Ferry History

Same Names, Different Rivers

THE MERSEY FERRIES ROYAL DAFFODIL AND ROYAL IRIS, AND THEIR THAMES COUNTERPARTS.

The names Royal Daffodil and Royal Iris have long been associated with Mersey ferries, having each been used on successive ships. The names originated in the aftermath of the First World War. There was also a tradition of ships on the Thames and its estuary using the name Royal Daffodil and, for many years, the existence of these ships prevented the use of the proper name on the Mersey. In recent years, a similar situation has prevailed with the name Royal Iris.

The former Wallasey Corporation operated ferry services from Liverpool to Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. There were also sea and river cruises. For these activities, the Corporation had a substantial fleet of ferries. There were three distinct systems of nomenclature for these vessels:

Flowers: Sunflower, Daisy, Primrose, Violet, Crocus, Snowdrop, Thistle, Shamrock, Pansy, Rose, Lily, Iris, Daffodil, Bluebell.

Districts and landmarks of Wallasey: Wallasey, Seacombe, Liscard, Leasowe, Marlowe, Perch Rock, St. Hilary, Egremont.

Local Councillors: John Heron, John Joyce, J. Farley, Francis Storey.

It can be seen that the names of flowers predominated.

Two of the vessels in the fleet were Daffodil and Iris, both built on the Tyne in 1906 (Wallasey Corporation, unlike Birkenhead, rarely ordered its ferries from a local shipyard). Their appearance very much set the style for future Wallasey ferries into the 1930s; in particular, the upper deck extended right to the sides of the ship, and they were equipped with a flying bridge.

In 1918, the Admiralty decided to carry out a raid on Zeebrugge, in occupied Belgium, to deny the port’s facilities to the Germans. Most of the ships participating belonged to the Royal Navy, but the Wallasey ferries Daffodil and Iris were selected to accompany HMS Vindictive and land troops on the mole (a harbour wall more than one mile long), while other naval vessels entered the harbour to sink blockships at the entrance to the canal. A smokescreen was laid but the wind changed direction at a critical moment and the entire fleet became visible to the port’s defenders, who used all their firepower against the attacking ships. Despite this, the two ferries and HMS Vindictive succeeded in landing their troops on the mole, although all the ships were damaged in the process. The landing was only possible because Daffodil was able to push HMS Vindictive sideways and place her alongside the mole, and then continued to hold her in position throughout the operation until all the troops had been re-embarked. Both ferries returned to the Mersey with their funnels and upperworks damaged by shrapnel. They were repaired and resumed ferry service in the summer of 1919. In May 1918, following a petition by Wallasey Corporation, King George V ordered that the word “Royal” should be added to the ferries’ names. The ships’ official registers, held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, show that this was done between 29 July and 2 August 1918, before the war had ended, although the “official” renaming ceremony, by Mrs. J. Farley, did not take place until 30 July 1919, immediately before the ships’ re-entry into service. Each of them carried a brass plaque recording their participation in the raid. When the two ships were sold in the 1930s, they were allowed to retain their names, presumably because of their historical significance and royal connection. It was not normally permissible for two ships on the British register to have the same name (although there were some apparently inexplicable exceptions) so, for some years after the sales, Wallasey Corporation could re-use the names only by adding the suffix “II”.

ROYAL DAFFODILS ON THE MERSEY.

ROYAL DAFFODIL, ex-DAFFODIL (1906).

Both Royal Daffodil and Royal Iris carried out their ferry duties into the 1930s. Until her sale in 1932, Wallasey’s cruises were carried out by Royal Iris, but following her sale, the cruise programme was taken over by Royal Daffodil, which was painted in cruising colours. Royal Daffodil was sold in 1934 to the New Medway Steam Packet Co. Ltd, of Rochester, Kent. The rest of her history will be dealt with in the Thames section of this article.

ROYAL DAFFODIL II / ST. HILARY (1934).

As the original Royal Daffodil had retained her name when sold in 1934, her replacement was named Royal Daffodil II. Unusually for Wallasey Corporation, she was built by Cammell Laird. She had a third passenger deck, which made her particularly suitable for busy days on the New Brighton service, when her extra capacity was very welcome. On 8 May 1941, during the blitz on Merseyside, she was hit by a bomb and sank. It was over a year before she was raised, but she was then repaired and returned to service. At first after the war, she was Wallasey’s principal cruise vessel, and during 1947 and 1948, she was painted in cruising colours. When a new Royal Iris entered service in 1951, she handed over the cruise role and concentrated on ferry work. In 1957, she was renamed St. Hilary, to free her name for a new ship. She was broken up in 1962.

