In March 1923 a new company was formed, it became known as the Great Eastern Train Ferry Company. Three Ministry of War Transport Train ferries, built in 1917 for war services were purchased together with their British terminals.
The Southampton terminal was loaded on to two barges for the journey to Harwich. On 4th September 1923 when 2.5 miles from the Cork Light Vessel the cargo moved resulting in both barges sinking. It was not until October the linkspan were recovered and beached at Harwich. The towers and machinery could not be salvaged and were blown up so as not to be a hazard to shipping. The Richborough towers and machinery were sent to Harwich as a replacement and together with the linkspan from Southampton were erected on their current site.
April 24th 1924 was an important day for the people of Harwich with the official opening of the new train ferry terminal by Prince George and the employment prospects it brought with it.
At 11.00 a special train arrived at Harwich town station with Prince George and later The Duke of Kent. Crowds gathered along with school parties and the Harwich Town Silver Band Played. The Prince was Accompanied by Sir Cyril Butler and officially welcomed to Harwich by the mayor Mrs Lucy Hill. The party made their way to the train ferry Terminal where the Prince officially set the bridge machinery in motion. After the official opening ceremony Captain Grigor gave the party a guided tour Of the new ferry before setting sail on the inaugural voyage.
The following day Train Ferry No 3 arrived at Harwich Under command of Captain Nugent for the Day’s sailing. To complete the train ferry fleet, Train Ferry No 1 arrived at Harwich under Captain Bonser on 17th July 1924.
Train Ferry Nos. 1, 2 and 3 were designed by W.G. Armstrong-Whitworth and co. in Elswick, Newcastle. No. 3 was built by Fairfield Shipbuilding Co. to Govan on the Clyde. They had a limited depth, about 110 metres, had two oil fired steam boilers, were equipped with two screws and rudders, and had a cruising speed of 12 knots and a maximum speed of 14 knots. The hull was divided into ten watertight compartments. Front ballast tanks were equipped with 160 tons, at the back of 210 tons and on each side of 45 tons. With these tanks was the boat trimmed in loading and unloading.
They had a single open deck which were equipped with four tracks: the two inner of 95 meters each; beyond two tracks of 72 metres each. This gave 334 metres effective length which 54 two-axle wagons. Armament consisted of four 12-pdr guns and “miscellaneous” anti-submarine weapons. Initially there were two high chimneys on each side that were connected at the top with half-timbered. At the back was a “docking bridge” with which the boat was controlled at the building.
Built in 1917 for the War Office service between Richborough and French ports, relocated to run between Harwich and Zeebrugge. The service was taken over by the LNER in 1934. From September 1939, she was requisitioned for military movements between Harwich and Calais, comprising ambulance trains and road vehicles. In June 1940 she took part in evacuations from the Channel Islands to Southampton Ltd., which relocated the service to run between Harwich and Zeebrugge . The service was taken over by the LNER in 1934. From September 1939, she was requisitioned for military movements between Harwich and Calais, comprising ambulance trains and road vehicles. In June 1940 she took part in evacuations from the Channel Islands to Southampton.
Purchased by the Admiralty in late June 1940, she was converted to a Landing Ship capable of carrying 14 landing craft in the train deck (launched via a stern chute) and 4 more by crane on the upper deck. Commissioned as HMS Iris in April 1941, changing to HMS Princess Iris in September 1942, she spent most of her time ferrying landing craft to southern ports. After the Normandy invasion, she ferried damaged craft back to the U.K. In August 1944 she was re-converted to carry locomotives from Southampton to Cherbourg and Dieppe, but by 1945 she was again ferrying landing craft, until released in May 1946 when she was re-sold to the LNER.
This brought a change of name to Essex Ferry and she resumed the Harwich – Zeebrugge train ferry service. Her name was altered to Essex Ferry II in 1956 in order to release the name to her successor, and she was broken up at Grays in 1957 after an eventful career
Built in 1917 for the War Office service also between Richborough and French ports, she was taken over by the Port of Queenborough Development Company and then by the Great Eastern Train Ferries Ltd., which relocated the service to run between Harwich and Zeebrugge (and briefly to Calais). The service was taken over by the L.N.E.R in 1934. Requisitioned in September 1939 to carry military traffic to and from Calais, then in June 1940 to assist the evacuation of troops from St. Valery-en-Caux.
