Britain’s railway services originally developed as private ventures, but during the two world wars in the 20th century, they were brought under government control and in the 1920’s were consolidated into 4 main regional services. On 1 January 1948 the four main railway operators in Britain (LMS, LNER, SR and GWR) were nationalized and became part of the British Transport Commission (British Railways). The railways had ferries as an extension of their transport lines across the English Channel and the Irish Sea, in order to provide integrated ‘through services’ to Europe and Ireland. Most of these ferry services were nationalized along with the parent railway companies.

British Rail

British Railways Board (BRB) was re-branded in 1965 as ‘British Rail’, with new corporate colours and logo. In 1968, before air travel became widely affordable, an Act of Parliament was passed separating the shipping interests of British Rail from its land operations, with a new division, the British Rail Shipping and International Services division, being formed in 1969. The Shipping and International division took responsibility for all BRB maritime operations, except the Caledonian and MacBrayne fleets, which moved from the railways to the new Scottish Transport Group.


In 1970, the marketing name ‘Sealink’ was adopted for the organization. For the most part, the new company simply took over the operations of the existing ferries and routes of the former railway operators, but Sealink also ran services to France, Belgium and the Netherlands using ferries owned by French national railways, the SNCF, the Belgian Maritime Transport Authority, Regie voor Maritiem Transport / Regie des transports maritimes (RMT/RTM) and the Dutch Stoomvaart Maatschappij Zeeland (Zeeland Steamship Company).

Sealink Ulidia Govan Docks

Sealink’s Ulidia, Govan Docks in the 1980s.

By the end of the 1970s the tradition of passengers and freight arriving at the ferry ports by rail was declining rapidly and was being replaced by air travel and vehicle movements that required ships with ro-ro (roll on – roll off) characteristics. There was no longer a strong business reason for the ferry services to be owned by the railways and in 1979 they were moved to a new company – Sealink UK Ltd, in preparation for privatisation. The ships retained the livery of black and red funnel with white ‘opposing arrows’, and but the black hull was repained monastral blue with the word ‘Sealink’ in white lettering.

sealink ferries

Sealink’s Horsa and Maid of Orleans, Dover, 1970s. Photo:

sealink isle of wight to portsmouth Photo:

Sealink  Ferry from Isle of Wight to Portsmouth, 1970s

Sealink British Ferries

In what was described as the “Sale of the Century” the company, comprising 37 (reputedly largely obsolete) ships, 10 harbours and 24 routes, was sold on 27 July 1984 to US-Virgin Island-based Sea Containers for the low sum of just £66 million. In 1985, the trading name of the ferry company was altered to “Sealink British Ferries”, with white hulls replacing blue ones and the funnel design changing to blue with an irreverently termed ‘galloping maggot’ logo in gold replacing the white arrows.

Substantial investment, which was much needed, was promised by the company president, whilst, in February 1985, the new Sealink British Ferries had entered an agreement with rivals British and Irish Line (B+I) to rationalise sailings on the Irish Sea. Provided for in the agreement was co-operation between the two companies and the elimination of sailing duplication on the Holyhead and Fishguard routes to Ireland, as well as the deputising of B+I ships while Sealink vessels were being overhauled. The move was generally unpopular, especially with crews, and as a result the January 1986 overhaul relief programme was to fall apart due to industrial unrest and the strike action that followed. The relationship between the two companies was further strained in April 1987 when Sealink introduced the freight ship Stena Sailer to supplement sailings of its ship, instead of using a B+I vessel, and by the end of the year the partnership was at an end.

Sealink Stena Lines

In 1990, after a lengthy battle, Sealink British Ferries was acquired in a hostile take-over by the Swedish ‘Stena’ shipping line. The service was run as Sealink Stena Line until 1995, when the ‘Sealink’ name was finally dropped. Again, following Sealink’s acquisition by Stena Line in 1990 a massive fleetwide investment programme was announced, which was carried through with the refitting of some ships and the introduction of new multi-purpose ferries and later the High Speed Sea-services (HSS) catamarans.

Inland Ferries

Interestingly, apart from its sea-going ferries, Sealink also operated the “Steamer” passenger ferry services on Windermere lake in Cumbria until these operations were passed to the Windermere Iron Steamboat Company during privatization in 1984 under the Thatcher-led government.

Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead

One of the ferry routes between Britain and Ireland runs between Holyhead on Holy Island off Anglesea in Wales and Dun Laoghaire, south of the city of Dublin, in Eire. The following is a brief précis of the establishment and historical development of each of the harbours.

