Category Archives: History

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

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

Turnberry

The “unknown Scottish lighthouse” in my last post is probably Turnberry.

Drawing of unidentified Scottish Lighthouse

Drawing of unidentified Scottish Lighthouse

The drawing was found in a box of plans in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. The handwritten annotation reads “George F. Lyster Esq. with the compliments of D. &. T. Stevenson, Edin. 10 April 1871”.

Several lighthouses designed by David and Thomas Stevenson have the lighthouse tower connected to a two-story accommodation block, but the only one where the positions of the windows and chimneys match those in our drawing is Turnberry. I have not been able to find any photographs of Turnberry Lighthouse taken from a vantage point looking directly towards the tower (as in the elevation in the right of the drawing). Perhaps it’s just not possible to stand in the right place to take such a photograph.

Fortunately, Little Dart have a nice model of Turnberry Lighthouse, in their Northern Lighthouse Board collection.

Turnberry Lighthouse, model by Little Dart. Image courtesy littledart.co.uk

Turnberry Lighthouse, model by Little Dart. Image courtesy littledart.co.uk

At the time when the Stevenson brothers sent the drawing to George F. Lyster, Turnberry Lighthouse was still under construction, and Lyster had not yet drawn up his plans for the re-build of Bidston Lighthouse. Turnberry was first lit in 1873.

Today, Turnberry Lighthouse is still operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, while the accommodation is part of Donald Trump’s empire. I can’t afford to stay there. The building has been altered since the Little Dart model was made.

Stephen

Postscript

This photograph of Turnberry Lighthouse is taken from a different angle, but shows the distinctive locations of the windows in the lighthouse tower and the chimneys of the accommodation. Thanks @NLB_UK.

Turnberry Lighthouse, photo courtesy NLB

Turnberry Lighthouse, photo courtesy NLB

Unknown Scottish Lighthouse

Can anyone identify the Scottish lighthouse in this drawing?

Drawing of unidentified Scottish Lighthouse

Drawing of unidentified Scottish Lighthouse

It was found in a box of plans in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. The handwritten annotation reads “George F. Lyster Esq. with the compliments of D. &. T. Stevenson, Edin. 10 April 1871”.

David and Thomas Stevenson were brothers, sons of Scottish lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson (who visited Wirral in 1801 and 1828). David and Thomas built many lighthouses together for the Northern Lighthouse Board.

In 1871, George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief for Mersey Docks, was planning a replacement for the old Bidston Lighthouse. Most likely, Lyster wrote to his counterparts in the NLB to request a copy of a drawing of a recent lighthouse of their design. We already know that he obtained drawings of St Bees Lighthouse from James Douglass of Trinity House at about the same time.

September is all about Scottish Lighthouses and the Stevenson dynasty. Yesterday, I wrote up Robert Stevenson’s remarks about the encroachment of the sea upon the Cheshire shore. Tomorrow, the NLB is opening their headquarters to the public. And at the end of the month, the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is hosting the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

Thanks to Yu-Chen Wang for bringing the drawing to my attention.

If you have any information that might help us identify this lighthouse, please comment on this post, or write to us via our contact page.

The Inundation of Leasowe

Robert Stevenson, the Scottish Lighthouse Engineer, first visited the Wirral Lighthouses in 1801, while he was still learning his trade, six years before he started construction on the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Stevenson returned to Wirral in February of 1828 to carry out an investigation of the Cheshire shore, between the Mersey and the Dee, in the company of William Laird (the shipbuilder) and Sir John Tobin (former slaver, privateer and Mayor of Liverpool). Presumably his expertise was enlisted after the sea breached the bank at Leasowe on 16-18 February, and threatened to turn much of Wirral into a “permanent salt lake”. Stevenson promptly presented his findings to the Wernerian Society in Edinburgh on 8th March 1828. His account of these investigations touched upon the submerged forest of Meols, the loss of the original lower sea-light at Leasowe, and the general encroachment of the sea upon the land. Today, we would explain this encroachment in terms of rising sea levels caused by global warming, but terms like “climate change” and “global warming” were not part of Stevenson’s vocabulary.

