The Mersey Ferry is a ferry service operating on the River Mersey in north west England, between Liverpool and Birkenhead/Wallasey on the Wirral Peninsula. Ferries have been used on this route since at least the 12th century, and continue to be popular for both local people and visitors.
The current fleet consists of two active vessels, with a third currently laid up for cost-saving reasons. They originally came into service in the 1960s and were named Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch. All three ferries have been extensively refurbished and renamed Royal Iris of the Mersey, Snowdrop and Royal Daffodil respectively, the latter of which is not currently in service.
The ferries share the workload of cross-river ferrying, charter cruises and the Manchester Ship Canal cruise. The service is operated by Merseytravel.
In 1150, the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead was established. The monks used to charge a small fare to row passengers across the river. At this time, the Mersey was considerably wider with sand dunes and marshes to the north leading up to Ainsdale beach and sandstone cliffs and shorelines to the south near Otterspool. The only suitable landing point for the ferry was in the Pool, near the site of the present Merseyside Police headquarters. Weather often stopped crossings and passengers were delayed for days, taking shelter at the priory.
In 1317, a royal licence was issued, granting permission to the Priory to build lodging houses for men crossing the river at Woodside. King Edward II visited Liverpool in 1323, and the royal accounts show that he used local ferrymen to sail up the river to Ince. In 1330, his son Edward III granted a charter to the Priory and its successors for ever: "the right of ferry there… for men, horses and goods, with leave to charge reasonable tolls". At the time, there was only a small hamlet at Birkenhead, and a slightly larger village at Liverpool.
The Chester Indictments record criminal activities on the Mersey ferries in the 14th and early 15th centuries. In 1355, Richard, son of Simon de Becheton, was murdered on the ferry; the murderers escaped and took refuge at Shotwick. In 1365, it was recorded that there were four ferryboats operating without a licence, from Bromborough and Eastham. In 1414, William de Stanley, the servant of John Talbot, later Earl of Shrewsbury, was on the ferry between Birkenhead and Liverpool when about 200 men assaulted him, and stole his bay horse valued at £5 (current value - over £2,800), a bow and 14 arrows valued at 3s 4d (current value - over £95) and a barge valued at £10 (current value - over £5,700). The thieves were fined.
A licence was issued in 1357 to the Poole family by Edward, the Black Prince, for a ferry from Eastham. The licence then passed to the Abbey of St Werburgh, in Chester, and became known as Job's Ferry. Early ferries also existed across the Mersey further upstream, at Ince and at Runcorn.
From the 16th to the 18th century
The monks of Birkenhead Priory operated a ferry service until the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the priory's destruction by Henry VIII's troops in 1536. Ownership reverted to the Crown, and in 1544 the ferry rights as well as the Priory properties were bought by Ralph Worsley of Lancashire for £586. 11s. 6d (current value - almost £205,000). The rights later passed to the Molyneux family. By 1541 William Bromley had the licence for ferries at Seacombe, and in 1586, Queen Elizabeth granted John Poole of Sutton the rights at Tranmere.
During this period, the private owners began to use fully rigged sailing ships. The use of sailing ships meant that bigger vessels could be employed, but in reality these boats were even more at the bidding of the weather. The Mersey is famed for its thick fogs, and during these times during winter there was little wind and ferries could not operate. The frequency depended on demand and the weather.
By the 18th century, the commercial expansion of Liverpool and the increase in stage coach traffic from Chester spurred the growth of the transportation of passengers and goods across the river. Ferry services from Rock House on the Wirral – that is, Rock Ferry – were first recorded in 1709. By 1753 the Wirral side of the Mersey had at least five ferry houses at Ince, Eastham, the Rock, Woodside and Seacombe. The service from New Ferry to Liverpool was first mentioned in 1774.
