The Mersey Ferry ‘dazzle ship’

On a bright early autumn day I went to see the ‘Dazzle Ferry’ at Seacombe ferry terminal.

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The Seacombe Ferry Terminal building was made a Grade 2 listed building in 1991.  It is actually a ferry and bus terminus built between 1930 and 1933, designed by L St G Wilkinson, the Borough Surveyor of the then Wallasey County Borough Council.

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It has much architectural merit being built of brick with Portland stone dressings.  An imposing feature is the monumental central clock tower.

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There used to be a railway station outside the ferry terminal.  The station saw regular passenger trips to Birkenhead, New Brighton and Chester with occasional specials to Wrexham and West Kirby. However, the line was more focused on goods rather than passengers, so when the majority of the Wirral Railway was electrified in 1938 the Seacombe branch was not and passenger services ended on 4 January 1960.  Goods services continued for three further years until the station closed completely on 16 June 1963.  There is no real evidence of the line left in the area but the cutting in which the line was situated is now the approach road to the Kingsway (Wallasey) Tunnel.

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On an historic note the first commercial shore-based Radar station in the world for the navigation of ships was installed at the Seacombe Terminal buildings in 1947.

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St. Paul’s Church was designed by John Hay of Liverpool looks down to the Ferry terminal.  It was consecrated on the 12th October 1847 and when it was completed it had a spire of 120 feet but it was deemed as too dangerous so 20 feet was removed from the top.

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I had come to see the Mersey Ferry boat which had been given a colourful design, created by Sir Peter Blake as part of the recent First World War commemorations.  I made reference to it in an earlier post about the ‘dazzle ship’ that was commissioned for the 2014 centenary of WW1, the “1418 NOW” (WW1 Centenary Art Commission) which used an historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum.  As I stated then when this ship was returned to its original colours it was planned to commission a similar design on one of the working Mersey Ferries boats.  https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/the-dazzle-ship/

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The Snowdrop was the ferry boat that was chosen.  The eye-catching dazzle design is in honour of the patterns that were first used on vessels in World War One. Unlike other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by concealing but the specially painted ships ‘baffle the eye’ making it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and direction.

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The ‘Dazzle Ferry’ made quite a contrast to the Liverpool waterfront and the Fred Olson cruise ship Boudicca which was moored at Liverpool’s Cruise Liner terminal across the river.

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The artist Norman Wilkinson was credited with inventing the technique and he explained that dazzle was intended primarily to mislead the enemy.  The ships were painted in black and white and in colour; each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique in order to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to enemy U-boats and aircraft.  Edward Wadsworth, an Intelligence Officer for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War, supervised the painting of more than two thousand British ships in ‘dazzle camouflage’ in Bristol and Liverpool. This experience inspired him to produce a series of woodcut prints that are now part of the Walker Art Gallery’s collections in Liverpool.

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This commission has been entitled ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ and the Snowdrop in its new livery came into service in April 2015.  This is the third in the series of Dazzle Ship commissions and the first to be a working vessel; it is the only operating dazzle ship in the UK.  The design has been commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14–18 NOW the First World War Centenary Art Commission and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseytravel and National Museums Liverpool. The project is supported by Arts Council England, National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Department for Culture Media and Sport.

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Visitors who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War in an on-board display which is curated by Merseyside Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool.

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Sir Peter Blake is a world famous artist and is a leading figure in the development of British pop art and his work is synonymous with the use of imagery from modern culture, including comic books, consumer goods and advertisements. He has a strong relationship with Liverpool and probably most famously he designed the The Beatles’s album cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. However he actually first visited the city during his National Service with the RAF (1951 – 53) when his training required that he travel to Belfast, so he sailed by ferry from Liverpool’s iconic waterfront.  He is also patron of the John Moores Painting Prize.

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Sir Peter designed the Pop Art-style patterns with the aid of a computer, then visited Liverpool to see how the two-dimensional artwork would translate on to the three-dimensional ferry and in the second stage he adapted the design to the shape of the boat.  The Snowdrop then went into dry dock at Birkenhead’s Cammel Laird’s shipyard where the painters made the design a reality.

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It certainly brightens the river view around the Seacombe Ferry terminal where it is a big attraction although the Spaceport visitor attraction which was installed in 2005 in some of the Mersey Ferry buildings attracts a number of people particularly with younger children who want to learn about space as they walk through different themed galleries, which all have a variety of interactive and audio-visual exhibits.

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I understand that the Dazzle Ferry will continue in service up to 31 December 2016.

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