We received this in the post from an anonymous author. Now, where did I leave that Nimbus 2000?
We received this in the post from an anonymous author. Now, where did I leave that Nimbus 2000?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are grateful to:
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.
Our season of open days for 2018 is drawing to a close.
During the Wirral Heritage Open Days in September, Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory will be open to the public on these dates:
This is the first time that the Observatory has been open to the public since the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory quit Bidston Hill in 2004!
Nearby, Bidston Windmill will open on Saturday 15th September from 10am – 12 noon. This is your last chance to see inside the Windmill this year. As the weather gets colder, bats will resume their winter residence.
After the Heritage Open Days, there will be two more chances to visit the Lighthouse, on:
We don’t usually open on Sundays, so this is an experiment for us. We’ll run guided tours at 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on both days. For more information, see our events page.
We have a new gate. We hope you like it.
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.
The gate was installed 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!
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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.
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The “unknown Scottish lighthouse” in my last post is probably Turnberry.
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.
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.
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.
Can anyone identify the Scottish lighthouse in this drawing?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Tide & Time Exhibition is now open to the public.
The exhibition – at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool – showcases some of the fascinating achievements made in the Liverpool area in understanding and predicting the tides. The highlights of the exhibition are the rare Roberts-Légé and Doodson-Légé tide prediction machines, extraordinary analogue computers that calculate the rise and fall of the ocean tide. See these beautifully intricate machines up and running at the only place in the world where you can see two of them together.
Bidston Observatory was the home of the Roberts-Légé and Doodson-Légé tide prediction machines while they were still in use. The machines are now owned by National Museums Liverpool, who have carefully restored them to working condition.
Tide & Time is open to the public once a month (usually the first Tuesday of each month from 15:00 to 16:00) or by special arrangement for group visits and events. See this page for information on planning your visit and how to book.
The exhibition will also be open to the public during LightNight Liverpool on Friday 19th May 2017 from 17:00 to 22:00.
On International Women’s Day, we remember some of the important women in the history of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.