Ferry History

Behind the Scenes with Birkenhead Corporation's Ferry Orders

My father, Charles McRonald, was Chairman of Birkenhead’s Municipal Transport Committee at the time when the orders for the three new ferries (Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch) were placed in the late 1950s. As a result, I was privy to some of the “behind the scenes” events.

In the mid-1950s, Birkenhead Corporation owned 4 coal-fired steam ferries: Hinderton (1925), Thurstaston (1930), Claughton (1930) and Bidston (1933), all built at Birkenhead by Cammell Laird. With increasing age, their maintenance costs were rising, although these had been contained by closing the ferry’s own maintenance department and entrusting repairs and overhauls to local ship repairers. All four ferries were from a similar era, but Hinderton was significantly older than the other three, and her replacement was clearly rather more urgent.

A further problem was the closure at very short notice by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board of the floating roadway leading to Woodside landing stage. This had been used by lorries to take coal to the ferries, and to remove ash from them. Since the closure, the coal and ash had to be placed in wheeled containers which were then pushed up and down the passenger bridge at night - a very arduous task, especially at low tide. Clearly, there was an urgent need for vessels which were powered by oil, but the existing ferries were too old for it to be worthwhile to convert their boilers to oil-firing.

It was believed that replacing all four vessels simultaneously would be too great a burden. Accordingly, the plan developed by the Ferries’ General Manager (George Cherry), his Superintendent & Marine Engineer (Hugh Campbell) and my father was to order two new diesel-engined ferries, with the possibility of at least one more order later.

The ferries had been losing money ever since the opening of the Mersey Tunnel had taken away virtually all the lucrative goods traffic, which had been carried by the luggage boats. They were not a direct burden to Birkenhead’s ratepayers, as all ferry losses were funded by the Mersey Tunnel, initially for a period of 21 years, later extended to 40 years. However, the fear was that the need to replace the vessels might be an excuse for either Birkenhead Corporation or the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee to pull the plug on the ferry service. Of course, it would not have been that simple; an Act of Parliament would have been required for closure, and in those days MPs took a close and critical interest in such legislation. All concerned knew how difficult it had been a few years earlier to obtain Parliamentary approval for the replacement of the very poorly patronised night ferry service by a tunnel bus.

The first problem was obtaining approval from Birkenhead’s Council. Its leader, Alderman Hugh Platt, was notoriously keen on not wasting money, and was felt to be a potential obstacle. In practice, be proved very receptive to the proposal. My father had suggested to him that Mrs. Platt could launch the first of the new vessels (and that Mrs. McRonald could launch the second), but it would be wrong to suggest that such a base motive might have influenced his decision! The proposal was approved by the Council’s General Purposes Committee in December 1956, and approval by the full Council was then a formality.

The next hurdle was the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee, which would have to provide the money. My father met the Chairman of that Committee, expecting major difficulties. Instead, the response was on the lines of: “If it’s got to be done, better get on with it”. The proposal was approved by the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee in February 1957.

The new ferries were designed by local naval architects, Graham and Woolnough. They were intended to be a more up to date version of a traditional Birkenhead ferry, offering greater shelter and comfort than hitherto. In particular, the forward part of the upper deck was to be enclosed, the lounges were to have upholstered bus-type seats, rather than the traditional wooden seats, there was a refreshment bar on the lower deck (using the space freed up by the smaller size of diesel engines and the absence of coal bunkers), cyclists were given a dedicated storage area at the stern, away from the other passengers, and the toilets were improved. The design of the upper deck shelter was such that it would not impede the regular commuters’ twice daily anti-clockwise promenade around the top deck. The needs of the navigating officers were not overlooked; for the first time there was to be a bridge, above the upper deck’s covered area, rather than three navigating cabins on the upper deck itself. However, the bridge still had three separate cabs; a fully enclosed bridge was felt to be a step too far. There were two innovations on the bridge. The engines were to be controlled direct from the bridge telegraphs, using a mechanical link (today the same effect is achieved electronically). On the old steam vessels, the engine controls were operated by an engineer, in response to signals on the ship’s telegraph. The new system would make for a faster response and eliminate the possibility of engineer error. The other innovation was rotating panels in the forward-facing windows, to throw the rain off and guarantee a clear view ahead. There was no radar, which continued to be provided by the control room at Seacombe ferry.

One slight spanner was thrown into the works by Wallasey Corporation. In those days, the ferries normally had three gangways, two on the main deck and one half-way between them on the upper deck. However, the Wallasey vessels had a narrower space between the main deck gangways than did the Birkenhead vessels, with the result that when one Corporation hired a ferry from the other, it was only possible to use one main deck gangway, plus the one on the upper deck. Wallasey’s request was that Birkenhead should bring its spacing into line with that of Wallasey, so that all ferries would be interchangeable. This request was not received well; in 1951 and 1952, Wallasey had taken delivery of two new ferries, Leasowe and Egremont, which had only one gangway on the main deck, with the forward gangway area being devoted to a larger lounge. Birkenhead felt that if Wallasey could manage every day with only two gangways on those ferries, they could manage equally well with two gangways on the rare occasions that they might wish to charter a Birkenhead ferry. The other reason for the rejection was that the Birkenhead spacing was better, since it made room for a larger central lounge.

The original plan showed a funnel similar to that of Leasowe and Egremont, i.e. two straight sides sloping aft, with the top at right angles to the sides. However, the plans were soon altered by substituting a new tapered funnel design similar to the one finally adopted, although the top corners were still angled at that stage. It seems possible that the rounded corners were a shipyard modification, but the final funnel design certainly gave both ferries a much more modern appearance.

