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Coronavirus

We regret to announce that Bidston Lighthouse will be closed to visitors until Tuesday 9th June 2020 at the earliest.

During this time, the residents of the Lighthouse Cottages will be in self-isolation, in accordance with the current UK Government’s guidelines concerning the Coronavirus pandemic.

We will review the situation as the pandemic develops.

Please check our website before planning your visit.

ALK Archives Working Bee and Film Screening

A unique opportunity to discover the films and audio held in the archives of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, including reel-to-reel and video footage.

The three-day event will be run under the auspices of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK), with support from Bidston Lighthouse (where the ALK Archives are held) and Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre (where the event will take place).

The goal of the weekend is to check the film footage currently held in the ALK Archive, reviewing the contents and condition of various reels of cine film, super-8, VHS cassettes, DVDs and perhaps slides. We hope that this event will improve the catalogue and set some priorities for preservation and digitising. There are likely to be two screening rooms most of the time and our Archivist would like ALK members to be involved in the selection, screening, handling, note-taking etc. during the event.

The event will begin on the afternoon of Friday 28th February. A buffet supper will be provided that evening with the screenings beginning at around 7pm. The screenings will continue through Saturday and Sunday and there is the possibility of visits to Bidston Lighthouse on the Saturday and Leasowe Lighthouse on the Sunday afternoon.

The charge for attending the event is £7.50 per person per day or £15 per person per night for those wishing to stay over at the Observatory, which contains superior Youth Hostel-style accommodation with shared rooms. Food will be provided at the following prices: £3 for breakfast, £5 for lunch, and £6 for dinner. Tea, coffee, soft drinks, cakes and biscuits will be included in the daily charge.

Booking

Pre-booking is essential, both for day visitors and residents.

There are limited accommodation spaces and, as a result, they will be allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

To sign up for the event or find out more call 0151 653 7816 (speak to Mandy or Stephen) or email archive@alk.org.uk


Provisional Programme

Friday

As some people will be travelling from far afield, Friday’s activities will be fairly informal.

2pm – 6pm Informal workshop. Set-up, equipment checking, practice screenings.

6pm – 9pm. Dinner. A buffet-style dinner will be available until 9pm, so that late arrivals need not go hungry.

7:30pm – 10:30pm. Screenings in room 1.

Saturday

Breakfast available (Observatory residents only).

10am – 1pm Cine-film Screenings in room 1

10am – 1pm Other Screenings in room 2

1pm – 2pm Lunch

2pm – 6pm Screenings in room 1

2pm – 3:30pm Optional tour of Bidston Lighthouse (including visit to the archives). There will be no charge for the tour, but donations towards the maintenance of the lighthouse will be gratefully accepted.

3:30pm – 6pm Screenings in room 2

6pm – 7pm Chill. A chance to relax and socialise.

7pm Dinner

8:30pm – 10:30pm Screenings in room 1

Sunday

Breakfast available (Observatory residents only).

10am – 1pm Cine-film Screenings in room 1

10am – 1pm Other Screenings in room 2

1pm – 2pm Lunch

2pm End of formal proceedings.

Those who don’t need to travel home straight away might consider:

  • Helping pack up and return film and equipment to the Archives at Bidston Lighthouse next door. We will be grateful.
  • Visiting Leasowe Lighthouse, which will be open from 12 noon until 4pm (last tour at 3:30pm, normal charges will apply). Leasowe Lighthouse is a short 10-15 minute drive away.
  • Going for a walk on Bidston Hill (very pleasant if the weather is fair). Copies of the Bidston Hill Heritage Trail booklet will be available at both the Lighthouse and Observatory (recommended donation of 50p to the Friends of Bidston Hill).
  • Visiting the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales in Liverpool. The aircraft carrier will arrive in Liverpool on Friday 28th February, and stay for a week. The Royal Navy says: “Exact timings for the ship’s arrival in Liverpool, and details of how to obtain tickets to visit the ship, will be announced in due course, dependent on weather conditions and operational commitments.”

Acknowledgments

The organisers would like to thank Tate Liverpool and Wirralcam for the loan of audiovisual equipment.

 

Beware the roof!

