The woodpecker who performed for us last year is back. He has taken to pecking a tattoo on the spherical cupola atop the conical roof on Bidston Lighthouse.
We wish him every success in attracting a mate.
The woodpecker who performed for us last year is back. He has taken to pecking a tattoo on the spherical cupola atop the conical roof on Bidston Lighthouse.
We wish him every success in attracting a mate.
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.
The history of Bidston Hill is all about line of sight communications. From Bidston Hill, one can see (and be seen) for many miles in all directions.
Fire Beacons have been deployed on Bidston Hill for centuries. We know they were prepared as part of an early-warning system during the Spanish Armada and again during the Napoleonic Wars. They may have been used even earlier.
In navigation, the Windmill on Bidston Hill was used as a “day mark” long before Wirral’s first lighthouses were built in 1763. This is why many early sea charts of Liverpool Bay took pains to mark the location of Bidston Windmill.
The Bidston Signals comprised more than a hundred “lofty flagstaffs” running along the ridge of Bidston Hill. Their purpose was to give the port of Liverpool notice of arriving ships.
Lighthouses, too, depend on line of sight. To be useful, they must be seen. Liverpool’s first lighthouses were built in Wirral in 1763. These were navigational aids, not warning lights. By setting a course with the two lights straight ahead, mariners avoided the treacherous sand banks of Liverpool Bay. The two Sea Lights, near Leasowe, marked the safe passage through the Horse Channel, and the two Lake Lights marked the way into Hoyle Lake. This was an early (but not the earliest) use of leading lights in navigation.
The first Bidston Lighthouse was built in 1771, near the Signals Station. It was needed because the lower Sea Light had been overwhelmed by storms. Bidston Lighthouse became the upper Sea Light, and Leasowe Lighthouse, still standing today, became the lower Sea Light. Being 2.3 miles further inland, the new lighthouse depended on a breakthrough in lighthouse optics, which came in the form of William Hutchinson’s invention of the parabolic reflector.
In 1826, the Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph was set up. This was an optical telegraph, based on a new semaphore system devised by Lieutenant Barnard Lindsay Watson. It comprised a chain of semaphore stations at Liverpool, Bidston Hill, Hilbre Island, Voel Nant, Foryd, Llysfaen, Great Ormes Head, Puffin Island, Point Lynas, Carreglwyd, and Holyhead, a distance of 72 miles. It was capable of relaying a typical message from Holyhead to Liverpool in a few minutes, and a very short message in less than a minute. This was the first telegraph in Britain to carry commercial and private correspondence. Watson’s code was a numeric one: each station in the 1826 telegraph had a massive semaphore mast about 50 feet tall, each pole had three pairs of movable arms, and each pair of arms could signal a single digit. The 1841 telegraph had a two masts each with two pairs of arms, and a larger vocabulary of 10,000 words.
All of these systems were made obsolete by the inexorable march of technology. Last to arrive and first to go was the optical telegraph, which was superseded when the electric telegraph linking Liverpool to Holyhead was finally completed in 1861, the first cables having been laid in 1858. Next to go were the signal flags. The Sea Lights were superseded by navigational buoys, which had the virtue of being moveable. By 1908, when the Lower Sea Light at Leasowe was extinguished, the sandbanks had shifted to such an extent that the Horse and Rock Channels were barely navigable, and the Sea Lights no longer provided a useful leading line. The Upper Sea Light on Bidston Hill shone alone for another five years, until sunrise on 9th October, 1913.
Radio is another form of communications that depends on line of sight. The principle of propagation of electromagnetic waves was discovered by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873, the same year that the present Bidston Lighthouse was completed. Marconi won an important patent in 1896, and built the first radio station on the Isle of Wight in 1897. Then it really took off.
At Bidston Lighthouse (and Bidston Observatory), radio antennae of all kinds have been installed at one time or another. Mersey Docks ordered a set of “Marconi Apparatus” for Bidston Lighthouse as early as 1908, but the Marconi Company failed to deliver, and the order was withdrawn. An antenna, probably marine, is still attached to the north face of the lighthouse tower. Amateur radio enthusiasts, notably the Wirral Amateur Radio Society, still operate from Bidston Lighthouse on annual International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekends, and other special occasions. Our webcam is brought to you over a line-of-sight wireless network. In 2014, Wirral Radio 92.1 FM moved their transmitter to Bidston Lighthouse.
