History of Wallasey Ferries

Seacombe : 1761 - 1861

Between 1637 and 1835, horse racing took place over a 5 mile irregularly shaped course running from the present junction of Wallasey Village and Green Lane to Leasowe Castle and back. This generated important traffic for Seacombe Ferry. Many of the race goers were wealthy and many of them sought accommodation on the Wirral. Several inns were opened and Seacombe Boat House was extended to provide rooms and dining facilities. Wagonettes and coaches were provided to convey visitors to the course over an indifferent road which skirted the north bank of Wallasey Pool, crossing the various inlets by wooden bridges. At busiest times the boats at Woodside would often be called upon for assistance. If there was any flooding due to the land being low lying to the sea then the races were transferred first to Lydiate and then to Aintree. In its place less salubrious sports were promoted - '...a main of cocks to be fought at the sign of the Ferry, being the Boat House at Seacombe in Cheshire opposite Liverpool'.

In 1761, John Wilson, sold the Seacombe boats and other equipment to John Owen who, ten years later, disposed of them, together with 7½ acres of land. to Rear Admiral Richard Smith. The 'right of passage' was held by a number of joint owners one of whom was Smith's father-in-law. James Gordon of Poulton-cum-Seacombe who died in 1778. Smith inherited this share and, with the decline in patronage which followed the demise of the horse races, the other joint owners gradually waived their rights leaving Smith in sole possession. Upon his death in 1811, his son, also Richard Smith of Urswick in the Furness district of Lancashire, inherited and, as an absentee landlord, Trustees were appointed to act on his behalf, apparently in his capacity as Lord of the Manor of Poulton-cum-Seacombe. In order to place the ferry on a sound commercial footing, it was decided to resite the terminal and improve the landing facilities.

Richard Smith completed a new earth and stone slipway in about 1815. It was was sited 100 yards north-east of the old Boat House where, at low tide, the water receded the least distance from the shore. The slip enabled the sailing gigs to approach at most states of the tide thereby easing the problems of embarkation and disembarkation. Having financed the new slipway, the Trustees were anxious to lease the site on an annual basis. The first lessee was believed to be the proprietor of the newly built Stanley Hotel, Stanely Garner. The Stanley Hotel was situated on the main track that lead from the ferry toward Liscard and Poulton - later Victoria Road and now Borough Road. Other enterprising investors began to build new hotels along the Wirral coast to cater for the wealthy Liverpudlians who wished to escape the squalor of the city. The Seacombe Hotel, overlooking the slipway, was owned by Thomas Parry and opened in 1819. This impressive two-storey building gained a reputation for good cuisine and luxurious appointments. There were gardens, bowling green, a summer house and even an American-style bowling alley. Wagonettes were available to convey guests to such attractions as Leasowe Castle. There were miles of unspoilt beaches and pleasant walks along leafy lanes. The Parry family who ran the hotel until 1853, lived in a fine mansion, Brougham House (Frog Hall) which stood on the corner of Brougham Road and Liscard Road. Once the ferry trade began to improve, several of the previous joint owners of the right of passage challenged Smith's supremacy but seven separate court actions all failed.

In 1819 Parry acquired the ferry lease and, two years later, to meet competition from other hotels on the waterfront, he ordered a steam paddle boat, appropriately named 'Seacombe', which made her first crossing in June 1822. With little regular passenger traffic, she at first ran on a demand basis, filling in time by towing sailing ships. However, by 1823, there was sufficient traffic to justify an hourly service with sail being used if Seacombe was not available. However, sail was eliminated the following year when he acquired the 'Alice', named after his wife and 'Alexander'. He proudly advertised "an hourly service worked entirely by steam at a single fare of 3d", a fare which would have kept his clientele select.

Parry requested the Trustees to improve facilities so that his fleet of steam paddle boats could be maintained. In 1826 a small dry dock with derrick and other lifting equipment was built with, to the north, a short stone wharf for use at high tide, all protected by a retaining wall. There was space for stockpiling coal which eased the problems inherent in coaling from river flats moored alongside. A flight of steps led directly to the hotel terrace and a clock on the hotel front regulated the ferry sailings, a warning bell at the top of the steps being rung two minutes before each departure.

Ship crews were responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing their vessels. Normally they were on duty 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The engineer and stoker spent their time in the small hot engine room trying to keep the unpredictable machinery going. On deck, the master and helmsman were exposed to the elements as they guided the frail craft through the ranks of vessels blocking the ferry route. Fire breaking out on vessels was an ever present danger. In 1825 'Alice' caught fire whilst riding at anchor, and being underinsured, she was scuttled. She was later raised, repaired and returned to service.

To make improvements in embarkation facilities a foundation stone of a new slipway was laid on 5th June 1835. The slip was 15 feet wide with an extension running on two rails and had an incline of 1 in 20. A stationary winding engine was installed in a hut at the shore end of the extension so that the engine moved with it. The extension bucked and swayed in the slightest swell and the flimsy planking afforded little protection against the water which splashed through the cracks, drenching the ladies' wide-hooped crinolines and the gentlemen's frock coats. The rebuilt terminal was opened in the Spring of 1836, the 1815 slipway passing into public use especially for handling domestic coal supplies. The ferry service was advertised as half-hourly, still at a fare of 3d. Gore's Directory listed four vessels on the passage in 1835, 'Seacombe' (probably the second of the name or an extensive rebuild), 'Alice', 'Liverpool' and 'Admiral', (sometimes quoted as 'Lord Admiral Nelson').