Dun Laoghaire

The harbour of Dun Laoghaire took twenty-five years to build, commencing in 1817, when the town was known as Dunleary (it was changed to Kingstown in 1821, then to Dun Laoghaire (the Gaellic version of Dunleary) in 1920. Further construction continued until 1859.

It was sited at the most suitable point in Dublin Bay for a harbour, after a shipping tragedy during a storm in 1807 costing over 400 lives prompted authorities to look into provide a refuge harbour for the City of Dublin. Previously, owing to silting, ships had to anchor off-shore and send passengers and goods ashore in boats.

In 1826 the mail service from Britain was transferred from Howth to Kingstown and a special wharf was built in the harbour for the packet steamers. In 1834 the first railway line in Ireland was built from Westland Row to Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown), and the town’s population more than doubled from 5,500 to 11,500 between 1831 and 1851.

The combined growth in efficiency and speed of both the railway and the steam packet ships made Kingstown a central point for travel between Ireland and Britain. The average crossing time to Holyhead in 1860 was 5 hours and 40 minutes, by 1896 it had dropped to 2 hours and 51 minutes.

Sealink Horsa Ferry

Sealink Horsa at Dun Laoghaire. Photo:


In the early 1800’s, it was also recognized that there was a need for a new safe harbour at Holyhead. Construction began in January 1848 and lasted 28 years, with the Holyhead Breakwater being the longest breakwater in the United Kingdom, at 3km (1.7mi) in length. It was officially opened by Albert Edward, the then Prince of Wales, on 19 August 1873. The railway extension between the station and Admiralty Pier was opened on 20th May 1851.

Brunel’s ill-fated ship the Great Eastern visited Holyhead in October 1859 on its trial voyage to gauge whether the new harbour would be a suitable port from where she could depart for her transatlantic crossings. The Prince Consort, accompanied by other royal visitors and dignitaries were given a tour of the ship on 17 October, but on the night of the 25th a gale struck the area and sank a passing ship, the “Royal Charter”, with the loss of 459 lives. The Great Eastern managed to ride out the storm within the breakwater, but she never visited Holyhead again.

LNWR (London and North West Railway) developed berthing facilities on the west shore in 1865, and enlarged them in 1870 with a new platform and waiting room for LNWR steamer passengers. The platforms were designed so that passengers could transfer from train to ship with greater ease, and each quay could berth two ships. The station was opened by the then Prince of Wales and a large clock was built to mark the occasion.

Owing to the commencement of the Fishguard/Rosslare Irish Sea crossing route in 1902, the Holyhead/Dun Laoghaire route faced stiff competition, with accompanying pressure on its growing economy. The White Line decision in 1909 that ships on the Liverpool-New York run could call at Holyhead to save hours on the London connection for rail passengers, and the berthing of its liner the “Cedric” in Holyhead in the same year, brought much optimism to the harbour, as did the announcement that the liners Laurentic and Megantic in the Canadian trade would call at Holyhead, with a possibility of the proposed sister ships Olympic and Titanic also calling. Bad weather conditions and few passengers taking advantage of the time saving crossing caused the liners to stop calling at Holyhead in 1910, with Cunard lines beginning to operate from Fishguard instead. In 1920, however, LNWR won the sea mail contract and commenced operation with four new steamers from Holyhead, reviving its fortunes once again.

By the mid-1970′s the port provided a year-round car ferry service, with a new terminal being built and improvements made to the Customs hall, mail and baggage facilities to include facilities for motor vehicles.

British Rail / Sealink Ferries on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route

The following is a brief look at the main ferries that operated on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route during the Sealink era.

Sealink Freight Ferry Dun Laoghaire 1989

Sealink Ferry Dun Laoghaire 1989. Photo:

The Cambria and the Hibernia

The Cambria and the Hibernia were two BTC / British Rail motor-driven passenger ferries launched in 1948, which served the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route until 1976, when they were sold off. Although they were passenger-only ferries, the economy of their diesel engines compared with the steam turbines in several later BR / Sealink ferries enabled them to enjoy a much longer service life than the latter.

Holyhead Ferry 1

The unimaginatively-named Holyhead Ferry 1 entered service in Holyhead in 1965. She was a ‘stern-loader’ (with a vehicle ramp built into her stern) able to ferry 150 cars and 1,000 passengers. In 1973 she was moved to the Weymouth-Channel Islands route and in 1976 she was converted to a ‘drive-through’ vessel, to increase her vehicle-carrying capacity and reduce loading and off-loading time. She returned to service on the Dover-Boulogne route, renamed the Earl Leofric. However, she was driven by steam turbines and could not compete in terms of costs with her competitors and was scrapped only 5 years later, in 1981.

