The one o’clock gun, fifty years after

Liverpool’s One O’Clock Gun was fired for the last time on 18th July 1969. At one second before one o’clock, Sylvia Asquith flicked the switch at Bidston Observatory that caused the cannon to fire down at Morpeth Dock.

Firing the one-o-clock gun, 18 July 2019.

Fifty years later to the minute, Sylvia was present when the Royal Artillery (103 Regiment) fired a field gun, this time from the waterfront near Woodside Ferry Terminal.

Sylvia Asquith and the latest one o’clock gun, 18 July 2019.

The event was attended by more than one hundred people, including the Lord Mayor of Wirral, former staff of Bidston Observatory, and representatives of the National Oceanography Centre (Liverpool), Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre and the Wirral History and Heritage Association. Accompanying Sylvia Asquith (pictured above) was Joyce Scoffield (author of “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”); Sylvia and Joyce were two of several women who took their turn at firing the one o’clock gun during the 1960s.

The Wirral Globe has this online article about the event, complete with video footage.

One man in particular must take credit for making this happen. Russ Mundy, retired marine surveyor, has been lobbying Wirral Council for more than a year. In Russ’s vision, daily re-enactments of the firing of the one o’clock gun would contribute to the visitor economy and the regeneration of the waterfront. (Edinburgh’s one o’clock gun is still fired every day.) That doesn’t seem very likely in these times of austerity, but at least the Council hasn’t said that the 2019 firing will be the last!

Credit is due also to Wirral Council’s Culture Team for running with the idea (it certainly helped that the 50th Anniversary of the last firing fell during Wirral’s year as Liverpool City Region’s Borough of Culture), and of course to the Royal Artillery, 103 Regiment, without whose co-operation there would have been no firing at all.

When the gun was first fired in 1867, this method of passing on time to the port cities of Liverpool and Birkenhead represented the state of the art. But by 1969, it was already an anachronism. Two days after its last firing, Apollo 11 would put a man on the moon.

In the beginning

Liverpool built its first astronomical Observatory in 1844, at Waterloo Dock. It was operational by January 1845. The engineer was Jesse Hartley, the same man that build the Royal Albert Dock. John Hartnup was the first astronomer.

Why should a port city like Liverpool pay for a world-class Observatory and employ a world-class astronomer? The one-word answer is “time”.

You see, when a ship called into port, one of the most useful things you could do for it was to give it an accurate fix on Greenwich Mean Time. The ship’s captain would set his chronometer to Greenwich time before setting out to sea. As he travelled around the globe, he could get local time by observing the sun or the stars and could read Greenwich Mean Time off his chronometer. The difference between the two, multiplied by a certain number, gave the ship’s longitude east or west of Greenwich. Accurate time-keeping was the solution to the longitude problem.  With its own Observatory and dedicated astronomer, Liverpool could now claim that the time in Liverpool was just as accurate as the time in Greenwich itself.

At first, time was passed on to the town by dropping a time-ball at one o’clock, Greenwich Mean Time.  The Observatory also took in ship’s chronometers for calibration (or “rating”) and had additonal duties to take continuous meteorological observations. This bread-and-butter work left the astronomer with a little time for his own research, enabling him to retain the respect of his peers. One of the earliest photographs of the moon was taken from Liverpool Observatory.

When the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was established in 1858, it also took over the responsibility for running the Observatory. When they decided to expand Waterloo Dock in the 1860s, they needed to find a new home for the Observatory. Mersey Docks already owned land on Bidston Hill alongside the old lighthouse, where the “seeing” was better, away from the smog of the town. George Fosbery Lyster drew up the first plans in 1864 and the new building was completed in time for Christmas 1866. The business of rating chronometers continued at the new Observatory.

The following year, 1867, is when the one o’clock gun started. The new Observatory was too far from the city for a time ball to be visible, so a different solution was required. A cannon from the Crimean War was installed at Morpeth Dock, and connected to the Observatory by an electric cable. An accurate clock at the Observatory end was checked daily by the astronomer or his assistants.

MDHB Notice announcing the One O’Clock Gun, 1867.

