Maritime Tales – tug boats on the Mersey

19 March 2007 by Stephen

Tug boats attend vessels much larger than themselves, performing a vital role which to me, Stephen Guy, has always been a source of admiration.

The great ships using the River Mersey are attended by tug boats helping to manoeuvre them in and out of the port. As ships became bigger the role of tugs increased in importance, making them a vital component in the vast machinery of the bustling port.

Until steam tugs were introduced in the 19th century, muscle and brawn played a much bigger part in manoeuvring sailing ships alongside jetties and into docks. Energetic crew members helped line up the vessel in the dock entrance before the ship was towed through using a capstan – no doubt to the rousing choruses of sea shanties and popular songs.

During the 19th century sailing gig boats carried out a variety of tasks. Their main purpose was to assist in docking by passing lines between the ship and the quayside. They would also ferry passengers, agents and owners to and from ships lying at anchor. Today’s large ships cannot easily manoeuvre within the Mersey and its dock system. Their turning circles are too large and they can’t maintain enough speed for their rudders to be fully effective. They need the help of tugs and there are several companies providing this vital service.

The power of a tug is expressed in terms of the bollard pull she can exert. Modern tugs with engines up to 5,000 horse-power can exert a pull of 70 tons.

photo of a modern tug boat in a do

The Brocklebank. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Merseyside Maritime Museum is the only British museum to have a sea-going vessel in its collection – the motor tug Brocklebank (above) dating from 1964. She is crewed by enthusiastic volunteers from the Friends of Merseyside Maritime Museum who are all qualified mariners. When not attending maritime festivals around Britain Brocklebank can be seen moored opposite the museum.

There are several fascinating tug models among the museum collections. The William Jolliffe (1885) was a twin-funnelled, iron screw steam tug. This fine model has some tiny details including copper port and starboard lights and a wheel house with bronze bells. The 96-ft long North Cock was one of the best-known tugs on the Mersey, known to generations using the river. Built by Laird Brothers at Birkenhead in 1903, the sturdy vessel had an amazing 61-year career until she was scrapped in 1964. An oil painting by an unknown artist shows the barque Dicky Sam, supported by Mersey flats (sailing barges), being towed by tugs off New Brighton about 1866.

A beautiful tug boat image features in the current Bernard Fallon exhibition.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

  1. Erika Harding says:

    I am trying to trace any information on my Grandfather Robert Logan Cave who was a tug boat captian(?)on the river Mersey. I believe he died aged 42 in an air raid at his home on the wirral, Birkenhead.
    My grandmother also died with him – he had two children robert (8 at the time) and Anita (14).

  2. W.A. Wright says:

    In reply to Erika’s query, the Cave Family History Society has a photo of Robert Cave’s grave on their website at – under projects – WW2 Commonwealth War Graves. We would also like to know more about Robert Cave and his wife Isabella who died tragically in the March 1941 Blitz in Birkenhead.

  3. Linda George says:

    I am looking for more information on my Grandfather Ernest George, who I have been told operated a tug on the Mersey. I have been told that he was known for his expertise at his job. Any help would be appreciated.

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