The tragic death of John Hartnup Jr

A ghost story by Stephen Pickles, October 2016.

John rose early that fateful Thursday in April, 1892, just as he did every day.

The last few weeks had been unusually difficult. Firstly, the one o-clock gun had failed to fire on several occasions. He’d checked and re-checked the equipment at the Observatory end of the cable. He’d finally traced the problem to a bad batch of fuses at Morpeth Dock, but not before several important persons had filed angry complaints with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. He’d lost count of the endless letters and telegrams all demanding an immediate response, and he’d started to dread the sound of footsteps coming from the Lighthouse, which were invariably followed by the assistant telegrapher’s cheerful announcement “Telegram for Mr Hartnup”.

Then there was the horde of youths from the YMCA who’d come to visit on Saturday. He’d survived the ordeal, barely.

Despite his repeated insistence that no more than ten people could visit the Observatory at the same time, they’d arrived in their scores. They’d giggled and whispered to each other throughout his lecture on the important work done at the Observatory, and fidgeted disconcertingly as he warned them of the many dangers to life and limb, especially the low balustrade around the roof. He’d looked on anxiously as they climbed the stairs to the dome that housed the transit telescope, and panicked when one pock-faced lad forced the door at the top of the stairs and they all swarmed onto the roof. He’d run around like a headless chicken shouting “Beware the roof! Beware the roof!”, all dignity lost. Fortunately no-one was hurt.

John shuddered at the memory. He’d been having giddy spells ever since. Maybe he would see the doctor, after all. But not today. There was too much to do, starting with the anemometer readings. As he climbed the stairs, he heard the comforting sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen below. He opened the door onto the roof and set about taking the readings. The wind was fresh, gusting a little, but nothing out of the ordinary for the season. That woodpecker was back again, beating a tattoo on the ball-vent of the Lighthouse next door.

He’d been doing this as long as he could remember, ever since he was a young boy helping his father, John Hartnup Senior, at the old Observatory back in Liverpool. It was better here, on Bidston Hill. The air was clearer, the seeing better, and the distractions fewer. He watched the sun rising over Liverpool in the East, remembering. It seemed to shimmer, strangely.


Kathleen Hammond couldn’t say what made her pause on the stairs as she came down to join her sister, Lucy, now Mrs Hartnup, at breakfast. She didn’t normally watch the sunrise, but today it shone ominously red. Then something large dropped from above, followed by a sickening crunch in the courtyard below.


The funeral of John Hartnup Jr took place the following Monday, at 3:30 pm. Mr Carr, the owner of Wirral Railways, arranged for the train from James Street to make an additional stop at Bidston before the funeral, and he laid on an extra train to take the many mourners home again afterwards.

Six bearers carried the coffin from the Observatory to St. Oswalds. They went out through the Lych gate, along Penny-a-day Dyke, past the horse’s head, and down into Bidston Village, accompanied all the way by the sound of the wind in the trees. “Ware-ooff, ware-ooff, ware-ooff”.


So now you know, that whenever the wind rustles the trees on Bidston Hill, it’s the ghost of John Hartnup Junior, warning us all:

Beware the roof! Beware the roof! Ware the roof! Ware-oof! Waaaarr-oooff! Waaaarr-oooofff!

The one o’clock gun, fifty years after

Liverpool’s One O’Clock Gun was fired for the last time on 18th July 1969. At one second before one o’clock, Sylvia Asquith flicked the switch at Bidston Observatory that caused the cannon to fire down at Morpeth Dock.

Firing the one-o-clock gun, 18 July 2019.

Fifty years later to the minute, Sylvia was present when the Royal Artillery (103 Regiment) fired a field gun, this time from the waterfront near Woodside Ferry Terminal.

Sylvia Asquith and the latest one o’clock gun, 18 July 2019.

Continue reading

Turn Left for Liverpool

"Turn left for Liverpool", by Bob Hughes, October 2018. Original size: A3

“Turn Left for Liverpool”, © Bob Hughes, 2018.

Those who know their local maritime history may appreciate the significance of this picture. Before the present-day approach into Liverpool by the regularly dredged Queen’s Channel, ships had to navigate the dangerous Rock Channel along the Wirral coast.