ROYAL DAFFODIL II / ROYAL DAFFODIL (1958).

The next vessel to bear a “Royal Daffodil” name was built in 1958. She also was named Royal Daffodil II, as a Royal Daffodil was still in service on the Thames. Her builders were James Lamont & Co. Ltd., of Port Glasgow; she was the only Mersey ferry ever to have come from these builders. Her engines were conventional diesels, rather than the exotic diesel electric engines in the Royal Iris of 1951. Like the previous Royal Daffodil II, she had a third passenger deck, so she was used extensively on the New Brighton service in summer. This third deck also came in useful in 1964, when she spent a day at Llandudno tendering to the Swedish American liner Kungsholm. One unique feature was that her funnel carried the badge of Wallasey Corporation above its normal white with a black top. Following the closure of the Thames excursion services after the 1966 season, the Thames ship Royal Daffodil was sold for breaking up. The name Royal Daffodil at last being available, Wallasey Corporation obtained permission to drop the “II” from their ferry’s name. This was carried out in 1968. Royal Daffodil was one of the ferries transferred to the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive (M.P.T.E.) in December 1969. Under her new ownership, her funnel lost its Wallasey Corporation badge, and underwent two changes of funnel colour, first to cream and blue, and later to green and black. With the closure of the New Brighton service in 1972, any possible need for Royal Daffodil’s extra capacity had gone, and it was only a matter of time before she would be withdrawn. That happened in 1977, when she was sold to Greek owners, who renamed her Ioulis Keas II. She was extensively converted to carry vehicles in addition to passengers. Her bow and forward superstructure were not much changed from her days as a Mersey ferry, but all her after section was cut away and it appears that her engines had been moved to her after end. Later she was sold to Turkish owners and renamed again – Agia Kyriaki in 1992 and Dolphin 1 in 1994. She sank in rough weather on 7 November 2007, when 20 miles off Cape Andreas, Cyprus, on a voyage from Mersin to Famagusta.

ROYAL DAFFODIL, ex-OVERCHURCH (1962).

The current bearer of the name Royal Daffodil was built in 1962 for Birkenhead Corporation as Overchurch, and replaced Birkenhead’s last steam ferry, Claughton. She was the final newly built Mersey ferry, and came from Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. She was one of the three ships operating the ferry service between Woodside and Liverpool, with two ships in service and the third either on standby or undergoing overhaul. She also passed to the M.P.T.E. in December 1969. She went through four major changes of funnel colours from Birkenhead’s orange/red and black. In 1999, she was re-engined and re-built with more covered accommodation to make her more suitable for cruising. She returned from this work with the name Royal Daffodil. As a Birkenhead vessel, her name Overchurch was displayed on her bow in script, rather than capital letters, and this was retained by the M.P.T.E. As Royal Daffodil, she resumed service with her name in capital letters. However, in 2011, all three of the ferries had the names on their bows converted to a script similar to that used by Birkenhead Corporation, albeit still with traditional Wallasey Corporation names! Royal Daffodil is currently laid up and will probably never return to ferry service.

ROYAL DAFFODILS ON THE THAMES.

ROYAL DAFFODIL, ex-DAFFODIL (1906).

When the first Royal Daffodil was sold, her buyers were the New Medway Steam Packet Co. Ltd. Her new owners made a few changes to her appearance. The single lifeboat at the after end of her of her upper deck was replaced by two, both forward of her funnel, the cabs on her bridge were removed, leaving only canvas protection for the navigators and her funnel was painted yellow. Initially she operated from Rochester and other Medway piers across the Thames estuary to Southend. In December 1936, the New Medway Steam Packet Co. Ltd. was bought by the General Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (G.S.N.C.), which operated a fleet of larger excursion ships on the Thames to Southend, Clacton, Margate and Ramsgate, and across the channel, under the name Eagle Steamers. Following this change of ownership, Royal Daffodil was registered at Rochester, in Kent and was transferred to a G.S.N.C. service to view the river and docks, operated for the Port of London Authority. The top of her funnel was painted black, in conformity with G.S.N.C.’s other steamships. She only lasted one year in that role, and was sold for breaking up at Ghent in April 1938.

ROYAL DAFFODIL (1939).