The first steamship to operate on the Mersey was the Elizabeth, a wooden paddle steamer, which was introduced in 1815 to operate between Liverpool and Runcorn. There was considerable debate as to the best way of boarding a ferry vessel. For the steam ferry Etna, which entered service at Tranmere on 17 April 1817, the idea of extension stages was mooted. These were long piers that were mounted on wheels and, by using a steam engine, could be wheeled in and out depending on the level of the tide.
At Woodside, a small slipway was built on the beach to allow the boats to berth, and in 1822 the paddle steamer Royal Mail began commercial operation between Liverpool and Woodside. The town of Birkenhead was just starting to develop at this point. In 1820, the Birkenhead Ferry began operating from a new site just to the south; this closed in 1870. The Woodside, North Birkenhead and Liverpool Steam Ferry Company was formed in 1835, and the slipway at Woodside was widened and constructed as a stone pier. In 1838, the Monks Ferry Company began operating rival ferries from a new stone slip and hotel about 400 metres south of Woodside, but this service closed in 1878.
From about 1830, steam ferries also operated from the new resort developed by James Atherton at New Brighton, and from nearby Egremont. Steam ferries also began operating from Eastham.
By the 1840s, Birkenhead was developing into a busy new town. The railway to Chester had opened, the town was growing quickly, and the docks were under construction. There were also competing ferry services and disputes over the rights granted to the monks, and there was a need to improve the facilities at Woodside. In the early 1840s, the old slipway was replaced with a new stone pier with a small lighthouse at the end. However, this soon became inadequate.
In 1847, the first floating landing stage, which rose and fell with the tide so that boats could dock at any time, was opened at Liverpool. The first portion, known as the Georges' landing stage, was designed by William Cubitt and was 500 feet long. It was rebuilt and extended in 1874.
The Corporation Years
Until the establishment of the Mersey Railway in 1886, the ferries were the only means of crossing the river, and so all of the routes were heavily used. All of the ferry routes were owned by private interests before coming under municipal ownership in the mid 19th century. The Woodside ferry was taken over by the Birkenhead Commissioners in 1858 and, in 1861, the Wallasey Local Board took over the ferry services at Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. At Woodside, land between the Woodside Hotel and the end of the old pier was reclaimed, and in 1861 the floating landing stage was opened. The pontoons were towed into position, moored by chains originally made for the SS Great Eastern, and linked to the mainland by two double bridges.
The Cheshire, the first passenger ferry steamer to have a saloon, operated from Woodside in 1864. The iron pier at Eastham was built in 1874. On 26 November 1878, the ferry Gem, a paddle steamer operated from Seacombe by the Wallasey Local Board, collided with the Bowfell, a wooden sailing ship at anchor on the River Mersey; five people died as a result.
In 1886 the Mersey Railway Tunnel was opened, providing competition for the ferry services. The Woodside ferry service began using twin-screw passenger steamers in 1890, which replaced paddle steamers. In 1894 trains were carrying 25,000 passengers per day and the ferries 44,000 per day. The ferry service at Tranmere, which had operated since mediaeval times, closed in 1897. The pier and landing stage at Rock Ferry was built in 1899, and Birkenhead Corporation also operated the ferry service at New Ferry.
In 1914 King George V and Queen Mary travelled on the ferry S.S. Daffodil from Wallasey to Liverpool. During the First World War the steamers Iris and Daffodil were taken out of service from Wallasey to be used as troop ships in the naval raid on Zeebrugge in Belgium. The ferries had a shallow draft, allowing them to skim over the mines floating beneath the surface, and were robust enough to approach the heavily defended mole curling into the North Sea. They both saw action, which was described on 24 April 1918 by Vice–Admiral Sir Roger Keyes of the Royal Navy in a message to the ferries' manager:
"I am sure it will interest you to know that your two stout vessels carried Bluejackets and Marines to Zeebrugge, and remained alongside the Mole for an hour, greatly contributing to the success of the operation... The damage caused by enemy gun fire has been repaired".
Because of their work King George V allowed the vessels to use the word "Royal" in their name. They needed extensive refitting before they could resume peacetime activities.