When the Holyhead Ferry 1 was redeployed to the English Channel in 1973, she was replaced by two ships, her sister ship the Dover, and the Duke of Rothesay. The latter was built in 1956 and was among the last of the passenger-only steamers built for British Rail, although some of her accommodation was converted into a side-access vehicle deck in 1967, and then to a stern-loader in 1972. Because of the cost of running her steam-turbine engines, her service in the Irish Sea was short-lived, and she was scrapped in 1975.

The Dover

The Dover sailed the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route until the end of 1975, but returned in late 1976 to cover for the damaged Avalon relief ship. In 1977 the Dover was refitted from a ‘stern-loader’ to a ‘drive-through’ vessel and returned to service as the Earl Siward on the Channel route. She continued to do occasional relief work in the Irish Sea until 1980. In 1981 she was sold off to a Cypriot ferry company and in 1983 she was laid up due to turbine problems. In 1986 she returned to the UK for a rather inauspicious career as a (static) floating nightclub in Gateshead and then in Middlesborough, under the name Tuxedo Express!

St Columba and St David

In May 1977 a new 8,000 ton passenger ro-ro (roll-on/roll-off) ship, St Columba, commenced two sailings daily to Dun Laoghaire. The St Columba could carry 325 cars and 2,400 passengers. Unfortunately, engine trouble dogged her early years and this caused problems with relief vessels as none could match her large carrying capacity. Each summer until 1985, a second ship augmented the St Columba, including such notable ships as Duke of Lancaster, Avalon and Lord Warden.

sealink duke of lancaster

Sealink Duke of Lancaster, Wales. The ferry was beached and sadly left to rust.

In August 1981, the St David was introduced as a second ship on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route. She could carry 1,000 passengers and 309 cars or 62 commercial vehicles and was originally intended for the Fishguard to Rosslare service, but was instead deployed to Holyhead as the second ship. She was found to be more economical to run during the quieter winter months, and soon took over as the route’s main ship, but by early 1983, after the St Columba had been refitted to become a single-class ship, the roles were again reversed and the St David then spent her winter months relieving at other ports. For a short period she was on the Dover – Ostend service, but in 1986 she was placed permanently on the Stranraer to Larne route, although she relieved the St Columba for a spell in April 1988. The St David was renamed the Stena Caledonia in 1990 and remained on the Irish Sea service until sold to an Indonesian company in 2012 and renamed the Port Link.

In April 1986, after the privatisation of Sealink, the St Columba was given an £80,000 major refurbishment and was able to boast the highest standards thus far to be seen on a British ferry.

As part of the investment programme after takeover by Stena Lines Ltd, the St Columba underwent an £8m refit, designed to transform her into a floating leisure centre in line with Stena’s “Travel Service Concept” which would encourage people to travel all year round, simply for the fun of the onboard experience. The St Columba was the first ship in the fleet to undergo this treatment and, in addition to a new look, she returned to service with a new name, the Stena Hibernia.

Although the renaming was an attempt on the part of Stena Lines to honour a long tradition going back almost a century and a half to when the first Hibernia arrived at Holyhead, the St Columba had by then become almost as well known to an Irishman as a pint of Guinness, and for weeks after her return to service Ireland’s national newspapers contained letters of regret that her once comfortable and pleasing lounges had been sacrificed for the glitzy Stena look.

The Vortigern

An interesting ship which served briefly on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route was the Vortigern. She was built in 1969 as a combined train/vehicle ferry for Dover and Folkestone, and marked a revolution for the local fleet in that she was the first Dover BR vessel to be driven by a diesel engine and to be built with a drive-through car deck, complete with bow visor. For some time she sailed as a train ferry to Dunkerque in winter and as a car ferry to Oostende in summer. She later became almost exclusively a car ferry, but her strengthened hull (for railway carriages) served her well in March 1982 when she ran aground on the breakwater next to the port entrance at Oostende. Her passengers had to be disembarked using lifeboats and, after waiting 4 days for a very high tide, she was eventually freed. The stresses of lying with bows in the air would have caused most ships to break their backs, but the Vortigern’s strengthened hull for the train ferry service allowed her to survive!

The Vortigern ended her Sealink career on the Holyhead – Dun Laoghaire route in March 1988, before being sold to Lindos Lines in Greece and renamed the Milos Express.