History of Wallasey Ferries

New Brighton Ferry Faces Competition

The Ferries & The Railways

The railways regarded New Brighton as a potential source of traffic as the resort grew in popularity but the lack of a branch line limited their options. The Local Board in August 1878 endorsed an agreement with the Cheshire Lines Committee for the issue of through tickets between stations in the Manchester area and New Brighton throughout the year, passengers making their own way between Liverpool Central station and the landing stage.  In July 1879 a similar arrangement was made with the London and North Western Railway for the month of July 1880 only, no further arrangements being made with that company for many years. Some bookings involved two ferry trips, from Woodside to Liverpool then to New Brighton. In 1889, by which time there were amenities at New Brighton, the management were pressing the railways and agreements were made with other companies, including the Liverpool Overhead Railway with whom through tickets were offered in both directions as the round trip on the ‘Overhead’ giving unrivalled views of ships in the docks was a popular pastime with Wallasey people. These were the first through fares to be reinstated in 1922 after wartime suspension. The success of these through bookings depended on their promotion by the railway companies in the inland towns and the Local Board in some cases agreed to contribute towards these costs. The ferries’ share of through ticket was usually 4 old pence. Revenue from through railway passengers was given as £1,278.50 which represents 76,710 return journeys but unfortunately it is not clear what period this covered. Through tram ticket from St.Helens, involving two trams each way, were introduced in 1905 and continued until 1939.

From 1st July 1900 special summer only tickets between the three Wallasey ferries and Eastham were offered at 6d, 7d and 8d. In the first month 1,184 were sold but patronage gradually declined and the agreement lapsed in 1913. Through tickets were issued including admission to various attractions at New Brighton such as the Tower Ballroom, the Palace and the Promenade Pier.

Competition for New Brighton ferry

Although there had been plans to build railways to both Seacombe and New Brighton in the 1850s and 1860s, these had lapsed and it was not until 1881 that the Seacombe, Hoylake and Deeside Railway obtained parliamentary powers to construct a line from Bidston to Seacombe, following this is 1882 and 1886 with other schemes for Wallasey and New Brighton. These lines were not a threat to the ferries until three interconnecting lines were brought into use on 2nd January 1888. These were the Mersey Railway’s branch from Hamilton Square to Birkenhead Park, the Wirral Railway’s Birkenhead Park-Docks line and the Seacombe, Hoylake and Deeside line thence to Wallasey which was extended to a station at Atherton Street, New Brighton on 30th March 1888.  Connecting trains with some through carriages brought New Brighton to within 25 minutes of the centre of Liverpool. The original plan to bring the trains down to Rowson Street was never carried out, because of the gradient and shortage of funds, so the station was inconveniently situated for many residents.

The Mersey Railway had deprived Woodside and Tranmere ferries of many thousands of passengers since its opening in February 1886 but, although it was unaffected by the weather and took passengers further into Liverpool, it had certain disadvantages, mainly the sulphurous fumes from the locomotives in the tunnel which gradually worsened over the years despite all kinds of expensive ventilation measures taken by the company. Furthermore, not all trains had through carriages and connections at Birkenhead Park (which was dubbed Pneumonia Junction by sufferers) were not always maintained. After the Wirral and the Mersey Railways fell out for a time in the 1890s, the through carriages ceased altogether.

The ferries had been experiencing a slump in revenue before the railway had opened. The takings in 1885-1886 being £2,000 below the previous year’s. In both 1887-1888 and 1888-1889 revenue at about £44,000 was £5,000 down on 1884-1885. New Brighton, which was dependant on good weather, fell from £27,000 in 1886-1887 to £20,500 in 1889-1889, 24% down, much of it due to railway competition. Wallasey ferries implemented various economy measures which included a reduction in manning levels in June 1886 and halving of the bonuses paid to masters and engineers. Holidays were reduced from two weeks to one week and the manager’s salary was cut from £425 to £350 per annum.

‘Express’ boats were introduced to run direct to and from New Brighton in anticipation of the competition from the railway. The boats ran from February 1887 between 7.15 and 9.50am and 5.00 and 7.00pm. In January 1888 a monthly contract was offered at 7s 6d (37½p) and other fare concessions were made. However, the cost of these measures exceeded the benefits and the direct boats had all been withdrawn by August 1888. From 1st October to 1893 to 28th February 1894 the experiment was repeated with no more success and again from 1st May 1899 when a half-hourly all-day direct service was started and lasted until the end of summer 1900. The experiment was never revived. Over 1.5 million passengers deserted the ferries for the trains and it was 11 years before the revenue fully recovered. However, the worst of the financial crisis had been overcome by February 1890 when holiday, salary and bonus cuts were restored in full. Some passengers came back from the railway to the ferry but they had a difficult choice.  In the winter they could either freeze at ‘Pneumonia Junction’ and suffocate in the tunnel or face the full fury of the river at its most malignant.

New Brighton Terminal Problems

The growth of seasonal traffic at New Brighton by 1879 swamped the facilities and at Whitsuntide the crush was so great that some boats had to be sent back to Liverpool without unloading the passengers. Four boats were hired on this occasion as well as 2 tugs, the Woodside streamer ‘Liverpool’ and a Tranmere vessel for beaching as a stage extension at Egremont. The Board accepted plans by the well known engineer, Dowson, in October 1879 for a new stage measuring 240ft by 55ft and a second passenger bridge for £6,500. But there was a backwash from ratepayers and the Board were obliged to cease with the plans for the time being, instead spending a small amount on repairs to maintain the existing conditions.

