Category Archives: Lighthouse

ALK AGM 2015

The Annual General Meeting of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers took place on the Island of Portland, in Dorset, on the last weekend in September, 2015. There were excursions to Anvil Point Lighthouse, Portland Bill, the old Portland upper and lower lights, and a boat trip out to the Portland Breakwater Light. Anvil Point and Portland Bill are still operational. The old upper light is now holiday accommodation, and the lower light is a bird observatory. It was a privilege to visit the breakwater light with retired lighthouse keeper Gordon Medlicott, who was stationed there in 1967, the year it was decommissioned.

State of the roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly,

Stephen Pickles

The French Visitor

In 1785, the French engineer Joseph Cachin drew this delightful illustration of Bidston Lighthouse.

Drawings of Bidston Lighthouse and reflector, by Joseph Cachin, 1785.

Drawings of Bidston Lighthouse and reflector, by Joseph Cachin, 1785.

Cachin’s careful drawings include a scale, and one can take measurements from them. The scale is in toises and pieds du roi. These units were used in France before the Revolution. There were twelve pouces in one pied du roi, and six pieds du roi in one toise. Pouce, pied du roi and toise correspond respectively to the Imperial units inch, foot and fathom, but were slightly longer. Thus one toise was 1.066 fathoms, 6.394 feet, or 1.949 metres.

If you measure the diameter of the reflector in the drawing using Cachin’s scale, and convert back to Imperial units, you should get a value very close to 12 feet. This is the size that William Hutchinson reported in 1777 in his Treatise on Practical Seamanship, but less than the thirteen-and-a-half feet reported by Robert Stevenson when he visited Bidston Lighthouse in 1801. Perhaps Stevenson was more casual while he was still learning the trade of lighthouse-engineering, for he seems also to have exaggerated the height of Leasowe Lighthouse.

Bidston’s reflector was (probably) the largest parabolic reflector ever to be installed in an operational lighthouse. It was also one of the first – Hutchinson installed parabolic reflectors in all the Wirral lighthouses about the same time. Hutchinson’s breakthrough in lighthouse optics was driven by the needs of Bidston Lighthouse, which was built further from the body of water it lit than any other lighthouse in the world (a record it holds to this day).

As far as I know, Cachin’s is the only drawing to show a cross section of the lamp room, with the stairs that the keeper would climb to replenish the oil reservoir, and the elaborate chimney through which the smoke and vapours of the lamp would escape.

Joseph Cachin (1757-1825) was a French engineer, best known for his work at Cherbourg Harbour. In 1785, while at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, he travelled to Britain and the United States. In England, he visited the ports of Sheerness, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, the quarries of Portland, and the Hospital at Greenwich. He examined lighthouses and lime-kilns, the cranes on the Bridgewater Canal, and studied the materials used in their construction. (Readers of French can check my translation against this article.)

My thanks to Thomas Tag of the United States Lighthouse Society for bringing the drawing to my attention.

Has anyone seen our lamp?

This is a photograph of the lens that was installed at Bidston Lighthouse in 1873.

1st order dioptric lens with vertical condensing prisms, made for Bidston Lighthouse

1st order dioptric lens with vertical condensing prisms, made for Bidston Lighthouse

It was a first order dioptric lens with vertical condensing prisms, manufactured by Chance Brothers of Birmingham. The photograph was taken in the factory, before the lens was dis-assembled, shipped to Bidston Hill, and re-assembled in the lamp room of Bidston Lighthouse.

It shone every night for forty years, until it was finally switched off on 9th October, 1913, at sunrise.

We don’t know what happened to it after that. Did it sit, forgotten and ignored, in Bidston Lighthouse for many years? Was it transferred to a museum? Or was it re-deployed in another lighthouse?

National Museums Liverpool don’t have it (but they do have a smaller one that was used at Hale Head Lighthouse).

Given that it was a very expensive piece of equipment, originally costing much more than the tower that housed it, it would have made sense to re-deploy it another operational lighthouse.

Have you seen our lamp?

