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Memories of the Ferries

It was in August 1881 that the Devonport Ferry Coy. was formed by E.W.Alison - this commenced a service that was to carry on for 78 years without one disaster.

My earliest recollection was of the old paddle steamers - Osprey, Britannia and Eagle who served Birkenhead and Northcote about 1910. Eventually the ferries ran by steam only, and we had the Albatross, Condor, Kestrel, Pupuke, and Peregrine to name a few. The ferries became a necessity of life to Birkenhead, and volumes could be filled with events and situations connected with our ferries over the years.

At an early age I contracted diphtheria and was taken to Auckland Hospital by horse ambulance. At Birkenhead wharf the horse was led onto the ferry. The cab - with Mother and myself – was pulled by the shafts across two planks. At Auckland the same procedure took place in reverse, taking all of four hours to reach Hospital.

Every School, Church or factory had their annual picnic by ferry - destination Motutapu, Brown’s Is or Pine Is. (now Herald Is) being the most popular. On Sugar Works picnic day Birkenhead became a Ghost Town. The ferry was loaded to the gunwales, flags flying, band playing as they sailed away.

As the fares were only taken at the City terminal one could sit all day on the ferry and often in School holidays whole families could have a day’s excursion costing nothing. Children paid one penny a trip; adults could get a 12 trip card for two shillings and sixpence.

Fog on the harbour made a very exciting trip. A large bell hung on each wharf and the first one down was expected to ring it vigorously. A chorus of hooters would reply from the many ferries cautiously finding their way to the wharf. In the cabins we girls happily carried on with our embroidery or knitting while the men continued their games of poker, knowing we had a positive excuse for being late for work.

One became very adept at walking up and down gangways when the tide was high or low. Many a stilletto heel was ripped off and the mate was kept busy helping Mothers with pushchairs and prams.

The ferry became a social centre where one caught up on the local activities and scandal. One hilarious incident happened when my ball of wool rolled overboard. The boys on the deck below cheered heartily as one of them labourishly dragged in the wool and eventually handed me a very tangled wet skein of wool.

Chelsea wharf was long and narrow and with sugar workers commuting from the city, it made catching the ferry rather difficult. If you were late and the Captain didn’t spot you, he would take off and you would be faced with a long walk to Birkenhead wharf. One day a heavy parcel was waiting for me at home. It contained some rusty bolts and screws and a little note which read

"Do not haste to catch a ferry
but always take your ease
As short skirts and long strides
are apt to show one's knees.
Please sew these on the hem of your skirt."

Practical jokes were very popular at that time.

Something important went missing from our lives when the Harbour Bridge was built and the ferries discontinued. Commuting to the City by bus or car is not nearly so exciting and how I miss that friendly chat - and a little gossip!!

- Alice O’Callahan, Birkdale 1991


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