Line-of-sight communications are as much a part of the future of Bidston Lighthouse as its past.
In the twenty first century, we take electronic communications for granted. Most of us can’t remember a time without radio, telephone, and television. Email, text messages, twitter, social networks are part of our daily lives. We’ve almost forgotten about telegrams and fax machines. No-one living today was around when the Bidston Hill Signals were the state of the art in communications.
It is difficult for us to imagine today just how important the Bidston Signals were to the people of Liverpool. News of the imminent of arrival of ships into port was valuable enough to justify building more than one hundred flagpoles along the ridge of Bidston Hill, and paying teams of workers to operate them. Later on, the Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph was established, with pairs of semaphore masts were placed at relay stations on Bidston Hill, Hilbre Island, and so on, all the way to Holyhead. The signals were truly a part of popular culture, and even featured on mundane items of pottery.
What a sight it must have been! This is how Albert Richard Smith described Bidston Hill in 1848, in his book The struggles and adventures of Christopher Tadpole at home and abroad:
But the sight was so riveting that he could not take his eyes from it scarcely, even to notice the lighthouse under whose very walls they passed, with its array of signal-masts that looked as if somebody was either preparing a great display of fireworks, or making ready to set sail and carry the entire hill, lighthouse, telegraph and all, out to sea upon the first fair wind.
“That’s a curious thing,” said Hickory, as he pointed to the telegraph. “I’ve heard there’s people that can read that gibbet just like a book. I never could, not to speak of. I’ve made out a F, and a L, and a E without the middle, and sometimes they was upsy-down. And once I saw it trying uncommon hard to turn itself into a H, but it wasn’t much of a go, not to speak of.”
But most poignant of all perhaps is this account of a sailor’s wife, who looked anxiously to the Bidston Signals for news of her husband:
I have frequently seen a very particular friend of mine, a sailor’s wife, who considers herself, occasionally, the happiest woman in the world, watching the wind, from “sou’ sou’ east—nor’ nor’ east—east and by no’th,” and, with a pair of compasses, leaning over a large chart, endeavouring to trace her husband, by counting the days, and allotting so many degrees of longitude and latitude to each day, to the extent of the voyage; and have whispered to her, in her calculations, “wind and weather permitting.” I have seen this very happy woman pace the room at midnight, if the wind ever attempted to blow from an adverse quarter, and have reasoned with her about
“The sweet little cherub that sits up aloft,
To keep watch for the life of poor Jack”
I have even seen her turn tide-waiter, and count the poles on Bidston Hill, on which a flag on the top announced from the Lighthouse that the expected vessel was in the offing. In another state of her happiness, I have heard her heart beat, when, in looking through the telescope, she dreaded lest, among a sickly and reduced crew, he should not be there; and have been present in another felicitous moment, when the report came, that all was lost, yet was she, occasionally, very happy!
From “Seamen’s Wives”, in SKETCHES IN PROSE AND POETRY, by Katharine Head, Kirkdale, Liverpool, 1837.
Here is an extract from “The History of the Hundred of Wirral”, by William Williams Mortimer, 1847.
Bidston Lighthouse is an object very familiar to the inhabitants of Liverpool, and is one of the localities which command attention, as much from its prominent appearance as its mercantile utility. The Corporation of Liverpool having obtained an Act of Parliament, authorizing the purchase of Bidston Hill and the erection of a Lighthouse upon it, an edifice for that purpose was built in 1771. It consists of a substantial stone building with an octagonal tower, which from a distance has the appearance of a church, and is frequently taken by strangers for one. A long range of poles were formerly placed on the ridge of the hill, on which signals were hoisted to announce to the merchants of Liverpool the approach of their shipping; but the establishment of a line of telegraphs, from that town along the coast of Wales to Holyhead, has nearly superseded the old mode of communication. But as the lights, from their elevated position, are visible for a circle of fourteen miles, and blending with those at Leasowe Lighthouse, point out the entrance into Liverpool, the continuance of the establishment is indispensable for the safety of the numerous shipping trading into that port.
