THE FERRY ACROSS THE MERSEY

It is a fine Saturday morning in the midsummer of 1911.

One man sits on a river bank and contemplates the future political landscape of the world.

He is not from these parts.

The man is Austrian and has come to England to avoid conscription to the army of Austria-Hungary.

He stays at the terraced house in a city suburb of his older half-brother, Irish wife and young baby.

He speaks not a word of English.

He has a passion for painting and two years spent in a Viennese art academy have served him well.

He has aspirations of becoming a famous and successful artist but he knows in his heart of hearts that he has a mission to fulfil and that his true vocation lies elsewhere.

From where he sits, Pier Head is visible as a a hive of industry, bustling with dock workers, horses and carts.

The Royal Liver Building stands proudly on the riverside as Britain’s first skycraper, publicly opened only a few days ago by George V.

A gunboat is uneasily anchored across river.

The Austrian could be dreaming that he is back in his homeland and spending this Saturday morning on the banks of the Danube in Vienna.

But he sits on the banks of the Mersey in the city of Liverpool in the north-west of England.

He cuts a lonely figure against the thrust of the westerly wind blowing in from the Irish sea and the famed thick fog which has cast itself over the maritime life of the river and its endless activity of steamers.

The Austrian is a frequent traveller on the ferry across the Mersey and ‘The Snowdrop’ is his personal favourite.

If ever there is a day and a place and a man which changed the world, then this is that day, that place and that man.

In the briskness of the wind blowing in from the Irish sea, one of the sketches blows away, retrieved in an instant by a stooping,  well-dressed man with a closed umbrella and a bowler hat out for a morning stroll.

There is no acknowledgement of thanks, no words spoken, no handshake but in the brief exchange of eye contact , there is a captured moment in time which would stay with the two men for a lifetime.

The well-dressed man is no mere pedestrian.  He is the Home Secretary for the British Government.

Later that day, the man would address a crowd of thousands of dockers, seafarers and transport workers on the plateau next to St. Georges Hall and just a stone’s throw away from Lime Street Rail station.

What started a week ago as a dispute in the Welsh valleys over whether workers should be paid per ton of coal extracted or by the hour had escalated into social unrest in the city of Liverpool which would affect all forms of transportation, ferries and trams alike.

Word on the street was that troops were being deployed in case the situation got seriously out of hand and the police constabulary could not handle it.

It seemed to the stranger in the Mersey mist that the intolerance of civil authority towards mass demonstration was fragile and there was a lesson to be learnt for his mission.

The Austrian would certainly learn much about the man who was clearly held in the highest regard by the British people and who would one day become their leader as well his own greatest adversary.

The Austrian stood in the background of the crowd and absorbed the dynamics of the speech of the Home Secretary.  It is not hard to imagine the impact it had on him.

The people of Liverpool were reminded that it was barely ten years since the death of Queen Victoria,  that Edward VII died only last Spring and that George V reigned over Great Britain now.

The people were encouraged to feel proud  of a new unsinkable ship called Titanic which will set sail for America within a few months and which the dockworkers of Liverpool helped to build.

The stay of the Austrian and his half-brother may well have been  no more than an elaborate muse.

By the spring of 1913, both men had left Liverpool and England.   Europe, though yet to realize it, was preparing for war.

The true mission of the Austrian was becoming ever clearer through the Mersey Mist.

It was time now for Operation Snowdrop.

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