Tag Archives: BidstonLighthouse

Women in the workplace

On International Women’s Day, we remember some of the important women in the history of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory.

Elizabeth Wilding, Liverpool’s first female Lighthouse Keeper.

When Richard Wilding, keeper of Bidston Lighthouse, died in March 1797 at the ripe old age of 85, the Liverpool Dock Committee needed to appoint a successor. Richard’s widow, Elizabeth Wilding,  35 years his junior, had already been doing a lot of the work, so she was the natural choice but for one problem – she was a woman. Perhaps the Dock Committee were influenced by the fact that Mrs Cormes was doing a good job for the Chester trustees at Point of Ayr Lighthouse at Talacre, following her appointment as Lighthouse Keeper in 1791. Anyway, the Dock Committee did take the bold step of appointing Elizabeth in April 1797, albeit with some unusal conditions attached.

“Elizabeth Wilding Widow of the late Richard Wilding … is hereby appointed Keeper of the Bidston Lighthouse in Cheshire at the clear annual Salary of Fifty Pounds so long as she shall continue to behave herself properly and attentively and employ her Son in Law Captain William Urmson as her Assistant and shall not attempt to employ or use the said Building called the Bidston Lighthouse or any of its Appendages as a Publick House.”

Elizabeth died in service only three years later, and was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson, a former sea captain. She must have done a good job, because in later years the Dock Committee did not hesitate to appoint female keepers at other lighthouses – unlike Trinity House, who never appointed a woman as Principal Keeper in 500 years.

When John Jones was dismissed as keeper of Leasowe Lighthouse “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed as keeper in his place. Leasowe’s last lighthouse keeper was Mary Elizabeth Williams, who served from 1894 to 1908. And at Bidston, we had the Urmson sisters.

The Urmson sisters

William Urmson was assisted by his three daughers Ann, Jane and Catherine. This contemporary account by George Head in 1835 is delightful and illuminating.

Biddestone Hill, about three miles from Woodside, commands an extensive view of the country inland, while the forest of signal poles, with which the lighthouse is surrounded, give it, at a distance, an extraordinary appearance—that of a dock or harbour on the top of a hill. Hence the merchant vessels bound to Liverpool are signalled and telegraphed in the offing, the poles alluded to bearing the private signals of different individuals. And what must be remarked as rather singular is, that, notwithstanding the arduous duty which necessarily falls on the station, the whole is performed, almost exclusively, by young women, daughters of the veteran in charge. The old man, who is thus ably supported in the winter of life, is fourscore years old, and has held the office upward of forty years. Although boys are employed to run backward and forward, out of doors, with colours to the poles, and haul them up; and one of the three young women is married, and occasionally assisted by her husband; yet it is she who, being perfect in the whole code of signals, performs the responsible part of the duty. This couple were both at work together at the time I arrived, the young woman keeping the lookout, and calling the numbers, while the man, merely at her bidding, pulled the ropes. She not only kept him employed, but managed meanwhile to iron a shirt into the bargain.

The business of the youngest sister is to attend the light, consisting of eleven Argand lamps, with plated reflectors. Every four hours during the night the lamps are trimmed; these, the stove, copper, oil jars, and paved floor, are preserved in a state of cleanliness not to be exceeded; while no doubt, many a mariner, on a wintry and stormy night, both knows and feels that his life and safety are thus well confided to the never-failing care of — woman.

The old man in the story is William Urmson, who died later that very year. The three women were the surviving daughters of his second wife:  Ann (who was to succeed William as keeper), Catherine (the youngest, who attended the light), and Jane (who kept the lookout and called the numbers).

In their turn, Ann and Jane respectively held the offices of lighthouse and telegraph keeper in their own right. But you would glean a very different impression from the census records, which list Ann only as the wife of John Urmson, Lighthouse Keeper and Jane as the wife of Thomas Nichols, Telegraph Keeper. Urmson was both Ann’s maiden and married name; her husband John was a second cousin.

Doodson’s “Computers”

Arthur Doodson, the man behind the mechanical tide predicting machines at Bidston Observatory, exclusively employed young women to operate them. Their job title was “computer” and an essential qualification for the post was good handwriting. These young ladies computed tide tables around the world, including those that were used to plan the D-Day landings.

