Tag Archives: BidstonLighthouse

Bidston Signals

Bidston Signals - early illustration

Bidston Signals – early illustration

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.

Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont

"Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont", Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image courtesy Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

“Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

Miles Walters (1773-1849) was born in Ilfracombe, Devon. In his own words “The Artist in his Youthful Days worked in a Mold Loft and has been 13 years at Sea and has painted upwards of 200 Ships in the last Six Years and Sent them to all corners of the World.” He moved to Liverpool some time during the 1820s. Overshadowed by his more famous son Samuel Walters, Miles’ work is characterised by an exceptional attention to detail. His experience as a shipwright and seaman comes through in every line, flag and pennant, and the landmarks in the background of his paintings.

In this painting, the observer is looking across the mouth of the Mersey from Liverpool towards the Wirral peninsula. The ship Gipsey, the subject of the painting, is shown in three different positions. You can just make out Fort Perch Rock in the background, near the base of the rear mast in the central view of the Gipsey. Gipsey was built in 1826, and construction of Fort Perch Rock started in the same year and finished about 1829.

The artist has also taken pains to show Bidston Lighthouse and some of the signal poles that ran the length of Bidston Hill. You can see them clearly in this higher-resolution detail of the extreme left of the painting.

Detail showing Bidston Signals.

Detail of “Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, showing Bidston Lighthouse and Signals. Miles Walters, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery.

I am grateful to Vallejo Maritime Gallery for permission to use these images, and to Colin Dilnot for bringing this wonderful painting to my attention.

Further reading

  • “Marine Art & Liverpool: Painters, Places & Flag Codes 1760-1960″, A. S. Davidson, Waine Research Publications, 1986, ISBN 0 905184 10 6.

Lines of Sight

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.

Bidstone Lighthouse and Signal

Bidstone Lighthouse and Signals, by Henry F. James, c. 1807. The original is in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery.

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.

Bidston Lighthouse by Robert Salmon, Oil on Canvas, 1825. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

Bidston Lighthouse by Robert Salmon, Oil on Canvas, 1825. Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool.

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.

Seamen’s Wives

Bidston Signals on ceramic jug

Bidston Signals on ceramic jug

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.

Lighthouse Passports

The International Lighthouse Passport scheme was launched last year by Lizard Lighthouse Visitor Centre. Similar schemes have proved popular in North America.

Passport holders collect ink stamps from lighthouse visitor centres. Each page has space for one lighthouse stamp and additional notes so that you can also use it to keep a record of your visits.

Lighthouse Passport with stamps for Bidston and Leasowe.

Lighthouse Passport with stamps for Bidston and Leasowe.

In Wirral, Bidston, Leasowe and Hilbre Island Lighthouses all have lighthouse stamps and limited stocks of lighthouse passports for sale.

The Association of Lighthouse Keepers maintain a full list of lighthouses with passport stamps.

The passport stamp for Bidston Lighthouse is based on a line drawing by Phil Ryder. Thanks, Phil.

Bidston Lighthouse Passport Stamp

Bidston Lighthouse Passport Stamp

Mortimer 1847

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.

 

Catoptrics

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.

18th century catoptric reflector, in the Trinity House collection.

18th century catoptric reflector, in the Trinity House collection. Photograph courtesy of the Corporation of Trinity House.

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.

The Scottish Visitor

Robert Stevenson (8 June 1772 – 12 July 1850), the grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson, was a Scottish lighthouse engineer. He built twenty-three lighthouses in Scotland alone, including Bell Rock lighthouse.

In the summer of 1801, Stevenson embarked on an eight-week tour of the English lighthouses. His diary of that journey, along with later trips in 1813 and 1818, was edited by his great-grandson D. Alan Stevenson,  and published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in 1946, under the title “English Lighthouse Tours”.

This is Stevenson’s account of his visit to the Liverpool lighthouses.

From the Isle of Man I went in the Packet to Liverpool, and in my way thence to the lights on the Smalls and at Milford Haven, I took Bidston Hill and Sea Lights, the Lake (Hoylake) lights, Point of Air light and the Skerries light. Bidston Hill and Sea lights are generally termed the Liverpool leading lights ; being so situated that when the mariner brings them to appear as one light he is then in the proper direction for avoiding the sandbanks on taking the channel for Liverpool. The light from Bidston Hill is from oil with one reflector of silvered glass, which is no less than thirteen and a half feet diameter and its focus four feet. This immense reflector is illuminated by one large cotton wick which consumes one gallon of oil in four hours. This lighthouse is remarkable well taken care of — being in every respect clean and in good order. I cannot see any good reason for expending such a quantity of oil for one reflector as the same quantity would answer for thirty reflectors of twenty inches diameter, and I am confident that seven such reflectors would give an equal if not a superior light. Probably it may have been thought, as the light is wanted in the same direction with the rays of the Sea light, that therefore there ought to be but one reflector in each lighthouse. This, however, is proceeding upon a mistake, as seven or greater number of reflectors may be so set that their rays shall have an identical path.

The Sea light is situated near the beach and distant from Bidston Hill lighthouse three miles in a north-west direction. This lighthouse is a huge pile one hundred and thirty-five feet high, and like Bidston, has one reflector of silvered glass seven and a half feet diameter and thirteen inches focal distance. The Lake lights consist of a higher and lower lighthouse with one reflector of silver glass in each, three feet diameter, which are lighted with one wick or torch as in the two lighthouses last described, and are distant from the Sea light about three miles in a south-west direction. The high and low Lake lights are distant from each other about five hundred paces. They are erected for the use of vessels taking Lake Roads when the weather or other circumstances prevent them from getting up to Liverpool. When both lights are seen as one, vessels are then clear of the sandbanks and may stand in for the anchoring ground.

These four lighthouses have been erected by the Trade of Liverpool, under whose management they seem to be conducted with great propriety. At each lighthouse there is one keeper, and although both the Lake reflectors might be kept by one person, yet they prefer two with equal salaries as they are a check upon each other. Besides these, there is a fifth light (supported also by the Trade of Liverpool), namely, Lynas, in the Island of Anglesey, to direct vessels into Beaumaris Bay when put past Liverpool and the Lake roads, but this small light is in use only during the winter months. All of which are instances of a great commercial interest at the Port of Liverpool.

Stevenson was still learning his trade when he wrote this. He has exaggerated the height of Leasowe Lighthouse (which was recorded as 110 feet in contemporary surveys), and the width of Bidston’s reflector (12 feet according to Hutchinson himself, and confirmed by Joseph Cachin’s careful drawing in 1785). His remarks that Bidston would be better served by several smaller reflectors than one big one are correct, but Hutchinson had noted this himself many years earlier.

Wilding Way

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.

Road Sign - Wilding Way

Road Sign – Wilding Way

“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.

 

 

A Vision of Biddestone Through Time

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.

BIDDESTONE LIGHTHOUSE

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.