Changing times on the banks of the Mersey!

When I was 12, a cousin of mine returned home to Birkenhead from India, where he had served in the Army from 1924 until 1932. During his first stroll around the town since leaving, he told me that at times he thought he’d lost his way because so many familiar sights from his boyhood had disappeared.

In 1938 I too left the Merseyside town when I enlisted in the Army, and because of the outbreak of the Second World War, returned on leave only spasmodically.

After the war I lived in the South-East, and recently, after a very long period, I returned to my home town to find myself amazed at the transformation and redevelopment of large areas. Whole streets had disappeared, the one where I’d lived now a huge multistorey car park. My school had also been demolished, the site now also part of a large car park. The old market, destroyed by fire, had been rebuilt closer to the main shopping area, which was now pedestrianised and contained a covered shopping arcade.

So many familiar places had gone. Woodside Ferry has been completely refurbished with a new frontage

and interior containing the Tourist Information Centre and a cafeteria. Trams have been re-introduced and operate as a tourist attraction along the old Dock Road, past a submarine museum.

My mind went back to what once had been, and many memories came flooding back to me, with a great feeling of nostalgia and sadness for the years which have flown so swiftly by.

I was born and bred in Birkenhead, Cheshire, now alas known as Merseyside, and remember all the shipping that could once be seen in the River Mersey -huge ocean liners, large freighters and tankers from Cunard, holt, Blue Funnel, Elder Dempster, P&O and many more. Tug boats would be fussing around here and there, and the Woodside-Liverpool ferry would be crossing to and fro all the time. It cost tuppence for a workman’s return on the buses and ferry before 8am.

Before the change to buses it was tramcars, all meeting at the Woodside Ferry terminus as people flocked to use the ferry to Liverpool. The railway station that once stood just across the road was eventually demolished, remaining derelict and in use as a car park for a time. Now housing has been built on the site.

The floating landing stage for the ferries could also be approached at the side for vehicular traffic – cars, lorries, horses and carts – before the building of the Mersey Tunnel in 1934.

On nice summer evenings my mother often took me to the landing stage to sit and watch all this activity, as well as liners docking at or leaving Liverpool.

If there happened to be a high tide with a swell, the floating roadway would rise and fall quite dramatically, giving us kids quite a scare.

A good job to be had at the age of 16 was point boy at Woodside Ferry terminus, altering the points as the trams arrived. Each had to be on its correct line for the outward destination. I think the job lasted several years before promotion to conductor and later, if you were lucky, tram driver.

In those days, with the Depression and mass unemployment, a job on the trams, or with the Post Office, was one of the best to be had. Wages were £2 to £3 per week, exceptionally good money in those days, for a labourer was lucky if he got 251- per week.

Beside the Docks, Cammell Laird’s shipyard was the next highest employer. It was known as the ‘Slaughter Yard’. I remember the launching of HMS Rodney in the mid-1920s. The second Mauretania was also built there.

Little did I know then that I, too, would be destined to work there as an apprentice plater. I saw the aircraft carrier Ark Royal being fitted out, along with the
battleship Prince of Wales.

I worked on the construction of two submarines. I forget the name of one of them, but its sister was the Thetis, which sank with heavy loss of life while undergoing trials in Liverpool Bay. It was salvaged, refitted out and renamed Thunderbolt, being finally lost in the Mediterranean during the war.

In the vicinity of the docks was a large, sombre, black building of tenement flats known locally as ‘Dock Cottages’. It was said that you had to be really hard up to live there, and that the baths were usually used as a coal bunker – if you were lucky enough to afford coal, which I remember then cost £1 a ton.

On winter Saturdays our job was to go down to the gas works and buy a bag of coke for threepence. It didn’t matter how big your sack was: everything you had to carry the coke in was filled, even the bottom of an old pram, with the bag of coke on top hiding it all from view, and all for a threepenny bit. Happy days!

At Seacombe Ferry an old white funnel, peppered with holes, stood out prominently at the back. This, we were told, was from an old ferry boat Royal Daffodil, which had been on the Naval Zeebrugge raid during the First World War.

Opposite the ferry stood a corner shop selling sweets, cigarettes and newspapers, and outside it stood a Teddy bear at least 6ft. tall and very, very fat.

We usually walked on to Egremont Pier, then disused by the ferry, and spend the day paddling or digging in the very good sand there. I remember a girl who had been looking for crabs under the pier falling into the water. A man giving sailing trips for sixpence a ride steered towards her and, in leaning over the side in an attempt to rescue her, fell in himself and just disappeared as his waders filled with water and dragged him down. A young boy on the boat, perhaps his son, steered the boat towards the shore and ran it on to the sand. The girl was saved by a small boat which was rowed out to rescue her.

S. V. Jones.