Update

In the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Archives, there is a “worked up paper” on lighthouses.  It contains a memorandum for October 1913, stating that the Board agreed to a suggestion from the Marine Surveyor “that the lighting apparatus at the Bidston Lighthouse be fixed in the North Wall Lighthouse in substitution for the present one”. The North Wall Lighthouse, also known as the Bootle Lighthouse (or Bootle Bull) was built in 1877 at the north end of Liverpool’s Dock system, and discontinued in 1927 to make way for Gladstone Dock.

Drawing of North Wall Lighthouse in 1927

North Wall Lighthouse in 1927, from “Sea Breezes”, December 1973

The minutes of the Marine Committee of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for 21 Nov 1927 state that “The Account Sales in respect of Glass Prism Panels &c from the North Wall Lighthouse were submitted”. Unfortunately, the minutes do not record who bought the prisms, nor how much was paid.

Our quest continues.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Thomas Tag for bringing the photograph to my attention, and to the helpful staff at the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Archives.

Bidston Lighthouse used to prove Earth flat

In the nineteenth century, a fellow called Samuel Birley Rowbotham promoted a flat earth system which he called Zetetic Astronomy. Writing under the pseudonym “Parallax”, Rowbotham published Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe in 1865. He drew on, amongst other things, information published in Lighthouses of the World by Alexander G. Findlay (1861-2) to support his thesis that the earth was flat. Bidston Lighthouse was one of his chief examples:

By the same authority, at page 39, the Bidston Hill Lighthouse, near Liverpool, is 228 feet above high water, one bright fixed light, visible 23 nautical or very nearly 27 statute miles. Deducting 4 miles for the height of the observer, squaring the remaining 23 miles and multiplying that product by 8 inches we have a downward curvature of 352 feet; from this deduct the altitude of the light, 228 feet, and there remains 124 feet as the distance which the light should be below the horizon!

Over a hundred years later, Robert J. Schadewald picked up the story in his 1992 article Looking for Lighthouses. Schadewald, like the Reverend M. R. Bresher before him, vigorously refuted Rowbotham’s arguments, but could not explain the anomalies in Lighthouses of the World. Schadewald concluded:

And what about Rowbotham’s anomalous lighthouses? Beats me. Perhaps the reported observations were made under unusual conditions. Perhaps, for those lighthouses still operating, new observations would not confirm the reported anomalies. By now, however, some of Rowbotham’s lighthouses presumably have been closed, torn down, or destroyed by the elements. For these, we will never know. One thing is certain; those who seek only anomalous lighthouses will never find light.

My inner geek can’t leave it at that. You can bear with me as I try to make sense of it, or you can read this instead.

I should disclose at this point that I do not, and never have, subscribed to any Flat Earth theory.

Elevation of the lamp

Let’s start with Findlay’s Lighthouses of the World. The entry for Bidston is on page 39.

Entry for Bidston in Lighthouses of the World,1861

Figure 1. Extract from “Lighthouses of the World”, Alexander G. Findlay, 1861.

Findlay explains the meaning of each column on page 32. Bidston is written in block capitals because it is a principal light. The black circle in column 4 denotes a catoptric reflector. To avoid any ambiguity, I quote Findlay’s explanations of columns 5 and 6 verbatim:

Height above high water (5th column). This gives the height of the flame above the highest tide level, consequently it is its minimum height, and is increased by the tidal range of the place. The height of the lighthouse itself, from base to summit, is given sometimes in the third column.

Visible in miles – sixth column. This gives the minimum distance to which the light can be seen, in clear weather, from a height of 10 feet above the sea level. But in the case of the principal lights this but imperfectly represents their range, as they could be seen at any distance attainable by increased elevation. In the use of coloured lights this range is given according to their presumed power.

The range is given in nautical miles. 23 nautical miles is 26.5 international miles or 42.6 kilometres, near enough.