The construction of a new embankment at Leasowe commenced in 1829.

Here is the full text of Stevenson’s 1828 paper, transcribed from the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.

Remarks upon the Wasting Effect of the Sea on the shore of Cheshire, between the rivers Mersey and Dee

By Robert Stevenson, Esq. Civil-Engineer, F.R.S.E., M.W.S., &c. Communicated by the Author.

On a former occasion, I had the honour to make a few observations, which appeared in the 2nd volume of the Society’s Memoirs, regarding the encroachment of the sea upon the land generally. The present notice refers only to that portion of the coast which lies between the rivers Mersey and Dee, extending to about seven miles. To this quarter my attention, with that of Mr Nimmo, Civil Engineer, had been professionally directed in the course of last month. In our perambulatory survey we were accompanied by Sir John Tobin, and William Laird, Esq. of Liverpool, along the Cheshire shore, and its connecting sand banks, between Wallasea Pool, in the Mersey, and Dalpool, in the river Dee. Within these estuaries, the shores may be described as abrupt, consisting of red clay and marl, containing many land or boulder stones, of the cubic contents of several tons, and very many of much smaller sizes, diminishing to coarse gravel. But the foreland, or northern shore, between these rivers, which I am now to notice, is chiefly low ground, and, to a great extent, is under the level of the highest tides. The beach, or ebb, extends from 300 to 400 yards seaward and, toward low-water-mark, exposes a section of red clay ; but, toward high water, it consists of bluish coloured marl, with peat or moss overlaid by sand. This beach, at about half-tide level, presents a curious and highly interesting spectacle of the remains of a submarine forest. The numerous roots of trees, which have not been washed away by the sea, or carried off by the neighbouring inhabitants for firewood, are in a very decayed state. The trees seem to have been cut off about two feet from the ground after the usual practice in felling timber, and the roots are seen ramifying from their respective stumps, in all directions, and dipping towards the clay subsoil. They seem to have varied in size from 18 inches to perhaps 30 inches in diameter, and, when cut with a knife, appear to be oak. Several of the boles or trunks have also been left upon the ground, and being partly immersed in the sand and clay, are now in such a decomposed state, that, when dug into with a common spade, great numbers of the shell-fish called Pholas candida, measuring about three-fourths of an inch in length, and two inches in breadth, were found apparently in a healthy state. These proofs of the former state of this ebb or shore, now upwards of 20 feet under full tide, having been once dry land to a considerable extent beyond the region of these large forest trees, were rendered still more evident by the occurrence of large masses of greenstone, which, at a former period, had been imbedded in the firm ground here, and especially on the shore within the river Dee. It may farther deserve notice, that the inhabitants of this district have a traditional rhyme, expressive of the former wooded state of this coast, where not a tree is now to be seen, viz. “From Halbre Isle to Birkenhead a squirrel may hop from tree to tree;” that is from the Dee to, the Mersey, now presenting a submarine forest.

As these evidences of great changes upon the state and former appearances of the land were highly interesting to the party, and intimately connected with the professional inquiries of myself and colleague, it seemed desirable to get them, if possible, corroborated by oral testimony. Sir John Tobin accordingly, very obligingly, took measures for examining the oldest people in the neighbourhood, as to their recollection of the former state of these shores. In particular, Thomas Barclay, aged 93 “all but two months”, by profession a mason and measurer of country work; Henry Youd, labourer, aged 86; and John Crooksan, labourer, aged 80, were examined. Barclay stated, that he had been employed at the erection of the Leasowe landward Lighthouse in the year 1764; that there were then two lighthouses near the shore, for a leading direction to shipping through the proper channel to Liverpool ; and that the Sea Light became uninhabitable, from its being surrounded by the sea. A new light was then built upon Bidstone Hill; and the present Leasowe Lighthouse, formerly the landward light, which he had assisted in building, became the sea-light. He could not condescend upon the distance between the two original lights, but was certain that it must have been several hundred yards; that he knows that, in the course of thirty years, the shore of the Leasowe lost, by measurement, eleven Cheshire roods, or 88 yards; and verily believes, that, since he knew this shore, it has lost upwards of half-a-mile of firm ground. To the correctness of these statements, the other two aged men gave ample testimony; Henry Youd having also worked at the Lighthouse.