In the boats themselves, there was quick development. The early incarnations of today's modern vessels can be seen in some of the early propeller driven ships, mainly the 1906 pair, Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil. The Wallasey twin screw vessels all had flying bridges with port and starboard docking cabs. As built, the two ferries still had the wheel at promenade deck level, however this was subsequently moved up onto the bridge so navigation was all on one level. They were all fitted with ahead and astern reciprocating engines and most vessels could achieve a speed of around 12 knots, which is about the same as today's trio of ferries. On early paddlers, the wheelhouse and side cabs were open largely due to the transition from sail to steam, and most ships at the time had open navigation bridges with the ferries being no different. Birkenhead did not use flying bridges, instead having a central wheelhouse and two outer navigation boxes which were raised up higher above deck level. Wallasey ferries employed a funnel livery of white and black and Birkenhead red and black. Birkenhead changed to orange and black after the second world war.
When the railway tunnels were constructed and opened, the ferry service did suffer somewhat but it always remained popular. It was really the advent of the road tunnels that caused trouble. When the Queensway road tunnel opened in 1934, the ferry service from Seacombe lost two million passengers because people started to use the tunnel rather than the ferry. The opening of the road tunnel also had an effect on the luggage boats which were introduced in 1879. Both ferry companies earned a substantial amount from luggage boats, which carried vehicles and goods across the river. When the road tunnel opened, traffic dropped by 80%. By the 1940s, luggage boat services from both Woodside and Seacombe to Liverpool had ceased.
Due to financial losses incurred from a gradual reduction in patronage, Birkenhead Corporation gradually closed its southern terminals; New Ferry (officially) on 22 September 1927, Eastham in 1929 and Rock Ferry on 30 June 1939. The closure of Eastham marked the last use of ferry paddle steamers on the river. Wallasey were always trying to close Egremont, but faced stiff opposition from locals who got petitions to keep the ferry open. The chance came to close Egremont during the Second World War for economical reasons, after the pier was damaged in a collision. This was in similar circumstances to the demise of New Ferry twenty years earlier. As a result, the Egremont service never reopened.
In 1941, mines which had drifted into the River Mersey stopped ferry crossings. The Oxton and Bebington vessels were fitted with cranes to enable them to unload United States aircraft from mid-river and deliver them to the Liverpool landing stage. The Upton vessel was taken by the army and used as a ferry and supply vessel for the anti-aircraft forts in Liverpool Bay.
In 1950, the ferries carried almost 30 million passengers a year, including 11 million on the Woodside ferries and 15 million on Seacombe ferries, but by 1970 the total number fell to 7 million. Night boats across the river were withdrawn and replaced by buses through the tunnel in 1956.
The MPTE takes over
As a result of the Transport Act 1968, both Wallasey and Birkenhead Corporations merged under the single control of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive (MPTE) on 1 December 1969. By this time, New Brighton had declined as a tourist destination and coupled with silting problems near the landing stage, the ferry service was withdrawn in 1971, with the stage and pier subsequently demolished.
In spite of the close proximity of Wallasey and Birkenhead and their respective ferry landing stages, both Corporations had used different gangway spacing on their vessels. This meant that a Wallasey ferry could not utilise both gangways at Birkenhead's terminal at Woodside, and that a Birkenhead boat would be similarly disadvantaged at Seacombe and New Brighton. The Pier Head at Liverpool was obliged to have gangways to suit both sets of ships. When the combined ferry fleet was rationalised, Seacombe Ferry landing stage required the construction of an additional gangway to cater for the Birkenhead vessels.