On 13th June she was damaged by German shore batteries and beached and abandoned off Le Havre.
Built in 1917 for the War Office service Requisitioned in September 1939 to carry military cargo to and from Calais, and in June 1940 assisted in the evacuations from Jersey and Guernsey to Southampton. Taken over by the Admiralty in September 1940 and converted to a landing ship and commissioned in June 1941 as HMS Daffodil. In May 1944 she was fitted with a ramp to permit the landing of railway equipment where no shore facilities existed.
The Harwich-Zeebrugge service continued until the outbreak of WW2 when the ships were requisitioned by the Government. Only Princess Iris (TF1) survived the hostilities. In 1946 she was refitted and altered to a single funnel; in a central position.
At the outbreak of the Blitzkrieg (May 1940), they were transferred to Southampton. After the debacle in France had to TF2 on 13 June 1940 the Highland Division go evacuate in St-Valéry-en-Caux. Because of the fog arrived TF 2 a day late, the message that the coastal batteries had already been conquered by the Germans was missed, the ship came under fire, caught fire, was cleared and sank a mile off the coast with loss of half of the crew.
In September 1941, the two remaining ships where converted into Landing Ships. On deck were either 13 LCM-1 (Landing Craft, Medium), which weighed less than 16 tones each, stored, or 9 LCM-3. The LCM’s were on trollies; at the rear was a ramp along which this could be left to water. Armament was four 2-pounder guns, five 20 mm guns and five .303 Lewis guns.
After the war, as trade gradually increased, larger and faster ships were introduced with provision for twelve passengers. The MV ‘Suffolk Ferry’ in 1947’ the MV ‘Norfolk Ferry; in 1951’ the old SS ‘Essex Ferry ‘ was replaced by a new MV ‘Essex Ferry’ in 1957 and then in 1963 came the MV ‘Cambridge Ferry’ the last of the British built train ferries. She was the most elegant of them all with excellent accommodation for both crew and passengers.
Built in 1947 by John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank and Launched on the 7th May 1947, the new ferry had diesel engines instead of steam boilers, and could get 14 knots instead of the 10 knots of Essex Ferry and had facilities to carry 12 passengers in six cabins.
Suffolk Ferry was the first diesel powered ship built for the London and North Eastern Railway. Registered at Harwich, she usually operated on the Harwich – Zeebrugge route, the crossing taking nine hours. Suffolk Ferry entered service in August 1947. With the nationalisation of the railways in the United Kingdom in 1948, ownership of Suffolk Ferry passed to the British Transport Commission. On 2 January 1956, the Liberian tanker Melody ran aground off Vlissingen, Zeeland, Netherlands. Suffolk Ferry was one of three vessels which went to the assistance of Melody. On 6 May 1961, Suffolk Ferry rescued all four people from the British yacht Sugar Creek in the North Sea off the Cork Lightship.
In 1963, ownership passed to the British Railways Board. On 8 October 1965, Suffolk Ferry rescued nine of the thirteen crew of the German coastal tanker Unkas, which had collided with the Swedish cargo ship Marieholm in the North Sea 35 nautical miles (65 km) off the coast of the Netherlands. Unkas was later towed in to Rotterdam. Ownership passed to the British Rail subsidiary Sealink in 1979. She was withdrawn from service in September 1980.
Suffolk Ferry left Harwich Harbour for the last time on Tuesday November 25 1980 on her way to be broken up in Belgium, as she passed Parkeston under tow, other Sealink ships blew their whistles to say goodbye to the “Grand Old Lady” of the Harwich Fleet.
Norfolk Ferry was launched on 8 March 1951. Built for the British Transport Commission and operated by British Railways, she made her maiden voyage on the Harwich – Zeebrugge route on 17 July 1951. On 5 July 1960, Norfolk Ferry rescued the five crew from the German yacht Tagomago, which had been dismasted in the North Sea 30 nautical miles (56 km) off Harwich.
In January 1963, she twice returned to Harwich due to a 98 long tons (100 t) casting coming loose. She rescued four people on 20 September 1964 after their yacht capsized 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) off Felixstowe. Norfolk Ferry served on the Harwich – Zeebrugge route until February 1972, when she was put into service on the Harwich – Dunkerque route, having been modified to enable her to use Dunkerque in 1967 and inaugurating the service on 2 October of that year.