As to the present state of things, the party alluded to were eye witnesses of the tides, on the 16th, 17th and 18th of February 1828, having exhibited a very alarming example of the encroachments of the sea upon the Leasowe shore. At high-water it came over the bank, and ran in a stream of about half-a-mile in breadth, surrounded the lighthouse, and continued its course through the low grounds toward Wallasea Pool, on the Mersey, thereby forming a new channel, and threatening to lay several thousands of acres of rich arable and pasture lands into the state of a permanent salt lake. The present Leasowe Lighthouse, which, in 1764, was considered far above the reach of the sea, upon the 17th of February last was thus surrounded by salt water, and must soon be abandoned unless some very extensive works be undertaken for the defence of the beach, the whole of the interior lands of the Leasowe being considerably under the level of high-water of spring-tides.

This coast, with its sand banks in the offing; its submarine forest, and the evidence of living witnesses as to the encroachment of the sea upon the firm ground, is altogether highly interesting to the geological and scientific enquirer. The remains of forests in the bed of the ocean occur in several parts of the British coast; particularly off Lincoln; on the banks of the Tay, near Flisk; at Skiel, in the Mainland of Orkney, and in other places, noticed in the Transactions of this Society, and are strong proofs of the encroachment of the sea upon the land. However difficult, therefore, it may be to reconcile the varied appearances in nature, regarding the sea having at one time occupied a higher level than at present, yet its encroachment as a general, and almost universal principle, seems to be beyond doubt in the present day. Since I had last the honour of addressing the Society on this subject, opportunities have been afforded me of making many additional observations on the British shores; and of personally extending these to almost every port on the Continent, between the Texel and the Garonne. I have also through the obliging communications of friends, been enabled to extend my inquiries to other quarters of the globe; and I am now prepared to state, that, with a few comparatively trifling exceptions, the sea appears to be universally gaining upon the land, tending to confirm the theory, That debris, arising from the general degradation of the land, being deposited in the bed of the minor seas, is the cause of their present tendency to overflow their banks.

Women in the workplace

On International Women’s Day, we remember some of the important women in the history of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory.

Elizabeth Wilding, Liverpool’s first female Lighthouse Keeper.

When Richard Wilding, keeper of Bidston Lighthouse, died in March 1797 at the ripe old age of 85, the Liverpool Dock Committee needed to appoint a successor. Richard’s widow, Elizabeth Wilding,  35 years his junior, had already been doing a lot of the work, so she was the natural choice but for one problem – she was a woman. Perhaps the Dock Committee were influenced by the fact that Mrs Cormes was doing a good job for the Chester trustees at Point of Ayr Lighthouse at Talacre, following her appointment as Lighthouse Keeper in 1791. Anyway, the Dock Committee did take the bold step of appointing Elizabeth in April 1797, albeit with some unusal conditions attached.

“Elizabeth Wilding Widow of the late Richard Wilding … is hereby appointed Keeper of the Bidston Lighthouse in Cheshire at the clear annual Salary of Fifty Pounds so long as she shall continue to behave herself properly and attentively and employ her Son in Law Captain William Urmson as her Assistant and shall not attempt to employ or use the said Building called the Bidston Lighthouse or any of its Appendages as a Publick House.”

Elizabeth died in service only three years later, and was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson, a former sea captain. She must have done a good job, because in later years the Dock Committee did not hesitate to appoint female keepers at other lighthouses – unlike Trinity House, who never appointed a woman as Principal Keeper in 500 years.

