Category Archives: Lighthouse

The Ballad of Wally the Woodpecker

Wally the Woodpecker gets his beak stuck while pecking on the ball vent at Bidston Lighthouse. Pencil sketch by Bob Hughes, 6 June 2021.

Wally the Woodpecker never watched
What it was he was working on.
He would peck here, he wood peck there,
He pecked like a woodpecker everywhere.

But boring holes in tree trunks was very boring work.
Too much head-banging made him go berserk.
Boldly he said “I must branch out!”
So from branch to branch he went
– no, not that sort of branch, oh no –
And then he twigged where he should go.

There was a windmill standing tall.
“That’s something different”, he did call,
“I’ll have a go, those sails look good”,
And so he drummed like a woodpecker should.
He did this many times and oft
But then declared, “This wood’s too soft!”

Now further down along the hill
Rose two white domes and if you will
They were the domes, believe you me,
the domes of an Observer Tree.
Now what the domes were made of,
Nobody really knew
And those who did, they must bave been
but very, very few.
But Wally went and had a go
(By now you’ll know I’m no real bard)
What Wally found and then declared
“My god, that stuff, it’s far too hard!”

He looked across and down the way
And there his eyes were led astray.
He saw another tower rise
Before his very ogling eyes.
And on this tower there was a ball,
Not too big and not too small,
Just the size for Wally to land
And perch and drum, and he did find
To his great pleasure and delight,
He shouted “This one, it’s just right!”

And so it was that every day
Wally came and pecked away.
He pecked and drummed with all his might.
What a noise and what a sight!

But what is this I see today?
Wally seems stuck, can’t get away.
His pecking beak, where has it gone?
I can’t see it, nor anyone.
But then I slowly realise
His beak is there, but in disguise,
In the dome of soft material
He’s broken through (it’s now a serial
I’m writing here about Wally’s beak;
the beak is tough, the metal weak).
The problem is, he’s got it stuck.
He broke in through but out of luck
When he tried to pull it out
All in vain though he did shout.
The problem for our Goldilocks:–
woodpeckers do not live in flocks
to rescue him when need it be.
He could be stuck for eternity.

To find a moral to my tale,
I must admit I fail, I fail.
But if you’re a woodpecker, remember well:
Stick to the woods – or there’ll be hell.

Bob Hughes, 3 Jun 2021 – after visiting Steve and Mandy at the Lighthouse.

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.

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.

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

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.

Former Joseph Proudman Laboratory for sale

The site of the former “Joseph Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory” is for sale. The land – where the Joseph Proudman Building stood for a little while – is being marketed as a “development opportunity”.

If you are thinking about making a bid, read this first. It will help with your “due diligence”.

The vendor, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is only in a position to offer the leasehold. The freehold is retained by Wirral Council, who can veto a transfer of the lease. To do anything with the land, the purchaser will have to re-negotiate the lease or acquire the freehold.

The next few days will be critical for the future of Bidston Lighthouse, Bidston Observatory and Bidston Hill. It could go two ways.

In one possible future, the land is used for the amenity of visitors to Bidston Lighthouse, Observatory and Hill. Open-air events are held on the site. Bidston Observatory is re-invented as an artistic research centre, incorporating a permanent exhibition about its scientific heritage. Bidston Lighthouse becomes self-sustaining as a place to visit. This is the future we dream about. We have, of course, made our own bid to acquire the land for this very purpose.

In the other possible future,  a developer or property speculator succeeds in acquiring the land. A long, drawn-out battle with local pressure groups, including ourselves, ensues. The developer might eventually obtain planning permission and listed buildings consent for some kind of development on the site. Let’s say its a residential development (which would also require change-of-use). Wilding Way would probably need to be widened, creating a danger to wildlife and dog-walkers, who stop using the northern end of Bidston Hill. You can see where this leads: Bidston Hill is sacrificed to meet the government’s targets for new housing. The prospect of public-facing, sustainable uses for the Lighthouse and Observatory is compromised. Maybe the Lighthouse and Observatory struggle on, or maybe they don’t.

Of course, the developer might ultimately lose the battle for planning permission. Maybe they sit on the land for a few years, letting it go to seed. Fly-tippers take advantage. No-one visits the Lighthouse or Observatory. Everyone is out of pocket (except the lawyers). Everyone suffers.

More about the Proudman land

The land was once the kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse. Its official postal address is 4 Lighthouse Cottages, CH43 7RA. An oceanographic research facility, latterly called the Joseph Proudman Building, stood on the site from the 1970s until its demolition in 2013.

Since the Joseph Proudman Building was demolished, the land has been used from time to time by picknickers, dog-walkers and mountain bike enthusiasts, as an exercise ground by local schools and fitness fanatics, not to mention fly-tippers. Hedgehogs, foxes, owls, kestrels, woodpeckers and other wildlife have been seen on the site.

Photograph of the Joseph Proudman Building, during its demolition

Demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building, 2013

The land is enclosed on two sides by a sandstone wall. The wall is a grade-II listed building in its own right, and the land is within its curtilage. The same wall encloses Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory, which are also grade-II listed. All three listed buildings were designed by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Every stone on the site was locally quarried, and every stone is exactly where Lyster placed it a century-and-a-half ago. There is no conceivable development that would not diminish the group value of the site.

The land was originally part of the title of Bidston Lighthouse when the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board sold the Lighthouse to the Birkenhead Corporation in 1935. At the time, the minutes of the Corporation said: “By this purchase the land would be available for all future generations for recreational purposes”. This intention was reflected both in the price – a modest £1000 – and in a restrictive covenant prohibiting new buildings. This covenant still attaches to the freehold title of the land in question, but it is not mentioned in the leasehold title. The covenant has not been tested in the courts – yet.

The drains of Bidston Lighthouse and Cottages run beneath the Proudman land. The route of these drains is not known by Unitied Utilities.

The western boundary of the land is disputed. The owners of Bidston Lighthouse claim an easement over the land in order to access their outbuilding, originally a coal-store and toilet block, and later a hazardous waste store.

The single-track access road, Wilding Way, is owned by Wirral Council, but it is not adopted. It is not a public highway. It doubles as a public footpath for most of its length. It is crossed by dog-walkers, horse-riders and wildlife.

The land comes with no rights over that part of the access road that extends beyond its western boundary. So without the willing co-operation of the Lighthouse and Observatory, the developer’s vehicles would have to turn within the boundaries of the land being developed.

 

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, Margaret Ireland née Wylie, Sylvia Asquith née Brooks, 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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