The 1970s economic situation in Britain saw costs escalating, with funding limited by the MPTE, which was embarking on an expensive operation to construct the Merseyrail "Liverpool Loop" extension. Compounded with the opening of the Kingsway road tunnel on 28 June 1971 and a further decline in passenger numbers (only 4,000-5,000 a day), the future of the service was uncertain. It was sentimental, rather than economical grounds which resulted in the retention of the ferries, after much public protest to keep them. However, service frequency was reduced, with ferry fares being linked to bus and rail fares. During this period, maintenance on the ferries was limited considerably, with the Woodchurch being laid up as a salvage for parts for Mountwood and Overchurch. At this time, the large brass helm from Overchurch was damaged and was replaced by that from Woodchurch. After the damaged helm was repaired, it was placed on Woodchurch. This has remained the case, even after both vessels were extensively rebuilt.
1984 was a momentous year for the ferries and can be seen as the beginning of the ferries rise from the slumps of the 1970s. For the duration of the International Garden Festival, a special ferry service was provided to Otterspool Promenade. This service was usually operated by the Overchurch. The ferries also began to operate summer Manchester Ship Canal cruises, a service which had been popular for many year since the canal opened, but declined somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s. Sailing ships from the Tall Ships' Race visited the river in August 1984, which helped bring patronage to 250,000 over four days, a level unseen for forty years.
Bus deregulation and the 1990 changes
The Mersey Ferries came under a new body called Merseytravel in 1986. On 26 October that year, as a result of the Transport Act 1985, bus services were deregulated and restrictions which prevented regular bus services through the Mersey Tunnels were abolished. As a result many buses which formerly stopped at the Birkenhead Woodside Bus/Ferry terminal were extended into Liverpool. This was another blow to the Mersey Ferries and the ferry service had to be re-focussed away from commuter traffic, which had declined, to tourist needs.
From 1990 a commuter shuttle has operated Monday-Friday peak period with an hourly River Explorer Cruise. At weekends River Explorer cruises operate from 10:00 to 18:00. The morning peak service until 2010 ran every 30 minutes on a Liverpool-Birkehead-Seacombe-Liverpool circuit, but since then only runs every 20 minutes from Liverpool-Seacombe Ferry and back.
The evening peak service runs Liverpool-Seacombe every 20 minutes. The Explorer cruises follow a Liverpool-Seacombe-Birkenhead-Liverpool pattern and sail slightly further upstream with a commentary of what can be seen.
These operations run with a bias towards Seacombe Ferry as the vicinity of Seacombe lacks the rail and bus connections of Birkenhead. In the summer there are also cruises up the Manchester Ship Canal.
There have been hundreds of ferry boats used on the Mersey. The Birkenhead boats Claughton, Bidston, Thurstaston and Upton were viewed as the fastest ferries on the river. The Wallasey ferries included a number of three deckers such as the Marlowe, which were used for both ferry duties and cruising. The first diesel ferry to enter service was the Royal Iris in 1951. The current flagship of the Mersey Ferry service is the MV Royal Daffodil.
The Royal Family
The "Royal" prefix was granted to the ferries Iris and Daffodil for their service during the First World War where they were instrumental at the Mole in Zeebrugge. Both ferries were badly damaged but returned home to a triumphant greeting. Since the original duo's withdrawal, there have been other Royals. The Royal Daffodil II was arguably the most luxurious ferry ever built. She was hit by a bomb and sunk at her berth in the Second World War, but later raised and returned to service, with little of her pre-war splendour. Perhaps the most famous Royal is the Royal Iris of 1951. She was the best loved of all the Mersey ferries. She was the first diesel powered vessel of the Wallasey fleet. She had four diesel generators connected to two Metrovick marine propulsion units. She differed to all the other ferries as she had super smooth lines and a dummy funnel in place. She played host to hundreds of party cruises and bands such as Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Beatles and also Elvis Costello. She received a major refit in the 1970s and her popular fish and chip cafe - which earned her the name "the fish and chip boat" - was removed and replaced with a steak bar. The Royal Iris remained in service for nearly 40 years before being sold in 1993 - two years after withdrawal - for use as a floating nightclub. She is now berthed at Woolwich, London. Attempts to bring her back to Merseyside have come to nothing due to the prohibitive cost of making her fit for a 1,000 mile journey coastwise.