Eagle Steamers had a tradition of using the word “Royal” in the names of its ships. One of the earliest Thames excursion ships, built in 1824, was named Royal Sovereign, and there had subsequently been two further Thames excursion ships bearing that name, one built in 1893, and one as recently as 1937. In 1932, a paddle steamer named Royal Eagle had been built for Eagle Steamers by Cammell Laird. The company had ordered a new motor ship from Wm. Denny on the Clyde, and decided to retain the name Royal Daffodil for the new ship, which was launched on 24 January 1939 and entered service in May 1939. She was designed primarily for cross-channel day excursions, which in those days were operated on a “no passport” basis. Before her first season was over, war had broken out. She was used immediately to evacuate children from London to Lowestoft, and was then taken up for trooping duties. She made five round trips to Dunkirk in May 1940, bringing back nearly 7,500 troops in total, which was the largest number rescued by any ship. For most of the rest of the war, she carried troops between Stranraer and Larne; after the war, in 1945-1946, she carried troops across the English Channel. In 1947, she was refitted by her builders and resumed service, with the only apparent change being that the company’s houseflag was now on each funnel. At first she was unable to operate cross-channel day trips, as the “no passport” arrangement was not reintroduced until 1955. From then onwards, she was based at Gravesend in Kent, operating day trips via Southend to Calais or Boulogne for about three days per week, and non-landing French coast cruises from Gravesend, Southend, Margate and Ramsgate for another three days, with one day off service each week. By 1966, excursion traffic was declining; it was a sign of the times that the company withdrew its daily summer service from London to Southend and Margate, which had operated ever since 1824 (war years excepted). The situation was made worse by a seamen’s strike which took several weeks out of the summer season. G.S.N.C., under the name Normandy Ferries, was busy planning to start a new ro-ro service from Southampton to Le Havre in 1967, using two new ships named Dragon and Leopard. It was decided that the staff who normally worked for Eagle Steamers would be better used on promoting Normandy Ferries. As a result, Eagle Steamers’ services were withdrawn after the end of the 1966 season, and the three ships were put up for sale. Royal Daffodil was the oldest and was sold for breaking up at Ghent, the same place at which her predecessor had been broken up in 1938. Early in 1967, some newspapers printed a very sad photograph of her sailing along the canal towards Ghent, with her decks devoid of the passengers who had been her lifeblood.

ROYAL IRISES.

ROYAL IRIS, ex-IRIS (1906).

Like her sister, Royal Iris returned to ferry duties when she had been repaired after her exploits at Zeebrugge. She was Wallasey’s regular cruise ship from 1923 until her sale in 1932, and she was given a grey hull to denote her status, but of course she also carried out normal ferry duties. She was sold to owners in Dublin, but retained her name. Although Ireland had by then gained her independence from Britain, Irish ships were still on the British register, and this situation continued until 1939, so the name was not available for Wallasey Ferries to re-use. In 1946, she was sold to the Cork Harbour Commissioners, who renamed her Blarney, thus releasing the name. It seems possible that the name became available when the separate Irish registry was set up early in the war, but it was normally not permissible to rename British ships during the war. Blarney’s duties at Cork involved tendering passengers from and to visiting liners, mainly transatlantic. She was broken up in 1961.

ROYAL IRIS II / ROYAL IRIS / ST. HILARY (1932).

This ship was built at Govan in 1932 by Harland & Wolff. She was the first Wallasey ferry to have a third passenger deck, which substantially increased her capacity compared to previous ships. As already stated, the name Royal Iris had been retained by the vessel sold to Dublin owners, so she was named Royal Iris II. When the original Royal Iris was renamed in 1946, Wallasey Corporation quickly took the opportunity created by the release of the name and dropped the prefix “II” from her name. However, in 1950, she was named St. Hilary, in order to release the name for a new Royal Iris, which was then being built. She was sold in 1956 to Dutch buyers, who removed her superstructure and converted her to a diesel engined vehicle ferry, with her engines at the after end. Apart from the shape of the hull, the result was unrecognisable as a former Mersey ferry. She was renamed Haringvliet, and was used between Helvoetsluis and Middleharnis. A causeway was completed in 1971, so she was then withdrawn, sold to another Dutch company, renamed Schellingerland II and put into service between Terschelling and Harlingen. In 1974, she was renamed Schellingerland. Her service on that route ended in 1980, and in the following year she was sold to a company based at Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus, and renamed Girne (Turkish for Kyrenia). After a short period, she was seized by creditors, but she escaped to Southern France in 1983. Ten years later, she was discovered in a very dilapidated state at Port Leucate in Southern France. Her eventual fate is unknown, but she has almost certainly been broken up.

ROYAL IRIS (1951).