The ladies in this post-war photograph of the Observatory Staff by the One O’Clock gun are, proceeding clockwise from Valerie Doodson at the front left:
Valerie Doodson née Boyes, Jean Harman née MacFarlane, Dorothy Ainsworth, Eunice Murrell née Heath, Barbara Trueman-Jones, Margaret Lennon née Weston, Sylvia Asquith née Brooks, Margaret Ireland née Wylie, and Olwyn Branscombe.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun.

Mary Connell

For seventy-seven years, Mary Connell was a constant presence on the hill that she loved. She moved into the Lighthouse Cottages in 1937 with her parents Mick and Mary Connell and younger sister Patricia. She worked as a funeral director for many years, and walked her dogs on Bidston Hill twice a day. She fought the combined lawyers of Wirral Borough Council and the Natural Environment Research Council for the right to stay in the Lighthouse Cottages, and against all the odds, she won. She was in her seventies when ill health forced her to retire.

After the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory abandoned Bidston Hill in 2004, Mary was the only person living on the site (until guardians were eventually installed in the Joseph Proudman Building and the Observatory). Her only defenses against the disaffected youths who prowled the site at night were a walking stick, her sharp tongue, and the brambles she allowed to grow around the Lighthouse Cottages. Her sharp tongue was the most formidable of these. We miss her.

Mary Connell, 1934-2014

Related articles

A Pictorial Relic of Bidston Hill

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”.

Bidston Hill "Observatory" 1830 by W. G. Herdman

Bidston Hill “Observatory” 1830, from W.G. Herdman’s “Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool”.

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.

Bidston Hill Observatory

Plate LXVII. (1)

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.

Observations

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, but we know very little about them. (The alarm beacon on Bidston Hill was set up at the same time.) 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.

The world’s most inland lighthouse

Bidston Lighthouse is the world’s most inland lighthouse.

By this I mean that of all the lighthouses in the world that were constructed as genuine navigational aids to mariners, none were built further from the body of water they lit than Bidston’s.

Liverpool’s Sea Lights were a pair of leading lights that guided ships through the Horse Channel.  A line drawn from the upper light at Bidston through the lower light at Leasowe crosses the high water mark on Mockbeggar Wharf at a distance of 2.1 nautical miles (2.4 statute miles, or 3.9 kilometres). The distance between the upper and lower lights is 2 nautical miles (2.3 statute miles or 3.7 kilometres), also making the Sea Lights the furthest apart of any pair of leading lights in the world.

There are, of course, many lighthouses further from the sea than Bidston’s. They can be found on river banks, or canals, or lake shores, and have provided valuable service to mariners as navigational aids. But these were all built relatively close to the body of water that they lit.

I also rule out aerial lighthouses, such as the one at RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire. A few of these were built as navigational aids to pilots, not mariners, and they lit the sky, not the sea.

Some otherwise interesting “lighthouses” are disqualified on the grounds of not being genuine navigational aids to mariners.

During  the 1920s, Benito Mussolini ordered the construction of a lighthouse atop his summer palace at Rocca delle Caminate, some 25 kilometres from the Adriatic Sea, and commanded the Italian Navy to include it in their list of operational lights. Flashing red, white and blue when Il Duco was in residence, it provided good service as a monument to the dictator’s vanity. Perhaps it helped the locals find their way home in the dark, but it was of no use to mariners as a navigational aid.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Cape Todd Lighthouse stands in the desert of central Australia, near Alice Springs, on the banks of the Todd River, which is usually dry. That doesn’t stop the Aussies from holding the annual  Henley-on-Todd regatta, in which contestants bring their own bottomless boats and carry them at a run along the Todd River. They like to claim that the Lighthouse is a navigational aid, because it stops the contestants from running out of bounds during the race. Built by amateur radio enthusiasts, Cape Todd Lighthouse took part in the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend in 2013 and again in 2014, when it was listed as a “faux” lighthouse.

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

I stand by my claim until such time as someone provides evidence of a greater distance, or the Italian Navy blockades Liverpool in protest.

If you do know of any interesting inland lighthouses, please let us know by commenting on this post. We’d also like to hear about any claims for the most inland operational lighthouse, or for the most widely separated operational pairs of leading lights.

Further reading

 

Female Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse keeping is generally regarded as a male profession. But it was not uncommon for a lighthouse keeper to be assisted by his family, and no doubt many seafarers owe their lives to the wives and daughters who kept the light burning when the keeper was ill, asleep or in his cups.  Most of these women have been forgotten by history, with the notable exception of Grace Darling.

Lucy, the keeper in Margaret Elphinstone’s well-researched and insightful novel “Light“, is fictional.

