Category Archives: Bidston Hill

Bidston Observatory – buyers beware

Bidston Observatory – that iconic symbol of Liverpool’s scientific, industrial, and maritime heritage – should be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Instead,  it is threatened yet again by unsympathetic, inappropriate development.

Bidston Observatory was built on the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse in 1866 by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The same man re-built the lighthouse a few years later, and renewed the perimeter wall enclosing the site. The site today looks much as Lyster planned it, wanting only a little loving care to remedy a few years of neglect. But there is a real and present danger.

Bidston Observatory is back on the market again, as the Wirral Globe, Liverpool Echo and the Media Penguin have noticed.

Now that the news has broken, it is time for us at Bidston Lighthouse to explain our position, and do what we can to disabuse potential developers of the notion that a residential development at Bidston Observatory would be welcome.

Our position

We are committed to preserving Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station, and operating the Lighthouse tower as an educational resource and visitor attraction. We see ourselves as temporary custodians of the building, with a duty to preserve the possibility of a future reversion to public ownership or at least a use sympathetic to its heritage with a significant public-facing component. We still hope that a sympathetic owner with compatible intentions can be found for the Observatory.

A residential development on car park of Bidston Observatory could force us to abandon our ambitions for the world’s most inland lighthouse. It is hard to see how we could continue to open the Lighthouse to the public if that were to happen. We would, of course, oppose any proposal for such a development with all the resources at our disposal.

We will happily support proposals for future use of the Observatory that are sympathetic to its heritage, sustainable and allow some form of public access.

We would support a proposal to convert the Observatory into a dedicated museum and visitor centre. We just don’t think it likely in these uncertain times. We would not look kindly on any alterations or subdivisions (such as conversion to flats) that would permanently preclude such a possibility.

We are aware of one proposal from a potential buyer that meets all our criteria: to operate the Observatory as an artists’ retreat, incorporating a museum and exhibition space that will be accessible to the general public. We would be delighted to see the Observatory used in this way.

Not an exciting development opportunity

The advertisement on the auctioneer’s website describes the property as “an exciting development opportunity” with potential for eight new dwellings in the Observatory grounds. It is probable that such a proposal would also require listed buildings consent, as these dwellings are within the curtilage not only of the Grade-II listed Observatory, but also the Grade-II listed perimeter wall that encloses the site.

No such plans have actually been submitted to Wirral Borough Council. This is not suprising, for such a proposal would outrage the local community. Only a developer totally lacking in fear and social conscience would start that battle.

The same advertisement also mentions an “expired planning consent for 4 mansion apartments app ref APP/12/00536, likely to be granted again”. The advertisement does not mention that the change of use was linked to a Listed Buildings Consent (LBC/12/00537), which was granted subject to an extensive list of conditions. Neither the current owner nor the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who obtained the consent made a meaningful start on the works within three years.  So the listed buildings consent lapsed three years later on 5 July 2015, and the permission to change the use to residential expired with it.

It is not at all clear that this application would be approved on re-submission. In 2012, the community consultation exercise resulted both in letters of objection and letters of support. We have reason to believe that those who expressed support in 2012 have since reversed their position, and would likely be opposed to a fresh application to convert the Observatory to residential apartments.

Caveat Emptor

Any developer who is still considering making a bid for Bidston Observatory should also be aware of the following.

The Observatory and the site of the former Braehead Cottage were sold to Bidston Observatory Developments Limited (company number 09109510) for the stated price of £270,000 on 15 April 2015 (the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and the sinking of the Titanic). The two titles were amalgamated into title number MS621814. At the time of the sale, the directors and shareholders of Bidston Observatory Developments Limited were Craig Malcolm William Blackwell and  Jason Woltman. Craig Blackwell was the company secretary. On 16 June, 2015, Blackwell and Woltman ceased being directors and shareholders of the company, and Antwon Bonnick became the sole director and shareholder. On 5 August 2015, Cheryl Bernadette Galvin became a director of and the majority shareholder in the company. Company accounts made up to 31 July 2015 were due on 1 April 2016. On 28 July 2016, they were still overdue.