The lighthouses at Bidston, Leasowe and Hoylake played a vital role in this manoeuvre. When the ships saw that the Bidston and Leasowe lights were in line and likewise the two lights at Hoylake, this marked the spot where the ships should change direction, hence “Turn Left for Liverpool”.

The picture is in a style which I called ‘Reverse Perspective’ when I devised it in 2016. But it all started a long time ago. From my primary school window in Poulton I could see the windmill upon Bidston Hill, only a mile or so to the west. My eyes focussed on the windmill; I wasn’t interested in the houses, docks and warehouses in between.

When in later life I wanted to paint a picture of this view, I realised it would be a boring job painting all those houses and docks with the windmill reduced to a tiny shape on the horizon.

Simple answer: ignore them. Or at least reduce them to near irrelevance.

The result: a complete reversal of normal perspective to “Reverse Perspective“.

I have also broken most of the rules of TIME, SPACE, and COLOUR.

Space: by moving buildings so that they are better positioned for the benefit of the composition as a whole. In the process – complete disregard for accuracy when depicting such buildings, nearly all drawn from memory.

Time: in my pictures buildings or scenes from different ages of history can appear together, simultaneously.

And Colour, of course: I want to paint bright, happy pictures, the more colour the better. People immediately recognise the places they depict. The contents of the pictures act as a stimulus to the real pictures, stories, knowledge of the places in your own head.

It’s meant to be fun. Enjoy it.

Bob Hughes, October 2018.

Wirral’s sea lights to shine again for one night only

Wirral’s Sea Lights – Bidston and Leasowe Lighthouses – are to shine again for one night only, on Sunday 11th November 2018. The occasion is the nationwide “WW1 Beacons of Light” event, part of the “Battle’s Over” pageant which marks the centenary of signing the Armistice at the end of the First World War.

This will be the first time that the Sea Lights have been lit together in more than 110 years. Leasowe Lighthouse last shone on 5th July 1908. Bidston’s light was put out for the last time at sunrise on 9th October 1913.

British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey wasn’t thinking of lighthouses when he remarked, on the eve of the First World War:

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

It’s been more than a lifetime since the Sea Lights last shone together, so we can’t help being just a little bit excited. But our celebrations will be tempered not only by the reminder of the horrors of war, but also by nostalgia for the lost profession of lighthouse-keeping – it’s twenty years since the last lighthouse in England (North Foreland) was de-manned.

Also in this article:

What to expect on the night

Neither Bidston nor Leasowe Lighthouse will be open to the public on 11th November. At Bidston, there will be a small private gathering.

The lights will be lit at 7pm and switched off around midnight.

The character of both lights will be “white, fixed” (which means they are white in colour and don’t flash). This is the same as the historical character of the lights when they were last operational.

The lights will be visible on the seaward side of the two lighthouses. Both lights are masked by the stonework of their lamp rooms, such that they will be visible for about 70 degrees either side of an imaginary line drawn from Bidston Lighthouse through Leasowe Lighthouse. To see both lights at the same time, you’ll need to be seaward of Leasowe Lighthouse.

Technical details and notice to mariners

The lamps that we’re using are ex-service lanterns that we acquired from Trinity House early last year. These are fairly modern (about 15 years old), low-powered LED affairs. Bidston will exhibit a 3-tier SABIK LED-350 (36W) lantern, and Leasowe will exhibit a smaller 3-tier SABIK LED-155 (18W) lantern. These lamps both have a very narrow vertical divergence (about 2 degrees), which means that the light is concentrated into a narrow “focal plane” that widens slowly with distance. If my sums are correct, the bright part of Bidston’s light won’t intersect with an observer at sea level closer than about 4 miles, which is out at sea. Of course the lights will appear much brighter to an elevated observer at close range, like a drone perhaps.

These lights are not as bright as the lamps that were used in the latter days of the Sea Lights. Another difference is the horizontal divergence. When Leasowe was last operational, it used an oil-burning catoptric light (i.e. a parabolic reflector) which gave a fairly narrow beam aimed at the horizon (so it wasn’t as bright off the central axis of the reflector). Bidston’s light was a first order dioptric lens with vertical condensing prisms, also oil-burning; the lens gave a focal plane, with a narrow vertical divergence, while the vertical condensing prisms concentrated the light from the focal plane into a beam centred on the Horse Channel.

