If The Royal Iris were ever to make onto a Top Trumps card alongside bigger, grander and better looked after ships of her generation, her technical details would read like this. According to Stuart Cameron and Bruce Biddulph in Shipping Times, The MV Royal Iris was a twin screw, diesel-electric Mersey Ferry built by William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton, Yard No. 1448. She was launched in December 1950, costing £256,000. The Royal Iris’ engines were produced by Ruston & Hornsby Metropolitan-Vickers. Propulsion: 4 oil 4SA, each six cylinders driving four generators, each 300kw/300v DC-connected to two electric motors, each 730shp and 2 shafts. Her maximum speed is 12 knots. Her weight is 1,234 gross tonnes. She is 159 feet long and 48 feet wide, with a draught of 9 feet. At least during the first decade of her life, the ship's diesel-electric propulsion made her more economical to run than the other vessels in the fleet.
But there is so much more to the Royal Iris story than statistics. It is a sentimental adventure of day trips, pleasure cruises, chicken-in-a-basket, top light entertainment and choppy water induced projectile vomiting. All on a floating nite-spot that resembled a cut price Love Boat before it literally became an end-of-the-pier show for Saturday morning TV pirates and real life squatters.
As T.B. Maund, and Martin Jenkins’ book, Mersey Ferries: Volume 2 - The Wallasey Ferries, explains,The Royal Iris set sail on the Skelmorlie Mile on the Clyde on April 24th, 1951, and arrived on the Mersey four days later. On entering service with Wallasey Corporation, the Royal Iris was licensed to carry 2,296 passengers on normal ferry duties, or 1,000 for cruising. Originally painted in a green and cream livery, the ship was made even more handsome by the appearance of a dummy funnel near her bridge. As highlighted in Richard Danielson’s The Mighty Mersey and its Ferries, more exciting for passengers was a dance-floor and stage, a tea room, buffet, cocktail bar and fish and chip saloon. Despite its aspirational airs and graces, The Royal Iris was duly dubbed the fish and chip boat.
There was drama aboard The Royal Iris before the year was out. HMS Duke of York was being towed to Gareloch to be broken up when she collided with The Royal Iris, which at the time was cruising the Mersey with a function organised by the Amalgamated Engineering Union on board. The floodtide slammed an out of control Royal Iris against the ageing but still lethal battleship, and some passengers were hospitalised. If this was a portent of future clashes between British forces and the trade unions, no-one realised it then.
In the 1960s, the Merseybeat boom put Liverpool on the map, and suddenly everyone wanted to be on a ferry on the Mersey in a way that would typify the opening credits of every Liverpool-set TV series from The Liver Birds to Brookside. The Beatles played The Royal Iris, as did The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Searchers and all the other graduates of The Cavern club. One can imagine Freddie Starr’s early stab at Elvis-style histrionics going down a storm, or Liverpool’s real best songwriter, Jimmy Campbell, doing a turn with his band The Kirkbys. As for Gerry Marsden and his Pacemakers, one can only speculate on what the reception for his anthemic Ferry Cross The Mersey might have been. A packed ship of bevvied-up Scousers, after all, could probably turn a night out into a titanic style disaster far more effectively than an iceberg or even the HMS Duke of York could manage.
During the 1970s, the Royal Iris was used almost exclusively as a cruise vessel. A refit saw a new blue and white livery, while a steak bar and dining area replaced the original fish and ship saloon. Her allocation of two lifeboats was reduced to just one. In 1975, whilst docked for her annual survey, a fire broke out in her engine room, causing extensive electrical damage. Similar things used to happen to nightclubs on a regular basis. In 1977, the Queen and Prince Philip sailed aboard the Royal Iris on their Jubilee Mersey Review.
This was nothing, though, to when in 1979 the ship became The Mersey Pirate. This was Granada TV’s attempt to create something on a par with Swap Shop and Tiswas, a then freshly epic brand of Saturday morning kids TV, featuring pop music and celebrity guests alongside assorted high-jinks and sketches from club comic Duggie Brown and local radio DJ Billy Butler, as well as from ‘stowaways’ Scully and Mooey, a pair of tearaways originally created for radio by playwright Alan Bleasdale, and who would go on to feature in a BBC TV Play For Today.
Merseybeat may have decamped to the revival circuit, but bands still played The Royal Iris. In 1980, Manchester band Magazine opened their UK tour for their The Correct Use of Soap album on board, supported by Pete Wylie’s band, Wah! Heat. Vic Godard, the post-punk icon and leader of Subway Sect, whose literate left-field pop so inspired Glasgow band Orange Juice and, in an altogether spikier manner, Edinburgh’s Fire Engines, was exploring swing and Sinatra-style crooning, and brought his Club Left night aboard the Royal Iris. This was a retro-chic styled package tour compered by former Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, and featured rockabilly throwback Johnny Britton and a diamented-up diva in support.
Godard himself sported a tuxedo, while the then incarnation of Subway Sect, who would soon decamp to become fly-by-night chart stars Jo Boxers with American singer Dig Wayne, looked slicked-back cool in a way that only a band featuring a drummer who as a child actor had appeared in 1960s sex comedy Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush could do. In the wake of Thatcherism, mass unemployment and an impending game of battleships with the Argentinian navy in the election-winning triumphalism of the Falklands war, London’s nouveau cabaret scene looked very glamorous indeed.
More in keeping with the grimness of the times was a double-bill of second-string Factory Records acts, Section 25 and The Royal Family and the Poor. As Section 25’s vocalist Larry Cassidy dryly observed during a rough crossing after guitarist Paul Wiggin hastily left the stage mid-song, his land-lubbing colleague had in fact been continuing the set “from the toilets.” And this was a band from Blackpool, land of the kiss-me-quick hat and stomach-churning rollercoasters.
The 1980s weren’t kind to The Royal Iris, which was becoming an increasingly dilapidated symbol of the decline of shipbuilding as a whole. In 1991 she was taken out of service and sold to a consortium intending to convert her into a floating nightclub, restaurant and conference centre set to be called 'Mr Smith's Nightclub'. Despite a bright new paint job, the plans were shelved, while planning proposals for something similar in Cardiff were rejected. The year before, as if sensing her fate, the once grand Royal Iris broke free from her tow line and smashed into the dock wall twice.
Other attempts at revival came to nothing, and in 2002 The Royal Iris was towed to a berth on the Thames near Woolwich, awaiting a possible refit. In February this year, police and the RNLI were called out after a passing vessel noticed water on her passenger deck. There was evidence found suggesting squatters had lived on board. In a depressing image of how the ship’s fortunes had changed, evidence of drug paraphernalia was found. In March 2010, The Liverpool Echo reported an online petition has recently been founded to bring The Royal Iris home, while it is reported that an un-named businessman has expressed a desire to buy the now rusting old hulk. Top Trumps wouldn’t know where to start.
Commisioned by Talitha Koetz for a publication to accompany Salt Water, a group exhibition at The Tall Ship, Glasgow, that ran from April 16th to June 20th 2010 as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. The only brief for the writers was to base a text on a piece of marine iconography. This was one of three texts submitted, but wasn't used. Talitha was slightly anxious that too much had been sourced from Wikipedia. She may well have been right, and the personal stuff certainly stands up better, but I still quite like it.