History of Wallasey Ferries

The End of Private Ownership : 1845 - 1861

In 1845, under the Wallasey Improvement Act, the Town Commissioners for Wallasey were appointed which included twenty-one members who met for the first time in a room above the stables of the Queen's Arms Hotel, Liscard on 12th June 1845. The Commissioners served for three years, one third of them retiring each year but could be re-elected. Their powers included paving, lighting, cleansing, generally improving the Parish and providing a police force and market. They were empowered to lease or purchase the ferries at Seacombe and Egremont, the wharves, landing places and conveniences connected therewith and to provide and purchase steam boats and other things for the efficient working of the ferries. Their prime concern was to eliminate the health hazards arising from the stagnate waters blocked in the upper reaches of the Wallasey Pool but bringing the ferries under municipal control soon became a prime objective. As the concept of local government was in its infancy, many of the Commissioners, all local business men, must have experienced difficulty in balancing their public duty with the private interests. For example, the Parry's of Seacombe were forced to resign for hiring their own carts to the Parish although they were subsequently reappointed.

The Commissioners' first action in connection with ferries was to write to Liverpool Corporation in August 1845 complaining about the landing facilities at Liverpool. In fact Seacombe fared better than the other ferry operators but Liverpool, under pressure from all the ferry proprietors the previous year, had already decided to build a floating stage which opened in 1847. A ferry sub-committee was appointed in July 1846 to examine the implications of public ownership. The only immediate action was the adoption of the Seacombe slip in 1847.

In November 1847, the Town Commissioners considered the viability of a rival ferry to Egremont which was designed to serve the Sea Bank estate of luxury villas and a luxury hotel to be built in an area bounded by Maddock Road and Manor Lane stretching inland to Liscard. However, the Commissioners for Woods and Forests refused to sanction a pier at the foot of Manor Lane. Three hundred ratepayers petitioned the Town Commissioners to appoint a committee to examine immediate methods of improving Egremont ferry and ultimately taking it into public ownership. However, the acquisition of the lease by the Coulborns in May 1848 and their undertaking to provide a regular service silenced the critics and the Sea Bank ferry was quickly forgotten.

In 1851 much housing in Wallasey was described as abominable and the infant mortality rate was worse than that of Liverpool. Hundreds of workers who had poured into the tiny community seeking work on the new docks were housed in cramped hovels without running water or sanitation. The poorest dwellings were in Mersey Street, behind the Seacombe Ferry Hotel. When the dock scheme collapsed amid allegations and corruption, the workers were immediately dismissed. Health hazards stemmed from the water bottled up behind 'the Stank', a causeway across the pool on roughly the line of the later Four Bridges. Despite the partial opening of the Great Float on 10th April 1851, sanitary conditions in Seacombe were so bad that a petition, signed by some of the Wallasey Commissioners were sent to the General Board of Health demanding a Public Inquiry. The Inspector expressed the opinion that the Commissioners had failed in their responsibilities and should be replaced by an elected Local Board.

The recommendations made by the inspector were not carried out for two years. During this time the Commissioners made a serious attempt in acquiring the Seacombe ferry lease from the Smiths Trustees. However, when, on 7th April 1853, they announced that they had reached agreement, they were opposed by an influential group of landowners who threatened to take legal action if the Agreement was ratified. Nevertheless, the Commissioners decided to proceed but, at the juncture, they were replaced by the newly-elected Local Board who met for the first time on 7th July, 1853 under the chairmanship of Isaac Penny.

After health matters, acquisition of Seacombe ferry was high on the agenda but members opposed to the latter questioned the legality of spending monies raised on the security of the rates for the purchase of new ferry boats. Negotiations with the Smith Trustees were suspended in November and on 2nd January, 1854 the Attorney General ruled that funds borrowed in terms of the Public Health Act 1848 were not to be used for the acquisition of steamboats or ferries. It seemed that the 'anti's' had won the day.

Despite the improvements made by the Coulborns since taking over the Seacombe ferry lease in March 1854, there was local agitation for an even better service and a Special Committee of the Local Board presented five recommendations on 7th January, 1856:

There should be better boats, better manned, and kept in better order and cleanliness.
The Seacombe crossing should take 7 minutes and the Egremont crossing 12 minutes.
The boats should run as follows (except Sundays): Seacombe to Liverpool 5.30 am to 8 pm half-hourly; 8.pm to midnight hourly. Egremont to Liverpool 6 am to 8 pm half-hourly; 8 pm to midnight hourly. The boats running after 8 pm to serve Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton (suggesting that this practice had been discontinued).
Day trippers should be carried to New Brighton on separate boats at concessionary fares.
A luggage boat should be provided from Seacombe.