The Lighthouse of Bidston is deserving a visit, and the stranger will be amply gratified, not only with its construction and appendages, but with the varied and extensive prospect which is obtained from a small gallery that projects round the upper storey of the tower, at an elevation of three hundred feet above high-water mark. To the westward, the marshes, a plain of upwards of five hundred acres, on which graze more than a thousand head of cattle, lay extended beneath the eye of the spectator, protected from the inundations of the sea by a range of sandhills and an artificial embankment, which cause the numerous vessels in the Rock Channel to have the appearance of sailing on dry land.
William Hutchinson, Liverpool Dockmaster, revolutionised lighthouse optics with the introduction of the parabolic reflector. He conducted experiments at the Bidston Signals Station during the 1760s, and subsequently installed reflectors in the Wirral Lighthouses. He writes, in his Treatise on Practical Seamanship:
“We have made, and in use here, at Liverpool, reflectors of one, two, and three feet focus ; and three, five and a half, seven and a half, and twelve feet diameter ; the three smallest being made of tin plates, soldered together ; and the largest of wood, covered with plates of looking glass”.
Hutchinson installed the largest one at Bidston Lighthouse, which was furthest from the sea. The large reflectors had some problems: they used a lot of oil, and smoke from the wick tended to obscure the reflector. Eventually, it was found that several smaller reflectors, arranged so that their beams were parallel, gave an equally bright light and used less oil.
Trinity House have an eighteenth century parabolic reflector in their collection. Its diameter is twenty inches.
Little is known about the provenance of this reflector, because, sadly, Trinity House was bombed in 1940, and many of its records destroyed. The reflector will be on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from March 2014 until January 2016.
Trinity House is 500 years old this year. Henry VIII granted a Royal Charter to Trinity House in 1514.
Most of the lighthouses of Liverpool Bay were built and run by the port of Liverpool, not Trinity House. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board took over from the Liverpool Dock Trustees in 1858. It was not until 1973 that Trinity House took over Hilbre Island Lighthouse and Point Lynas Lighthouse from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.
Catoptric lights are based on the principle of reflection. They were eventually superseded by dioptric lights, based on the principle of refraction, thanks to the work of Augustin-Jean Fresnel. When Bidston Lighthouse was re-built in 1873, it was equipped with a Fresnel lens manufactured by Chance Brothers.
Acknowledgments. My thanks to the Corporation of Trinity House and Neil Jones, Archivist, for permission to use the photograph of the catoptric reflector.
Bidston Observatory is up for sale, again. Here is the listing on RightMove: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/
Prospective buyers have only until 30th November to make their “best and final offer”. This seems a little rushed, given that the advert appeared in Wirral News only last week.
I hope the new owners appreciate what an important piece of Merseyside heritage they are taking on.
The Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.
Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.
Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Marine chronometers from all over the empire were calibrated at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from the Observatory by electric cable.
Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.
In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.
In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.
In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre. NERC’s plans to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted.
Bidston Observatory has featured on TV on several occasions, including episodes of Coast (Series 7, Episode 5: “The Riddle of the Tides”), Inside Out, and Where’s Fred. Joyce Scoffield, who used to work in the Observatory, has written a book about it: “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, 2006 (available on Amazon). J. Eric Jones wrote “From Astrononomy to Oceanography – A brief history of Bidston Observatory”, which you can download from the NOC web site.
The road from Boundary Road to the Observatory and Lighthouse now has a name! It’s called Wilding Way, in honour of Richard and Elizabeth Wilding, Bidston Hill’s first Lighthouse Keepers.
“Wilding Way” has been registered with Wirral Council and Royal Mail. Street nameplates were erected this morning. It will no doubt take some time for the name to percolate through to street atlases, digital maps and the like.
