For over 850 years the Mersey Ferries have provided a transport link from the Wirral over the River Mersey to Liverpool.
Birkenhead Priory and the days of sail
The first known ferry began in 1150. It was operated by the monks of Birkenhead priory, who used to row passengers by hand across the river. This was extremely hazardous at the time. Back then, the shape of the Mersey was rather different, with a large pool and sandstone shorelines. This meant that it could take a minimum of two hours, even with flat calm conditions. Sometimes, the ferries were cancelled due to thick fog or extreme weather.
As technology advanced, so did the ferries and by the 1500s there were fully rigged sailing ships travelling across the Mersey. These ferries were also at the mercy of the Mersey.
Steam power and the heyday of the ferries
During the Victorian years, steam power became popular. The first steam ferry, Etna, was a strange affair with extremely large steam reciprocating engines and two side-mounted paddle wheels. More steam ferries followed. By this time, there were two ferry companies operating on the Mersey. Birkenhead Ferry Corporation and the Wallasey Ferry Corporation. Birkenhead operated to Woodside, Tranmere, Rock Ferry, New Ferry, Bromborough and Eastham. Wallasey operated to Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. It was a golden period for the ferries and this continued for some time. There were luggage boats which carried goods across the river. Business was booming.
Wallasey Ferries used to use devises known as extension stages which were wheeled out into the river at different tidal levels. The power for this was provided by steam winches. Birkenhead has already incorporated floating tidal stages. The last of the extension stages was seen at Egremont. It was destroyed during the second world war and was never re-opened.Seacombe gained a floating stage and also a floating roadway for goods traffic.
There was a large number of ferry boats purchased by both corporations throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The first signs of todays boat designs can be seen in the Snowdrop, Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil of the early 20th century. This trend of ferry building continued. The Royal Iris the second was the rivers first triple decker. All the Wallasey ferries carried black and while funnels. Birkenhead operated from the 1930's with a a group of ferries that were narrower in the beam than the Wallasey boats. Birkenhead carried an orange and black funnel livery. In 1951 Wallasey took delivery of its two diesel twins Egremont and Leasowe. This put preassure on Birkenhead to replace its foursome of coal ferries, however they argued their engineers were experts in steam propulsion and the ferries had proved reliable.
During the First World War, two Wallasey ferries, Iris and Daffodil, were commissioned by the Admiralty for active service. They went into action at Zeebrugge, and although badly damaged, they survived and were granted the prefix "Royal" to their name.
The "Fish and Chip" boat
Perhaps the most notable of all the ferries was the third of the boats named Royal Iris. Built in 1951 on the Clyde, she had a futuristic-looking hull, smooth lines and a dummy funnel. Compared to the traditional-looking Wallasey fleet of the time, the Iris was rather out of place.
She became the best known and most popular of all the Mersey ferries, hosting evening entertainment cruises played by bands such as Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Beatles and Elvis Costello. The Royal Iris was the first in the Wallasey fleet to be driven by a diesel electric powerplant. She was known as the "fish and chip boat" because of her café, which served fish and chips.
In 1979 the boat was host to ITV's The Mersey Pirate hosted by Duggie Brown. The ferry served the Mersey faithfully for over 40 years, eventually being laid up in Bidston dock in 1990 to await her fate. She was sold for use as a floating night-club in 1991, but by 2003 she was in London, tied up near the Thames Barrier. She is currently undergoing restoration and should be returning to service for pleasure/party cruises on the Thames very soon.
Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch
The Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch are the ferries that still serve the Mersey today, although they have been extensively refurbished and renamed Royal Iris of the Mersey, Snowdrop and Royal Daffodil respectively. The Mountwood and Woodchurch were launched onto the River Dart in 1959. They were built by Phillip and Sons shipbuilders. The ferries were commissioned by Birkenhead Corporation and were in service by 1960. Contrary to most books on the ferries, their original funnel colours were not black, red and black, but in fact black, orange and black. This is supported by numerous photos from the era. The Overchurch was commissioned to be built by Cammell Laird in 1962 and soon after joined the fleet of ferries. When the two separate corporations merged to create "Mersey Ferries" in the late 1960s, the ferries joined Leasowe, Egremont, Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil 2 from the old Wallasey fleet. After the merging of the two separate ferry companies, all the ferries were given a new livery of cream funnel with sky blue cap. This was then changed to green and black, rather like the buses at the time. The ferries operated on this livery for a considerable time, but the longest kept livery is the current livery which has been employed for over 16 years.
In the 1970s passenger traffic had dropped considerably and this resulted in less sailings, with Leasowe, Egremont, Mountwood and Woodchuch being docked in the East Float for a lengthy period whilst the slightly larger Overchurch, and the big ferries Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil (which by the time had dropped the "2" suffix), operated the daily service. It was then decided to put Leasowe, Egremont and Royal Daffodil up for sale. Royal Daffodil and Leasowe were sold within weeks and are still in operation today under different names. Egremont was not so lucky. She sprang a leak which ruined her engines, rendering her unusable. She was actually purchased by the island cruising club of Salcombe in Devon, and she now spends her days preserved and tied up in a sandy cove where she is used as the club house. By 1989 only Royal Iris remained of the Wallasey ferries.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the Woodchurch was taken into Clarence dry docks where she was dry docked and left in a somewhat laid up state. Damage had occurred to her hull due to deficiencies in the metal used during construction, and rumours abounded that she was being used to supply her sister ferries with spare parts. She returned to service in 1983 after a repaint and some repairs. In 1984 the ferries were repainted into red, white and blue for the Flower Festival at Otterspool.
In 1990 Woodchurch and Mountwood were taken from service and were extensively refurbished (although still retaining their original character and bridge equipment). The work included fitting of modern Fruno radar and substantial repairs to steelwork. Their bridges, which originally consisted of two wing cabs and a central wheelhouse, were plated to form one large navigation bridge. Unusually, the separate cabs each had a large brass binnacle and compass in them which were not removed when the bridge was made whole, so this meant that the ferry actually had three binnacles on the bridge. Lots of re-wiring took place and years of neglect were slowly righted. Whilst Mountwood and Woodchurch were in dry dock, Overchurch operated on its own in a triangular service similar to the commuter run used today. Mountwood and Woodchurch were back in service in time for the QE2's first visit to Liverpool in 1990, with a new livery of red and black. After a busy few days, Overchurch was dry docked and given a well-earned break, during which her hull was painted and lots of internal work took place. For some reason, the Overchurch had a café fitted into the forward shelter on the promenade deck, rather than into the main saloon, which resulted in a rather cold and draughty seating area. Overchurch was a tired old ship; her engines were repaired but due to Mountwood and Woodchurch operating the service between them on alternating rotas, she saw very little service for several years, apart from peak times or special cruises.
In 1991, the Mountwood was withdrawn from service after an accident. Whilst berthing the vessel at Liverpool, the crew lost control for a few seconds. Mountwood crashed into the landing stage at Liverpool, causing around £90,000 worth of damage to the bow. The ferry was repaired and returned to service soon after.
In 1998 the Overchurch made a journey up the Manchester Ship Canal. Work was soon to begin on a multi-million pound transformation that would see most of her old superstructure replaced with modern saloons, new engines, new navigation equipment and almost everything else. The ship managed to retain its binnacle and brass helm wheel; the rest of its old brass instrumentation has been put into storage at Mersey Ferries for future display. She was launched and renamed Royal Daffodil in 1999 and soon after returned to service with much fanfare. She is now the flagship of the fleet. Mountwood and Woodchurch were also re-fitted; Mountwood was re-named Royal Iris of the Mersey and Woodchurch was re-fitted and re-named Snowdrop.