The Local Board in 1881 succeeded in raising a loan of £8,500 and Dowson prepared a modified scheme for a stage 220ft long but it was February 1884 before the contract for the work was awarded to Head, Wrightson & co. for £7,327. This embraced an additional bridge, enlarged landing stage, strengthening and alterations to the main pier and a pay gate access. To take the strain of the new bridge the pier was strengthened which was placed at an angle of 15 degrees to the north-east of the existing bridge and attached to the enlarged floating stage by well-lubricated sliding plates. There were four balanced gangways and two vessels could load or unload simultaneously. These improvements and the increase in the number of reversible turnstiles greatly reduced overcrowding.

The Board wanted the work finished by Good Friday 1885 and accused Dowson of spending too little time on the project. The deadline was not met, the two bridges being put in position on 23rd April and the whole job was not completed until 30th July. The estimate was exceeded by £3,440 though this included £1,196 for new shelters on the stage and turnstiles which were not in the original budget. But all was not well. Soon after the official reopening, the stage was strengthened to avoid serious damage by heavier steamers and by 1888 was said to be in poor condition. By 1896, a report by consulting engineer J.J Webster revealed serious weakness in the whole structure which was in urgent need of major repairs.

In 1900 Allsup’s of Preston were awarded a £6,000 contract to replace the northern bridge, which was originally built in 1866, and to widen the pier alongside the toll booths so that more of them could be provided. The work was done during the winter, the new steel passenger bridge being lifted into position on 27th December 1900. A new southern bridge, built by Heenan and Froude of Manchester was installed on 29th August 1907 and the northern bridge and the stage twice needed repairs following the March gales of 1907 and others in November 1908.

The New Brighton service was plagued during the 1890s by insufficient depth of water at low tide and much time was spent in trying to find a solution. Contacts with the Dock Board brought forth no assistance. In March 1895 the manager tried to hire a dredger from the Ribble Navigation but this fell through. Formal permission to dredge the river was given by the Mersey Conservancy Board and enquiries about dredging were made as far afield as Irvine and Whitby. An offer by the Manchester Ship Canal Co. for the hire of a dredger for £1,000 per month was considered too expensive. The manager calculated revenue losses caused by suspension of the service and, on the strength of this, in June 1896 it was decided to seek a loan of £10,000 to purchase a suction dredger. An order was eventually placed with T. Walker of Sudbrook, Mon. and the vessel, named ‘Tulip’, having been launched on 28th September 1897, was delayed by a strike and problems with her equipment, which included a Gwynne’s Pump. She was a substantial vessel of 432 gross tons measuring 160ft long by 27ft 1in and she started work at New Brighton on 12th May 1898. Initially there were doubts about her ability to tackle the marl and clay deposits at Egremont, another dredger, ‘Sicily’ being hired. A dispute with her builders finally went to arbitration. As much as 23,000 cu.yd, of sand was removed by dredging in February 1901, resulting in 40 passenger crossings being cancelled. A further 29,000 cu.yd. were removed in August 1904.

A plan to lengthen the pier was turned down by the Conservator who advised the Council to ‘pursue a policy of much more active dredging’. However, at Easter 1905, the traffic was so heavy, revenue being 22.5% higher than the previous year; doubtless the weather played a part. Unfortunately on the Monday, an exceptionally low tide resulted in the suspension of the ferry service at New Brighton for much of the afternoon and evening, resulting in Seacombe having a record day, 106,119 adult fare-paying passengers through the turnstiles. The tram services between Seacombe and New Brighton were filled to capacity. In November 1906 the Council decided to borrow £10,000 to fiancé dredging and employed a consulting engineer, A.F. Fowler, who recommended scraping the river bed with a bucket dredger. In February 1907 a contract was given to the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Co. to keep the approaches clear throughout the year. The bucket dredger ‘Beaufort’ lifted 45,000 cu.yd. of hard material including mussel shale in the early months of 1907. While the work was in progress, a violent storm on 16th March tore the stage from its mooring and drove it out to sea. The south end bridge and several pontoons were badly damaged. The stage was salvaged the following day and towed into dry dock for repair.   Temporary landing arrangements obliged the ferry to close two hours before each low tide, seriously affecting traffic on Good Friday and Easter Saturday. However, more or less normal services were restored on the Monday and thousands of pleasure seekers were carried from Liverpool, the two luggage boats being pressed into service in addition to the ordinary passenger steamers.

By 10th June 1907 dredging operations were completed and, by the end of May, 42,784 cu.yd. of material had been removed giving an average depth of 11-12ft. ‘Tulip’ had assisted ‘Beaufort’ for which the contractors reimbursed the ferries, and, in January 1908, she was fitted with a new section pump so that she could maintain the new depth of water. In 1911-1912 sand eroders were placed underwater by which time boats could approach at almost all states of the stage. She was very successful in keeping New Brighton and Egremont landing stages free of silt and on occasions she was hired to Birkenhead Corporation who had similar difficulties at Rock Ferry.  She was hired to Wexford Harbour Board in 1903 for £400 per month, being insured for £10,000 for the voyage. Later in the year she worked at Heysham and in 1906 at Port Talbot. ‘Tulip’ removed 63,000 cu.yd. of sand and shale in 1911 and the effectiveness of her value to the undertaking was demonstrated when she had to cease work during the coal strike of 1912 and ‘Snowdrop’ had to be grounded alongside the stage.