Leasowe, Egremont and Royal Daffodil II
The Leasowe and Egremont were built by Philip and Co. in Dartmouth, Devon and entered service in late 1951 and early 1952 respectively. Named after suburbs of Wallasey, both vessels were commissioned by Wallasey Corporation.
They were of a traditional design by naval architects Graham and Woolnough, who are based in Liverpool, but boasted modern equipment including Crossley multi-speed engines for versatile control. They only had one single boarding gangway and their forward saloons extended to the whole width of the ship. This proved somewhat problematic especially at busy periods, so an additional gangway space was added on the promenade deck for use with the high level terminal gangways. The forward saloons also had facility for a bar area and dance floor, which meant the vessels could be used for cruising. The two vessels were primarily used on the Seacombe - Liverpool service, augmenting the New Brighton run during the summer seasons.
Egremont differed externally to Leasowe in that she had a canvas awning fitted around her funnel. Early photographs of Leasowe and Egremont show them carrying what look like binnacle shrouds (the brass lids that sit atop of a binnacle) on the roof of their wheelhouses and wing cabs. It is not understood what these were. Some people have said that they were in fact ventilation devices. Upon the bridge there were numerous modern devices. Chadburn synchrostep telegraphs and rudder angle indicators, hydraulic steering telemotor and an automatic whistle control could be found in both the wheelhouse and the navigation boxes. There was also an internal communication system, a ship to shore radio and PA system and three binnacles on the bridge. Similar types of navigation equipment and deck fittings used on these vessels are extant on the Edmund Gardner Pilot Boat at Merseyside Maritime Museum. The Leasowe and Egremont were popular ferries with their crews as they had much improved crew accommodation compared to the earlier steamers, where much of the lower deck space was taken up with boilers and machinery. When the ferries entered service they all had Wallasey white and black funnel liveries. There was, however, a major design fault with Leasowe and Egremont. In order to reach the bows of the ship when casting off etc., crew members were required to either push through the hoards of commuters and climb down a ladder from the forward promenade deck or walk along the rubbing strake and climb over. In flat calm conditions this was not a problem, but in a force 8 gale with the vessel bobbing around wildly, it could be considerably dangerous. The simple reason for such problems was because there was no door leading from the main saloon to the bow area of the ships!
The Royal Daffodil II was constructed by James Lamont and Co. at Greenock and entered service in 1957. She was larger than the Dartmouth pair as she had three decks and was designed for the dual role of ferry and cruise service. The gross tonnage of Royal Daffodil II was 609. A gross error was the size of her engines, developing 1,360 bhp a piece she was underpowered and often struggled in strong tides. Aside from the engine order telegraphs, she also had docking order telegraphs in the wings, the only Mersey ferryboat to ever have them. The ship's second deck was intended for use as a bar and function area, however this did not happen due to cost limitations. Instead the it was simply a draughty space with seating and a semi -closed basic saloon. The Roman II was added to her name because of a Thames estuary cruise ship also called Royal Daffodil which existed from 1939 until 1967 (see MV Royal Daffodil (1939)).
With the merger of the Wallasey and Birkenhead fleets in 1969, the ferries lost their Wallasey colours to be replaced with the primrose yellow and powder blue of the MPTE, and latterly emerald green and black. In the mid-1970s, Leasowe and Royal Daffodil II were sold to Greek owners and have been heavily modified since. The Leasowe is still cruising around the Greek Islands. The former Royal Daffodil II was converted to a container ship, but still retained its forward section largely in its original condition. She hit headlines when she sank in November 2007, 20 miles off the coast of Cape Andreas, in heavy seas. The cause of the sinking was main engine and steering gear failure, and she claimed the lives of both her captain and mate. The Egremont was laid up in Morpeth Dock whilst on sale offer and in fact sprang a leak which flooded her engine room and ruined her engines rendering her inoperable. She was stripped of her machinery and bridge fittings and towed to Salcombe, where she is now used as a floating headquarters for the Island Cruising Club in Salcombe, Devon, not far from her original birthplace.
Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch
The current Mersey Ferries fleet comprises three vessels, all based on a similar design by naval architects Graham and Woolnough of Liverpool. Originally named Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch after overspill post-war housing developments of Birkenhead. They were commissioned into service by Birkenhead Corporation.
Mountwood and Woodchurch were built at Dartmouth by Philip and Son. The Mountwood was launched on the 31 July 1959 and the Woodchurch on the 28 October of the same year. They were loosely based on designs of the Leasowe and Egremont of the Wallasey fleet, although they both weighed considerably more at 464 tonnes, compared with 311 tonnes for the earlier vessels. They are also larger than the older Wallasey pair, being approximately 19 feet longer, 6 feet broader and over a foot taller. Both vessels were externally identical in almost every way up until 1991 when the shroud protecting the aft funnel vent on the Mountwood was changed from square to rounded.
Compared to the earlier Wallasey twins, the Mountwood and Woodchurch were highly advanced. They benefited from an injection of cash from both Birkenhead Corporation and the Joint Tunnel Committee. They were given special Crossley eight-cylinder engines which were fitted with gears and automatic air brakes. New style telegraphs by Chadburns were designed which had a facility for braking the engines for rapid reversal, the telegraphs were part of a brand known as "Synchrostep" and were all originally unpainted brushed aluminium with shiny brass rimming. Woodchurch had its telegraphs painted blue, but Mountwood's became green and Overchurch had the same telegraph 'heads' however they were fitted into the wings and main control position in specially built units which also had instruments fitted to them. They entered service in 1960 and were an instant hit with ferry passengers. They were light, modern and boasted the latest in marine navigation equipment. They were given an orange and black funnel livery, with a red band just above the rubbing strake. In their early years of service both the ferries carried rope fenders to protect the strakes.
On the bridge was also a brass talk tube that linked down to the engine room. A popular prank amongst bridge crews was to call an engineer on the talk tube then pour water down it, thus soaking the engineer at the other end.
The Mountwood was used in the film "Ferry Cross The Mersey", a musical and subsequent Gerry & The Pacemakers song, with the video being filmed on two separate journeys across to Liverpool from Birkenhead. In her early years Mountwood was an unreliable ship. She broke down three times whilst crossing the river and had to anchor. Her passengers were rescued by Woodchurch. She also collided with Bidston whilst berthing, due to a communications error.
The last of the old Birkenhead steamers had gone by the time the Overchurch arrived, built at the Birkenhead shipyard of Cammell Laird and Co., Overchurch was of all welded construction and also had a bridge that was completely enclosed rather than a wheelhouse and navigation boxes like Mountwood and Woodchurch. The addition of a totally enclosed bridge meant that there only needed to be one binnacle upon it, whereas on the two sisters there were three, one inside the main wheelhouse and two in the docking/navigation boxes. The Overchurch also had much of its instrumentation fitted into specially built units, meaning the ferry had a spacious bridge, rather than the more compact and cluttered bridges of the Mountwood and Woodchurch.Overchurch had a high funnel immediately behind the bridge and also a small bridge deck, giving the appearance of a somewhat forward top-heavy look, as a result. The Overchurch was fitted with the same navigation equipment as her near sisters. She differed slightly by being a few tonnes heavier and a few inches longer. The Overchurch also had only one access stairway to the promenade deck unlike the Dartmouth twins which had two.
In 1962, the Overchurch conveyed Princess Alexandra to open the new Cammell Laird dry dock.