In May 1972, Norfolk Ferry was transferred to the Holyhead – Dublin route for a short time. She was registered to Passtruck (Shipping) Ltd in 1973 and then to Sealink in 1979. Norfolk Ferry was withdrawn from service in August 1981 and then reinstated from September to October, when she was again withdrawn from service and laid up in the River Blackwater. She departed under tow of the Dutch tug Banckert on 14 April 1983 and arrived at Ouderkerk, Netherlands for scrapping on 17 April 1983.
Essex Ferry was launched on 24 October 1955. Completed in January 1957, she made her maiden voyage from Harwich to Zeebrugge, Belgium on 15 January. She could carry 38 railway wagons and had accommodation for twelve passengers. She mainly served on the Harwich – Zeebrugge route, with a short spell of service in May 1972 on the Holyhead – Dublin route. Towards the end of her service she was transferred to the Harwich – Dunkerque route.
Essex Ferry was withdrawn from service in 1981 and laid up At Harwich. In 1983, Essex Ferry was sold to Medway Secondary Metals for breaking, departing under tow for Rainham, Kent on 27 April 1983 and arriving two days later. She was initially reduced to deck level and renamed Essex Ferry Pontoon. She was used in the salvage of the Norwegian semi-submersible drilling rig Alexander L. Kielland which had capsized in March 1980. Following this work, she was finally scrapped.
Cambridge Ferry was built by Hawthorn Leslie and Company, Hebburn, Northumberland Built at a cost of £700,000, the ship was launched on 1 November 1963 and was completed in December 1963. Her port of registry was Harwich, Essex. She could carry 38 railway wagons or 200 motor cars, and 100 passengers.
Cambridge Ferry made her maiden voyage from Harwich to Zeebrugge, Belgium on 2 January 1964. In 1972, Cambridge Ferry and Essex Ferry made ten voyages between Harwich and Dublin, Ireland to deliver new rolling stock to CIÉ. In April and May 1975, Cambridge Ferry operated between Stranraer and Larne. In 1976, she was used to transport motor vehicles from Falmouth, Cornwall to Zeebrugge for use in the film A Bridge Too Far.
In 1977, Cambridge Ferry was extended at a cost of £91,000. This was to enable her to carry an additional 50 motor cars, and use the docks at Dunkerque, France. She was registered to Sealink on 1 January 1978. In May 1980, Cambridge Ferry entered service on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route following the breakdown of St. Columba and her replacement Avalon. She had been in dry dock at the time and was pressed into service whilst replacement ships were sourced and repairs effected.
In April 1982, she was withdrawn from the Harwich – Zeebrugge route. From May – November 1982, Cambridge Ferry served on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route. In December, she operated on the Dover – Dunkerque route, returning to the Harwich – Zeebrugge route in January 1983. In 1987, she was refitted at Immingham, Lincolnshire, including modifications to make her more suitable for use at Dover, from where she operated from February 1987. On 1 May 1987, she collided with Saint Eloi off Dover. Both vessels were severely damaged. Repairs to Cambridge Ferry cost £78,000. She was withdrawn from the Dover – Dunkerque route on 31 December 1987, but was reinstated from September to mid-October 1988 before being laid up in the River Fal. In November 1988, she was put into service between Rosslare and Fishguard. Ownership of Cambridge Ferry was transferred to Stena Line in January 1990. She was laid up at Milford Haven in March 1990 and put into service the next month between Stranraer and Larne. She returned to the Rosslare – Fishguard route between June and September 1990 and also between December 1990 and January 1991. She operated the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route in February 1991 whilst Stena Cambria was under repair before returning to the Stranraer – Larne route. She was laid up at Fal River in summer 1991. Cambridge Ferry was withdrawn from service on 15 March 1992 and was then laid up at Milford Haven.
On April 21 1992, Cambridge Ferry was sold to Sincomar Malta Ltd and was renamed Ito Uno. She departed from Milford Haven on 21 April 1992 for Valletta, where she underwent a rebuild. She was renamed Sirio in 1993 and was laid up at Bari, Italy. Sirio was reflagged to Panama in 1998. She was broken up at Aliaga, Turkey in May 2003.