The Observatory is currently occupied by “guardians” who pay rent to Camelot. According to an advertisement on the Camelot website (retrieved 24 Jun 2016), rooms are available from £60 per week, and the amenities include two shared kitchens. Nine guardians live in the building, a further two rooms being uninhabitable because of water damage, which is believed to have occurred after Bidston Observatory Developments Limited took possession of the Observatory.

It is rumoured that internal alterations have been made to the building that should have required Listed Buildings Consent, including the installation of a new kitchen and shower cubicle.

The entire building is rated as a single band B for council tax purposes. This is anomalously low for a building of such size, and reflects the internal condition of the building. It is also anomalous that a building whose last lawful use was as offices should be subject to council tax instead of business rates.

The Observatory is approached by Wilding Way, which although owned by Wirral Council, is not adopted. Wilding Way is only wide enough to take a single vehicle. It is regularly crossed by dog walkers, horse riders and wildlife. To widen the road would compromise the amenity of visitors to Bidston Hill Recreation Ground and the wildlife that inhabit it.

The world’s most inland lighthouse

Bidston Lighthouse is the world’s most inland lighthouse.

By this I mean that of all the lighthouses in the world that were constructed as genuine navigational aids to mariners, none were built further from the body of water they lit than Bidston’s.

Liverpool’s Sea Lights were a pair of leading lights that guided ships through the Horse Channel.  A line drawn from the upper light at Bidston through the lower light at Leasowe crosses the high water mark on Mockbeggar Wharf at a distance of 2.1 nautical miles (2.4 statute miles, or 3.9 kilometres). The distance between the upper and lower lights is 2 nautical miles (2.3 statute miles or 3.7 kilometres), also making the Sea Lights the furthest apart of any pair of leading lights in the world.

There are, of course, many lighthouses further from the sea than Bidston’s. They can be found on river banks, or canals, or lake shores, and have provided valuable service to mariners as navigational aids. But these were all built relatively close to the body of water that they lit.

I also rule out aerial lighthouses, such as the one at RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire. A few of these were built as navigational aids to pilots, not mariners, and they lit the sky, not the sea.

Some otherwise interesting “lighthouses” are disqualified on the grounds of not being genuine navigational aids to mariners.

During  the 1920s, Benito Mussolini ordered the construction of a lighthouse atop his summer palace at Rocca delle Caminate, some 25 kilometres from the Adriatic Sea, and commanded the Italian Navy to include it in their list of operational lights. Flashing red, white and blue when Il Duco was in residence, it provided good service as a monument to the dictator’s vanity. Perhaps it helped the locals find their way home in the dark, but it was of no use to mariners as a navigational aid.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Cape Todd Lighthouse stands in the desert of central Australia, near Alice Springs, on the banks of the Todd River, which is usually dry. That doesn’t stop the Aussies from holding the annual  Henley-on-Todd regatta, in which contestants bring their own bottomless boats and carry them at a run along the Todd River. They like to claim that the Lighthouse is a navigational aid, because it stops the contestants from running out of bounds during the race. Built by amateur radio enthusiasts, Cape Todd Lighthouse took part in the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend in 2013 and again in 2014, when it was listed as a “faux” lighthouse.

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

I stand by my claim until such time as someone provides evidence of a greater distance, or the Italian Navy blockades Liverpool in protest.

If you do know of any interesting inland lighthouses, please let us know by commenting on this post. We’d also like to hear about any claims for the most inland operational lighthouse, or for the most widely separated operational pairs of leading lights.

Further reading

 

Edward Quaile

Tonight is Burns Night.

At Bidston Lighthouse, we celebrated Burns Night two days early this year – Sunday’s a better day for recovering than Tuesday.