Wallasey Corporation’s final Royal Iris was a truly remarkable ship. Her appearance was ultra modern and could only be described as “unique”. It was not enhanced by her colour scheme of a pale green hull and yellow superstructure. However, her greatest originality was in her engines, which were diesel electric. They were supplied by Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester, who were very pleased with the engines and featured the ship in their advertisements. She followed her predecessor by having an open third deck, but the two lower decks were almost totally enclosed, except for the gangway areas on the main deck. She was fitted out to a high standard with cruising very much in mind, and brought a level of totally unaccustomed comfort when used on the Seacombe service in winter. In addition to the bars, which were an essential for cruising, she also had a fish and chip counter, which earned her the nickname of “the floating fish and chip shop”. Unfortunately, some of her evening cruises earned all her cruises a somewhat unsavoury reputation. After the ferries had been taken over by the M.P.T.E., it was decided to give her a “face-lift”, from which she emerged in the much more sedate colours of blue and white. The old fish and chip counter had gone, and in its place was a quality restaurant, for which the ship was berthed at Liverpool landing stage at lunch time. In 1984, her hull was painted red, white and blue, a colour scheme introduced for all the Mersey ferries, apparently to coincide with the Liverpool Garden Festival. Shortly afterwards, in April-May 1985, she sailed round to London to participate in the campaign against the abolition of Merseyside County Council; this campaign had no effect on the eventual fate of the County Council. Royal Iris was used each year in a ceremony in which a wreath was floated on the river, commemorating the Zeebrugge raid, and her last duty was to carry out this ceremony on 21 April 1991. She was then laid up and sold later in that year to owners in Warrington who re-sold her in 1993 to owners with plans to use her in Cardiff as a night club. As with so many similar projects, the new owners under-estimated both the complexity and the costs of the operation, and she languished at Cardiff for nine years. She was then sold to owners in London, who appear to have had similar plans, and was towed round to the Thames in 2002. By this time, her condition was such that a repeat of her previous visit to London under her own power was out of the question. Nothing much was done to her at London, and she now lies in a derelict and sunken state, close to the Thames flood barrier. Her hull is probably corroded too badly for preservation to be a realistic proposition, so it is most likely that she will be broken up.

ROYAL IRIS OF THE MERSEY, ex-MOUNTWOOD (1960).

The final “Royal Iris” started life as a Birkenhead Corporation ferry, Mountwood, for the service from Woodside to Liverpool. She was the first of two diesel vessels ordered from the Dartmouth shipbuilder Phillip & Sons Ltd. as replacements for two of Birkenhead’s coal-fired steam ferries. She entered service in 1959. Her sister, Woodchurch (now Snowdrop), was completed in 1960. A third vessel, built to a slightly modified design, was completed in 1962 as Overchurch (now Royal Daffodil). Like all the other Mersey ferries, Mountwood was taken over in 1969 by the M.P.T.E. As the number of Mersey ferry vessels was reduced, she was used also on the Seacombe service. In 2002, she was rebuilt, given new engines and renamed. Since the name Royal Iris was still held by the previous vessel of that name, it was not available to M.P.T.E., so an alternative was required. It was perhaps surprising that such a long name as Royal Iris of the Mersey was chosen in preference to the traditional Royal Iris II. Although the ship shows the name in full on her hull, the words “Royal Iris” are much larger than the words “of the Mersey”. In 2011, the name on the bow was re-painted in script, rather than block capitals.

When Royal Iris (on the Thames) is withdrawn from the British register (probably on being broken up), it is to be hoped that the Mersey Ferries will take the opportunity to drop the suffix from Royal Iris of the Mersey. If and when that happens, the result will be that both names, unadorned, will be together on the Mersey for the first time since 1932, assuming that Royal Daffodil has not been sold by then.

ANOTHER ROYAL IRIS.

In addition to the ferries shown above, there is another Royal Iris afloat today. She is a small cruise ship, operated by the Israeli company Mano Cruises, although of course she is much larger than any of her namesakes. She was built in 1971 as the British ferry Eagle, operating from Southampton to Lisbon and Tangiers. Her original owners, Southern Ferries, were actually owned by the General Steam Navigation Co., which owned the Royal Daffodil of 1939. As their excursions had been operated under the name of Eagle Steamers, and their first ship had been named Eagle, the choice of the name Eagle for this ship was particularly appropriate. Unfortunately, the service was not successful, so she was sold in December 1975 to French owners and renamed Azur for service in the Mediterranean and later for cruises. She was sold again in 1987 and subsequently carried the names The Azur and Eloise, before being renamed Royal Iris in 2004.

Copyright © 2015

Malcolm McRonald.