Peel Ports issued the official Notice to Mariners on 30 October 2018. The text is reproduced here.

Notice to Mariners

No. 60 – 2018

PORT OF LIVERPOOL

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that as part of the nationwide WWI Beacons of Light event, the disused lighthouses at Bidston and Leasowe will be re-lit temporarily.

Duration: 1900 to 2359 on 11 November 2018
Bidston LtHo Leasowe LtHo
Latitude: 53° 24.066′ N 53° 24.789′ N
Longitude: 3° 4.461′ W 3° 7.551′ W
Elevation: 66m above MHWS 29m above MHWS
Character: White, fixed White, fixed
Range (nominal): 15nm (est.) 10nm (est.)
Arc of visibility: Both lights will be visible within an arc of 140°
centred on a bearing on 291.48°(T)

Mariners are advised that the temporary re-lighting of the two lighthouses is for commemorative purposes only, and the lights exhibited must not be considered as aids to navigation.

History of the Sea Lights

"Turn left for Liverpool", by Bob Hughes, October 2018.

“Turn left for Liverpool”, by Bob Hughes, October 2018.

The Sea Lights were originally established in 1763 to guide ships through the Horse Channel, a safe passage between the sandbanks of Hoyle Bank and Burbo Bank in Liverpool Bay, before venturing through the Rock Channel and onwards to the Port of Liverpool. When the original lower light collapsed a few years later, a new lighthouse was built to replace it, 2.3 miles further inland on Bidston Hill. To make this work, Liverpool’s Harbour Master, William Hutchinson, came up with a new method of lighthouse illumination – oil lamps equipped with parabolic reflectors. Bidston’s reflector – a massive 12 feet in diameter – was probably the largest of its kind ever deployed in an operational lighthouse. It wasn’t long before Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the rest of the world copied Hutchinson’s invention.

The Sea Lights, at 2.3 miles apart, were the most widely separated pair of leading lights in the world. Bidston Lighthouse, 2.4 miles from the high water mark by Leasowe Lighthouse, claims the distinction of being the world’s most inland lighthouse ever.

The Sea Lights were made obsolete by changes in Liverpool Bay. When Leasowe Lighthouse was discontinued, in 1908 the Horse Channel was barely navigable. Most ships were using the new Queen’s Channel, which is still in use today.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to:

Frequently asked questions

Q. If I take a boat out on 11th November, will the Sea Lights guide me safely through the Horse Channel?
A. No! Please don’t do that! The channels and sandbanks of Liverpool Bay have changed a lot since the Sea Lights were last operational. If you do take a boat into Liverpool Bay on the 11th November, you should be able to see the Sea Lights from several miles distance. But for navigational purposes, you should rely on your usual GPS equipment and up-to-date sea charts. There are more than 350 shipwrecks in Liverpool Bay, and we won’t be held responsible for another, despite Wirral’s age-old tradition of wrecking and smuggling!

Q. Aren’t Bidston and Leasowe lit already?
A. No, not really. At Bidston we have a strip of colour-changing LED lights which switch on around dusk and off after midnight. The light from these is unfocussed and can’t be mistaken for an operational Aid to Navigation. There’s a similar arrangement at Leasowe.

Q. Why can’t you do this every night?
A. There are strict regulations governing lighthouses and other aids to navigation, and we don’t want to be charged with setting false lights! Only Lighthouse Authorities are allowed to operate lighthouses. Peel Ports is the Local Lighthouse Authority for Liverpool, a responsibility they inherited from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Trinity House is the Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) is the Lighthouse Authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) are the Lighthouse Authority for Eire and Northern Island. Both the NLB and CIL defer to Trinity House on certain matters.

Q. What does “nominal range” mean?
A. Without getting too technical, the “nominal range” is a measure of the strength of the light. It’s not related to the “geographic range”, i.e. the distance from which a shipboard observer in clear weather could be expected to see the light if it was bright enough. The geographic range is determined solely by the elevation of the light above the sea. When last operational, the Sea Lights were bright enough to be seen at the full limit of their geographic range (21 nautical miles for Bidston, and 14 for Leasowe).