We addressed the haggis, dowsed it with a wee dram of single malt, and served it with too-generous portions of tatties and neeps. Then we addressed the rest of the bottle; this year a fine Bruichladdich, following on from last year’s superlative Ardbeg Uigeadail. Sometimes I rant about the redundant words “the sake of” that defile most people’s renderings of Auld Lang Syne, but not this year: ITV got it right in the last episode of Downton Abbey (did anyone notice?), and my guests were spared.

During the proceedings, I proposed a toast to Edward Quaile. I had to explain why.

The Quaile family moved from Dumfries, Scotland to Liverpool around the 1830s, where Edward was apprenticed to a cotton broker. By 1870, he was President of the Cotton Broker’s Association, and living in Birkenhead. He built up an enviable collection of illuminated manuscripts and other antiquities.

In his retirement, Quaile applied himself to literary pursuits, and wrote a few obscure books:

  • Bidston and the House of Stanley, 1890, The Journal of Commerce Printing Works
  • Names: their origin, object, influence, Liverpool : The “Journal of Commerce” Printing Works, 1891
  • Books: the Bible, Liverpool : The “Journal of Commerce” Printing Works, 1892.
  • Bidston Hill Preserved, 1894
  • Illuminated manuscripts: their origin, history and characteristics. A sketch, by Edward Quaile. With twenty-six examples from books of hours in his possession. Published 1897 by H. Young & Sons, Liverpool.

Quaile was a member of the committee that campaigned for the acquisition of Bidston Hill for the public. His little volume, “Bidston Hill Preserved” was published at the height of the campaign, and was instrumental in the campaign’s success.

Amongst Quaile’s collection of antiquities was one artifact of singular significance to Burns Night: the last razor that Robert Burns, the bard himself, ever shaved with.

Is that not enough to earn Edward Quaile a toast on Burns Night in Bidston Lighthouse?

Grave of Edward Quaile, in Flaybrick Cemetery

Grave of Edward Quaile, in Flaybrick Cemetery

Obituary of Edward Quaile

Published in the Liverpool Mercury, August 30, 1900.

Death of Mr. Edward Quaile — The death is announced, at the advanced age of 79 years, of Mr. Edward Quaile, of the firm of Messrs. Eason, Barry and Co., cotton brokers. The deceased gentleman, who had suffered from ill health for several months, was one of the oldest cotton brokers of this city, and enjoyed the esteem of the whole of the Cotton Brokers’ Association, of which, so far back as the year 1870, he was president. Mr. Quaile served his apprenticeship with Messrs. Eason and Barry, being afterwards taken into partnership. About the year 1885 he retired from business. During his leisure hours he engaged in literary pursuits, and also devoted some attention to antiquarian and archaeological research. “Illuminated Manuscripts : Their Origin, History, and Characteristics,” written by Mr. Quaile in 1897, was a work which deservedly attracted attention.

Deerhound, Alabama and Kearsarge

J.R.W. Davies, who gave us this article, reminds me that – arguably – the American Civil War ended 150 years ago today, in Merseyside. He writes:

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the last Confederate raider’s formal surrender, which took place in the Sloyne off Rock Ferry. I imagine you’d have had a good view of the ceremony from Bidston Hill. Shenandoah would have been alongside the Royal Navy’s 101-gun steam first-rate Donegal, with the latter’s captain and a detachment of her crew on Shenandoah’s quarterdeck to watch the flag lowered. Captain Waddell of the Shenandoah would then have put off in a ship’s boat, probably in the direction of the present ferry terminal at the Pier Head, carrying a letter for the Prime Minister handing over the ship to Britain, which he gave to the Mayor of Liverpool at the Town Hall.

When I introduced Davies’ article in this post, I was intrigued by the thought of what an observer at Bidston Lighthouse would have seen of the CSS Alabama’s sea trials in Liverpool Bay, and whether any telegrams from Thomas Dudley, the U.S. Consul at Liverpool, would have gone through the new electric telegraph station at Bidston in a final attempt to foil the Alabama’s escape. Since then, I have learned (thanks to Maurice Rigby), that there is an even more fascinating connection between the Alabama’s end and the people of Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station.

