The Mersey Ferries Through Time

BOOK REVIEW: Mersey Ferries Through Time by Ian Collard (Amberley Publishing)

Ferries have been traversing the Mersey for almost a thousand years, and they’re still (just about) at it. Ian Collard’s new book is a fact-filled history of what is still – thanks in no small part of course to Gerry and the Pacemakers – probably the world’s most famous ferry crossing.

Today the ferries ply a circuitous route from Liverpool’s pier head to Seacombe (Wallasey) and Woodside (Birkenhead), heavily reliant on the tourists whose journey is enlivened by an informative audio commentary and occasional airings of Gerry Marsden singing you know what. But in the past there were frequent sailings to and from many other crossing points, including Tranmere, New Brighton, Eastham, Egremont, Rock Ferry and New Ferry. Competition from the rail and road tunnels has steadily eroded demand for the ferries, but as late as the early 1950s they were carrying around 30 million passengers a year. By 2012 the figure had declined to around 600,000, but Ian Collard concludes his story with Merseytravel’s recent official confirmation that they recognise the importance of the ferries to Merseyside’s heritage and are committed to keeping them in operation.

The evening rush hour at New Brighton pier

The evening rush hour at New Brighton pier

The book is full of interesting information and gives authoritative accounts of tales that have passed into Mersey ferries legend. The original Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil were awarded regal status after they played a crucial part in one of the most daring raids of the First World War, the attack on Zeebrugge. Both ships were damaged by enemy fire and many of the troops they were carrying were killed, but after the war the ships returned to Merseyside. During the Second World War the Royal Daffodil II was deployed alongside troop ships in the Mersey. In 1941 she was hit by a German bomb at Seacombe landing stage but the only reported injury was to a crewman who lost his false teeth in the blast. The vessel itself sank but was brought up to the surface over a year later and after repairs returned to service.

Fortunately it’s many years since any fatal accidents, but in the past collisions and sinkings were not uncommon. In 1878 15 passengers died when an Egremont ferry collided with a sailing ship in thick fog, and as recently as 1968 the Royal Daffodil collided with two barges in mid-river; the previous year the same ferry ran aground and passengers were taken ashore by lifeboat.

On a more cheerful note, the book also records such events as the introduction of ‘dance cruises’ in 1945, paving the way for the celebrated Merseybeat cruises in the Sixties, when the Beatles were among the acts who performed. And there’s a description of the Great Ferry Race of 1996, when as part of the Mersey River Festival three ferries raced each other to New Brighton and back.

The many photographs accompanying the text are a real strength of the book. Ranging from historic sketches and early photographs to contemporary photos such as a shot of the Royal Daffodil escorting the QE2, these bring the ferries’ glorious history vividly to life.

Mersey Ferries Through Time by Ian Collard is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99.

Images courtesy of Amberley Publishing Ltd. and Ian Collard.

An extensive feature on the Mersey ferries will appear in the next issue of The Merseysider magazine!