Once the plans had been approved in April 1957, a number of shipbuilders were invited to tender. It was expected that the local shipyard, Cammell Laird, would get the order, giving work to local people, and it came as a considerable surprise that the yard declined to tender, on the basis that it had plenty of orders, and no spare space. At that time, the yard had orders for six oil tankers for the Eagle Tanker Company, as well as other work. The lowest tender came from Philip & Sons, of Dartmouth, who had built Leasowe and Egremont for Wallasey Corporation. The Councillors felt that at least Philip had previous experience of building Mersey ferries, and that Dartmouth would be a pleasant place to visit to check progress and for the launch. The order was placed in November 1957.

In those days, the ferry service was every ten minutes at peak periods, which required two vessels in service together. A third vessel was always available to cover any breakdowns of either service vessel, while the fourth could be undergoing annual maintenance. It was clear that with more modern vessels breakdowns would be less likely, and that four vessels were an unnecessary extravagance, especially since a Wallasey ferry could usually be hired in an emergency. Accordingly, Hinderton was sold for breaking up, and left the Mersey for the first and last time on 9 September 1958, under tow and bound for Belgium. She had been laid up for the previous four months, thus avoiding the £3,000 cost of an overhaul.

The next debate amongst Birkenhead’s Councillors was over the names of the two ferries. Traditionally, Birkenhead’s ferries had been name after Birkenhead districts ending in “ton” (e.g. Bidston, Claughton, Oxton, Prenton, Upton), and some of them had even been names of places outside Birkenhead (e.g. Hinderton, Thurstaston). A large majority of Birkenhead’s Councillors were Labour, but most of the “ton” names were of wards which elected a Conservative candidate. Accordingly, it was felt that a change of style was called for, so the names chosen were two of Birkenhead’s council estates, Mountwood and Woodchurch, which always elected Labour Councillors with solid majorities.

The first of the new ferries, Mountwood, was launched on 6 July 1959. A civic party from Birkenhead travelled to Dartmouth for the occasion, and was entertained well by the builders, who were hoping for an order for a third ferry. Woodchurch followed her into the River Dart on 29 October 1959, while Mountwood was still fitting out. After trials, Mountwood left Dartmouth on 14 January 1960, reaching Woodside two days later. For the voyage north, her windows were heavily boarded up, but the boarding was removed during the final part of the voyage from the Mersey Bar, so that she was in pristine condition for her maiden arrival at Woodside. She entered service on 30 January. When Mountwood was delivered, her direct bridge controls did not work, and her voyage from Dartmouth was made using conventional telegraphs. The cause of the problem with the bridge controls was found and put right shortly before she entered service. Woodchurch was handed over in May 1960, and entered service on 15 May. Both ferries attracted many favourable comments about their high levels of comfort.

With the delivery of the two new ferries, the service was mainly in their hands. Claughton was retained as the third ship when either of the other two was out of service. Thurstaston was sold for conversion and further service in Holland. Bidston was chartered to Cork Harbour Commissioners, who were building two new passenger tenders, also designed by Graham & Woolnough. Cork required a vessel short-term until the new tenders were ready, so Graham & Woolnough put them in touch with Birkenhead Corporation. For her service at Cork, Bidston’s top deck was cleared of seats, she was given two large lifeboats, one each side, her funnel was re-painted and she was registered at Cork.

With two new vessels, it was obvious that a third order was necessary, and there was no difficulty in gaining approval. Experience with the two earlier vessels meant that some improvements could be made to the design. The most obvious was siting the funnel at the same level as the bridge, rather than on the upper deck. This meant that the exhaust fumes from the engine were less likely to blow onto passengers standing on the upper deck. The bridge was fully enclosed, so the navigating officers no longer had to brave the elements when moving to either wing in order to berth the vessel. There were also a few improvements for passengers. The main deck windows had proved to be too high for passengers seated in the lounges to be able to see the river, so the new ferry’s lounge windows were placed slightly lower to enhance visibility for seated passengers, and the area on the upper deck immediately below the bridge was glazed, giving greatly enhanced shelter to the after end of that deck. The latter improvement was suggested by the wife of the naval architect who had designed the ferries.

Tenders were invited from a selection of shipyards, including both Philip and Cammell Laird. It was generally expected that the order would go to Dartmouth, and there was some eager anticipation of further visits to Devon. There were a number of long faces when the lowest bid came from Cammell Laird! The difference between the lowest tender and that of Philip was not great. If the lowest tender had come from any shipyard other than the local yard, the order would probably have gone to Dartmouth anyway, on the basis of their experience with the first two ferries. However, it was utterly impossible to reject the lowest bid when it came from the local shipbuilder, and local jobs were at stake. It transpired that Cammell Laird had managed to reduce its overhead allocation to the bone by building the ferry on the same slipway as the Isle of Man car ferry, Manx Maid, resulting in a price well below their normal level.

There was little debate over the name of the third ferry. Following the pattern of the two previous ferries, the name chosen was that of a third council estate, Overchurch. She was launched on 24 November 1961 and made her maiden voyage on 5 March 1962. This allowed the remaining steam ferry, Claughton, to be withdrawn and sold for breaking up.

Under Merseytravel, two of these three ferries remain in service today, but under the names of Royal Iris of the Mersey (Mountwood) and Snowdrop (Woodchurch) respectively. The third (Overchurch) has been renamed Royal Daffodil, but is laid up and seems unlikely to return to service. There are those who regret the disappearance of all three Birkenhead names.

It seems likely that, but for the foresight of those who developed the plan for these three ferries, today’s Mersey Ferries would have run out of ferries. Perhaps we would no longer have had any ferries across the Mersey?

Malcolm McRonald.