I am not referring to the fact that Cherbourg Harbour, the scene of the final showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge in 1864, was designed by Joseph Cachin, the same French engineer who drew this delightful illustration of Bidston Lighthouse in 1785.

No, what fascinates me is the identity of the Able Seaman who rescued the Alabama’s Captain, Raphael Semmes, from the sea after the Battle of Cherbourg. His name was Henry Adams, and he was the son of James Adams, Bidston’s Telegraph Keeper.

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864. Wikimedia commons (original currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864, from Wikimedia Commons. The original is currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

When Henry Adams died in 1909, newspapers far afield ran his obituary. This is what the Aberdeen Journal reported on 20 March, 1909.

OLD SEA FIGHT RECALLED.

The death of Mr Henry Adams, which has occurred at Liverpool, recalls one of the most notable naval engagements of the nineteenth century. Mr Adams was mate on the yacht Deerhound which was present at the fight between the U.S. warship Kearsage and the Confederate cruiser Alabama off Cherbourg on 19th June, 1864. After doing enormous damage to the shipping of the northern states – for which Great Britain had subsequently to pay – the Alabama was cornered in the Channel, and Captain Semmes decided to give battle. The result was decisive, and when the Alabama, wrecked by the guns of the better-protected Kearsage, was sinking, Captain Semmes and some of her crew were rescued by a boat from the Deerhound commanded by Mr Adams. The captain of the Kearsage demanded that they should be given up, but Adams, wrapping a Union Jack round Semmes’s body, laid him at the bottom of the boat and defied anyone to remove him. For many years Mr Adams was employed by the Star Tug Company, of Liverpool, and he was both liked and respected in shipping circles on the Mersey.

More about Henry Adams

Henry Adams was born in 1840, in Penmon, Anglesey, probably on Puffin Island, where his father James was the Telegraph Keeper. On 8 April 1852, at the age of 12, he was appointed assistant telegrapher at Point Lynas, becoming the youngest employee in the telegraph service. He was replaced by Joseph Armitage on 11 August 1853, but took up the post again on 9 March 1854, following Joseph’s resignation. In the years that followed, he went to sea.

Henry Adams joined the crew of the Deerhound in Birkenhead in April, 1864, having known the captain, Evan Parry Jones, since childhood. The Deerhound was a steam yacht, owned by Mr John Lancaster, of Wigan. It was in port in Cherbourg when word of the impending showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge reached them, and the Deerhound put to sea in time to observe the fight from a safe distance, out of gun range. When the crew of the battered and sinking Alabama abandoned ship, Adams took charge of the Deerhound’s gig and rescued many of the Alabama’s crew from the sea, including Captain Semmes. The Deerhound refused to surrender the Confederates to Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge. In the years that followed, the U.S. sought compensation from Britain for the damage caused by the Alabama, and the testimony of Adams and others was an important part of the proceedings.

Presumably, Adams’ experience giving evidence in the protracted Alabama claims stood him in good stead, for he gained employment as a solicitor for a steam tug company, and went on to become the manager. Henry married Margaret Pryce, née Savage, the widow of Thomas Hargreaves Pryce, at St John the Baptist, Toxteth Park on 5 July 1870. Margaret and Henry appear not to have had any children. They lived for a while in Liverpool, before moving across the Mersey to Seacombe. Henry died on 16 March 1909, leaving an estate valued at £128 to his widow, Margaret.

James Adams, Henry’s father, was born about 1807 in Kilkhampton, Cornwall. He married Esther Jones in 1837, in Penmon. James and Esther had at least eight children together, from Ann (1839), Henry (1840) to Esther (1861). James was Keeper of Puffin Island Telegraph Station from 1838-1852, then Point Lynas (15 Jan 1852-1856), returning to Puffin Island until its closure in 1960. When the electric telegraph replaced the semaphore telegraph, there was no longer a need for a station at Puffin Island, and James was pensioned off, only to be re-employed at the new electric telegraph at Bidston later in 1861.  On 7 Apr 1861, the night of the census, he was living at Telegraph House, in Penmon, a pensioner. He was Keeper of Bidston Telegraph Station from 1861 to 1869, and was probably on duty  when the Alabama set sail from Liverpool Bay on 29th July 1862.  He became Keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1869, following the death of Ann Urmson.  He was in charge while the new Bidston Lighthouse was being built in 1872-3. He retired to Beaumaris in 1879.