When John Jones was dismissed as keeper of Leasowe Lighthouse “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed as keeper in his place. Leasowe’s last lighthouse keeper was Mary Elizabeth Williams, who served from 1894 to 1908. And at Bidston, we had the Urmson sisters.

The Urmson sisters

William Urmson was assisted by his three daughers Ann, Jane and Catherine. This contemporary account by George Head in 1835 is delightful and illuminating.

Biddestone Hill, about three miles from Woodside, commands an extensive view of the country inland, while the forest of signal poles, with which the lighthouse is surrounded, give it, at a distance, an extraordinary appearance—that of a dock or harbour on the top of a hill. Hence the merchant vessels bound to Liverpool are signalled and telegraphed in the offing, the poles alluded to bearing the private signals of different individuals. And what must be remarked as rather singular is, that, notwithstanding the arduous duty which necessarily falls on the station, the whole is performed, almost exclusively, by young women, daughters of the veteran in charge. The old man, who is thus ably supported in the winter of life, is fourscore years old, and has held the office upward of forty years. Although boys are employed to run backward and forward, out of doors, with colours to the poles, and haul them up; and one of the three young women is married, and occasionally assisted by her husband; yet it is she who, being perfect in the whole code of signals, performs the responsible part of the duty. This couple were both at work together at the time I arrived, the young woman keeping the lookout, and calling the numbers, while the man, merely at her bidding, pulled the ropes. She not only kept him employed, but managed meanwhile to iron a shirt into the bargain.

The business of the youngest sister is to attend the light, consisting of eleven Argand lamps, with plated reflectors. Every four hours during the night the lamps are trimmed; these, the stove, copper, oil jars, and paved floor, are preserved in a state of cleanliness not to be exceeded; while no doubt, many a mariner, on a wintry and stormy night, both knows and feels that his life and safety are thus well confided to the never-failing care of — woman.

The old man in the story is William Urmson, who died later that very year. The three women were the surviving daughters of his second wife:  Ann (who was to succeed William as keeper), Catherine (the youngest, who attended the light), and Jane (who kept the lookout and called the numbers).

In their turn, Ann and Jane respectively held the offices of lighthouse and telegraph keeper in their own right. But you would glean a very different impression from the census records, which list Ann only as the wife of John Urmson, Lighthouse Keeper and Jane as the wife of Thomas Nichols, Telegraph Keeper. Urmson was both Ann’s maiden and married name; her husband John was a second cousin.

Doodson’s “Computers”

Arthur Doodson, the man behind the mechanical tide predicting machines at Bidston Observatory, exclusively employed young women to operate them. Their job title was “computer” and an essential qualification for the post was good handwriting. These young ladies computed tide tables around the world, including those that were used to plan the D-Day landings.

The ladies in this post-war photograph of the Observatory Staff by the One O’Clock gun are, proceeding clockwise from Valerie Doodson at the front left:
Valerie Doodson née Boyes, Jean Harman née MacFarlane, Dorothy Ainsworth, Eunice Murrell née Heath, Barbara Trueman-Jones, Margaret Lennon née Weston, Sylvia Asquith née Brooks, Margaret Ireland née Wylie, and Olwyn Branscombe.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun.

Mary Connell

For seventy-seven years, Mary Connell was a constant presence on the hill that she loved. She moved into the Lighthouse Cottages in 1937 with her parents Mick and Mary Connell and younger sister Patricia. She worked as a funeral director for many years, and walked her dogs on Bidston Hill twice a day. She fought the combined lawyers of Wirral Borough Council and the Natural Environment Research Council for the right to stay in the Lighthouse Cottages, and against all the odds, she won. She was in her seventies when ill health forced her to retire.

