MV Royal Iris: The Liverpudlian icon abandoned in the Thames

Once a happenin’ pad The Beatles called home, and a platform for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the MV Royal Iris now lurks – abandoned and derelict – on the Thames, facing an undignified end

The iconic river Thames may appear unsuspecting and calm, but London’s gently lapping waters disguise plenty of murky secrets.

Yet, you don’t have to delve below the facet to discover something suspicious – such as the rusting hulk of an unsung British icon.

On the south side of the river in Woolwich, just down the bank from the Thames Barrier, a decaying wreck has slowly been deteriorating in full view of residents and tourists alike.

Abandoned on its moorings to the mercy of the elements since 2002, the MV Royal Iris casts a dejected shadow across prime London real estate.

Listing violently to starboard and partly submerged, the once-proud Liverpudlian ferry now fields endless complaints as an ‘eye-sore on the riverscape’.

However, it wasn’t always this way.

Turn the clock back to the 20th century and MV Royal Iris once played a firm part in British history – from Elvis Costello and The Beatles, to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, the Clyde-build vessel supported no-end of Albion icons.

Once the trendiest ship afloat, as it glided up the bustling River Mersey on an all-night music cruise, the now-discarded ferry currently echoes contemporary emptiness and bygone glories.

It’s quite clear that her fate hangs in limbo, despite numerous attempts on behalf of several organisations to save the ship from crumbling into the riverbed. Quite frankly, it’s no way for a 70-year-old ‘article of virtu’ to end her days.

The rotting hulk will undoubtedly be removed eventually, but until then you can visit her shell by swinging around to Thameside Studios Car Park (SE18 5NR).

You can also view MV Royal Iris on Google Maps in all her delipidated splendour.

The MV Royal Iris when shiny and new. You can literally smell the paint. Credit: Picryl

1960s-70s: MV Royal Iris’ popularity and fame

Constructed in Dumbarton by William Denny and Brothers upon the River Clyde, the 159-ft long vessel first hit the water in 1950; before arriving for service in Liverpool one year later.

Employed as a ferry that boasted of capacity for 2,296 passengers, or a reduced volume of 1000 people for evening river cruises, the MV Royal Iris showcased a range of stand-out features that ensured mere commercial status was surpassed.

The ship’s onboard dance floor and concert facilities quickly secured an elite place in Liverpool’s cultural DNA, attracting a wide array of rising stars – from Gerry & The Peacemakers and The Searchers, to The Beatles and Brian Newman – alongside those seeking pleasure cruises up the River Mersey.

The ferry offered an oh-so-fancy tearoom and buffet and cocktail bar, while the much-celebrated fish and chip saloon quickly developed the vessel’s popularity.

Lovingly nicknamed the “fish and chip boat”, live music would accompany an evening of food and dancing, all set against the backdrop of Liverpool’s historic docklands and river.

During this time, The Beatles graced the stage on four occasions between August 1961 and September 1962, with Sir Paul McCartney paying homage to time aboard during his 2007 masterpiece That Was Me: "Well that was me, Royal Iris, on the river, Merseybeatin with the band, that was me."

As the years progressed, the Royal Iris then hosted a pre-fame Elvis Costello following a refit in 1972, with the admired fish and chip saloon removed in favour of a steak bar and dining area.

The vessel’s redesign may have upset and alienated loyal customers, but it certainly didn’t discourage Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh from stepping aboard.

With the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in full swing by the summer of 1977, Liz & Phil utilised Royal Iris for a journey down the Mersey – deputising for the Royal Yacht Britannia – waving at crowds and absorbing the North West’s friendly atmosphere, before traversing Liverpool’s streets via the state Range Rover.

Granada Television then used the boat as their setting for the ITV Saturday morning children’s TV show, The Mersey Pirate, broadcast during the summer of 1979 from a dome structure built on the promenade deck.

The show attracted further celebrities aboard, including actor David Prowse (Star War’s Darth Vader) alongside Irish band The Undertones.

The MV Royal Iris once frequented Liverpool's dockside. Credit: Wikicommons

1980s: Flying the flag for Liverpool

The neon-lit 1980s found the Royal Iris acting as brand ambassador for Liverpool, through thick and thin.

The boat (and the other three Mersey Ferries - Mountwood, Snowdrop and Overchurch) received a fresh red, white and blue livery to celebrate 1984’s International Garden Festival on the Otterspool parkland and promenade.

As a celebration of Liverpool’s culture, it would have been uncivil not to include the famous 'fish and chip boat.'

Not long afterwards, throughout April and May 1985, the vessel departed Liverpool for the first time since delivery from Dumbarton. Dispatched on a 1500-mile round trip towards London to undertake a Liverpudlian publicity drive, she sailed around Land’s End and up the Thames to Tower Bridge.

Docking adjacent to the mighty HMS Belfast, Royal Iris sounded the claxon on behalf of all Scousers, with the intent of bringing back Mersey-side investment from London’s big-spending business world.

However, of all the events that truly tied Royal Iris to Liverpool’s heartfelt heritage, nothing came close to the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster – a fatal human crush during a football match on April 15, 1989.

As one of the 20th century’s deadliest and most emotionally-charged tragedies, Hillsborough became ultimately responsible for 97 deaths and 766 injuries. Unethical media coverage from The Sun newspaper, amid harshly unscrupulous police commentary, irreparably wounded Liverpool’s soul.

The relationship between print media and Liverpudlians remains frayed to this day.

During Liverpool’s darkest hour, the vessel offered a form of recognisable Scouse identity and honour. Royal Iris was therefore chosen as the setting for a memorial to the Liverpool football fans killed in the disaster.