 Acknowledgments

Thanks to Maurice Rigby, for pointing out the connection between Bidston Lighthouse and Henry Adams, the saviour of Captain Semmes.

Further reading:

State of the roads

Letter from John Hartnup, Directory of Bidston Observatory, complaining about the state of the road

Letter from John Hartnup, Directory of Bidston Observatory, complaining about the state of the road leading to the Observatory and Lighthouse in 1874.

Little has changed in 140 years, apart from the names. The road is now Wilding Way, which is dangerously potholed. The roles of the Dock Board and Mr Vyner are now played by the Natural Environment Research Council and Wirral Borough Council, and I’m cast in the role of John Hartnup.

Wirral Borough Council own the road in question, and have the duty to maintain it. This is a condition of the lease from Wirral Borough Council to NERC over the piece of land that was once the kitchen gardens of the lighthouse and more recently the site of the Joseph Proudman Building, if only for a little while.

Despite owning the road, and being responsible for maintaining it, the Council have never actually adopted it. So whenever someone reports a pothole in the road through the proper channels (i.e. via this webpage), the complaint is initially referred to the people who look after Roads, who eventually pass the buck to the people who look after Parks (because it’s part of the Bidston Hill estate). Parks have neither the budget nor the equipment to do anything about it, so the complaint is finally closed (without informing the complainant). I’ve tried this several times and I always get the same result. Have a go yourself if you don’t believe me: here’s that link again.

I have a lot of sympathy for Parks. Wirral Council has been hit hard by round after round of unprecedented cuts, and it’s not over yet. Parks is feeling the pinch. Four senior ranger posts have been eliminated recently, and Bidston Hill and Flaybrick Cemetery have just lost their dedicated ranger. It will be a miracle if Bidston Hill doesn’t lose its Green Flag status within a year or two.

The only player in this drama with the power to make Wirral Borough Council fix the road is NERC. I have no rights under English law to enforce a condition in a contract to which I am not a party. So I shall write to NERC, in the hope that they in turn will write to Wirral Borough Council. In that respect, John Hartnup had the advantage over me, for he at least could expect the Dock Board, his masters, to fight his corner.

Yours truly,

Stephen Pickles

Bidston Signals

Bidston Signals - early illustration

Bidston Signals – early illustration

This delightful illustration of the Bidston Signals was reproduced in “Romance of the Modern Liner”, by Captain E.G. Diggle, 1930. My thanks to Geoff Topp for bringing it to my attention.

Can anyone help with more information about the provenance of the original? Who painted it and when? If so, please comment on this post.

Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont

"Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont", Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image courtesy Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

“Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

Miles Walters (1773-1849) was born in Ilfracombe, Devon. In his own words “The Artist in his Youthful Days worked in a Mold Loft and has been 13 years at Sea and has painted upwards of 200 Ships in the last Six Years and Sent them to all corners of the World.” He moved to Liverpool some time during the 1820s. Overshadowed by his more famous son Samuel Walters, Miles’ work is characterised by an exceptional attention to detail. His experience as a shipwright and seaman comes through in every line, flag and pennant, and the landmarks in the background of his paintings.

In this painting, the observer is looking across the mouth of the Mersey from Liverpool towards the Wirral peninsula. The ship Gipsey, the subject of the painting, is shown in three different positions. You can just make out Fort Perch Rock in the background, near the base of the rear mast in the central view of the Gipsey. Gipsey was built in 1826, and construction of Fort Perch Rock started in the same year and finished about 1829.

The artist has also taken pains to show Bidston Lighthouse and some of the signal poles that ran the length of Bidston Hill. You can see them clearly in this higher-resolution detail of the extreme left of the painting.