After the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory abandoned Bidston Hill in 2004, Mary was the only person living on the site (until guardians were eventually installed in the Joseph Proudman Building and the Observatory). Her only defenses against the disaffected youths who prowled the site at night were a walking stick, her sharp tongue, and the brambles she allowed to grow around the Lighthouse Cottages. Her sharp tongue was the most formidable of these. We miss her.

Mary Connell, 1934-2014

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A Pictorial Relic of Bidston Hill

In 1878, William Gawin Herdman’s “Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool” was re-published in two oversized volumes. Plate 67 depicts the Lighthouse and flag signals on Bidston Hill. It is captioned, intriguingly, as “Bidston Hill Observatory 1830”.

Bidston Hill "Observatory" 1830 by W. G. Herdman

Bidston Hill “Observatory” 1830, from W.G. Herdman’s “Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool”.

The astronomical observatory on Bidston Hill was not completed until 1866, when it replaced the earlier Liverpool Observatory at Waterlook Dock. So why did Herdman describe this engraving, based on a sketch he made in 1830, as the Bidston Hill Observatory?

When I first came across this engraving, in a postcard published much later, I assumed that the mistake was made in the twentieth century, after the flag signals, semaphore telegraph and lighthouse itself had become little more than footnotes in the history of Bidston Observatory. But Herdman was writing at a time when the Lighthouse and Observatory were both operating, and he chose to describe the 1830 scene as Bidston Hill Observatory.

Was Herdman merely using “Bidston Hill Observatory” to refer to the site as it would have been known to his readers in 1878?

Or was he using the word Observatory in a more general sense than the astronomical? It was not unknown for lookouts such as were attached to semaphore stations to be called observatories. They were equipped with telescopes and part of their function was to observe, not the sky, but the sea.

This is the full text of Herdman’s description of Bidston Hill Observatory, transcribed from pages 62-63 of “Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool”, Volume 2, 1878.

Bidston Hill Observatory

Plate LXVII. (1)

This is from an original Drawing by the Author, dated 1830, and shows the ancient mode of telegraphy. The site is at present occupied by the new Observatory and Lighthouse, the old buildings, erected in 1771, having been taken down in 1872. At the time the sketch was made, Bidston was a quiet rustic  village, with its old-fashioned church, old hall, rural cottages, and country lanes, where on a summer’s day, one might discard the busy growing town of Liverpool, and enjoy balmy air, picturesque views, sandy walks, and if so inclined, good ham and eggs and good ale in the old-fashioned inn. The view from Bidston Hill during sunset on a fine summer’s evening is, even nowadays, worth journeying to see. The Lighthouse seen in the Plate would probably be rebuilt in 1771, for there is a very old drawing, once in the possession of the late H. Ecroyd Smith, Esq., of a lighthouse on the same spot, previous to this date, with a turret from its summit, which at the time the drawing was taken was evidently in a very dilapidated condition. For many years Bidston Hill was a general resort of picnic parties and pleasure seekers. During the first half of this century it was entirely open to the public, and was only enclosed by the proprietor, Mr. Vyner, when the visitors began to abuse the privileges accorded them. The Drawing is especially interesting in this progressive age, when electricity has given birth to such invaluable inventions as the telegraph, telephone, &c., as showing the old mode of telegraphy, even up to recent periods. The poles seen in the Drawing were of varying heights, and, with the assistance of flags, communication as to the arrival of vessels off Holyhead were conveyed to the Telegraph Station in Liverpool, and thence to the several shipowners, who had their own special pole and signal-flag. The proposition for this particular mode of telegraphy, the principle of which is the French semaphore, is said to have been made in 1803 by a Mr. Boaz, and was part of his system of telegraphs for communication between Liverpool, Holyhead and the principal seaports of the United Kingdom. Originally the Liverpool Station was on the top of a warehouse in Chapel Street. This was afterwards removed to the summit of the tower in the Old Church Yard. In the instance now under notice the first communication was with Bidston Hill, afterwards with Hilbre Island, then with Talacre, and eventually with Holyhead. This mode of telegraphy, simple though it was, was most useful in its day, but, like many other discoveries, has given way to the ever-increasing wonders of modern science.

