History of Wallasey Ferries

Under The Local Board : New Brighton

When the Local Board took control of the Wallasey Ferries it had found itself in a difficult position. The Board knew, for the essential future growth of the town, they needed to invest considerable capital on both vessels and landing facilities. In order to maximise revenue there was a need to retain sufficient vessels and staff to cope with the peak summer demand but also to maintain a winter service for a small voluble band of annual contract-holders with minimum staff. The need to dredge the approaches to New Brighton ferry pier and protect the landing facilities from the ravages of sea and wind were costly items in the accounts. The population in 1861 was only 10,700 so the revenue base was low but an influx of new residents would be encouraged only by the provision of safe, all-weather facilities. In this respect, the way ahead had been demonstrated by the installation of a new floating landing stage at Woodside in February 1862 and the Local Board grasped the nettle and decided that floating stages should be provided at all three ferry terminals as soon as they could be afforded. New Brighton, the most profitable passage, was chosen for attention first and powers were incorporated in the Wallasey Improvement Act, 1864 which also authorised further mortgages of £45,000 of which £15,000 was earmarked for the New Brighton pier and stage. The Act required the plans to be submitted to the Admiralty for approval.

The new plans that were used for the new terminal were based upon James Brunlees’ plans for New Ferry which comprised an iron pier, a floating landing stage and a connecting passenger bridge. The work was awarded to Peto, Brassey and Potts of Birkenhead on 1st October 1865 with the contract valued at £9,300. Unfortunately the contractors realised that the completion date of 1st July 1865 was not feasible. Also the Local Board had failed to appoint James Brunlees as engineer-in-charge, preferring instead their own engineer. On 5th January 1865, the partially built pier was transferred to contractors Rothwell & Co. of Bolton who undertook completion by 1st May at a cost of £9,250. They, too, proved incompetent and progress was further hindered when the connecting bridge collapsed while being placed in position, toppling on to the four linked pontoons which served as a temporary stage during the reconstruction works. This broke up, depositing some 200 people in the water, fortunately without loss of life.

The temporary pontoon stage was repositioned but it was condemned in October as unsafe, being replaced by the hulk of ‘Elizabeth’ which had been used in a similar capacity at Seacombe. The new works were then entrusted to the distinguished engineer, Henry Hooper but, when the Local Board finally took possession on 1st March 1866, they still declared themselves thoroughly dissatisfied. The final work was completed by Bowdler, Chaffer and Co., the Seacombe shipbuilders, the cost having escalated to £23,906, exceeding the original estimate of £14,000. When asked to comment on the discrepancy, Brunlees said ‘the pier at New Ferry had been built for one proprietor and in that case I was permitted to appoint my own resident engineer and was fortunate in having a good contractor whereas the New Brighton pier was under the superintendence of a Board who appointed their own resident engineer and was unfortunate in its contractor’.

The opening ceremony took place on 20th May 1866 when ‘Heatherbell’ was brought alongside the new floating stage. On 3rd October 1867 the stage and bridge suffered major structural damage when the Lamport and Holt steamer ‘Galileo’ ran out of control in a strong south-east wind and smashed into the southern end of the stage as her pilot, in an effort to avoid running aground, fought to bring her alongside in heavy seas. There was an ebb tide running and the impact broke the mooring chains, the stage then swinging round. Watching from the shore, a Mr. Haughton observed “The vessel blew across the head of the stage and, after a time, the pressure became so great that the moorings yielded, the bridge curled up in the air like a sapling and fell in three fragments into the water. The landward edge of the bridge was torn from its connection but the riverward end retained its attachment to the arch by means of the chains until someone on the landing stage cut it loose with a chisel and let it go by the board”. The landing stage drifted out to sea and was rescued by the combined efforts of ‘Wallasey’ and ‘Waterlily’ under the personal command of William Carson.

At the subsequent enquiry, Brunlees was completely exonerated. However, during the subsequent reconstruction, the offshore end of the bridge rested upon rollers embedded in the stage thus making the movement of the whole structure more flexible. However, Brunlees’ recommendation that protective dolphins be positioned either side of the stage was rejected by Admiral Evans, the river conservancy officer. Whilst the new bridge was being installed, passengers reached the boats from the pier by means of a temporary wooden stairway and four flats anchored abreast of each other and connected by gangplanks. The landing stage was reopened on 28th May 1868, the repairs having cost £4,850 although it was rumoured that the Board received £10,000 in compensation. But there were recurring problems with the stage and it was removed for examination on 11th November 1869, passengers using an iron landing boat bought for £45. After an abortive reopening on 15th December, the service was suspended while further work was done to anchor the stage more securely. During the closure, the ferry staff were employed in constructing larger toll booths at the pier entrance. The bridge was finally repositioned on 24th December but the problem of insufficient depth of water was not solved and for several years there were times when boats had to be hired to act as an extension to the stage.

Most Victorian seaside resorts boasted a pleasure pier and New Brighton was no exception. Constructed adjacent to and north of the ferry pier, the 560ft long75ft wide structure was opened on 9th September 1867 at a cost £27,000 and became a popular attraction for visitors. Access was gained from the ferry pier for which a rental was paid by the pier’s owners but later a separate entrance was added leading directly from the horse shoe-shaped promenade protrusion at the foot of Victoria Road.