The trio of ferries all remained in near constant operation up until 1981, when cost-cutting measures saw Woodchurch withdrawn for almost three years. It was rumoured that she was cannibalised to help keep her sisters running. Whilst in lay up at Clarence dry docks, she was offered for sale, with one prospective buyer hoping to use her to operate cruises around the Isle of Man. She was not sold and after main engine repairs and a full repaint Woodchurch returned to service in 1983, freeing up Overchurch to work the new Otterspool service, set up for the 1984 International Garden Festival. The ferries all operated on a normal 20 minute route throughout this.
When the ferries were taken over by the PTE, they lost their original liveries and these were swiftly replaced with sky blue and primrose yellow. This was in turn replaced with black and green, and then colours of the Union Jack for the Garden Festival. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw very limited budgets for maintenance and the ferries are noted to look in poor condition during this period.
In 1989, Mountwood and Woodchurch were withdrawn and extensively refurbished internally which resulted in complete rewiring and main engine repairs. They were given new modern interiors and their separate bridge wings and wheel houses were plated over to form one large bridge, although none of the original equipment was removed from the new bridge. They entered service by July 1990 in time for the QE2's first visit to the Mersey and also operated the new "heritage cruises". They also were given a new black and red livery replacing the red white and blue given for the Garden Festival season of 1984. The Overchurch was withdrawn and retired from regular service and subsequently moved to Bootle, where she was internally refurbished and rewired. She was then moved to the ferries' regular berth on the East Float, where she saw very little use for nearly a decade. The reason for this was somewhat unknown as Overchurch was more than suitable for ferry service. In 1996 the Overchurch was given a small refit which involved the enclosing of the promenade deck shelter.
The ferries companies were identifiable by their different colour liveries displayed on each vessel's funnel. Wallasey ferries carried a black and white colour scheme. Early Birkenhead steamers carried red and black, however this was changed to bright orange in the 1920s and this remained up until the merger of the two fleets under the MPTE in 1969.
From January 2015, MV Snowdrop had a special World War I dazzle livery applied, designed by Peter Blake.
Refits and renamings
The Overchurch was given her major refit in 1998 at Lengthline Ship Repairers in Manchester, which resulted in a major rebuilding of all decks and fitting of new engines and navigation equipment. She was renamed Royal Daffodil and returned to service in 1999. Mountwood and Woodchurch were also refitted and renamed Royal Iris of the Mersey and Snowdrop, respectively in 2002 and 2004. The ferries were re-designed by their original architects - Graham and Woolnough. When all three vessels were refitted, the previously used helms and binnacles with compasses were placed back on the refurbished bridges. Other equipment, such as the telegraphs, were put in storage in the Mersey Ferries' archives. The fleet of three have served the river for nearly five decades and 2009 will see the 50th birthdays of the Royal Iris of the Mersey and the Snowdrop. This is remarkable for a ship to be in service for nearly 50 years and shows the dedication and care taken by the ferries' staff over the years to keep the boats in the conditions they can be found today. The refitting of the ferries has extended their working lives by approximately thirty years, and this is steadily increasing with additional repairs that are carried out on the boats on a regular basis.
The new Wärtsilä engines fitted on the ferries are much more economical than the previous engines by Crossley Bros of Manchester. They are also much 'greener' and produce much less emissions than the original propulsion units.
The ferries' masts now carry four red, one white and one green light at various points. Prior to refit, they had only a forward-facing white light. This is because all the ferries have been upgraded to a class 3 certificate, enabling them to sail much further and to various other locations such as Llandudno and Barrow-in-Furness. The extra lights are only used in this situation. Briefly, the Royal Daffodil carried a white half mast light which was suspended within the rigging. This was due to an electric failure in her main mast head lamp and an auxiliary light had to be used.
The Snowdrop and Royal Iris each carry two Kockums Super Tyfon TA 100/165 type fog horns. Royal Daffodil carries two Kockums Super Tyfon TA 100/185 horns. These are the original horns fitted when the ferries were first built. Both Royal Iris of the Mersey and Snowdrop have an E-flat tone, and Royal Daffodil's is in F Sharp.