Observations

There is much to intrigue the historian in Herdman’s engraving and description. The windmill in the distance is not Bidston Windmill, but Wallasey Mill, now disappeared.  We know that, for much of its length, the line of the flagpoles was closer to the ridge of Bidston Hill than to Penny-a-Day-Dyke , but perhaps the ones nearest the lighthouse were indeed located close by the medieval wall, as Herdman has drawn them.

And what of the “very old drawing, once in the possession of the late H. Ecroyd Smith” – could it be this one?

Herdman draws no clear distinction between the flag signals and the semaphore telegraph, and writes as though the flags were part of the method of communication between Liverpool and Holyhead. But the semaphore telegraph came much later than the flag signals, which date back to 1763. However, it is plausible that following the advent of the Liverpool-Holyhead Telegraph in 1826, news carried from Holyhead by the telegraph might cause the hoisting of a shipowner’s flag; certainly something similar happened in Tasmania in the 1830s, where messages carried by a semaphore telegraph from Low Head along the Tamar River to Launceston were converted to flag signals at the last stage for the convenience of the town.

The mention of Mr Boaz’s proposition in 1803 is one to follow up.

We know that in 1804, during the Napoleonic wars, the Admiralty established a number of signal stations between Liverpool and Holyhead. (The alarm beacon on Bidston Hill was set up at the same time.) We know very little about the coastal signals stations. They were located at Liverpool (St. Domingo), Bidston Hill, Point of Ayr, Cabe Hill, Great Orme’s Head, Point Lynas and Holyhead. They wouldn’t have been semaphore stations in the strict sense of the term – at the time, Britain’s telegraphs were based on a shutter system. The coastal signal stations probably used a flag and ball system. Part of their purpose was to observe and communicate with ships at sea – and they were often called observatories in contemporary writing. Whether they were intended to communicate with each other is not clear.

The locations of the telegraph stations of 1826, built by the Port of Liverpool under the direction of Barnard Lindsay Watson, are thought to have coincided roughly with the earlier Admiralty signal stations, which had fallen into disuse following the defeat of Napoleon.

Postscript

Confirmation of sorts for “Mr Boaz’s proposition” is provided by the following article, which appeared in the July 1804 issue of the Scots Magazine, in the Literary and Scientific Notices section.

A plan of a Telegraphic Establishment for Domestic and Commercial Purposes having been suggested some time since to Mr Boaz, the ingenious patentee of a Day and Night Telegraph, that gentleman has lately submitted proposals for a local experiment to the inhabitants of Liverpool. A line of Telegraphs is in consequence about to be established from Liverpool to Holyhead, for the purpose of announcing the arrival of ships bound for Liverpool, and of procuring pilots. Another line has been suggested, from Liverpool to Hull, through Manchester and Leeds; and another from Liverpool to London, thro’ Chester and Birmingham. These several lines would not cost more than £15,000, and on a moderate calculation of the messages which would be sent through them, at a rate of a guinea per eight words per 100 miles, there is no doubt, but the establishment would, on the average, net an annual profit of 2 or 300 per cent. The person with whom this plan originated, hoped to see it executed by government, and a telegraphic establishment extended from the metropolis to every market town in the kingdom ; but it is probable that its utility and profit must first be demonstrated by the experiment of private individuals, before the nation at large can be made to participate in the advantages of so wonderful a system of conveying intelligence — a system which would confer a sort of ubiquity on those who might choose to avail themselves of it, and which would render the whole of this busy and extended nation like one concentrated metropolis.

This, too, is intriguing. It seems absurd that Liverpool could have been setting up a genuine commercial telegraph at the same time that the Admiralty was installing coastal signals stations along the same route. Nor does it seem likely that the Admiralty would condone its signals stations to be used for the purposes described. But it does suggest that the stations under construction in 1804 may indeed have been intended to communicate with each other.