Family members of the victims, alongside Liverpool players who were present during the crush, stood on deck for a memorial service to mark the disaster’s six-month anniversary. Flowers were thrown into the Mersey from the deck of Royal Iris to commemorate the dead as the nation fell silent.

A common sight during the later half of the 20th century, MV Royal Iris brought nightlife and transport to Liverpool. Credit: Wikicommons

1990s: Trouble

By 1991, Royal Iris was showing serious signs of wear. Funding was acquired to revamp the Mersey’s other three ferries, but the ageing “fish and chip boat” was considered unviable by the moneymen.

As fuel became more expensive and timeliness grew paramount to performance, Liverpool’s famous ferry was appraised as surplus to requirements and too expensive to warrant renovation for modern standards.

A farewell cruise took place on the evening of January 12, 1991, before being decommissioned and laid up on the Mersey for her inevitable scrapping procedure.

However, a last-minute reprieve prevented an ignoble end in the breakers yard, and the boat was granted a 24-hour license (from the committee-driven Department of Transport) to mark the 73rd Anniversary of the Zeebrugge Raid (1918).

Carrying 600 people, the Royal Iris celebrated the Liverpudlian connection with 1918’s daring Navy raid – an action that found King George V bestowing royal titles upon Liverpool’s participating vessels of the time.

It almost seemed as though MV Royal Iris had escaped her initial doomed fate, yet she subsequently ended up in the hands of shipbrokers SC Chambers Limited on August 16, 1991.

Sold to a consortium for £100,000 two months later, plans were drawn to convert her into a floating nightclub, restaurant and business centre. This decision was clearly influenced by the success of the Tuxedo Princess in Newcastle.

Christened 'Mr Smith’s Nightclub' (catchy), Royal Iris was delivered to the Stanley Dock complex during the first quarter of 1992. Painted bright blue, with a red band of paint around the top deck, the future looked bright for Liverpool’s beloved ferry.

Then things changed.

Saturday, August 7, 1993

The Liverpool Echo carried disheartening front page news on the morning of August 7, 1993. In short, original plans to keep Royal Iris on the Mersey had been overwritten by boardroom exploits.

Hertfordshire-based Parkway Leisure had purchased the vessel and planned to inject £300k into refurbishments before stealing the ferry away and mooring up in Cardiff.

Not that Royal Iris wanted to leave Liverpool.

During the two-hour operation to remove the “fish and chip boat” from Stanley Dock, she broke free from her tow line and slapped the dock wall twice.

Literally dragged from her beloved city, Royal Iris left Liverpool for the last time – passing Pier Head (the start and end point of her all-night music cruises of the 1960s) for a final goodbye - on August 12, 1993.

Yet, behind the headlines, things were falling apart. Just as the ferry departed from Merseyside waters, Cardiff Council announced their rejection of planning proposals for the venture.

As no work had been carried out on Royal Iris, and berthing charges remained unpaid, Parkway Leisure suddenly proclaimed that they were 'open to offers' for the ex-ferry.

Naturally, Liverpudlians did not take kindly to the whoring and financial abuse of their cherished icon. As the calendar flickered open to welcome January of 1996, reports circulated of a Merseyside business consortium who remained hell-bent on bringing Royal Iris home.

With talks of National Lottery funding and the launch of a public subscription campaign, hopes were high.

Then, in a twist of fate, everything fell through. No venture came to fruition. No money was raised, and the ferry remained stranded in Cardiff awaiting the next round of decisions.

MV Royal Iris moored at Woolwich during September 2011. Credit: Wikicommons

2000s: Abandoned in London

As celebrations for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee took Great Britain by force, Royal Iris was towed to a berth on the River Thames near Woolwich.

Once an important part of the preceding Silver Jubilee events in 1977, it felt befitting to announce fresh plans to turn the ferry into a floating casino and nightclub.

She still offered a radiance of retro splendour as her iconic profile drew a new line across the Woolwich area. Locals welcomed the opportunity to house such a culturally significant legend of the 20th century, but these warm vibes evaporated as plans were discarded and the ferry lay abandoned.

A call was made to the authorities on February 6, 2010, reporting that the ferry had taken on water and was sinking.

Once police and the RNLI turned up, evidence was found to suggest that squatters had been living on board. Further investigations also revealed that the boat had been used as a drugs den. Rock’n’roll, indeed.

Since then, news about the Royal Iris has died away. Left to the rages of weather and time, the ferry has long since surpassed any potential of rescue, lingering on the Thames in an ever-increasing state of disrepair.

Rust and rot have savaged the hull, with her name now barely legible amongst the sun-baked layers of paint and encroaching mildew. Her decaying innards are seemingly a refuge for pigeons and seagulls, strewn with faeces and sour riverbed muck.

MV Royal Iris looks to be unsalvageable. It’s impossible to drive forward with hope that someone would invest the millions of pounds required to save the vessel. For now, she continues to rest on the mudbank with a gaping hole in her hull, destined to annoy the local residents and provide fuel for political discussion.

Destined to rot into the Thames? Credit: Wikicommons

Will the MV Royal Iris be moving anytime soon?

She’s likely to be there until the wreck is deemed dangerous to life. The estimated cost of taking the vessel back to Liverpool exceeds £100,000 and, according to the Government, such an action is therefore unlikely to go ahead.

While it remains unclear who is responsible for the boat, or indeed who currently owns the vessel, what we can ascertain is this: MV Royal Iris deserves a far better fate than rotting into the Thames.

At the end of the day, venues waste away, but the music performed on MV Royal Iris certainly lives on in our cultural fabric.

Most recent articles

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.