Trinity House, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2014, never appointed a woman to the post of Principal Keeper (PK). It probably never will, because the UK’s last manned lighthouse, North Foreland, was automated in 1998.

Liverpool’s Dock Committee was more enlightened. They appointed Elizabeth Wilding as keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1797 (albeit with conditions attached), following the death of her husband Richard. She was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson in 1800. Ann Urmson, William’s second daughter by his second wife,  was PK at Bidston from 1835 until 12 May 1869. Richard, Elizabeth, William and Ann all died in service. William’s other daughters helped at the Bidston station: Jane kept the telegraph, and Catherine assisted at the lighthouse.

Leasowe Lighthouse also had two female Principal Keepers. When John Jones was dismissed “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed in his place. John died in 1857, still a resident of the lighthouse. Ann Jones died in service on 23 Jul 1867. [1, pages 33-34]. The last lighthouse keeper at Leasowe Lighthouse was Mary Elizabeth Williams. When her husband Thomas Williams died in 1894, Mrs Williams took over as PK. Apart from the lighthouse, she also had eight children (including a baby) to look after. Fortunately, some of her children were old enough to help. She was still in post when Leasowe’s light was discontinued on 15 July 1908. After the closure, she carried on as caretaker until November of the following year [1, pages 37-40].

Elizabeth Wilding was the first female lighthouse keeper to be appointed by Liverpool. But the Chester trustees were a few years ahead, having appointed Mrs Cormes as keeper of Point of Ayr Lighthouse in 1791 [1, page 46].

In 1975, the Lancaster Port Commission appointed Peggy Braithwaite née Swarbrick (9 Jul 1919 – 12 Jan 1996) as Principal Keeper of Walney Island Lighthouse, when her husband, the lighthouse keeper, died. Peggy retired at the age of 74.

If you know of any women who served as Principal Keeper, please let us know by commenting on this post.

References

  1. John and Diane Robinson, Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Memorandum to George F. Lyster

Our latest acquisition is this memorandum from the Secretary of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to George F. Lyster, the man who built Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory (and many other important buildings and docks).

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

The memorandum is dated 15 April 1889. In red ink, initialled by GFL, there is a brief instruction addressed to AGL. At the foot of the memo there is a longer reply to the secretary, initialled by AGL.

GFL is George Fosbery Lyster (1821-1899), then Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. AGL is his 37-year old son, Anthony George Lyster (1852-1920).

The following year, Anthony became Acting Engineer-in-Chief to the MDHB. He eventually succeeded his father as Engineer-in-Chief when George retired in 1897. This memo shows that the father was already in the habit of delegating to his son in 1889.

Between them, George Fosbery Lyster and Anthony George Lyster probably added more acreage to the docks of Liverpool and Birkenhead than their predecessors Jesse Hartley and his son John Bernard Hartley.

We are delighted to have this sample of the handwriting of both father and son in a single document.

 

St. Bees

Yesterday, I posted this drawing of an unidentified lighthouse, and appealed to Twitter and Facebook for help in identifying it.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

The drawing shows a site plan along with front and side elevations. We found it several years ago in a box containing plans of Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. It is signed and dated Jas. N. Douglass, 5th April 1871. If my reading of the signature is correct, then the architect would be the famous James Nicholas Douglass F.R.S. who built many important lighthouses for Trinity House, including the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse.

Today, the mystery is solved, thanks to social media.

Facebook user Steve Kean was the first to identify the lighthouse correctly. It is St. Bees Lighthouse in Cumbria.

Then Jay Gates found an aerial view that clinched the matter.

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

The distinctive kinks in the perimeter wall, the paths within the lighthouse compound, and the location of the buildings and outbuildings all match perfectly. Even the annotations “Fence Bank” on the drawing make sense once you realise that these describe features that are clearly visible in the aerial view. It’s astonishing how little St Bees has changed in 145 years.

A little research reveals that St Bees was re-built in 1865 (although, strangely, Trinity House’s page on St. Bees doesn’t mention this at all).

So how did a drawing of St Bees Lighthouse come to be filed in a box of drawings pertaining to Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection?