The Wilding family looked after Bidston Lighthouse for nearly a century. The Lighthouse Keepers were: Richard Wilding (abt 1771-1797), his wife Elizabeth Wilding (1797-1800), her son-in-law William Urmson (1800-1835), and his daughter Ann Urmson (1835-1869). I’m still researching the Wilding and Urmson family trees, and will be grateful for any information about them.
Here is a delightful excerpt from A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, by George Head (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836). I found it on that most excellent of websites, “A Vision of Britain Through Time“, which I commend to all local and family historians in need of historical and geographical context for British place names since 1801.
As I was walking from Woodside towards Biddestone lighthouse, the day being hot, I heard the clattering of hoofs behind me, and was accosted by a little boy, with the offer of a pony. I at first sight thought the whole troop were donkeys; but, on a second glance, I did certainly perceive that one of the quadrupeds really was a pony. The boy had just emerged, with his long-eared squadron, from the village of Biddestone, on his way to Woodside, in order to pick up customers for the day.
The colour of the steed in question was a light sandy dun, a black streak extending the whole length from the withers to the tail; which mark of distinction not only assimilated him to his companions, but, from long habits of intimacy, his manners had become so near akin to theirs, that in reality he was, morally speaking, just as much a jackass as a horse. Such as he was, I immediately engaged his services, upon paying a shilling down, with a promise of more, according to time, on delivery. I was also furnished with a stick into the bargain, which latter I soon found was doomed to more wear and tear in my service than the pony, which was of a nature at all events not to be ridden away with. In a few minutes he was tied up to a rack of hay in a stable belonging to the lighthouse.
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 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), and Jane, wife of Thomas Nichols, the Telegraph Keeper.
It’s interesting to note that the single massive reflector of 1771 has been replaced by 11 smaller reflectors. Both William Hutchinson himself (in his Treatise of Practical Seamanship), and later, Robert Stevenson (the Scottish lighthouse engineer who visited in 1801), recommended multiple smaller reflectors instead of a single big one.
Recently, a Dutch gentleman, whom we shall call Jan VIII, visited Leasowe and Bidston Lighthouses. I hope Jan VIII and his gracious wife will forgive me for greeting them with a paintbrush in hand.
Jan VIII was retracing the footsteps of his ancestor, Jan van Heukelom (1784-1847). The elder Jan, whom we shall call Jan IV, visited England in 1805 and kept a detailed journal of his travels. These were interesting times. England was at war with France, alarm beacons were erected on Bidston Hill in April, and the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21st October.
Here is an extract from Jan IV’s journal entry for Monday 16 September, 1805, when he paid a visit to Bidston Lighthouse. My thanks go to Jan VIII for sharing his annotated transcription, and to Woutera Willemsen for translating this passage from the Dutch.
“I then crossed the Mersey in a boat with Rogers and walked to the lighthouse with him. It is but a kind of tower, with a room containing the light for the ships to navigate by when sailing into the channel. The light is a cotton lamp wick supplied by oil placed in front of an enormous reflector. This reflector is, I noticed, in the shape of a parabola and the lamp is in its focus. The largest circle must be approximately 18 feet wide and the reflector is made up of trapezia of mirror glass. The front of the room in which the lamp is located is entirely made of glass, which means the light can be seen freely. Closer to sea there is another smaller and lower beacon. The helmsmen must keep these two lights in a straight line in a certain position in the channel. These circumstances, which the caretaker informed me of and his statement that the light was by far not as visible from the side as from the front, strengthened my thoughts concerning the parabolic nature of the reflector. This lighthouse can be seen clearly from Liverpool. The pilots used this circumstance by placing a number of signal poles close to the lighthouse. As soon as a ship arrives from sea and comes within sight of this beacon, it will hoist its private flag from which the caretaker will recognize the owner. The caretaker will then go and hoist the owner’s flag on the designated pole while a general sign will show what kind of ship it is. This is how the Liverpool merchants (want to) know what is happening at sea close by. When we arrived back from the lighthouse, we just had time to dine after our crossing, which seemed to last a long time to me. Afterwards, I dressed and went to the theatre with Mr Tait and company.”
Jan IV used the English terms for “lighthouse” and “signal poles”, and the French “reverbère” for “reflector”.