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!

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