Q. When can I visit Bidston and Leasowe Lighthouses?
A. Bidston Lighthouse is closed until Spring next year, although private tours can still be arranged during the winter months; details of future public open days will be posted on the Bidston Lighthouse Events page. The last two open days at Leasowe Lighthouse this season are on the 4th and 18th November, both Sunday afternoons; Leasowe Lighthouse will re-open on the first Sunday in March 2019.


This article was updated on 31 October 2018 following the release of the official Notice to Mariners by Peel Ports. You can see all the Notices to Mariners for the Port of Liverpool on this page.

End of season openings

Our season of open days for 2018 is drawing to a close.

During the Wirral Heritage Open Days in September, Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory will be open to the public on these dates:

  • Thursday, 6th September, 1pm – 4pm,
  • Sunday 9th September, 1pm – 4pm,
  • Saturday 15th September 12 noon – 3pm.

This is the first time that the Observatory has been open to the public since the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory quit Bidston Hill in 2004!

Aerial photograph of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory. Photo by Geoff Shannon, 20 Aug 2018.

Aerial photograph of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory. Photo by Geoff Shannon, 20 Aug 2018.

Nearby, Bidston Windmill will open on Saturday 15th September from 10am – 12 noon. This is your last chance to see inside the Windmill this year. As the weather gets colder, bats will resume their winter residence.

After the Heritage Open Days, there will be two more chances to visit the Lighthouse, on:

  • Sunday 23rd September, 1pm – 5pm,
  • Sunday 14th October, 1pm – 5pm.

We don’t usually open on Sundays, so this is an experiment for us. We’ll run guided tours at 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on both days. For more information, see our events page.

A new gate on an old theme

We have a new gate. We hope you like it.

New gate onto Bidston Hill

New gate onto Bidston Hill

The gate leads from the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse onto Bidston Hill, where it joins the path from Bidston Village to Bidston Windmill, alongside Penny-a-Day Dyke, the medieval wall. It replaces a derelict gate that had been disused for decades.

We have wanted to renew the gate for a long while. The derelict gate was an eyesore, and Bidston Hill deserved better. A functioning gate would benefit visitors to the lighthouse as well as the many thousands who walk past it every year. And wouldn’t it be nice if the gate could incorporate a motif reminiscent of the flag signals that used to run the length of Bidston Hill?

So we applied to the Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund for financial support, and we were awarded a small grant. See below for more information about DONG Energy and the Burbo Bank Extension, and Grantscape, who administer the Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund.

Next, we had to find a local blacksmith with the right skills for the project, and then work out the details of the design. When we found artist blacksmith Alex Price, we knew we had our man. What convinced me was some fine examples of his intricate metalwork, especially a fire-grate featuring a leaf motif – if anyone could work a flag motif into a bespoke gate, it was Alex.  I visited his forge at the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port and briefed him on the project: the gate had to fit into the existing opening, had to feature a flag motif, and should incorporate a wooden panel (in keeping with the old gate as well as the nearby “lych gate” at Bidston Observatory), and be achievable within our limited budget. Alex came back with a series of designs, one of which stood out. There was no turning back. This gate just had to be made.

But before we could start work, we needed to obtain Listed Buildings Consent. You see, the wall in which the gate is located is a Grade-II listed building in its own right. The perimeter wall enclosing the site of Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory was remodelled in the 1860s by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, around the same time that the Observatory was built. The lower part of the wall is about a century older, probably dating back to when the Bidston Signals Station and Bidston Lighthouse were established. Apart from Listed Buildings Consent, we also had to obtain consent from everyone else who owned part of the building in question, namely Wirral Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, and the new owners of Bidston Observatory. We also discussed the project with the Friends of Bidston Hill. Needless to say, this process took several months, but finally the necessary consents were secured and we could give Alex the go-ahead.

Edward Clive agreed to fabricate the wooden panel.

The Friends of Bidston Hill helped out by clearing away some of the ivy which was encroaching on the wall.

At the forge. Gate ready to be galvanised.

