two raised deck saloons, the aft one flush with the stern and the fore cabin forward of the stack and paddle boxes. They were light and airy with large sliding windows. The roots of the cabins were railed off and provided with seats. There were nine watertight compartments and Bremme’s steam steering and anchor raising gear was fitted. Technically they were in advance of and occupied less space than the earlier side lever engines having 70hp diagonal oscillating engines in which the cylinder was mounted on trunnions to allow it to follow the movement of the crank. ‘Waterlily’ differed from ‘Mayflower’ in having a narrower, smaller stack and a more confined bridge but, at 140ft long, she was the longest ferry yet seen on the river and anticipated the more or less standard 150ft length which was to evolve commencing with Woodside’s ‘Cheshire’ six months later.

The third ‘flower boat’ was the hull designed to take the innards of ‘Fairy’ and was named ‘Wild Rose’. She sailed on a test run from New Brighton to Eastham; a distance of 9 miles in 48 minutes, then handed over to the Board but was soon rejected as being totally unsuitable. She consumed coal at the rate of over five tons per day and had an alarming tendency to ‘crank’ or ‘tender’ when fully loaded. It was found that her moulded depth had been exceeded by nine inches, requiring ballast. Her builders argued, with some justification, that it had been difficult to design a hull to accommodate old engines and equipment and estimated that for another £1,500 they could rectify all her faults. They advised lengthening her by 20ft and lowering her cabins and bulwarks. Jones, Quiggin recommended relocating her coal bunkers and enlarging her rudders so that she would steer correctly. The Board adopted a simpler and less expensive remedy; they fitted a new £50 rudder outside her stempost which effectively made her single-ended. Throughout her life on the Mersey, ‘Wild Rose’ remained cranky and unsteady, shipping gallons of water on the turn. She stood high out in the water and the new rudder protruded above the water line. Carson once said that he always expected her to capsize but she always came up smiling. The derelict hull of ‘Fairy’ was sold for £80 and during the winter of 1862-63, the steering gear of ‘Tiger’, ‘Mayflower’ and ‘James Atherton’ was relocated amidships in the interests of safety in foggy conditions.William Carson’s first project, as new ferry manager, was to design a new vessel in January 1865, which was eventually ordered from Thomas Vernon & Sons. The new vessel was a double-ended flush-decked paddle steamer with 7ft high cabin amidships on deck with promenade deck above. She was named ‘Heatherbell’ and had an official capacity of 807 passengers. The hull was divided into seven watertight compartments, a feature of all Carson’s designs. There were two funnels and provision for two gangways each side, one on each side of the paddle-boxes. Heavy timber sponsons and rubbing pieces extended all around her. She was launched in May 1865, but, because of engine defects, did not enter service until September. She had a speed of 10 knots and remained pride of the fleet for 14 years, being used mainly on the New Brighton service.

By now the ageing fleet was beginning to suffer due to lack of money. In January 1864 ‘James Atherton’ was withdrawn to undergo alterations to her hull, receive a new boiler and engine repairs. ‘Wallasey’ was declared unfit in May to carry passengers and was relegated to the goods service while two months later ‘Tiger’ was withdrawn and sold, having been previously fitted with a second-hand boiler and ‘Waterlily’ had to undergo repairs. All this resulted in a shortage of boats so the Board were obliged to hire extensively during the summer and continuing into early 1865. These vessels included ‘Hercules’, ‘Columbus’, ‘Helen’, ‘Dispatch’ and ‘Bridgewater’, the New Ferry boats ‘Sylph’ and ‘Sprite’ which were new and had not yet entered service and the Rock Ferry boat ‘Star’. Also hired for a time was the luggage boat ‘Favorite’. In September 1864 the ‘Gem’ was purchased from the Coulborns which is an usual example of a vessel being rejected and then later purchased to do the work for which she had been designed.

During a violent gale on 1st December 1867, the ‘Wallasey’ sank and was later raised on 23rd January but, being beyond repair, she was broken up. ‘Gem’ received a new boiler during a refit in 1869 and was given a 50-seat deck cabin. ‘Wild Rose’ was reboilered in 1870 but other modifications were not proceeded with until 1873 when deck shelters were provided. On 12th August 1869 both ‘Gem’ and ‘Heatherbell’ were chartered to act as tenders to the ‘s.s. Great Britain’, a useful source of extra revenue. The oldest vessel in the fleet, ‘Thomas Wilson’ fitted in 1863 with engines built by Fawcett, Preston for the former Woodside steamer ‘Ann’, suffered frequent mid-river breakdowns and ‘Mayflower’ was in need of a major refit. During the summer of 1871, the Board was obliged to hire boats to maintain the service at Bank Holidays and during July and August. These included ‘Hercules’, ‘Bee’ from Rock Ferry and the former Birkenhead Ferry steamer ‘Cato’ from E.G. Willoughby of Tranmere.