The front-angled bridge windows on the Royal Iris and the Snowdrop have been subject to much criticism, as they are contradictory to the classic ferry design, especially that on Snowdrop, which is extremely square and box like. Although the Royal Iris also has a large front-angled wheelhouse, it greatly matches the contours of the ship as does much of the steelwork replacement by Cammell Laird. Generally, Snowdrop's refit has been well received, but criticisms lie with the stark contrasts between the fine lines of the original Dartmouth builders and the somewhat crude welding of Mersey Heritage Ship Repair contractors; this is coupled with extensions to the forward promenade deck, which appears to be somewhat 'stuck on'. Snowdrop's refit results are in stark contrast to the excellent work carried out on Royal Daffodil.
The ferries are known for their ability to operate in very heavy seas. The reason services are usually suspended is not because the ferries cannot cope with the heavy winds and waves of the Mersey, it is because berthing the vessel can be extremely hazardous. When berthing the vessel, the captain uses a combination of rudder positions and engine movements. The ferries all have Fletner system rudders which make them much more manoeuvrable. By using the vessel's twin screws, captains can move the vessels away by using one engine to push the vessel from the stage and the rudders and other engine to point it into the correct direction.
The Mersey Ferries used to operate in fog, however in recent years even slight fog has resulted in the suspension of the service.
The ferries played a big part in Liverpool's European Capital of Culture 2008 celebrations. The ferries carried record numbers of passengers, and on the 18–21 July, the Tall Ships returned to the Mersey. A combination of the Tall Ships and the Golf Open at nearby Royal Birkdale ensured over 1 million visitors to the city over the weekend, with many of these taking a trip on the famous ferries. Sunday 20 July saw an unusual sight of all three ferries out on the river at night, with the Snowdrop being berthed at Woodside and the Royal Iris and Royal Daffodil at Seacombe. All three ferries were packed to capacity over the weekend, with the Royal Daffodil operating a special cruise to witness the parade of sail and departure of the ships on Monday 21 July.
Farewell to the QE2
The Queen Elizabeth 2, the famous Cunard liner, paid its final visit to the Mersey on 3 October 2008. All three ferries were busy all day with both a shuttle service and special cruises near the vessel which was berthed at Liverpool's Pier Head. At 22:00 the fleet sailed out with the liner for the last time, each of the ferries sounding their klaxons in salute, with the QE2 responding. It was an emotional night for all aboard the vessels, as they said farewell for the liner which had launched the ferries as a new brand more than 18 years ago.
In August 2012, it was announced that Merseytravel were initiating a review into cost saving on Mersey Ferries operations after the service is running at a £1 million annual loss. As a result of this review, the ferry Royal Daffodil was withdrawn from service in January 2013. Another threat to the ferries' future is the cost of replacing the current ferries, the oldest ever to ply the river, when required.
In December 2015 Merseytravel announced a 20 year plan for the ferries which included the possible closure of one of the two Wirral landing stages (possibly Woodside), a later start to commuter services which only operate from Seacombe to Liverpool, and one or two new vessels with better ability to hold social functions or musical events, a facility not available since the disposal of the 1951 Royal Iris.
"Ferry Cross the Mersey" was a 1964 song, film, and soundtrack album. The song was written by Gerry Marsden, recorded by Gerry & The Pacemakers and was a hit in both the UK and US. In 1989, a charity version of the song was recorded by Liverpool artists The Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, and Stock Aitken Waterman, and was released in aid of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster. It held the #1 spot in the UK chart for three weeks.
The ferries also featured in the opening credit sequences of the popular BBC TV comedy series, The Liver Birds, written by Carla Lane, which ran from 1969 to 1979. The ferry depicted was the Royal Daffodil II.
The ferries were referred to repeatedly in Helen Forrester's 1974 book Twopence to Cross the Mersey, because the fare for a journey to the Wirral (two pence) was too expensive for a destitute Liverpool family to afford during the Great Depression.