The elevation is the height of the flame, and is given as 228 feet above high water. This is difficult to check, as the original Bidston Lighthouse was replaced in 1873. The new lighthouse was built a few yards or so to the north of the original, and there was extensive work on the foundations. So the elevations at the bases of the 1771 and 1873 towers could have differed by  a metre or two. And while some contemporary descriptions give a height for the tower (e.g. 55 ft according to Burdett’s Chart of 1771 [Rees 1949]), it is not clear whether these include the weather vane, chimney or flagpole erected atop the tower.

As Bidston Lighthouse is some two miles from the sea, the location of the high water mark to which the elevation is referenced is not immediately obvious. There are two reasonable choices. One is at the north coast of the Wirral peninsula, somewhere along Mockbeggar Wharf. The other, more likely, is Liverpool docks. Bidston Lighthouse was visible from both. There are good reasons to assume that the elevation was referenced to Liverpool docks. Ever since William Hutchinson started his tidal measurements in 1764, the tides at Liverpool were the most carefully observed in the British empire. It is no accident that Liverpool was the national reference point for elevation (Ordnance Datum). The original Liverpool levelling was started in 1840 using a bench mark on St John’s Church. In 1844 the datum was changed to the tidal pole in Victoria Dock. It was not until 1921 that the Ordnance Datum was changed to Newlyn, Cornwall. Given all this, it is reasonable to assume that the elevation of the Bidston light was known as precisely as any other in the country.

We can at least check whether Findlay’s reported 228 feet is plausible. We know that the elevation (relative to mean sea level Newlyn) of the base of the present Lighthouse is 59 metres (193 feet). The correction from Ordnance Datum Newlyn to Ordnance Datum Liverpool is negligible (only 0.1 feet at Ordnance Survey grid reference SJ 2889).

Let us take Findlay’s 68 feet for the height of the tower at face value. Doing the sums, we find the elevation of summit of the tower was 260.5 feet (79.4 metres), relative to mean sea level.

But Findlay gave his elevations relative to high water, not mean sea level. Now, the tidal range at Liverpool is the second highest in the country, nearly 10 metres at spring tides. (At neap tides, the range is about 4 metres). To convert to elevation above high water, we need to subtract about 5 metres, being half the maximum tidal range. So, the top of the tower was about 244 feet (75.4 metres) above high water, some 16 feet above the 228 feet that Findlay reports for the elevation of the flame. You can judge for yourself whether the following contemporary illustrations are consistent with the summit of the tower being 16 feet above the centre of the lamp room.

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

Figure 2. Bidston Lighthouse by Robert Salmon, Oil on Canvas, 1825. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

Bidston Lighthouse, from "Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool", 1840.

Figure 3. Bidston Lighthouse, from “Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool”, 1840.

Are there any other contemporary descriptions of Bidston Lighthouse?

Graham Hill’s “Navigation of the Irish Sea” (1851) agrees with Findlay in terms of both elevation, and range.

Extract from “The Navigation of the Irish Sea”, Graham H. Hills, 1851.

Figure 4. Extract from “The Navigation of the Irish Sea”, Graham H. Hills, 1851.

However, Henry Mangles Denham F.R.S., who personally surveyed Liverpool Bay, gives a different account in his “Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool”, 1840.

Extract from "Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool", 1840

Figure 5. Extract from “Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool”, Henry Mangles Denham, 1840.

Denham’s quoted elevation of 244 feet is referenced to half-tide level. Subtracting 5 metres to make it relative to high water, we get 227.6 feet.

So all three contemporary sources (Findlay, Hills and Denham) agree on the elevation of the lamp to within a foot, i.e. 228 feet above high water. As I’m in no position to argue, I shall adopt this figure henceforth.

Range of the light

Knowing the elevation of the lamp, it should be just a simple matter of geometry to work out at what distance the light will disappear below the horizon for a ship-board observer. There are some complications of course: sea levels rise and fall and the tides around Liverpool are unusually high;  the earth is better described as an oblate spheroid than a sphere; and the path of light near the earth’s surface bends because of atmospheric refraction. Refraction is the most difficult to deal with, because the magnitude of the effect depends on prevailing weather conditions, notably the amount of moisture in the air and how this varies along the path from the light to the observer. For more information, see Andrew T. Young’s comprehensive article “Distance to the Horizon“.

