Razzle Dazzle Ferry Cross the Mersey

Last updated on March 27th, 2024 at 10:13 am

Everybody Razzle Dazzle, Sir Peter Blake, MV Snowdrop, the Mersey

Surely, every adult in Britain, and possibly some from other lands, has heard of the ferry across the Mersey?  Many, not least those of a certain age, will also know the song, Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry and the Pacemakers, written by band leader Gerry Marsden and released in 1964.  It made No 8 in the UK charts and No 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Some might even remember the movie of the same name, which came out in 1965 – I’m sure my great-great-grandfather told me he saw it at the Odeon Saturday Cinema when he was a wee boy.  It starred Gerry (with his Pacemakers), Cilla Black and was produced by Brian Epstein.  Heart-stopping stuff.

Ferry cross the Mersey, MV Royal Iris, Pier Head, Liverpool, Birkenhead

The River Mersey has been described as the City of Liverpool’s life blood.  Wealth and people have flowed through Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea for centuries.  The name, Mersey derives from the old English (Anglo-Saxon) for ‘boundary river’, marking the division between the early medieval kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.  The great Port of Liverpool grew from the 17th century, particularly via trade with America and the West Indies.  In the second half of the 18th century, Liverpool dominated the Atlantic slave trade – the infamous ‘slave triangle’: British exports to West Africa (eg textiles, copper, firearms); humans across the Atlantic (the hideous ‘middle passage’); imports from the Americas, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton – much of it produced by slave labour.

MV Royal Iris, the Mersey Ferry

By the 19th century, Liverpool was one of Empire’s premier trading ports and the Mersey an artery of Britain’s power, surrounded by industry – including ship building.  The Mersey was also the channel of entry for thousands of immigrants, especially from Ireland, as well as the main exit route for thousands leaving Britain to start a new life – mostly in North America, Australia or New Zealand.  For many, their final view of the country of their birth would be from a ship on the Mersey.  During the Second World War, ships transporting goods and armies across the world set out from Merseyside; and the remains of brave trans-Atlantic convoys carrying essential supplies and troops to beleaguered and blitzed Britain docked there.

Royal Iris, Pier Head, Isle of Man Steam Packet Company

A ferry across the Mersey was apparently mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but it is said that the first regular service was started in 1150 by Benedictine monks from Birkenhead Priory on market days.  Ferry services increased with commercial expansion, as well as the growth of fashionable residential areas on the Wirral and the resort of New Brighton, on the Mersey’s west bank.  Two Mersey ferries were used as troopships on the Royal Navy’s raid on Zeebrugge in 1918.  By the 1950s, Mersey ferries were carrying almost 30 million passengers a year and in the 1960s special ‘party cruises’ used to feature bands like The Beatles, The Searchers – and, of course, Gerry and the Pacemakers.

So, all-in-all, catching the ferry across the Mersey can make you think a bit.  The Liverpool ferry terminal at Pier Head is where Prince’s Landing Stage once floated: all together now –

Farewell the Princes landing stage
River Mersey fare thee well
I am bound for Californiay
A place I know right well.
So fare thee well my own true love,
When I return united we will be.
It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.

You’d need to have an emotional lobotomy to feel no sense of awe and history as the iconic ferry scuds across this famous river.  The views are pretty good, too; it makes you realise what a fabulous skyline Liverpool has – equal to any other, I’d say.  On a clear day, the three graces, Liverpool’s tongue-in-cheek nickname for the trio of the Royal Liver, Cunard and P&O buildings, look particularly impressive.  Nowadays, most of the passengers are tourists – though if you live on the Wirral and work in Liverpool (or vice versa), it has to be a better commute than sitting in traffic – except when it’s foggy.

Liverpool skyline, the Three Graces, Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building, Port of Liverpool Building
Shipbuilding, Merseyside, Fort Rosalie, Cammell Laird, Birkenhead

But why the razzle dazzle?  Dazzle camouflage, or ‘razzle dazzle’, was used in the First World War and, to some extent, in the Second.  The aim was to disguise ships by means of geometric patterns and shapes, breaking up a vessel’s shape, making it hard to identify as well as difficult to judge its range, speed and course.  The inspiration is usually attributed to artist Norman Wilkinson whilst he was serving as a naval officer, though some sources say that biologist Sir John Graham Kerr suggested it to Churchill years before.  You can get an idea how it works by trying to take a bead on something in stripes, such as a pair of pyjamas, in the wild.

HMS Argus, razzle dazzle

In any event, artist and designer Sir Peter Blake, probably best known for designing the album cover for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was commissioned to dazzle a Mersey ferry.  He certainly did.  Sir Peter called his design, Everybody Razzle Dazzle. MV Snowdrop (previously MV Woodchurch, launched in Devon in 1959) was duly decorated for an initial period of 18 months, from April 2015 to December 2016. However, Mersey Travel, which runs the ferries, told me that the decision was taken to extend the commission to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.  So, MV Snowdrop was due to return to her original colours in late 2018/early 2019.  But, the Razzle Dazzle Ferry proved to be so popular that it was subsequently decided to keep the colourful paint-job until Snowdrop is taken out of service to make way for a new Mersey Ferry in the future.

Razzle Dazzle, Snowdrop, Mersey ferry, Woodside, Birkenhead

I’m delighted, and proud, to have experienced Snowdrop in her razzle dazzle décor – an enormous piece of moving artwork – and to have travelled on a ferry ‘cross the Mersey.  It’s just a boat, of course – until you turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.