Built as the Stena Shipper in 1973 by A Vuyk & Zonen’s Scheepswerven, Amsterdam, Netherlands and launched on 16 June 1973 and completed in September, On completion, Stena Shipper was chartered to the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand and transferred to the New Zealand flag. She was renamed Union Wellington on 2 November 1973. The charter ended in 1975 and she returned to Europe. In 1976, she was lengthened by about 37 metres (121 ft.) by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Kiel, West Germany. She was reflagged to West Germany on 26 January 1977 during tests after her rebuilt and was then reflagged to Greece the next day. She was chartered to Aghiris Lines, Piraeus and renamed Alpha Express. following the bankruptcy of Aghiris Lines in 1979, she was arrested at Mombasa, Kenya.
In May 1981, Alpha Express was sent to Smith’s Dock, Middleborough, Tyne & Wear for conversion to a train ferry. In August she was chartered to Sealink and renamed Speedlink Vanguard. She had a capacity of 56 railway wagons. Speedlink Vanguard entered service on the Harwich – Zeebrugge route on 21 August. This allowed Suffolk Ferry to be withdrawn from service and Norfolk Ferry to be placed in reserve.
The tragic collision of two ferries two miles off Harwich on a clear December night in which six men dies produced massive repercussions and raised many serious question about safety at sea.
It was 10.51pm Sunday, December 19, 1982, when Sealink’s chartered train ferry, the Speedlink Vanguard, on her way back from Zeebrugge to Harwich, and Townsend Thoresen’s 4,263-ton ro-ro ferry European Gateway collided. The Vanguard’s captain, who had only taken charge the day before, had expected the other vessel to turn away to starboard: “. The Vanguard’s bulbous bows tore a 10 feet hole in the other ship’s side through which water poured.
Four crew members and two lorry drivers died in the disaster while the remaining 64 people were rescued in a heroic combined operation involving pilot boats, tugs and helicopters.
They were quickly supplemented by a rush of volunteers anxious to do whatever they could to rescue victims and comfort survivors.
Doctors scrambled aboard launches to offer on the spot medical aid, while policemen, firemen, ambulance men, harbour officials, council officers, pressmen and the public waited shivering in the bitter cold through the early hours.
In ten minutes the Gateway heeled over on her side as water poured into the stricken vessel its path made easier by open watertight doors. The Gateway, which was leaving Felixstowe for Rotterdam was eventually salvaged in a million-pound operation spanning months. The Vanguard, after first helping the rescuers, eventually limped into Harwich with her damaged bows.
It was the first time such a civilian tragedy had occurred within the curtilage of the area governed by the Harwich Harbour Conservancy Board in one of the most accident prone areas of water around Britain.
The charter to Sealink ended on 30 January 1987. Following a Court of Inquiry, the captains of both vessels were blamed for the collision. An inquest recorded an open verdict on all six victims of the accident after the jury were unable to agree on verdicts of accident, or misadventure.
Further cost cutting feasibility studies were considered, these included Basing all train ferry traffic through one English port. Sadly on geographical grounds Harwich did not stand a chance of winning the competition.The remaining ferry services were transferred to Dover-Calais, in the hope that the channel tunnel could survive by some to transport goods that would be banned in the tunnel.
In the early hours of the morning on the 28th January 1987 M.V. Speedlink Vanguard left the Train Ferry Terminal at Harwich with a full load of rail waggons. After discharging her cargo in Zeebrugge she sailed to Tyneside for dry docking before being returned to her owners.
So ended over 60 years of Harwich Train Ferries, forming just a small part of the depressing decline in British shipping and British seafarers. Sealink had chartered this vessel in 1980 in a brave attempt to reduce costs, no doubt realising that there was an uncertain future for train ferries operating out of Harwich. The ‘Speedlink Vanguard’ and the ‘Cambridge Ferry’ then handled all traffic between them and the three older ships were withdrawn.
The Train Ferries were always happy ships and many crew had no wish to be transferred to the more important sisters sailing from Parkeston Quay.
On the 1st of July 1987 the Department of the Environment listed the Train Ferry Terminal as grade II in the official list of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.
Click “play” to start the gallery slide show.
We are adding more information to this site on a regular basis, if you wish to submit any photos or provide any information, please use the contact page at the bottom of the screen.
Derek Sands, Kevin Hoggett & The Harwich Society.