In the following chart, I have plotted the range of a light (in nautical miles) as a function of its elevation (in feet).  The red curve shows the range to the horizon, ignoring atmospheric refraction. The green curve shows the range of the light for a shipboard observer 10 ft above the water line, again ignoring atmospheric refraction. The blue curve is the same as the red curve, but corrected for atmospheric refraction; I have used the “standard” correction of 8%, although in reality the effect can be significantly more or less, depending on prevailing conditions. The purple curve is the same as the green curve, with the same 8% correction for atmospheric refraction. I have drawn vertical lines at 10 ft (the standard elevation of a shipboard observer as adopted by Findlay), 228 ft (the elevation of the Bidston Light relative to high water), and 260 feet (the elevation of the Bidston Light relative to low water).

Plots of lighthouse visibility as a function of the elevation of the light.

Figure 6. Theoretical lighthouse visibility as a function of the elevation of the light. (1) Distance to horizon from the light (red). (2) Range of light for a shipboard observer at 10 ft above the water line (green). (3) As (1), with “standard” 8% correction for atmospheric refraction (blue). (4) as (2), corrected for atmospheric refraction (purple).

Thus the theoretical visibility of the Bidston Light for a shipboard observer at 10 ft above the waterline at high water matches Denham’s reported range of 21 nautical miles exactly, provided that we make an 8% allowance for atmospheric refraction.

I venture to say that Findlay’s quoted range of 23 nautical miles was actually wrong, at least by his own criteria.

But when you think about it, the conditions required to measure Findlay’s ranges would not have been that easy to arrange. At the moment when the light first came into view, the observer had to be 10 feet above the waterline, at high water, in clear weather, and have an independent measure of the distance to the light.  Other factors made matters even more difficult. A ship’s waterline depends on how heavily laden it is. Waves could increase the effective height of the observer. And because it takes a certain amount of time for the tide to come in (the difference in time between high tides at Holyhead and Liverpool is about 40 minutes), the mutual horizon of the observer and the light (i.e. the point where a light ray from the lamp to the observer grazes the sea) would sometimes be slightly lower than the observer’s waterline.

The range is much more sensitive to the elevation of the observer than to the elevation of the light itself. Adding seven feet to the elevation of the observer increases the range by more than one nautical mile.

On the other hand, adding seven feet to the elevation of the light increases the range by just under a quarter of a nautical mile. This places a limit on the correction one could make for the sheer size of Bidston’s reflector. The original reflector of 1771 was 12 feet in diameter (according to William Hutchinson, or 13-and-a-half feet according to Robert Stevenson) so the top of the reflector would have been above the horizon when the centre was still below it. We do know that by 1835, Bidston’s single reflector had been replaced by eleven smaller ones, but we don’t know their configuration.

Given all this, and taking variations into atmospheric refraction into account, the Bidston Light might well have been seen at 23 nautical miles, or even farther, under extreme conditions such as looming. And given the pride that Liverpool had in its principal light, for Liverpool to report anything less to Findlay would have been unthinkable.

Conclusions

The range of 23 nautical miles that Alexander G. Findlay quoted for the Bidston light in his Lighthouses of the World was not correct. By Findlay’s own guidelines, it should have been the minimum range in clear weather for a shipboard observer, 10 feet above the waterline, at high water.

Henry Mangles Denham got it right when he reported a range of 21 nautical miles in his Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool.

However, the Bidston light would sometimes have been visible at Findlay’s quoted range, or even further, and it is easy to forgive Alexander George Findlay.

But one thing is certain: the data in Lighthouses of the World was not fit for Samual Birley Rowbotham’s purpose. He abused it terribly. This is harder to forgive.