At the forge. Gate ready to be galvanised.

The gate was installed on 15th September.

Blacksmith Alex Price by the newly installed gate to Bidston Lighthouse, on 15th September.

Blacksmith Alex Price by the newly installed gate to Bidston Lighthouse, on 15th September.

There were other complications along the way. At some point in the past, tarmac, about 8 inches deep, was laid on the inside of the gate. We had to excavate this, and remove the tree roots and soil that had built up underneath the old gate. Eventually I uncovered the original sandstone threshold beneath the gate. I also exposed a telephone cable, which does not appear on any utility survey, but probably serves the lighthouse cottages. So I still have some work to do: bury the telephone cable and make a step up from the threshold to the level of the tarmac – and paint the railings, of course.

Deciding on the colours for the flags and penants was a little tricky. We wanted to be historically accurate, only using flags that were known to be flown on Bidston Hill in the heyday of the flag signals. But there’s very little documentation on this subject. Salmon’s painting from 1825 shows a few flags in full colour; but in another painting by him of the same subject, he chose different colours for the same flagpoles. There is an 1807 engraving of the Bidston Signals in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery, but the colours were added later, and may be fanciful. We don’t even know for sure whether the colours of flags shown on a flagpole were significant; the position of the flagpole was certainly important, and contemporary accounts describe people as counting the poles to determine if a certain shipowner’s flag is flying. There is some documentation on the house flags of shipping companies (such as Brown’s Book of Flags and Funnels) but this first appeared long after the Bidston Signals had ceased. So we compromised. We restricted the choice of colours to flags that were in one of several systems of flag codes for ships, viz. Marryat’s Flags, the Liverpool (or Watson’s) Code, the Commercial Code, and the International Code of Signals, even though these systems came along much later. If more information comes to light, we can always re-paint them!

More information

About DONG Energy

DONG Energy (NASDAQ OMX: DENERG) is one of Northern Europe’s leading energy groups and is headquartered in Denmark. Around 6,200 ambitious employees, including over 900 in the UK, develop, construct and operate offshore wind farms, generate power and heat from our power stations as well as supply and trade in energy to wholesale, business and residential customers. The continuing part of the Group has approximately 5,800 employees and generated a revenue in 2016 of DKK 61 billion (EUR 8.2 billion). For further information, see www.dongenergy.co.uk or follow @DONGEnergyUK on Twitter.

About GrantScape

GrantScape is a grant-making charity committed to enhancing the environment and strengthening local communities through its grant programmes. GrantScape’s experience stretches back to 1997 and it has awarded grants totalling over £80 million to deserving projects over this time.

GrantScape manages a range of community and environmental grant programmes on behalf of corporate and local authority clients. These are tailored to their individual requirements, which is the charity’s speciality. In addition, GrantScape offers a professional project management and grant process review service to groups requiring support with these activities.

For further information, please see www.grantscape.org.uk or follow @GrantScape1 on Twitter.

About Burbo Bank Extension

The Burbo Bank Extension offshore wind farm is located 7km off the coast of Liverpool Bay, at the entrance to the River Mersey. Onshore construction began in 2015, offshore construction started in 2016 and the project was officially opened in May 2017. The offshore wind farm has a total capacity of 258MW, enough to power over 230,000 homes. The project is owned by DONG Energy (50%), PKA (25%) and The Lego Group (KIRKBI A/S) (25%).

For further information, please see: www.burbobankextension.co.uk.

About Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund

The Fund supports community and environmental projects along the North Wales and English coast, off the Irish Sea, within a defined area. Approximately £225,000 is available each year. The Fund is split equally between two annual funding rounds. There are two levels of grants available:

  • Small grants between £500 and £5,000
  • Main grants between £5,001 and £25,000

Applications to the Fund are made using an online application system via the GrantScape website www.grantscape.org.uk.

Hull-Spurn telegraph

Last week, I had the good fortune to visit Hull for the Maritime Heritage Forum.

