History of Wallasey Ferries

Under The Local Board : Reconstruction of Seacombe

The land reclamation plan at Seacombe, where the ferry slip was in a small bay, was virtually a northward extension of the Birkenhead dock scheme which had been taking shape over the previous 25 years and was undertaken jointly with the Dock Board with whom the 3.4 acres reclaimed by straightening the river bank was to be shared. The Local Board had to take into account that it was politically impracticable to burden the ratepayers too heavily.

Carson originally put forward three plans but one (Plan B) was discarded at an early date. Both remaining plans envisaged a floating landing stage 310ft long and a passenger bridge fixed at the shore end. Plan C, on which the Parliamentary plans were based, proposed a floating roadway with only one intermediate pontoon for use by vehicles while Plan A included a goods bridge fixed at the shore end in the way as the passenger bridge. The existing slip had a permanent incline of 1 in 20 and varied in length from 370ft to 25ft according to the tide. A 160ft bridge would have had an unacceptable gradient of 1 in 5.3ft at a low water spring tide of 21ft whereas a floating structure would have lifted over its entire length with a 1 in 16 gradient at extreme low water and a level plane at high water. Plan C was adopted by the Local Board in 1867.

However, during the years of planning, the floating roadway at Woodside had been opened and the practical problems associated with its use and the cost of its maintenance had become apparent. The Woodside and Liverpool roadways, opened in 1868 and 1874 respectively had several pontoons thus providing a very flexible structure. It became apparent that a floating roadway would provide inadequate mooring boom would have been needed to maintain rigidity. The 1867 Plan A was adopted the following year incorporating, in addition to passenger and goods bridge, a high level pier with two hydraulic lifts connecting to it to the stage for use at low water. The stage was redesigned from a width of 55ft to 70ft with an end-loading embayment at the south (goods) end. The pier and lift were to have railway tracks connected to the dock railways.

The Board of Trade approved the change in plans without the need to seek new Parliamentary powers and active planning for the continuation of the ferry services during the estimated three-year construction period begun in late 1875. William Carson was appointed Engineer at a fee of £1,000 with Wilfred S. Boult and John J. Potts as resident engineers. The Conservator refused to allow a temporary pier to be erected but fortuitously Bowdler and Chaffer’s shipyard to the south of the ferry slip which had been damaged by fire in 1872, had become vacant and the Local Board rented part of the site with a 450ft frontage to the river and access from East Street. An asphalt surface was laid, existing buildings being adapted as passenger facilities and to accommodate carriages, cabs and omnibuses. A floating stage and 150ft connecting bridge, redundant from a failed service between New Ferry and Toxteth, were purchased from Mr. R.A. MacFie and floated across the river on 2nd February 1876. The stage which, for some reason, had been registered as a ship ‘South End’, by its previous owner, measured 120ft x 30ft x 7ft 9in with a projection under the bridge of 20ft by 10ft and was moored with 1¾ in. chains. As the shipyard sloped down to the river wall, a 16ft wide timber pier was built to within 35ft of the wall, the inshore end of the bridge being hinged to a cross-head with a similar connection to the stage.

The first contract, for the 1,000ft river wall, was let in May 1876 and from 11.00am on 26th July 1876 all Seacombe sailings were transferred to the temporary landings; this functioned reasonably well except at low water when a steamer was breached at the stage to give extra depth and landing craft were brought into use. During an exceptional low Spring tide on 30th March 1877, two Tranmere boats were hired and beached alongside but these failed to reach low water mark and passengers had to be transferred to a ‘small armada of little craft’.

Demolition of the Seacombe Hotel and other properties which flanked the bay began immediately, the old slip being retained for a time for the removal of waste. The foundation of the river wall was very hard boulder clay; two thirds being in blocks of not less than 20 cu.ft. the wall rose to a height of 27ft above Old Dock Sill behind the pier and 24ft elsewhere. For in filling behind the wall, rock rubbish was dumped for a width of 24ft behind which was clay most of which was obtained by leveling ground behind the old Seacombe hotel and adjoining properties, including a bowling green. The whole structure was massive, being designed not only to withstand the weather but also to resist, as far as possible, damage which might be caused by a drifting steamer. The work, which was undertaken by Thomas Monk of Bootle, had to be fitted in with the tides, the founding of the wall alone occupying 471 tides.

As Seacombe is situated at the narrowest part of the Mersey, the tide sometimes flows at 6¼ knots with a range of 32ft 6in, so the Conservator would not allow a protrusion into the river greater than about 300ft. Two piers extending 80ft from the river wall were supported by six cast-iron columns 5ft in diameter above waster level and 6ft 6in for 14ft below. The two 160ft bridges rested on these which were extended over the land for 29ft and a brick terminal building was constructed over the whole structure, the builders being Holme and Nicol of Liverpool who had built the Woodside terminal building. The high level bridge giving access to the lifts lay between the two bridges. The landing stage as built was 310ft 6in long by 80ft wide at the passenger end, the overall distance from the river wall to the outer face of the stage being 308ft.