Detail showing Bidston Signals.

Detail of “Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, showing Bidston Lighthouse and Signals. Miles Walters, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery.

I am grateful to Vallejo Maritime Gallery for permission to use these images, and to Colin Dilnot for bringing this wonderful painting to my attention.

Further reading

  • “Marine Art & Liverpool: Painters, Places & Flag Codes 1760-1960″, A. S. Davidson, Waine Research Publications, 1986, ISBN 0 905184 10 6.

Lines of Sight

The history of Bidston Hill is all about line of sight communications. From Bidston Hill, one can see (and be seen) for many miles in all directions.

Fire Beacons have been deployed on Bidston Hill for centuries. We know they were prepared as part of an early-warning system during the Spanish Armada and again during the Napoleonic Wars. They may have been used even earlier.

In navigation, the Windmill on Bidston Hill was used as a “day mark” long before Wirral’s first lighthouses were built in 1763. This is why many early sea charts of Liverpool Bay took pains to mark the location of Bidston Windmill.

The Bidston Signals comprised more than a hundred “lofty flagstaffs” running along the ridge of Bidston Hill. Their purpose was to give the port of Liverpool notice of arriving ships.

Bidstone Lighthouse and Signal

Bidstone Lighthouse and Signals, by Henry F. James, c. 1807. The original is in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery.

Lighthouses, too, depend on line of sight. To be useful, they must be seen. Liverpool’s first lighthouses were built in Wirral in 1763. These were navigational aids, not warning lights. By setting a course with the two lights straight ahead, mariners avoided the treacherous sand banks of Liverpool Bay. The two Sea Lights, near Leasowe, marked the safe passage through the Horse Channel, and the two Lake Lights marked the way into Hoyle Lake. This was an early (but not the earliest) use of leading lights in navigation.

The first Bidston Lighthouse was built in 1771, near the Signals Station. It was needed because the lower Sea Light had been overwhelmed by storms. Bidston Lighthouse became the upper Sea Light, and Leasowe Lighthouse, still standing today, became the lower Sea Light. Being 2.3 miles further inland, the new lighthouse depended on a breakthrough in lighthouse optics, which came in the form of William Hutchinson’s invention of the parabolic reflector.

Bidston Lighthouse by Robert Salmon, Oil on Canvas, 1825. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

Bidston Lighthouse by Robert Salmon, Oil on Canvas, 1825. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

In 1826, the Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph was set up. This was an optical telegraph, based on a new semaphore system devised by Lieutenant Barnard Lindsay Watson. It comprised a chain of semaphore stations at Liverpool, Bidston Hill, Hilbre Island, Voel Nant, Foryd, Llysfaen, Great Ormes Head, Puffin Island, Point Lynas, Carreglwyd, and Holyhead, a distance of 72 miles.  It was capable of relaying a typical message from Holyhead to Liverpool in a few minutes, and a very short message in less than a minute. This was the first telegraph in Britain to carry commercial and private correspondence. Watson’s code was a numeric one: each station in the 1826 telegraph had a massive semaphore mast about 50 feet tall, each pole had three pairs of movable arms, and each pair of arms could signal a single digit. The 1841 telegraph had a two masts each with two pairs of arms, and a larger vocabulary of 10,000 words.

All of these systems were made obsolete by the inexorable march of technology. Last to arrive and first to go was the optical telegraph,  which was superseded when the electric telegraph linking Liverpool to Holyhead was finally completed in 1861, the first cables having been laid in 1858. Next to go were the signal flags. The Sea Lights were superseded by navigational buoys, which had the virtue of being moveable. By 1908, when the Lower Sea Light at Leasowe was extinguished, the sandbanks had shifted to such an extent that the Horse and Rock Channels were barely navigable, and the Sea Lights no longer provided a useful leading line. The Upper Sea Light on Bidston Hill shone alone for another five years, until sunrise on 9th October, 1913.

