History of Wallasey Ferries

Seacombe Railway & The Trams

Opening of the Seacombe Railway

In 1891 the Wirral Railway absorbed the Seacombe, Hoylake and Desside railway and work on a branch terminating at Seacombe ferry commenced in 1893. A formal Agreement was made between the railway company and the Local Board on 3rd August 1893 granting the railway authority to issue through tickets to and from Liverpool landing stage and granting a 33% rebate on the tolls. This was similar to the arrangement reached over a decade earlier at Woodside. Passengers’ luggage was to be conveyed free of charge and the railway company’s servants were to be given all necessary facilities for free travel on the ferry when engaged on the company’s business.

In June 1894, the railway company, which was short of money proposed to build a ‘temporary station’ on the corner of Church Road and Victoria (later Borough) Road so that passengers would have to walk the full length of the ferry approach but assured the Local Board of its intention to extend to the ferry as soon as funds were available. The Wirral Railway Act 1895, to which the 1893 Agreement was attached as a Schedule, set out the scheme in detail. The station was to be built almost on the water’s edge with a 18ft wide covered way between the entrance and the ferry terminal building. In addition, Church Road, part of Birkenhead Road and Victoria Road were to be diverted to permit rail connection with the Dock Board lines in Birkenhead Road with a turntable connection with the lines in the ferry coal yard. Unfortunately, the company was never able to afford to proceed with the scheme and although powers for the extension were renewed twice, they finally lapsed in 1912.

The railway provided a service from West Kirby to Seacombe which was a viable alternative to the route via Birkenhead Park and the Mersey Railway. From 1st May 1898 the trains of the Dee and Birkenhead Railway (later renamed the North Wales & Liverpool Railway and in 1906 the Great Central) from Wrexham ran over the Wirral line from Bidston to Seacombe, again with through bookings and this created a considerable volume of traffic. Inclusive excursions to Caergwrle at one shilling (5p) attracted hundreds of passengers and, even at this low rate, were apparently good business for both ferry and railway.

The railways company continued to exert pressure on the Urban District Council (which replaced the Local Board from 1st January 1895) to gain further concessions on fares and, in May 1896, a 33⅓ discount on through contracts was agreed. Concessions were also made for excursion passengers.

In the summer of 1897 the Wirral Railway inaugurated a train service between Seacombe and New Brighton with through fares from Liverpool, a development which the ferries management had not foreseen but were powerless to prevent as no restriction had been put on the destination of through passengers. The service had mixed success and ran seasonally until 1911 when it was killed off by the extension of Wallasey’s tramways.

The Trams and the Ferries

In 1900 the Urban District Council obtained powers to lay electric tramways in the town and acquired the horse tramway company’s route from 31st March 1901. In March 1902 electric cars started running and two months later cars were running on all three routes all connecting Seacombe with New Brighton. These facilities were much more extensive than those previously provided by horse trams and buses as well as being faster and cheaper. Traffic built rapidly at Seacombe but fell at Egremont as people preferred to ride straight through to the tram terminus rather than break the journey and walk down Tobin Street. The tramways also took their toll of railway traffic and this benefit was shared with the ferries.

Although separate committees controlled the ferries and tramways, it was recognised that close co-operation was essential and from 12th July 1902. Cars on the Seabank Road and Rake Lane services connected with every boat. Once more, there were thoughts of closing Egremont down or selling off both northern ferries but after some public discussion, a half-hourly service from New Brighton, calling at Egremont, requiring two vessels, was provided from 1st December 1902. Requests for an all day 10-minute service from Seacombe and concessions on the trams for New Brighton contract holders were turned down. From 1899, notice of closure of the northern ferries was given by hoisting red balls on chains at both ends of Church Street, Egremont and at Victoria Road (Rowson Street), New Brighton. Flags were flown at the ferry stations. From November, the trams displayed flags on their trolley rope when the northern sailings were suspended – a blue square flag for New Brighton and a red swallow tail flag for Egremont. This practice continued for the life of the tramways and special roller blinds for the purpose were later fitted to the buses which eventually replaced them.

In 1902 the ferries made a loss of almost £3,500 and carried 55,000 fewer passengers than in 1901. Nevertheless, from 1st April 1903, a 20-minute service was restored to the northern ferries and from 5th June the Seacombe service was operated alternatively every 7 and 8 minutes, using three boats, between 8.00 am and 7.00 pm. This continued throughout the summer but a 10-minute Seacombe and 30-minute New Brighton/Egremont service was operated from 5th October. The electrification of the Mersey railway on 3rd May 1903 accelerated the rail service between New Brighton and Liverpool and eliminated some of the draughty waits at Birkenhead Park station as the electric trains ran much more frequently. However, an influx of new residents (which increased the passengers carried on the ferries from 15.5 million in 1901 to 22 million in 1911) and an increase in summer visitors in response to new facilities brought a prodigious increase in ferry passengers, the numbers carried rising from 17 million in 1903-04 to 24 million in 1913-14, an increase of 40%.

To facilitate handling the increased traffic, new toll booths and turnstiles were installed in April 1902; wider balanced gangways replaced old hydraulic gangways at both Seacombe and Liverpool stages. To speed up passenger movements a second stairway was added to the upper-deck gangway on the Liverpool landing stage and walkways mounted on outriggers were built on both sides of the passenger bridge. Some alarm was caused in 1904 when an article Journal of Commerce alleged that the pontoons supporting the Seacombe landing stage were unsafe. Following a rebuttal from the Council, the Secretary of the Admiralty wrote seeking positive assurances. The pontoons had had little or no attention since 1880 but should have been removed for a detailed inspection during the filling-in of the embayment. This work had been proceeding very slowly and it became clear that there was some truth in the allegation. After an official inspection, the Board of trade expressed extreme dissatisfaction and cautioned the Council to replace some defective pontoons and to clean, repair and paint others.

In 1905 roller shutters were approved for the front of the terminal building so that portions could be kept closed to alleviate draughts. Two more turnstiles, additional toll booths and a larger bicycle shed were provided. It was also agreed to move the manager’s office from Egremont to Seacombe and to close the Egremont workshop and build a new one at Seacombe. The Council’s engineer, W.H. Travers, prepared the specifications and a building was erected south of the terminus adjoining the goods yard. Machinery was moved from Egremont in November 1907 and the workshop was officially on 2nd January 1909.

Birkenhead Corporation suggested in 1905 that each authority should provide a single vessel by rotation to run the loss-making night services between Liverpool, Woodside, Seacombe and Liverpool but after the legal position had been investigated it was decided that statutory powers would be necessary. Regrettably, neither authority made the necessary provisions in any subsequent Bill.

Change in Ferry Management

In June 1897 George Harries retired as ferries manager and was succeeded by his assistant Frederick Ash (at £350 p.a.) who was preferred over 250 applicants. However, Ash retired due to ill-health on 19th September 1899, H.E. Martin being appointed in his place. Thomas B. Hughes, Senior Toll Collector at New Brighton, was appointed Sub-manager at £150 p.a and the status of an engineer, Orme, was enhanced. Relations between Martin and Orme deteriorated, the latter maintaining that he should be directly responsible to the Ferries Committee rather than to Martin. Matters came to a head in May 1902 when Orme dismissed five boilermen without consulting Martin. The men were reinstated but the Committee took no decisive action to resolve the hostility between the two managers though they criticised inadequacy and incompetence in the workshops. Following criticism of the safety of Seacombe landing stage in 1904, the Committee asked Orme to resign and advertised for a foreman at £200 per year. The manager’s job was also advertised but this was later withdrawn and Martin remained in his post.