References

  • Robert J. Schadewald, Looking for Lighthouses, 1992.
  • Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe, Samuel Birley Rowbotham writing under the pseudonym Parallax, 1865.
  • A description and list of the lighthouses of the world, Alexander George Findlay, 1861. Available as an e-book from Google Play.
  • Navigation of the Irish Sea, Graham Hills, 1851.
  • Sailing Directions from Point Lynas to Liverpool, Henry Mangles Denham, 1840.
  • History of the Liverpool Pilotage Service, Mentioning the Local Lighthouses and Lightships, by John S. Rees, Southport Guardian, 1949.
  • Wikipedia article Horizon, retrieved 3 Nov 2014.
  • Andrew T. Young, Distance to the Horizon, retrieved 3 Nov 2014.

Afterword

Rowbotham went on to revise and expand his “Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe”. The text of the 1881 edition is available on-line. In the 1881 edition, there is only one mention of Bidston Lighthouse, on page 27. He writes:

From the lighthouse on Bidstone Hill, near Liverpool, the whole length of the Isle of Man, on a clear day and with a good telescope, is distinctly visible, and presents the same horizontal base line as that observed in the Isle of Wight.

Now, I have stood in the lamp room of the present Bidston Lighthouse (which was built in 1873, eight years before the 1881 edition of Zetetic Astronomy) many a time, and I have yet to see the Isle of Man. Even the peak of Snaefell is beneath the horizon under normal conditions.

Perhaps Rowbotham’s sightings of the Isle of Man occurred atop the original lighthouse? Although the elevation of the Bidston Light was little changed when the present lighthouse was built, the original lighthouse did have the advantage of a viewing gallery above the lamp room, if Salmon’s painting is to be trusted (see Figure 1).  This should not have been enough to bring the entirety of the Isle of Man into view, but perhaps sightings of Snaefell from the original Bidston Lighthouse were less exceptional than today.

ALK AGM 2014

We joined the Association of Lighthouse Keepers on Anglesey for their 26th Annual General Meeting. On Friday, we visited two lighthouses in Holyhead Harbour, followed by South Stack Lighthouse, and some also managed to get to the foghorn station at North Stack. On Saturday, it was Trwyn Du and a cruise around Puffin Island, followed by the AGM, and then dinner, with guest speaker Richard Woodman (one of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House, and our newest patron). Sunday featured a visit to Point Lynas Lighthouse, and a few even got to Skerries.

 

Not for sale

Bidston Lighthouse is not for sale, contrary to reports in the Sun today (Wednesday 20 August, 2014).

The Sun ran a short article about publicly owned property up for sale and gave it pride of place on page 2 (adjacent to the midriff of the page 3 girl). Sun readers were informed that:

Also up for auction is an airfield, and the Bidston Observatory, Merseyside, which comes with a laboratory and lighthouse.

The Sun has managed to squeeze three factual errors into a single sentence.

The Grade-II listed Bidston Observatory is for sale, but not by auction. It has been on and off the market for ten years. Whoever buys it will be taking on a massive responsibility. A buyer who accepts the moral duty to preserve this important piece of Merseyside heritage and finds a way to open it to the public will be able to count on considerable community support, and ours. Conversely, a buyer otherwise inclined should expect opposition at every turn.

The laboratory would be the Joseph Proudman Building, which was demolished in February 2013. Neither the freehold nor the leasehold of the vacant site, which was originally the kitchen gardens for the lighthouse, is currently on the market.

The lighthouse is privately owned. We are not selling. But visitors are welcome on open days and other special occasions. We still have a few places left on tours we’re running for next month’s Wirral Heritage Open Days.

Ironically, Bidston Observatory is publicly owned but is not open to the public at all.

In defence of the Sun, they are not the first to confuse the Observatory and Lighthouse. This postcard, based on an 1830 engraving of the old Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station has the caption “Bidston Hill Observatory 1830”. The Observatory was not built until 1866, when it replaced the original Liverpool Observatory which was forced to relocate due to the expansion of Waterloo Dock.

Postcard-NotBidstonHillObservatory1830.jpg

 

 

Bidston Signals

Bidston Signals - early illustration

Bidston Signals – early illustration

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

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

Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont

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

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

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

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

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

Detail showing Bidston Signals.

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

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

Further reading

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