I picked a great year to do it. Hull, in case you didn’t know, is the UK City of Culture for 2017. There’s a veritable buzz about the place, and the low skyline makes for a refreshingly open feel. Across the road from the Hull Maritime Museum is the Ferens Art Gallery, home to this year’s Turner Prize. The Spurn Lightship is part of the Maritime Museum’s Collection. (I don’t know why it’s painted black, any more than I know whether we’ll ever see the Bar Lightship “Planet” back in Liverpool again.)

 

Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

I’d been thinking about Hull – or Kingston-upon-Hull to give it its full name – for a while. Like Liverpool, Hull’s heritage derives from the sea, and I wanted to explore the connections.

The Trinity House of Kingston-upon-Hull is the oldest of the three surviving Trinity Houses, the others being Trinity House of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the Trinity House of Deptford Strond. The last one is the Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, but all three have had various maritime responsibilities over the years. In Hull, this is especially confusing, because the jurisdictions of the Trinity Houses have often overlapped, to the discomfort of both Kingston-upon-Hull and Deptford Strond. At one time, Samuel Pepys has a position of authority in both organisations. Some aids to navigation built by Trinity House (Hull) are now operated by Trinity House (Deptford Strond). If someone in Hull mentions Trinity House, its rarely clear which organisation they mean, and more than once I was left with the impression that the speaker thought the two Trinity Houses were branches of the same organisation. During the heyday of lighthouse construction, both Hull and Liverpool found themselves at odds with Trinity House of Deptford Strond.

As a lighthouse enthusiast, I had to make the pilgrimage out to Spurn Lighthouse. The lighthouse is no longer operational, and the site is now managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a long hike out to the lighthouse from the nearest public parking – the Spurn was breached by the sea a few years ago, and the road out to the lighthouse is no longer open – so I booked a place on the Spurn Safari Unimog. The history of the Spurn Lighthouses (there have been many, including one built by Smeaton himself) is a fascinating intersection of changing technology, politics, and geography. Spurn Head (or just “the Spurn”) is a spit at the northern bank of the Humber estuary – and it’s constantly changing. It’s possible that there’s been as many as four distinct Spurns in the last 1000 years, each new one building up as the previous is breached and destroyed by the sea.

Both Hull and Liverpool have traditions of telecommunications, born out of the ports’ hunger for information.

This is reflected in the fact that in 2017, both cities hosted completely independent art projects with the same title: “I wish to communicate with you”. You see, in the International Code of Signals, the flag for the letter “K” (pronounced “Kilo”), when flown alone, means “I wish to communicate with you”. In Hull, this inspired a full-colour makeover of the Thornton Estate. Back in Liverpool, “I wish to communicate with you” was the title of a project by artist Yu-Chen Wang, as part of the New Observatory Exhibition at FACT, curated by Sam Skinner. Another outcome of Yu-Chen Wang’s project was a short film, shot mostly at Bidston Observatory and Bidston Lighthouse, entitled – wait for it – “I wish to communicate with you” and screened at FACT on 27 September. This was my first and probably last appearance as an actor.

Liverpool and Hull share a more historic connection. In the first half of the 19th century, both cities had optical (semaphore) telegraphs, connecting the port to the coast, and both were built by the same man, Barnard Lindsay Watson.

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the Hull-Spurn telegraph. So I asked almost everyone I met, including historians, archivists and guides, at lighthouses, libraries, museums, and lightships, whether they knew anything about, or even heard about, the Hull-Spurn telegraph. No-one knew anything. Most looked blank. Only one or two thought it rung a bell.

This brings me at last to the main purpose of this post, to set down what little I know about the Hull-Spurn Telegraph.

In an earlier post, I noted that a certain Mr Boaz proposed, way back in 1803, to construct a system of telegraphs linking Liverpool to other major seaports in the United Kingdom, including Hull. Although the Admiralty did establish a line of coastal signal stations in 1804, it wasn’t until much later that commercial telegraphs began to appear, the first of these being Barnard Lindsay Watson’s Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph in 1826.

1839 was a tumultuous year for Watson. January brought the great gale of 1839, which laid waste to much of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph. Watson started to re-build. In the original telegraph, each station had a single tall mast with three pairs of semaphore arms, each of which could signal a digit from 0-9, and an extra indicator on top. The new telegraph had two, shorter masts, each with two pairs of arms, giving an enlarged vocabulary of 10,000 words. Around this time, in an effort to raise funds, Watson announced that only subscribing vessels would be reported by the telegraph.

