Taking the ferry

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painting of people in a small sailing ship at sea

Regular childhood trips on the Mersey ferries gave me my first taste of the sea even though we didn’t go further than New Brighton. I have never sailed on the high seas apart from in an ocean-going yacht around the Canary Islands - the Isle of Man and Irish ferries are more my style.

The Mersey ferry is perhaps the most famous ferry service in the world – deservedly so because of the dramatic maritime setting of river estuary, open sea and Liverpool waterfront.

The song Ferry ‘cross the Mersey is known all over the globe and is played on the Mersey ferries as they ply their triangular route between Liverpool, Seacombe and Birkenhead.

We have to go back to the 1150s for the start of the Mersey ferries when the monks at Birkenhead Priory would row passengers across the estuary for a small fare. At that time it was a wild and desolate area when the Priory was the biggest building for miles around – there was no castle or tower at Liverpool. This was 50 years before King John granted Liverpool’s charter in 1207. Even then the population never exceeded 500 until the 16th century.

A painting at Merseyside Maritime Museum dates from the era when steam was just beginning to make an impression although sail still held sway in the maritime world. The Rock Ferry (shown here) was painted by leading marine artist Samuel Walters about 1834 (other Walters paintings can be seen on our main site). It gives an insight into the type of craft in use before the advent of steam. Relying upon sails and oars, crossing the Mersey was often unpredictable. The ferry boat in the painting is the James, built in 1826 by Mottershead and Hayes of Liverpool. Walters shows the return trip to Liverpool laden with passengers along with fresh fruit and vegetables from the Wirral.

In the past there were up to 10 ferries between Liverpool and the Wirral – Rock Ferry, Eastham, New Ferry, Tranmere, Birkenhead, Woodside, Egremont, Seacombe, New Brighton and Monks Ferry. There was also a ferry terminal at Garston, Liverpool.

Also on display is a designer’s prototype model of the paddle steamer Alliance of about 1854, showing the dramatic change in ferry boat design in just 30 years. She was later built in Glasgow and served as a ferry on the River Clyde. Unusually, the model has identical stern and bow, each housing a small paddle wheel, with four funnels arranged in a square.

On our main site there are a number of ferry related features including a 1945 photograph of the Royal Daffodil II, a 1959 photograph of the Pier Head and ferry, and an information sheet providing a brief history of the Mersey Ferries.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).