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

 

Female Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse keeping is generally regarded as a male profession. But it was not uncommon for a lighthouse keeper to be assisted by his family, and no doubt many seafarers owe their lives to the wives and daughters who kept the light burning when the keeper was ill, asleep or in his cups.  Most of these women have been forgotten by history, with the notable exception of Grace Darling.

Lucy, the keeper in Margaret Elphinstone’s well-researched and insightful novel “Light“, is fictional.

Trinity House, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2014, never appointed a woman to the post of Principal Keeper (PK). It probably never will, because the UK’s last manned lighthouse, North Foreland, was automated in 1998.

Liverpool’s Dock Committee was more enlightened. They appointed Elizabeth Wilding as keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1797 (albeit with conditions attached), following the death of her husband Richard. She was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson in 1800. Ann Urmson, William’s second daughter by his second wife,  was PK at Bidston from 1835 until 12 May 1869. Richard, Elizabeth, William and Ann all died in service. William’s other daughters helped at the Bidston station: Jane kept the telegraph, and Catherine assisted at the lighthouse.

Leasowe Lighthouse also had two female Principal Keepers. When John Jones was dismissed “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed in his place. John died in 1857, still a resident of the lighthouse. Ann Jones died in service on 23 Jul 1867. [1, pages 33-34]. The last lighthouse keeper at Leasowe Lighthouse was Mary Elizabeth Williams. When her husband Thomas Williams died in 1894, Mrs Williams took over as PK. Apart from the lighthouse, she also had eight children (including a baby) to look after. Fortunately, some of her children were old enough to help. She was still in post when Leasowe’s light was discontinued on 15 July 1908. After the closure, she carried on as caretaker until November of the following year [1, pages 37-40].

Elizabeth Wilding was the first female lighthouse keeper to be appointed by Liverpool. But the Chester trustees were a few years ahead, having appointed Mrs Cormes as keeper of Point of Ayr Lighthouse in 1791 [1, page 46].

In 1975, the Lancaster Port Commission appointed Peggy Braithwaite née Swarbrick (9 Jul 1919 – 12 Jan 1996) as Principal Keeper of Walney Island Lighthouse, when her husband, the lighthouse keeper, died. Peggy retired at the age of 74.

If you know of any women who served as Principal Keeper, please let us know by commenting on this post.

References

  1. John and Diane Robinson, Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Memorandum to George F. Lyster

Our latest acquisition is this memorandum from the Secretary of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to George F. Lyster, the man who built Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory (and many other important buildings and docks).

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

The memorandum is dated 15 April 1889. In red ink, initialled by GFL, there is a brief instruction addressed to AGL. At the foot of the memo there is a longer reply to the secretary, initialled by AGL.

GFL is George Fosbery Lyster (1821-1899), then Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. AGL is his 37-year old son, Anthony George Lyster (1852-1920).

The following year, Anthony became Acting Engineer-in-Chief to the MDHB. He eventually succeeded his father as Engineer-in-Chief when George retired in 1897. This memo shows that the father was already in the habit of delegating to his son in 1889.

Between them, George Fosbery Lyster and Anthony George Lyster probably added more acreage to the docks of Liverpool and Birkenhead than their predecessors Jesse Hartley and his son John Bernard Hartley.

We are delighted to have this sample of the handwriting of both father and son in a single document.

 

St. Bees

Yesterday, I posted this drawing of an unidentified lighthouse, and appealed to Twitter and Facebook for help in identifying it.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

The drawing shows a site plan along with front and side elevations. We found it several years ago in a box containing plans of Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. It is signed and dated Jas. N. Douglass, 5th April 1871. If my reading of the signature is correct, then the architect would be the famous James Nicholas Douglass F.R.S. who built many important lighthouses for Trinity House, including the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse.

Today, the mystery is solved, thanks to social media.

Facebook user Steve Kean was the first to identify the lighthouse correctly. It is St. Bees Lighthouse in Cumbria.