The piers, landing stage and bridges were built by Thomas Brassey & Company’s Canada Works on the West Float at Birkenhead. Work began on erecting the piers on 4th April 1877 but the project became bogged down because the contractor did not hire suitable dredgers. Eventually, a large centre ladder dredger was hired from the Clyde Trustees for six months during which she was able to work for only 30 days because of Spring tides and periods of rough weather. Finally, the Local Board hired a powerful dredger from the

London & North Western Railway. The stage was then floated into position with two paddle tugs forward and another two aft on 20th November 1879. The two main moorings chains had already been positioned and buoyed and these were hauled in followed by the fore and aft anchors. The bridges were floated down on Dock Board camels on 21st and 22nd November and dropped into place at the tide fell. The cross-bridle mooring chains were then picked up, the lengths of the moorings adjusted and the stage fixed in its proper position. A glazed roof over the passenger bridge was constructed in situ.

The machinery building comprised an engine and boiler-house and a 70ft accumulator tower incorporating a clock tower with four 6ft diameter faces and an ornamental finial. The cast iron accumulator cylinder and ram, 18in in diameter by 20ft stroke had a weight case 9ft 9in in diameter by 21ft deep attached to the ram head by a wrought iron crossbar to give a pressure equal to 600lb per square inch of the ram. Pumping power was derived from two direct-acting horizontal high pressure engines, the steam cylinders being of 15in diameter and 24in stroke. The engines were automatically controlled by the accumulator, the pumps being supplied from the return water-tank with a head of 18ft. Two Cornish boilers supplied the engines with steam at 80lb per square inch.

The hydraulic power was used in three ways. The goods lifts were mounted on hydraulic rams of 40ft long, with a maximum stoke of 32ft 9in, the cylinders being attached together so that advantage could be taken of the descending load. The length of stroke, which varied, with the state of the tide, was controlled from a hut on the stage. Two passenger and two goods gangways were also powered as were three of Brotherwood’s patent three-cylinder capstans. One of these was mounted on the stage and on and off the lifts; another on the high-level pier for working wagons along it and a third at the head of the goods bridge for helping carts when the gradient was steep. All the machinery was supplied by the Hydraulic Engineering Co. of Chester.

The Grand Opening

picOn 5th January 1880 the new Seacombe terminal opened but, at that time, the approach roadways and railway had not been started. The ferry buildings and the whole fleet were dressed overall and the first boat left the stage as the clock on the accumulator tower tolled noon. On board were civic dignitaries from Liverpool, Birkenhead, Wallasey and surrounding districts, representatives of all the firms involved in the construction and as many ordinary passengers as could squeeze on. The luggage service was conducted by ‘James Atherton’ from the temporary stage until 31st March when ‘Sunflower’ took over from the new stage. The temporary stage and bridge were removed on 23rd July 1880 and the site handed over to the Dock Board on 17th August. The cost of the project was £143,000 which was little over half the total capital investment of £275,000 made in terminals and vessels by the Local Board since the takeover in August 1861.

One feature of the terminal which was never utilised was the facility to carry railway wagons across the river and it is extraordinary that the Local Board allowed Carson to have his head and spend so much money on a project which was seriously flawed. The facility would not doubt have been very useful and lucrative as the rail distance to Liverpool was about 40 miles but the Dock Board had no plans to provide matching facilities on the Liverpool side and showed no sympathy for the scheme.

Following the completion of all the maritime facilities, the 122ft-wide approach road was laid out. This was not part of the public highway and when the street tramway which had opened on 30th June 1879 was extended down to the ferry terminal, the company paid £1 per annum to the Ferries Committee for the privilege. A cab rank with shelter was eventually provided in the centre of the 92ft carriageway.

The ‘Gem’ tragedy of November 1878 had many repercussions. Ferry traffic slumped, house prices fell and the building trade went into recession. Whether as a direct result or not, Carson resigned from 30th June 1879 and Capt. Cartwright was dismissed for drunkenness on 30th December. Carson moved to the Whitecross Iron Co. Of Warrington but continued as Engineer for the Seacombe ferry reconstruction until completion. The Board of Trade refused to be drawn into the dispute about anchoring vessels in the ferry track, declaring that the matter was at the discretion of the Dock Board. However, after the new Seacombe terminal was opened in 1880, the importance of the crossing was recognised and the same pilotage rules were applied to both Woodside and Seacombe though there were many breaches over the years.

In the course of 19 years of municipal ownership, the three ferry terminals of the Wallasey Local Board had been transformed and a fleet of roomy, modern steamers placed in service. This investment laid the foundations of the growth of Wallasey and its hinterland and the remarkable increase in population over the next half century.