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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-grandfather told me he saw it at 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, who run the ferries, tell me that the decision was taken to extend the commission to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. So in late 2018/early 2019, MV Snowdrop will return to her original colours.
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.
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.