In 1847 John and Richard Parry inherited the ferry on the death of their mother though official correspondence between the Birkenhead Dock Trustees and the Commissioners of Works refers to Miss Parry as the lessee. The hotel side of the business had declined and they branched out into other activities such as haulage and hackney carriages for which they were granted four licence's in February 1847. The decline may have been caused to some extent by the build-up of sand on and adjacent to the landing slip, alleged to have been caused by the building of the river wall between the dock entrance and the ferry in the 1840s. The Parrys acquired three second-hand paddle steamers between 1847 and 1852. One included the former Eastham ferry, 'Sir Thomas Stanley', which enabled the 'Alice' to be broken up. In 1845 the Parrys, with the Coulborn brothers who owned New Brighton Ferry, were appointed as Town Commissioners. They were well aware that there were municipalisation proposals of the ferries. They were therefore reluctant to invest in new steamers and infrastructure.

In June 1848 the owners of the Birkenhead Ferry, the Liverpool Corporation, reduced the passenger fare for the river crossing from 2d to 1d. This was a bold step to stem the losses on this ferry, which lay between Woodside and Tranmere, and tempt passengers away from these competitors. The other ferries though reduced their fares to the same level and it seems Seacombe soon found that it had to do the same. It was an important step towards the development of the Wirral, especially for Wallasey. It meant a great step forward in the mobility of labour on Merseyside and in stimulating the movement of people to reside on the Wirral side. Fares, which use to be two shillings a week, were now one shilling a week. In those days one shilling would buy quite a lot of food for a working class family. The Seacombe fare had certainly become 1d by 1853 and fares soon stabilised at Seacombe 1d, Egremont 2d and New Brighton 3d.

The Parrys decided to cut their loses and sold the hotel to Eliza Stokes. They informed the Smith Trustees that they would not be renewing the ferry lease in February 1853 and offered their steamers for sale. 'Sir Thomas Stanley' had already been sold and converted into a general purpose tender, registered in the name Thomas Doyle and others in which guise she reappeared in Seacombe in 1857, the year before she was finally scrapped. 'Liverpool' was described as a hulk and was presumably scrapped and no buyer could be found for 'Seacombe' which probably suffered the same fate. 'Britania', 'Invincible' and 'Thomas Wilson' were either purchased by Thomas Prestopino, the Bootle shipbroker, who secured the ferry lease for one year in March 1853, or by the Smith Trustees and then rented to Prestopino. Details are scanty but it seems that Prestopino's brief tenure conditions at the ferry sanked to an all time low. A contemporary joke suggested that anyone foolish enough to use the ferry should first say goodbye to his friends, secondly take leave of his wife and family and thirdly make a will before setting off. Supplementing the ex-Parry steamers were 'Egremont' which Prestopino acquired in June 1849 and 'Ramsgate Packet' which had been launched at Harwich in 1834. Neither was in good condition.

The long suffering passengers looked to the Local Board to take steps to effect an improvement and, in 1853, at the invitation of the Board, Lister and Mills presented estimates for redesigning the Seacombe running-out stage but because of legal problems, these had not been accepted. However, in the winter of 1854-55, the stage was badly buckled by tightly packed ice blocks and the stationary engine capsized; the Smith Trustees were compelled to rebuild the stage, employing Lister and Mills as contractors. The stone slipway was extended to 540 feet and the extension, or 'telescopic' as the locals called it, to 180 feet. As added protection it was moved along three rails and divided by a central railing to separate embarking and disembarking passengers. Toll booths with turnstiles were installed and lifebelts attached to the railings. A large warning bell was suspended from a stanchion above the north side toll booth. The winding engine was repositioned in a separate housing on the quayside. This work took nearly 2 years, the facilities being opened to the public early in 1857.

During the reconstruction, the vessels departed at high tide from the south quay, passengers boarding by a narrow plank balanced precariously on top of a paddle box. Writing in the 'Wallasey Wirral Chronicle' in 1890, a Miss Dodo recalled that "the plank would be pointing at the polar star one second and harpooning on an imaginary whale the next".

Meanwhile, in March 1854, Edward Warburton Coulborn and William Rushton Coulborn, members of a wealthy merchant family with interests in shipbuilding and ferry management elsewhere in Scotland and England, took on the Seacombe lease from the Smith Trustees on a year-to-year basis and proceeded to revitalise the Seacombe passage just as they had done for Egremont a year or two earlier. On 20th March, 1857, they negotiated a new 14-year lease at an annual rent of £995.15s 0d., comprising £550 for the ferry, £30 for the forge and stable and £375 calculated as 5% per annum on the recently completed improvements. The rateable value of the site was reassessed at £348 per annum.

A simple fare structure was adopted - Seacombe 1d, Egremont 2d and New Brighton 3d. It is possible that the 1d Seacombe fare had been in operation since 1847. There were weekly, monthly and annual contract tickets and special rates for families and servants. Tolls were fixed for carrying farm produce, animals, carts and a comprehensive range of articles. To cut costs, for a time all evening sailings to and from New Brighton called at both Seacombe and Egremont. As there was no direct road linking all three districts, most people walked along the shore; for those who could afford it, the boats provided a local as a cross-river service.