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A Railway history

To the casual observer it may seem rather odd that an organisation whose prime function was to run railway services should devote so much energy to what was really a subsidiary business - shipping. The shipping services of Britain’s railways companies were born out of a desire to continue services beyond the end of the line. Around the coast, at harbours, docks and piers the railway companies saw the advantages of coordinated rail and sea traffic for passengers, cargo and mail. They built suitable ships, developed the necessary port facilities and gradually ousted smaller and somewhat unreliable companies that lacked the essential capital or influence to maintain continuity of service. With their steamers forming principal links to the Continent, Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Western Isles of Scotland and of course the Isle of Wight as well as numerous estuarial ferry crossings, sea routes were simply considered as obvious extensions of their railway services. 

Operating these links was a fleet consisting of not only the finest passenger mail boats for overnight and daytime services, but also of lake steamers, general cargo vessels, train ferries, car ferries and even ships dedicated for the carriage of cattle, not to mention tugs and dredgers – the mix of vessels really was quite amazing. 

A key factor in the development of many routes was not just the quickest passage from A to B for the passenger but also the prestigious, not to mention lucrative, mail contracts often offered to operators of the fastest ships. Fiercely contested, these contracts were arguably the sole reason so many steamers really were considered the best of their kind in the world. The ‘Irish Mail’ service from London to Dublin via Holyhead was a classic example of rivalry and bitterness between operators and for over seven decades the Railway chased a contract they had initially expected to win having invested heavily in ships and infrastructure. In 1883 they actually won the contract for the sea section of the London – Dublin route, placing the mail in Railway care for the entire journey, only to have it taken away again and returned to the City of Dublin Steam Packet following disruption in the House of Commons led by Irish MP's. It was not until 28th November 1920.that the Irish Mail was carried from Holyhead on a Railway steamer, a development marked by the introduction of four new ships for their service, two in operation, one on standby and one for relief duties.

Following the Railway Act of 1921 the private railway companies were grouped, from the largest to the smallest, as The London Midland and Scottish Railway (L.M.S.), The London and North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.), The Great Western Railway (G.W.R.) and The Southern Railway (S.R.). 

By the outbreak of World War II the railway fleet of seagoing ships totalled 130, with an aggregate gross tonnage of 176,145. Many of these vessels were chartered to the Government and their Captains and crews readily volunteered for war service. Some, such as Holyhead's Scotia, were lost by enemy action, whilst others refitted and camouflaged out of all recognition played their own part on active war service. The remainder of the railway ships continued to maintain services on their usual routes with crews no less brave than those on ships in active war service.

One consequence of the war was the Government takeover of the operation of the railways and their ships, just as had happened during World War I. By issue of an Order under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, on behalf of the Minister of Transport, the activities of the railways were immediately transferred from peacetime to wartime conditions  with the Railway Executive Committee taking control as agents for the Minister.  Shortly after the formation of the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 the two positions of Chairman of the Railway Executive Committee and Controller of Railways at the Ministry were amalgamated. This brought the Railway Executive Committee and the Ministry of War Transport closer together, as the Controller of Railways being the Chairman of the Railway Executive Committee was able to interpret the Minister's policy through the Railway Executive Committee, and to place before the Minister and his officers the views and advice of the Railway Managements.

By the end of the war in 1945 it was evident that even greater amalgamation was required and under the 1947 Transport Act the Railways, and most of Britain's other major transport operations, became part of the state-owned British Transport Commission (BTC). For many years the railways had been known as 'British Railways' (BR), but it was only after nationalisation on 1st January 1948 that the brand was was officially adopted by the Railway Executive. The shipping services of the former Big Four railway companies were now operated on a regional basis, each region having its Marine Superintendent, all being overseen by the Chief Officer (Marine) of the Railway Executive. The post of Chief Officer (Marine) was transferred to the office of the British Transport Commission's Traffic Advisor on the demise of the Railway Executive. 

At Holyhead there was a District Marine Manager. In 1958 this was Capt R.A.H. Lord who had previously been Master on the local ships. He was in full charge of the port of Holyhead and all reports from the local Masters went to him.  Capt John Bakewell recalls, "When Captain Lord was in charge there was also a Staff Clerk, a Mr Bann, and later on Tommy Owen. When HQ in London 'phoned Capt Lord with some explicit orders, a bell was pressed which rang in the Chief Clerk's room and he would run scurrying to Lord's room to put his ear to the earpiece to ensure they got the right message!"