In March of the same year, the Hull Chamber of Commerce and Shipping commissioned Watson to survey potential sites for a telegraph along the Humber.

The Liverpool Dock Committee didn’t take kindly to all this. This was not the behaviour the Trustees expected of an employee. Watson’s outside interests could no longer be tolerated. Watson had been allowed to sell his propriety flag signals to ship-owners for many years. But when the Dock Committee learned that he’d been secretly collecting intelligence for insurance companies, it was the last straw.

In May 1839, the Liverpool Dock Committee dismissed Watson. The re-construction of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was completed under a new superintendent, Lieutenant William Lord, R.N.

Perhaps relieved to be freed of his obligations to the Liverpool Dock Committee, Watson pressed on with the construction of a new telegraph linking Hull to Spurn Head. The telegraph opened in September 1839.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From "The Old Telegraphs" by Geoffrey Wilson.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From “The Old Telegraphs” by Geoffrey Wilson.

The line criss-crossed the Humber estuary, with stations at Hull, Paull, Killingholme, Grimsby with the last (or first station) at “New Sand Light”. So, where or what exactly was “New Sand Light”? It probably wasn’t on the Spurn proper, if Geoffrey Wilson’s sketch in his excellent book “The Old Telegraphs” is to be trusted. My guess is a lightship at the Bull Sands station, which was establised in 1832. Watson himself mentioned “the valuable assistance afforded me by the Corporation of the Trinity House, in granting me permission to place a telegraph on board their floating light off the Humber”.

I don’t know whether anything remains of any of the telegraph stations in the Hull-Spurn line. (If you do, please drop me a line.)

After the opening of the Hull-Spurn line, Watson did go on to build more telegraphs, including:

  • a line linking London to the Kentish downs, terminating at the old Shot Tower near London Bridge. This ran only briefly, from about 1842 to 1843, when the station in London was destroyed by fire.
  • a line linking Southampton to the Isle of Wight (with stations at Southampton, Ashley Down, St Catherines, and the Needles).
  • a line from Dartmouth to Start Point (possibly never completed).

He also established independent (i.e. not part of a telegraph) signals stations at various places around the country, such as Flamborough Head. Very often these stations were located at or near the site of an existing lighthouse.

Watson's Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson’s Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson went bankrupt more than once: in 1831, while a flag manufacturer in Liverpool; and again in 1842, now based in London and Kent.

Following his 1842 bankruptcy, Watson re-launched the General Telegraph Association as a joint stock concern. The fire of 1843 was the last straw. The semaphore tower was not insured, the London smog was an ongoing problem, and new technology – the electric telegraph – posed an emerging threat. Watson left the telegraph business, and set himself up as a hotelier, at the Pulteney Hotel in Bath (now the Holburne Museum) only to go bankrupt again, in 1848. His last gig was as manager of the refreshment rooms at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. He died in Suffolk in 1865, and was buried at St Peter’s, Monks Eleigh.

Only two of Watson’s telegraphs survived the failure of the General Telegraph Association.

The Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was the longest lived.  The Liverpool-Holyhead line continued until 1861, when a new electric telegraph along (approximately) the same route was finally completed. Construction had started in 1858 and the line was partially operational in 1859, but submarine crossings proved problematic – this is why Puffin Island was removed from the circuit.

The Hull-Spurn optical telegraph survived the failure of Watson’s General Telegraph Association,  and continued independently as the General East Coast Telegraph and finally as the Hull and East Coast Marine Telegraph Association.  Just as in Liverpool, it was the advent of the electric telegraph that doomed the optical one. Part of the line (Hull-Grimsby) was relaced by a new electric telegraph in 1857, leaving only the Grimsby-Spurn leg to the semaphore. This was not a satisfactory arrangement, as the electric and semaphore telegraph stations in Grimsby were too far apart. Ultimately, the electric telegraph was extended to Cleethorpes where incoming ships could be observed, and the semaphore stations abandoned altogether. In its adoption of the electric telegraph, Hull was – for once – ahead of Liverpool.

References