The ferry that once took people across the Mersey has ended up with a very sad retirement, rusting away on the banks of the Thames.
This is the MV Royal Iris, and arguably the most famous, and loved of all the ferries that have crossed the Mersey over the centuries — and is the very same ship that inspired the Gerry and the Pacemakers film and song, Ferry Cross the Mersey, although not the one used in the film that the song was written for
The Royal Iris wasn’t just a “milk run” ferry going back and forth, she was floating entertainment, played host to hundreds of party cruises and bands such as The Searchers, The Beatles, Elvis Costello – and unsurprisingly, Gerry & The Pacemakers.
The Royal Iris was built in 1951 and was the first non-steam ferry to cross the Mersey, being a diesel-powered ship, and when first launched its diesel-electric propulsion made it more economical to run than the other vessels in the fleet.
Carrying a considerable near 2,300 people, the sleek forward prow made the ship instantly recognisable on the river. Originally painted in a green and cream livery, the ship was also distinctive for having a forward dummy funnel near the bridge and two exhaust stacks amidships, on both sides. Thanks to the size of the ferry, it had been fitted with a dance floor, so was a regular spot for music concerts which further cemented its popularity in the area.
She received a major refit in 1971, repainted in bright white and blue, and her popular fish and chip cafe – which earned her the name “the fish and chip boat” – was removed and replaced with a steak bar more suited to the cruises the shop now offered.
Being named the Royal Iris, she deputised for the Royal Yacht and hosted The Queen on a tour for the Silver Jubilee Mersey Review, and later hosted the short-lived children’s TV show, the Mersey Pirate.
The ferry made what was supposed to be a one-off visit to London in May 1985, as part of a publicity drive to promote Merseyside as a place to live and work – and she spent a few weeks docked next to HMS Belfast.
However, the ageing ship needed an expensive refurbishment in the 1990s, and she nearly ended up being scrapped but was sold instead.
This is however where the story gets very murky.
Sold in 1991 the intention was for her to become a floating nightclub, so she was sent to a nearby dock the next year and repainted, but it didn’t work out.
Then she was sold in 1993, to a group who planned to move her to Cardiff, to be a floating nightclub.
Her final voyage from Merseyside was a rather ignoble end though, as she left under tow, and was smashed into the dock wall twice while trying to get her to leave. Down in Cardiff, the council refused planning permission for the mooring to be used for the nightclub. The new owners were also not paying the berthing charges to store her, and no refurbishment work was being carried out.
In 1995, there was an attempt to bring her back to Liverpool, using National Lottery money to become the floating headquarters for the music charity, Merseycats, but it didn’t work out.
In 1998, the ferry made a rather desultory return to London, a far cry from the pride of the visit in the 1980s, and was towed to a berth on the Thames not far from the Thames Barrier – where she was to be converted into, you guessed it, a floating nightclub.
In 2010, she started taking on water and partially sank in the Thames, resting on the river bed. Ever since she’s been marooned here, a slowly rusting wreck with her past glories a fading memory.
Getting up close to the ferry today requires permission from security as the berth is on private land, and walking up towards her is a very sad affair. Listing sideways in the water, its clear how two decades of neglect have taken their toll.
Rust is dripping down the front while pealing paintwork reminds us of a lost glamour when celebrities would perform on her decks.
Startled by an unexpected visitor, the few gulls and very many pigeons who roost here took flight and swirled around for a minute or so before returning to their favourite perches – the flapping of the wings and occasional cry from the gulls adding to the melancholy atmosphere.
There have been attempts to try and raise the money to salvage the ferry and return her back to the Mersey, but as the years go on, the costs keep getting ever higher, and it’s now highly unlikely that the Royal Iris will ever see her home again.