Before the Erskine Bridge opened in 1971, the most convenient way to cross the lower part of the River Clyde was by chain ferry between the Renfrewshire and Dunbartonshire sides — a four-minute trip that, for more than a century, had been an integral but little noticed part of the shipping scene. In this fond memoir of the Erskine Ferry, illustrated mainly by his own superb photographs, Eric Schofield recalls the long vehicle queues that latterly built up on either side, as well the romanticised feelings the ferry aroused in many enthusiasts’ hearts as soon as its deathknell was sounded.
In the 1960s and 70s I amassed a bundle of tickets for journeys I had taken across the River Clyde on the Renfrew and Erskine ferries. It was not the practice of the Clyde Navigation Trust to date tickets or collect them as you disembarked, and as I did not deem it necessary to keep a record of such journeys, I cannot say definitively on which date(s) these vehicle and foot passenger tickets were issued. However, my photographic diary offers clues.
One date that does stand out in my memory is 2 July 1971 — the final day of ferry operation, following the inauguration of the Erskine Bridge. The importance attached to that event was underlined by the attendance of Princess Anne to perform the opening ceremony. Having cut the tape on the roadway on the north side of the river, the princess was driven to the mid-point of the bridge, where she unveiled a commemorative plaque, before continuing across to the south side.
The royal party then returned across the river by ferry, which had been withdrawn from public service for the purposes of the ceremony and no doubt given a quick wash and brush up before Princess Anne came aboard. Thereafter the ferry operated the usual service for the remainder of the day, mainly for the benefit of those who were wanting to make ‘one final journey’.
There had been a regular ferry at Erskine since 1777. Up to then, ad hoc crossings would have been made when high tides prevented fording or wading across the river — a practice fairly common before its widening and deepening.
Initially the ferry was an open boat run by Lord Blantyre of Erskine, the local landowner: it was probably punted across rather than rowed. In 1832 a hand-winched single chain ferry entered service, followed in 1857 by a steam powered double chain ferry, Urania.
In 1903 she was replaced by a new ferry named Erskine, which continued — from 1904 under the auspices of the recently formed Clyde Navigation Trust — until 1936, when an up-to-date Erskine took her place.
For the final nine years (1962-1971), the vessel operating at Erskine was the former spare ferry at Renfrew, which for its new purpose had been substantially rebuilt by Lamonts.
Any feeling of sadness at the demise of the Erskine Ferry in 1971 was, I think it true to say, reserved for those with a romanticised view of the ferry experience (such as enthusiasts). The wider travelling public were delighted that the extraordinarily long vehicle queues had come to an end: it was not uncommon for delays to last more than an hour.
In the early days of the bridge, vehicles were subject to a toll charge of 60p. Crossings became toll-free on 1 April 2006.
I have trawled through my slide collection and, together with a few online library pictures of older vessels, have put together this selection of photos covering the Erskine Ferry’s last few years of life.
The closure of the service 50 years ago did not bring an end to the career of the 1936-built ferry.
This vessel was moved upriver to Renfrew and used as standby vessel, the large ‘Erskine Ferry’ lettering along each side painted out and boards with the ‘Renfrew Ferry’ legend strung from the passenger deck railings.
Whilst laid-up she did for a time share space in the Pudeoch Basin with the withdrawn Vehicular Ferryboat No. 4, last of the vehicle-carrying ferries, which had been used at a number of Glasgow City river crossing points, latterly Finnieston. The old-timer was disposed of in the mid 1980s, around the time when vehicle crossings were withdrawn at Renfrew.
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Published on 24 May 2021