My current work-in-progress is set in a village on the Wirral Peninsula, across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Which means I’ve been researching the Mersey ferry. Or, I should say, ferries.
It turns out that people have been running a ferry service across the Mersey for well over a thousand years. Historians agree that such a service, by row or sail boat, predates the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead, but once the monks were established, they did their best to monopolise the trade. Annoying for the other locals, but useful for historians, since we have the records of the court cases they took to try to stop other providers.
The monks charged for the service, which helped to pay for the hospitality they offered travellers at the abbey. Some of the unauthorised providers were less scrupulous, overloading their boats and charging much higher fees.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, the right to offer a ferry service changed hands a number of times, and at tunes several formal services were offered, as well as the age old recourse of the traveller: a request to any inhabitant with a boat: ‘I’ll give you a bob if you row me over the river’. Travellers were advised to set the price before they got into the boat, and not to pay till they got out.
At the time I’m writing about, there were at least five routes operating: Liverpool to Woodside (the original route that the monks established), Liverpool to Seacombe, Liverpool to Eastham, Liverpool to Tranmere, and Liverpool to Rock Ferry.
The first steamship operated between Liverpool and Runcorn in 1815. The Elizabeth was a wooden paddle steamer, measuring 58 feet and 9 inches in length, and with a cabin that could take around a hundred passengers. The cousins behind the service were two teenagers, one a naval officer and the other a member of the local militia. It cannot have had the reception they hoped for, because the ship was sold in 1816 and the company dissolved.
In 1816, the steam packet Greenock replaced the Elizabeth. The Greenock was 85.3 feet in length. She remained less than a month on the Runcorn run, before being transferred to the Liverpool to Ellesmere Port route, taking travellers to and from the Chester canal.
Other steamers also criss-crossed the River Mersey in 1816, and soon more followed. The ferries were no longer dependent on the wind, and could run to timetable, which made the service much more reliable.
And the crossing was quick. The time recorded for the Aetna, which began a service from Liverpool to Tranmere in 1817 and continued for fifteen years, is five minutes.
The steamer service is a plot point in my story, which is set in 1816. My hero has purchased a half ruined manor house, and is restoring it to sell to a Liverpool business man, since steamers mean a regular and reliable service now connected this peaceful countryside to the city.