Category: Shipping

The Floating Landing Stage was a marvel of engineering. Originally constructed in 1874, it was consumed by fire before opening. Two years later, it had been rebuilt and, with additions, became the largest floating structure in the world, stretching for nearly half a mile. Sadly, in 1974, the structure was dismantled and replaced by a concrete pontoon – which sank, rather inevitably in January 1976 only to be rebuilt. I suppose neither the old or new structures are of any great aesthetic appeal – purely functional – but the top photograph shows the original in use in the late 1880s.
Back in the early 1990s, I met a young American, Zane Branson, who was trying to raise funding to bring a Mississippi paddle steamer over to Liverpool as a tourist attraction. The timing was completely wrong and the idea went back across the Atlantic with him but, as the photo shows, paddle steamers are not a new phenomenon to the Mersey. The nineteenth century ferries were nearly all driven by paddles. What a great shame none have survived.

In the next two months, we will be bombarded with news items about the centenary of Titanic, which sank in April 1912. Liverpool’s White Star Line never recovered from the shock waves that resulted from the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable. The story of Titanic’s predecessor, Oceanic, is a less dramatic one, although its fate was remarkably similar.
Like Titanic, Oceanic was designed by Thomas Ismay, director of the White Star Line and built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff. Launched in January 1899, it became known as the ‘Queen of the Seas’, the largest liner in the world and the first to exceed SS Great Eastern. The dramatic photograph was taken of the ship in Canada Graving Dock in August 1899. Oceanic could hold 1700 passengers and 350 crew and the photograph gives a good indication of her size when set against the small crowd in the dock.
Oceanic’s short life had its moments of tragedy, including ramming and sinking the small Waterford Steamship Company SS Kincora, killing 7. In 1905, Oceanic was the first White Star Line ship to suffer a mutiny, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 35 stokers upset with the officers over working conditions.
In 1912, after the departure of RMS Titanic, Oceanic became involved in the near collision of Titanic with SS New York. Oceanic was nearby when New York broke from her docking and nearly collided with Titanic due to the large wake caused by Titanic’s size and speed.
Finally, in 1914, Oceanic was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and equipped with guns. Steaming up to Scarpa Flow, it then set out to patrol the seas around the Shetlands for enemy shipping. To quote Wikipedia: ‘An accurate fix of their position was made on the night of 7 September by navigator Lieutenant David Blair RNR (previously assigned to, then reassigned from Titanic). While everyone on the bridge thought they were well to the southwest of the Isle of Foula, they were in fact an estimated thirteen to fourteen miles off course and on the wrong side of the island. This put them directly in the path of a reef, the notorious Shaalds of Foula, which poses a major threat to shipping, coming within a few feet of the surface, and in calm weather giving no warning sign whatsoever.
Captain Slayter had retired after his night watch, unaware of the situation, with orders to steer to Foula. Captain Smith took over the morning watch, and with his former knowledge of the ship was only happy when the ship was in open sea. Having previously disagreed with his naval superior about dodging around the island, he instructed the navigator to plot a course out to sea. Slayter must have felt the course change, as he reappeared on the bridge to countermand Smith’s order and made what turned out to be a hasty and ill-informed judgement which resulted in the ship running directly onto the Shaalds on the morning of 8 September. She was wrecked in a flat calm and clear weather. She was the first Allied passenger ship to be lost in the war.’
Shades of the Costa Concordia indeed – although both Captains were acquitted at court martial. Lieutenant Blair, who had survived Titanic’s sinking, was not so lucky and was court martialled for fixing the wrong course.
My knowledge of ships and shipping is extremely limited but it is a huge part of Liverpool’s history and it is important to remind ourselves that the port was what made Liverpool great. The recent news about the Cruise Liner terminal is a real cause to celebrate and will unquestionably add to the exciting mix the city offers to tourists.

SS Great Eastern in the Mersey, 1876

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the Mersey of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern. Brunel had come up with the idea of a super-ship in 1851 with the purpose of transporting emigrants to the United States. The ship was to be six times larger than any other ship and posed huge technical and financial problems, particularly the latter. After numerous problems, including the shipbuilder going bankrupt, the ship was launched sideways into the Thames. Powered by a single screw plus two paddle wheels, the ship also had six masts, although the sails could not be used at the same time the paddles and screw were under steam, because the hot exhaust from the five funnels would set them on fire. Her maximum speed was 24 km/h (13 knots).
In 1859, after fitting out, the ship set out on its maiden journey to Weymouth. It had just passed Hastings when there was a huge explosion, the forward deck blowing apart with enough force to throw the No. 1 funnel into the air, followed by a rush of escaping steam. Five stokers died from being scalded by superheated steam and others badly injured. Finally, in June 1860, Great Eastern set out for America, a trip completed in just under 11 days.
Upon Great Eastern’s return to England, the ship was chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Quebec. This was its first trip to Liverpool, arriving on June 4th, 150 years ago. Over 2,000 officers and men, 473 women and children and 200 horses were embarked at Liverpool along with 40 paying passengers. The ship sailed on 25 June 1861 and went at full speed throughout most of the trip arriving at her destination 8 days and 6 hours after leaving Liverpool. Further voyages proved the ship had no great commercial value. Used for laying telegraph cables across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at least prolonged her active life. At the end of her cable laying career, she was refitted once again as a liner but, once again, efforts to make her a commercial success failed. Finally, and degradingly, the ship was purchased as an advertising hoarding?sailing up and down the Mersey for Lewis’s Department Store before broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry in 1889.
What would Liverpool give now for such an “embarrassment”? As a great port, one thing missing from its attractions is a great historic ship. Bristol has Brunel’sGreat Eastern, London has the Cutty Sark and Portsmouth has the Mary Rose and HMS Victory – but Liverpool has nothing. What a shame for the most important trading port of the nineteenth century. At least Liverpool FC have the Great Eastern’s main mast at the Kop end – but that is not the same as a great ship for people to marvel at.