The Ships of the Chester River: interview and talk by Richard Martin

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

In 'normal', pre Pandemic years, Chester is popular with tourists. Some of them come off the cruise ships docking in Liverpool ready to be greeted with Blue Badge Guides. As in years gone by membership of the Chester Tourist Guild is an essential qualification entitling them to guide coaches of punters around the city.

Roman Tour Guide and author Richard Martin outside the Chester Visitor Information Office.

I was surprised to find from Richard Martin, author of 'Ships of the Chester River', the docking of cruise ships is a fairly recent phenomena. For the twenty years until 1992, the cruise ships had given Liverpool a miss, and it is thanks to Richard Martin, who was working for the Mersey Docks at the time, that they have made a welcome re-appearance. This, he says, is the highlight of his 43-year career in Marketing and Business Development at the dock, having gone straight there from university in Sheffield. His job was to persuade ship-owners to use Liverpool rather than other ports. Clearly he something he did with much success. Three ships called in 1992 and then over two hundred calls in the next twenty years. He believes that over sixty vessels call at Liverpool in 'normal' years, many of them carrying over 2,500 passengers.

Richard at a presentation ceremony aboard a new cruise vessel anchored in the Mersey c. 2002.

Richard is a local man, his favourite early experiences in Chester involved transport: seeing the Royal Scots locomotive pulling into Chester Station from the Hoole Railway Bridge for instance, or the Mosquito and Lancaster bombers during an Open Day at Broughton Aircraft factory.But it was always the water that seemed to have the greater pull: coming across the hulks of barges in the Dee branch of the canal on a dark foggy night as he walked home from his cousin's house in Whipcord Lane, seeing the pleasure craft as he walked alongside the River Dee with his father, who was a sea-farer in the nineteen twenties and thirties, culminating in being taken, aged seven, on the overhead railway to see the fire-damaged 'Empress of Canada' in Gladstone Dock in Liverpool.

Richard Martin with his book 'Ships of the Chester River at the 'Meet the Author' event in the Chester Visitor Information Centre 2018.

He wrote his first piece about maritime history while studying geography at the University in 1968, and began his research for 'Ships of the Chester River' the next year, but only when he retired in 2012 did he get chance to pull it all together to produce this valuable book. It's packed full of information and of huge interest to anyone interested in Chester's history and heritage, well-illustrated with maps, landscapes and, of course, ships.

Richard has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his research for the book below.

CHF: What was the most surprising thing you discovered writing your book?

RM: In my researches into shipbuilding on the River Dee since 1800 two surprising facts come to mind. There were many vessels built at Chester itself before 1800- (another 236 I have found so far ,mostly built after 1750) and secondly Cheese was a vital part of the trade of the Port of Chester from1650 and there was a dedicated fleet of vessels involved in taking cheese to London for 200 years 1650-1850!- some of them were built at Chester.

[There is more fascinating discussion about the transport and importance of the Cheshire Cheese-making industry in Richard's talk 'Shipbuilding in Chester since 1700' on the Chester Heritage Festival YouTube Channel here: ]

The Old Port of Chester showing the cheese ship next to the cheese warehouses on the left side.of the picture. Plate from 'Ships of the Chester River'.

CHF: I see from your book that little remains of Chester’s shipbuilding epoch, but is there anywhere you’d recommend to get the best impression of what there once was?

RM: Downstream of the Railway bridge by the Racecourse and the old Port area where some of the Warehouses remain surrounded by apartment buildings Remains off one slipway can still be seen.

Scene from the Old Port area of Chester.

CHF: Which ship builder or ship would you have most liked to meet or encounter?

RM: Shipbuilder I would have most liked to meet - the Mulvey family because it is the only Chester shipbuilder which was run by a lady for a period after 1839 when Thomas Mulvey died-Peggy Mulvey took over and signed off the builders certificates for a number of 3 masted ships.

Mino: Plate from 'Ships of the Chester River'

For more information see Richard Martin's Talk 'Shipbuilding in Chester Since 1700' on the Chester Heritage Festival YouTube Channel here:

Clare Dudman. September 2021.

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