Radio is another form of communications that depends on line of sight. The principle of propagation of electromagnetic waves was discovered by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873, the same year that the present Bidston Lighthouse was completed. Marconi won an important patent in 1896, and built the first radio station on the Isle of Wight in 1897. Then it really took off.

At Bidston Lighthouse (and Bidston Observatory), radio antennae of all kinds have been installed at one time or another. Mersey Docks ordered a set of “Marconi Apparatus” for Bidston Lighthouse as early as 1908, but the Marconi Company failed to deliver, and the order was withdrawn. An antenna, probably marine, is still attached to the north face of the lighthouse tower. Amateur radio enthusiasts, notably the Wirral Amateur Radio Society, still operate from Bidston Lighthouse on annual International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekends, and other special occasions. Our webcam is brought to you over a line-of-sight wireless network. In 2014, Wirral Radio 92.1 FM moved their transmitter to Bidston Lighthouse.

Line-of-sight communications are as much a part of the future of Bidston Lighthouse as its past.

Seamen’s Wives

Bidston Signals on ceramic jug

Bidston Signals on ceramic jug

In the twenty first century, we take electronic communications for granted. Most of us can’t remember a time without radio, telephone, and television. Email, text messages, twitter, social networks are part of our daily lives. We’ve almost forgotten about telegrams and fax machines. No-one living today was around when the Bidston Hill Signals were the state of the art in communications.

It is difficult for us to imagine today just how important the Bidston Signals were to the people of Liverpool. News of the imminent of arrival of ships into port was valuable enough to justify building more than one hundred flagpoles along the ridge of Bidston Hill, and paying teams of workers to operate them. Later on, the Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph was established, with pairs of semaphore masts were placed at relay stations on Bidston Hill, Hilbre Island, and so on, all the way to Holyhead. The signals were truly a part of popular culture, and even featured on mundane items of pottery.

What a sight it must have been! This is how Albert Richard Smith described Bidston Hill in 1848, in his book The struggles and adventures of Christopher Tadpole at home and abroad:

But the sight was so riveting that he could not take his eyes from it scarcely, even to notice the lighthouse under whose very walls they passed, with its array of signal-masts that looked as if somebody was either preparing a great display of fireworks, or making ready to set sail and carry the entire hill, lighthouse, telegraph and all, out to sea upon the first fair wind.

“That’s a curious thing,” said Hickory, as he pointed to the telegraph. “I’ve heard there’s people that can read that gibbet just like a book. I never could, not to speak of. I’ve made out a F, and a L, and a E without the middle, and sometimes they was upsy-down. And once I saw it trying uncommon hard to turn itself into a H, but it wasn’t much of a go, not to speak of.”

But most poignant of all perhaps is this account of a sailor’s wife, who looked anxiously to the Bidston Signals for news of her husband:

I have frequently seen a very particular friend of mine, a sailor’s wife, who considers herself, occasionally, the happiest woman in the world, watching the wind, from “sou’ sou’ east—nor’ nor’ east—east and by no’th,” and, with a pair of compasses, leaning over a large chart, endeavouring to trace her husband, by counting the days, and allotting so many degrees of longitude and latitude to each day, to the extent of the voyage; and have whispered to her, in her calculations, “wind and weather permitting.” I have seen this very happy woman pace the room at midnight, if the wind ever attempted to blow from an adverse quarter, and have reasoned with her about

“The sweet little cherub that sits up aloft,
To keep watch for the life of poor Jack”

I have even seen her turn tide-waiter, and count the poles on Bidston Hill, on which a flag on the top announced from the Lighthouse that the expected vessel was in the offing. In another state of her happiness, I have heard her heart beat, when, in looking through the telescope, she dreaded lest, among a sickly and reduced crew, he should not be there; and have been present in another felicitous moment, when the report came, that all was lost, yet was she, occasionally, very happy!

From “Seamen’s Wives”,  in SKETCHES IN PROSE AND POETRY, by Katharine Head, Kirkdale, Liverpool, 1837.