Here is one possible explanation. In 1871, George Fosbery Lyster, then Engineer-in-Chief for the MDHB, was planning a replacement for the first Bidston Lighthouse. He would have been aware of the new (1865) lighthouse at St Bees, and may well have written, one engineer to another, to his counterpart James Douglass at Trinity House requesting a drawing. Then Douglass’ office prepared a drawing, perhaps a copy of an existing drawing or perhaps a fresh one, which was signed off by Douglass and sent on to Lyster’s office. It may have inspired some aspects of Lyster’s own 1872 design for the new Bidston Lighthouse. The layouts of Bidston and St. Bees do have much in common, but Lyster gave Bidston’s cottages a third wing, as Bidston needed three keepers to look after the telegraph as well as the lighthouse. Then, it would be natural for Douglass’ drawing to be filed away with the rest of the Bidston papers, where it stayed until the MDHB collection was deposited in the archives many years later.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that James Douglass was the architect of St. Bees – he could have just signed off a copy of an earlier drawing by someone else. However, he had been Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House since 1862, and even if someone else did draw up the plans for St. Bees, it was Douglass who was ultimately responsible.

I then turned to email, and wrote to Neil Jones at Trinity House, and to the Cumbria Archives Service (since they have some of the best on-line resources about St. Bees).

Then I went to bed.

Next morning, my inbox held a reply from Neil Jones confirming that the drawing is indeed of St Bees, and that it is most likely a tracing or copy of an earlier drawing.

At this point, I left my investigations for a pleasant Maritime Heritage conference. Proceedings started aboard the newly re-launched steamer the Daniel Adamson at Liverpool’s Canning Dock.

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

After lunch, the conference resumed at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the very same building where we first found the drawing several years ago. Even as young Jamie Davies of the Ironbridge Institute was lecturing on the value of social media for heritage projects, my phone beeped to alert me of incoming email from Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service, which said:

I can confirm that the plan attached to your email is indeed St Bees lighthouse. The plan matches exactly with modern site plans we have in our collection, and photographs of the front elevation confirm its identity.

There is plentiful historical information regarding the old St Bees lighthouse scattered around various collection we hold here and at Carlisle Archive Centre. However information and plans relating to the rebuilt lighthouse is held at our reference YGLA/1 and spans 1962 – 1989 only.

I have not seen the attached plan before and it is a delight to see it.

Although I can confirm the plan is definitely St Bees, I cannot throw any light on how the plan came to be where you found it, but your theory is quite plausible.

I cannot thank you enough for bringing this fascinating plan to our attention.

I barely managed to contain my excitement. I waited for the opportunity for questions at the end of the talk, determined to share my social media success story with the audience, whether they wanted to hear it or not. No such opportunity came, as we were running behind schedule. By the time of the closing discussion the moment had passed.

All of which leads me, at the end of a most pleasant day, to write this post. Needless to say, I shall share it on social media.

Stephen, at Bidston Lighthouse, with thanks to Michael Vicente (photographer) and my wife Mandy for finding the drawing in the first place; to Steve Kean, Jay Gates, Neil Jones at Trinity House, and Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service for their help in identifying it; to the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society and the Maritime Heritage Trust for a great conference; to Jamie Davies for talking about social media at that particular time; and especially the Merseyside Maritime Museum for the parts it played at the beginning and the end of my story.

Deerhound, Alabama and Kearsarge

J.R.W. Davies, who gave us this article, reminds me that – arguably – the American Civil War ended 150 years ago today, in Merseyside. He writes:

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the last Confederate raider’s formal surrender, which took place in the Sloyne off Rock Ferry. I imagine you’d have had a good view of the ceremony from Bidston Hill. Shenandoah would have been alongside the Royal Navy’s 101-gun steam first-rate Donegal, with the latter’s captain and a detachment of her crew on Shenandoah’s quarterdeck to watch the flag lowered. Captain Waddell of the Shenandoah would then have put off in a ship’s boat, probably in the direction of the present ferry terminal at the Pier Head, carrying a letter for the Prime Minister handing over the ship to Britain, which he gave to the Mayor of Liverpool at the Town Hall.

When I introduced Davies’ article in this post, I was intrigued by the thought of what an observer at Bidston Lighthouse would have seen of the CSS Alabama’s sea trials in Liverpool Bay, and whether any telegrams from Thomas Dudley, the U.S. Consul at Liverpool, would have gone through the new electric telegraph station at Bidston in a final attempt to foil the Alabama’s escape. Since then, I have learned (thanks to Maurice Rigby), that there is an even more fascinating connection between the Alabama’s end and the people of Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station.

I am not referring to the fact that Cherbourg Harbour, the scene of the final showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge in 1864, was designed by Joseph Cachin, the same French engineer who drew this delightful illustration of Bidston Lighthouse in 1785.