At one o’clock, an electric signal would propagate along the cable causing the gun to fire down at the dock, where a gunner was in attendance. The sound of the gun rang out across the Mersey. This film footage from 1932 illustrates the importance of the one o’clock gun to the daily lives of the people of Liverpool and Birkenhead.

The advent of radio changed the nature of the work at Bidston Observatory. Eventually, the clocks at the Observatory, instead of being checked by local astronomical observations, were synchronized with a remote time signal broadcast over the radio waves.

Ironically perhaps, it was a Wirral native, Frank Hope-Jones, who suggested to the newly-founded British Broadcasting Company in April 1923 the idea of the a series of time pips that could be broadcast over the radio. The “Greenwich Pips” time signal was first broadcast in February 1924. Frank Hope-Jones also designed the clock which generated the pips; this was situated at the Greenwich Observatory where its timekeeping could be easily corrected!

By this time, the business of astronomy and rating chronometers at the Observatory was all but finished. However, meteorological and seismological observations continued and tidal studies were very much on the rise. But that’s another story.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun. Sylvia Asquith is the lady on the right.

Six guns

I am aware of no less than six different cannons that have some claim to be called the one o’clock gun.

  1. The original one o’clock gun was a cannon from the Crimean War. Installed at Morpeth Dock, it was fired for the first time on 22nd September, 1867, and daily thereafter (except Sundays). It was condemned in 1932, and later removed to the grounds of Bidston Observatory. This is the same cannon that can today be seen in the colonnades of the Albert Dock, by the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
  2. Another cannon, of which little is known, presumably served as a temporary replacement from the time when the original gun was condemned until a permanent replacement was found the following year.
  3. A 32-pounder from Woolwich Arsenal was used from 1933 until World War II.
  4. Following the second world war, firing resumed in June 1946 using a 6-pounder naval Hodgkiss anti-aircraft gun. It was fired five days a week, Monday to Friday.
  5. The cannon situated on top of the gun-house at Morpeth Dock today is not the original one o’clock gun (whose journey from Morpeth Dock to the Albert Dock via Bidston Hill is well documented). It’s certainly not a 6-pounder Hodgkiss. And the muzzle bore isn’t right for a 32-pounder (my thanks to Russ Mundy for setting me straight on this point). We don’t know if it was ever fired.
  6. The gun that was fired by the Royal Artillery on 18th July 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of the last firing.

The One O’Clock Gun in 1927. Valentines series postcard.

The gun-house today

From Woodside Ferry terminal, it’s a short walk along the Wirral Circular Trail to the site of the original gun emplacement, a Victorian brick and stone building on the embankment by Morpeth Dock. Some people call it a plinth, but it is (or was) more than that. It had a doorway and space inside, which provided shelter for the gunner and housed equipment – including a back-up clock in case the signal from the Observatory never came.

Today, the doorway is permanently barred and the windows have been bricked up. The cannon’s wooden carriage is rotting, weeds are growing on top of the gun-house, and the Wirral Circular Trail is overgrown and unkempt. Sad, really. Blame austerity for that.

This peaceful, quiet spot with its wonderful views across the Mersey could be and should be inspiring. Instead, the general impression of neglect leaves one with feelings of wistfulness and nostalgia that are hard to shake off.

Despite its historical importance to the port cities of Birkenhead and Liverpool, the gun-house is not a listed building. It doesn’t even rate a presence in augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go, Ingres Prime or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. In this, it ranks lower than lambananas, Victorian post boxes and almost every park bench that bears any sort of plaque.

Does not this old gun-house deserve better?

The gun-house today.

The gun-house today, with the Liver Building in the distance.

Entrance to the gun-house, now permanently barred.

Further reading

  1. Sylvia Asquith at Bidston Observatory, transcript of a speech given by Sylvia Asquith on 27th September 2017 at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) during the New Observatory Exhibition.
  2. Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People, by Joyce Scoffield, pub. Countyvise Ltd, 2006. Chapter 15 is devoted to the One O’Clock Gun.
  3. One O’Clock – A Liverpool Cameo, 1932 footage featuring Bidston Observatory and the firing of the one o’clock gun, from British Pathé.
  4. Video: One O’Clock Gun is fired again, article in the Wirral Globe, 18th July 2019.