Nationalisation brought investment to a fleet in much need of replacement or refurbishment in the aftermath of the war. An important department receiving a boost at this time were the marine workshops located at various ports. New warehouses and cranes were installed as new and larger ships replaced wartime losses. These resources were engaged on maintenance and repair work not only on ships but also on port equipment including cranes and vehicles. Most routine overhaul and repair work on the ships were undertaken by in-house staff with the skill and expertise demanded to ensure the well being of a fleet consisting of the finest ships of the day. Extensive marine workshops were based at Holyhead which boasted two dry docks. Most, if not all, Irish Sea, North Channel and St George’s Channel ships were dry docked in Holyhead as were some visitors from the English Channel as demand dictated.

In an effort to create greater efficiencies the Shipping and International Services Department was established at the BTC in January 1957, but the regions were still responsible for the operation of shipping.

During the 1960s British Railways underwent a radical reorganisation. Upon the abolition of the BTC its Chairman, Dr Richard Beeching, was appointed Chairman of the new British Railways Board (BRB) on 1st January 1963. The report "The Reshaping of British Railways" was published in later that year and in it the BRB presented a plan for a new, more efficient, and smaller service to counteract what was seen as an uneconomic operation.

The Shipping and International Services Department survived the ending of the BTC and became part of the BRB's organisation with a general manager and support staff reporting to a board member. The regions' responsibilities were not altered by this reorganisation. As part of its new image, British Railways was rebranded as British Rail. It decided that a new identity was needed and in 1964/65 the new corporate image with its double arrow logo was introduced.

One factor to hinder British Rail in the 1960s was car ferry design and, coupled with steam propulsion, this would eventually have a major effect on the lifespan of many ships. Although BR was extremely forward thinking when it came to building Britain’s first drive-on, drive-off vessels, it lagged behind in the mid sixties as vessels with insufficient vehicle deck headroom for trucks and bow doors were shunned.  It is interesting to note that one full year before the arrival of the Holyhead Ferry I the modern Thoresen vessels Viking I and Viking II, (the latter becoming the Earl William in 1977) diesel powered and boasting bow and stern through loading, entered service at Southampton on routes abandoned by British Railways one year earlier. And further, just one year before the “Vikings” came Harwich’s steam powered Avalon, a pure passenger vessel capable only of accepting a few crane loaded cars as it was not believed her route to the Hook of Holland would develop as a car ferry service. Five years later she would be joined by the St George, a modern diesel with both bow and stern doors. 

The regions finally lost the control of shipping on 1st January 1968 when the Shipping and International Services Division was formed. The division was responsible for all British Rail shipping services, railway owned ports and the development of traffic and liaison with continental and Irish railway administrations. It had its own committee which was chaired by a board member. The division's organisation was established on the basis of a report by McKinsey and Company Inc, being approved by the British Railways Board in July 1968 and formally implemented on 1st August of that year. The full transfer of staff to the division was completed on 11th August 1969. 

British Rail ownership of shipping services continued through the 1970s. On 1st January 1979 the Shipping and International Services Division ceased to exist and its function, assets and staff were transferred to a new company wholly owned by the Board named Sealink UK Ltd. The trade name of Sealink had been used for British Railways' marine services, along with the shipping services of the continental railways organisations since January 1970.


In July 1984, in what became known as the Sale of the Century, the British Government sold Sealink U.K. Ltd for the extremely low price of £66 million. The purchasers were Bermuda-based Sea Containers Ltd led by its charismatic President Mr James B. Sherwood. Restyled as Sealink British Ferries, a plethora of new plans and schemes were announced by the new owners but sadly very few of these actually came to pass.

Another sale saw the bulk of Sealink British Ferries' operations pass to Sweden's Stena Line on 31 May 1990 for £259 million. This company was no stranger to UK ferry operations having chartered many vessels to BR and Sealink over the years.

Under the Stena Line flag, today's ferry operations at Holyhead, while very different from that of its predecessors, are no less impressive. While the names of such venerable ships as St Columba, Hibernia and Cambria are long since gone, those of Stena Adventurer, Stena Nordica and Stena Explorer continue the line on an operation built on the traditional and heritage of a great seafaring past.

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