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.
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.
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.