Then Jay Gates found an aerial view that clinched the matter.

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

The distinctive kinks in the perimeter wall, the paths within the lighthouse compound, and the location of the buildings and outbuildings all match perfectly. Even the annotations “Fence Bank” on the drawing make sense once you realise that these describe features that are clearly visible in the aerial view. It’s astonishing how little St Bees has changed in 145 years.

A little research reveals that St Bees was re-built in 1865 (although, strangely, Trinity House’s page on St. Bees doesn’t mention this at all).

So how did a drawing of St Bees Lighthouse come to be filed in a box of drawings pertaining to Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection?

Here is one possible explanation. In 1871, George Fosbery Lyster, then Engineer-in-Chief for the MDHB, was planning a replacement for the first Bidston Lighthouse. He would have been aware of the new (1865) lighthouse at St Bees, and may well have written, one engineer to another, to his counterpart James Douglass at Trinity House requesting a drawing. Then Douglass’ office prepared a drawing, perhaps a copy of an existing drawing or perhaps a fresh one, which was signed off by Douglass and sent on to Lyster’s office. It may have inspired some aspects of Lyster’s own 1872 design for the new Bidston Lighthouse. The layouts of Bidston and St. Bees do have much in common, but Lyster gave Bidston’s cottages a third wing, as Bidston needed three keepers to look after the telegraph as well as the lighthouse. Then, it would be natural for Douglass’ drawing to be filed away with the rest of the Bidston papers, where it stayed until the MDHB collection was deposited in the archives many years later.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that James Douglass was the architect of St. Bees – he could have just signed off a copy of an earlier drawing by someone else. However, he had been Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House since 1862, and even if someone else did draw up the plans for St. Bees, it was Douglass who was ultimately responsible.

I then turned to email, and wrote to Neil Jones at Trinity House, and to the Cumbria Archives Service (since they have some of the best on-line resources about St. Bees).

Then I went to bed.

Next morning, my inbox held a reply from Neil Jones confirming that the drawing is indeed of St Bees, and that it is most likely a tracing or copy of an earlier drawing.

At this point, I left my investigations for a pleasant Maritime Heritage conference. Proceedings started aboard the newly re-launched steamer the Daniel Adamson at Liverpool’s Canning Dock.

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

After lunch, the conference resumed at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the very same building where we first found the drawing several years ago. Even as young Jamie Davies of the Ironbridge Institute was lecturing on the value of social media for heritage projects, my phone beeped to alert me of incoming email from Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service, which said:

I can confirm that the plan attached to your email is indeed St Bees lighthouse. The plan matches exactly with modern site plans we have in our collection, and photographs of the front elevation confirm its identity.

There is plentiful historical information regarding the old St Bees lighthouse scattered around various collection we hold here and at Carlisle Archive Centre. However information and plans relating to the rebuilt lighthouse is held at our reference YGLA/1 and spans 1962 – 1989 only.

I have not seen the attached plan before and it is a delight to see it.

Although I can confirm the plan is definitely St Bees, I cannot throw any light on how the plan came to be where you found it, but your theory is quite plausible.

I cannot thank you enough for bringing this fascinating plan to our attention.

I barely managed to contain my excitement. I waited for the opportunity for questions at the end of the talk, determined to share my social media success story with the audience, whether they wanted to hear it or not. No such opportunity came, as we were running behind schedule. By the time of the closing discussion the moment had passed.

All of which leads me, at the end of a most pleasant day, to write this post. Needless to say, I shall share it on social media.

Stephen, at Bidston Lighthouse, with thanks to Michael Vicente (photographer) and my wife Mandy for finding the drawing in the first place; to Steve Kean, Jay Gates, Neil Jones at Trinity House, and Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service for their help in identifying it; to the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society and the Maritime Heritage Trust for a great conference; to Jamie Davies for talking about social media at that particular time; and especially the Merseyside Maritime Museum for the parts it played at the beginning and the end of my story.