Maritime Tales: back and forth

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I, Stephen Guy, have many family stories about the Mersey ferries – including one memorable day when the gangplank landed on my toe, happily without breaking anything.

As Liverpool grew, so did the ferries until they reached their zenith in the 19th century. These days the ferry only links Liverpool with Birkenhead and Seacombe. Until the 1970s there was one to New Brighton. However, in my parents’ and grandparents’ times there were also ferries to Egremont, Tranmere, Rock Ferry, New Ferry and Eastham. My maternal grandmother, Lillian Potter, described an horrific incident she witnessed around the time of the First World War on Eastham ferry. She had a friend at Eastham village and would enjoy a day out taking the ferry then walking to see her pal. After one such visit, Gran was boarding the return ferry with other passengers. They were regaled by a drunk perched on the paddle wheel cover, bottle in hand, laughing and joking. As the ferry lurched from its moorings, the drunk toppled over the side and was killed by the churning paddle wheels. The ferry searched unsuccessfully for any trace of his body.

model of a circular ferry

The circular chain ferry. Image copyright Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

My father George remembered going on Eastham ferry to visit a large pleasure garden in the woods. It was reached through an ornate gateway and attracted large crowds. You can still see parts of the old ferry landing stage and ticket office at Eastham, which remains a very pleasant spot with marvellous views over the river.

Ferries have criss-crossed the River Mersey since at least 1150 when the monks of Birkenhead Priory used to row passengers across the windswept, desolate estuary.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a model of the paddle steamer Elizabeth – both the first steam ferryboat on the Mersey and the first steamship on the river. She entered the river on 28 June 1815 and inaugurated a service between Liverpool and Runcorn making one trip daily at a speed of between nine and 10 knots.

There is a builder’s half-model of Royal Daffodil II which, unusually, is marked with dimensions for her outer hull for plating purposes. She was later renamed St Hilary and sold for scrap in 1962.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is a model of a prototype circular chain ferry (shown here) that never saw the light of day. Dating from about 1865, the two-funnelled vessel would have sported covered passenger saloons and a central area for carriages and wagons in those pre-tunnel days.  This idea was rejected mainly because the huge chains needed to haul the ferry across the river would have been a danger to other ships.

There is an information sheet with a brief history of the Mersey Ferries available on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.