No, what fascinates me is the identity of the Able Seaman who rescued the Alabama’s Captain, Raphael Semmes, from the sea after the Battle of Cherbourg. His name was Henry Adams, and he was the son of James Adams, Bidston’s Telegraph Keeper.

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864. Wikimedia commons (original currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864, from Wikimedia Commons. The original is currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

When Henry Adams died in 1909, newspapers far afield ran his obituary. This is what the Aberdeen Journal reported on 20 March, 1909.

OLD SEA FIGHT RECALLED.

The death of Mr Henry Adams, which has occurred at Liverpool, recalls one of the most notable naval engagements of the nineteenth century. Mr Adams was mate on the yacht Deerhound which was present at the fight between the U.S. warship Kearsage and the Confederate cruiser Alabama off Cherbourg on 19th June, 1864. After doing enormous damage to the shipping of the northern states – for which Great Britain had subsequently to pay – the Alabama was cornered in the Channel, and Captain Semmes decided to give battle. The result was decisive, and when the Alabama, wrecked by the guns of the better-protected Kearsage, was sinking, Captain Semmes and some of her crew were rescued by a boat from the Deerhound commanded by Mr Adams. The captain of the Kearsage demanded that they should be given up, but Adams, wrapping a Union Jack round Semmes’s body, laid him at the bottom of the boat and defied anyone to remove him. For many years Mr Adams was employed by the Star Tug Company, of Liverpool, and he was both liked and respected in shipping circles on the Mersey.

More about Henry Adams

Henry Adams was born in 1840, in Penmon, Anglesey, probably on Puffin Island, where his father James was the Telegraph Keeper. On 8 April 1852, at the age of 12, he was appointed assistant telegrapher at Point Lynas, becoming the youngest employee in the telegraph service. He was replaced by Joseph Armitage on 11 August 1853, but took up the post again on 9 March 1854, following Joseph’s resignation. In the years that followed, he went to sea.

Henry Adams joined the crew of the Deerhound in Birkenhead in April, 1864, having known the captain, Evan Parry Jones, since childhood. The Deerhound was a steam yacht, owned by Mr John Lancaster, of Wigan. It was in port in Cherbourg when word of the impending showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge reached them, and the Deerhound put to sea in time to observe the fight from a safe distance, out of gun range. When the crew of the battered and sinking Alabama abandoned ship, Adams took charge of the Deerhound’s gig and rescued many of the Alabama’s crew from the sea, including Captain Semmes. The Deerhound refused to surrender the Confederates to Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge. In the years that followed, the U.S. sought compensation from Britain for the damage caused by the Alabama, and the testimony of Adams and others was an important part of the proceedings.

Presumably, Adams’ experience giving evidence in the protracted Alabama claims stood him in good stead, for he gained employment as a solicitor for a steam tug company, and went on to become the manager. Henry married Margaret Pryce, née Savage, the widow of Thomas Hargreaves Pryce, at St John the Baptist, Toxteth Park on 5 July 1870. Margaret and Henry appear not to have had any children. They lived for a while in Liverpool, before moving across the Mersey to Seacombe. Henry died on 16 March 1909, leaving an estate valued at £128 to his widow, Margaret.

James Adams, Henry’s father, was born about 1807 in Kilkhampton, Cornwall. He married Esther Jones in 1837, in Penmon. James and Esther had at least eight children together, from Ann (1839), Henry (1840) to Esther (1861). James was Keeper of Puffin Island Telegraph Station from 1838-1852, then Point Lynas (15 Jan 1852-1856), returning to Puffin Island until its closure in 1960. When the electric telegraph replaced the semaphore telegraph, there was no longer a need for a station at Puffin Island, and James was pensioned off, only to be re-employed at the new electric telegraph at Bidston later in 1861.  On 7 Apr 1861, the night of the census, he was living at Telegraph House, in Penmon, a pensioner. He was Keeper of Bidston Telegraph Station from 1861 to 1869, and was probably on duty  when the Alabama set sail from Liverpool Bay on 29th July 1862.  He became Keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1869, following the death of Ann Urmson.  He was in charge while the new Bidston Lighthouse was being built in 1872-3. He retired to Beaumaris in 1879.

 Acknowledgments

Thanks to Maurice Rigby, for pointing out the connection between Bidston Lighthouse and Henry Adams, the saviour of Captain Semmes.

Further reading:

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.