The Local Board announced in September 1856 that they proposed to obtain Parliamentary powers to acquire all three ferries but, if unsuccessful, they would establish a rival ferry at Seacombe financed by monies not collected by the rates; only Edward Coulborn voted against the resolution.

The Coulborn Brothers, with the threat of municipal expropriation, were reluctant to relinquish control of New Brighton so transferred the lease to their nephew Richard in 1855. Despite low winter receipts and a further suspension during the winter of 1854-55, the ferry was a Summer gold mine. According to figures quoted later by Braithwaite Poole in his pamphlet supporting the Local Board, New Brighton was the most profitable passage. During 1859, receipts were £9,042 compared with £6,134 at Seacombe and £5,390 at Egremont. On one singe day takings were £290 - equal to 23,000 single journeys at 3d. To cater for sudden excess demand, extra boats were drafted into use to supplement the two vessels maintaining the basic service. In 1859, a half-hourly service was maintained for most of the day between 8.15 am and 9.30 pm from New Brighton and from 8 am to 8.15 pm from Liverpool.

At a formal Ratepayers' Meeting on 19th November 1857, the Local Board put forward their proposals:-

'Certain, regular safe and frequent communication with Liverpool is indispensably necessary to every inhabitant of the Parish. No individual can supply this and make a profit until the Parish becomes more populous; the Board therefore seeks powers to pursue, improve and work the ferries so as to secure the desired ends and to devote all this and all other objects required by the public good...'

The vote was 454 in favour and 254 against and the necessary powers were included in the Wallasey Improvement Act, 1858 which, to some extent, superseded the powers granted by the 1845 Act.

Independent arbitrators had been appointed in November 1856 to assess the value of the assets of the three ferries and the Board formed a Ferries Committee on 27th April 1858 initially chaired by Henry Pooley. Opponents of municipalisation published pamphlets and carried a newspaper campaign aimed at persuading their fellows that the purchase of the ferries was little short of financial suicide. The Board's case was helped by the sinking of two of the Coulborns' vessels. In January 1857, 'Wallasey' sat on her anchor at Seacombe and one of the flukes pierced her wooden hull and in March 1858,'Thomas Wilson' sank after colliding with the Woodside steamer 'Prince'. Both were raised and returned to service.

The Coulborns' terms for disposing of their business which was rising in value under their competent management, were as follows:- Egremont would be leased at £1,000 per annum plus 5% interest on an estimated capital outlay of £2,000. Seacombe would be sub-let on exactly the same terms as it was held from the Smith Trustees and New Brighton, if required, would be rented at a figure based on the average of receipts since 1852. These terms were rejected and a new sub committee was chosen to deal specifically with Seacombe.

The Local Board accepted the terms relating to Seacombe in November 1858 but rejected the others. Instead, they offered to pay £30,000 for the outright purchase of both Egremont and New Brighton, including all the rights and privileges, lands, buildings, slipways, piers, machinery and all improvements made by the Coulborns. The latter refused the offer and engaged C.H Beloe, an eminent Liverpool Engineer, to represent them and a Mr Bancroft to act as their arbitrator. The Board engaged a Mr Harrison to recommend minimum and maximum prices; there was then disagreement as to who should arbitrate the arbitrators!

Final agreement was reached after three months of negotiation in London which had commenced on 28th January 1860. Coulborns were to receive £60,000 for Egremont and New Brighton and a nominal £2 for Seacombe. The Board paid the legal costs of £3,000 and the Law Clerk was instructed to put the recommendations into effect as swiftly as possible. On 30th November 1860, Isaac Penny, the former chairman of the Local Board and by then the legal representative of the Smith Trustees, rejected the Board's offer of £3,000 for the Seacombe right of passage. Another 18 months elapsed before the agreement was reached in the sum of £30,000, payable in mortgages over five years with interest at 4%. The sale included all manorial rights south of Brougham Road.

It was agreed that the Local Board would take control of the ferries on 1st August 1861 and Braithwaite Poole, a former Goods Manager of the London and North Western Railway, was offered the position of Ferries Manager. The Board, being without vessels, had agreed in June to purchase four of the Coulborn steamers 'Fairy' (which had been reboilered), 'Thomas Wilson', 'James Atherton' and 'Tiger'. 'Elizabeth' was rejected as too old and 'Liscard' and 'Wallasey' were sold by the Coulborns. The Wallasey Improvement Act, 1861 authorised the Local Board to take out mortgages on security of the Ferries account, expenditure of £50,000 being sanctioned for the purchase of the reversionary rights in Seacombe and other ferries.

The colourful era of private ownership had come to an end.