Contrary to popular belief, Gerry and the Pacemakers singing Ferry Cross the Mersey is not continually piped throughout the trip – although we did have a few distorted bursts of it as the boat pulled away from Pier Head, and again as it docked.  Just in case you need a reminder, here they are, from 1965…Gerry and the Pacemakers…they may look older than you in the film clip, but the chances are that they were much younger at the time, just in their 20s…groovy – though what on earth is that bass player doing?  Does the hook sound similar to Venus in Blue Jeans – a hit for Jimmy Clanton in the US and Mark Wynter in the UK?  I think so – but who cares – Ferry Cross the Mersey is better, and the one we remember.

Everybody Razzle Dazzle was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14-18 Now and Tate Liverpool, in partnership with Mersey Travel (who operate Mersey Ferries) and Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, Mersey ferry

There have been other renditions of Ferry Cross the Mersey, including a charity version in 1989 in aid of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster that year, in which 96 Liverpool football fans were fatally injured – crushed – at a FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.  The recording was made by Liverpudlian artists Gerry Marsden, Paul McCartney, Holly Johnson and The Christians, and Stock Aitken and Waterman.  It was No 1 for 3 weeks.

20 thoughts on “Razzle Dazzle Ferry Cross the Mersey”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this with me. I love Snowdrop in her razzle dazzle décor and my vote is to leave her this way, although by the looks of it, my vote is already too late.
    My 4x Great Grandfather was from Scotland and I thought he came to Australia via New Zealand where he got married in Invercargill. However, only a few years ago, I found out he’d stopped off in Liverpool and got married and had a few kids there. They all migrated to New Zealand and it seems he ran off to the goldfields and found a new wife while family no. 1 was still in Dunedin. He got done for bigamy and much of the details appeared in the NZ newspapers which I was able to access online. so, Liverpool now brings on quite a chuckle for me.
    Best wishes,
    PS I also loved the story of Gerry the Pacemaker.

    1. Hi Rowena – that’s quite a story you have there! I’ve been meaning to update this article – you’ll be delighted to hear that the Razzle Dazzle Ferry proved to be so popular that it was decided to keep the colourful paint-job until Snowdrop is taken out of service to make way for a new Mersey Ferry in the future. No idea when that will be, but at the moment she’s still stopping hearts in her razzle dazzle make-up!

  2. Yes, the boat’s splendid paintwork should become a permanent part of Liverpool, although I suppose it must cost a bit keeping it painted up so that it remains dazzling! I was fascinated by the clip. So very obviously dubbed, isn’t it? Talking of 20 year olds looking about 40 in old film clips, I visited Henry Moore’s home the other day and saw a photos of him aged 13 or so. I swear he looked about 35! In fact, I’m still wondering if they mislabelled the photo….

  3. I will have an ear worm for the rest of the day with that song. Have been to Liverpool but not been on the ferry. Feel I’ve missed out.

  4. I wish Sydney ferries were painted like this!!!
    Love the heart stopping stuff pun – on a side note, my dear dad had a pacemaker inserted last year and fondly calls it Gerry.

  5. Patricia Kellar

    Oh, I loved this post, Mike. Snowdrop looks fabulous, and they should keep painting it like this forever and a day. I have never been to Liverpool but lived through the years of the Mersey beat as a young teen, and saw the Beatles when they came to Australia. Ferry Cross the Mersey always brings a lump of nostalgia for those far off days – and a thought for my only English cousins, who live on The Wirral.

  6. Hi Mike – great remembrances of the history of the docks … a ferry back in the Domesday book … that must take some beating as to ferry history. Loved reading this … and seeing the ferry – now that would cheer me up … glorious. Also loved that song – brings back memories of those days long past. Sometime I must get up to Liverpool and the area and have a look around …

    I’ve never quite got used to the “Royal Liver” name – thought now was a good time to look to see why it was called … sort of got the etymology … but then see that the assurance company took its name from the Liverpool Lyver Burial Society – formed by men at the Lyver Inn … history is always interesting …

    Love the Razzle Dazzle … cheering me up on a grey day down here -cheers Hilary

  7. lowcarbdiabeticJan

    The song is now going around my head …lol !
    Love all of your photographs, especially that first one, such a colourful image.

    All the best Jan

  8. I actually managed to get a return trip to Birkenhead a couple of times when I lived in Liverpool for a year in the late 70’s. It is a really special place and the song is a favourite of mine.

  9. A very colourful ferry!

    Our War Museum held a special exhibit some years ago on camouflage in warfare, and the dazzle effect on ships was covered extensively in that. It does make sense.

  10. I know that song, my Grandmother use to sing it to me as a lullaby-LOL. My Great, Great Grandfather Michael Finn immigrated from Ireland to the US through Liverpool.

  11. I remember the song but not the movie

    Love your photos as the sunset falls below the horizon.

    My mum and dad used to ferry across the Mersey to get to work 🙂

  12. I don’t know what the bass player is doing, but what on earth is that guy with the long blond hair in the background on the far left in the opening shots doing and why is he wearing a pinocchio nose? This song brings back lots of memories. I was a few years younger than Gerry and the Pacemakers when this song hit the charts over here in Southern California. Thanks for the great post. I think my grandfather came through Liverpool in 1910 on his way from Austria-Hungary to New York. I love the colorful razzle dazzle design!

    1. Thanks very much for popping in! The bass player isn’t even bothering to look as though he’s playing. Looking at the clip again, I think the blond guy with the nose is actually a DJ of the time, Jimmy Savile, with a large cigar – one of his trademarks. He was later found to be a serial, predatory, sex offender, one of Britain’s worst.

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