Tag Archives: History

D-Day

Seventy years ago today, the D-Day landings took place.

Let us not forget the role that Bidston Observatory played in the planning of the D-Day invasions. The Observatory’s tide predicting machines — mechanical computers developed since the 1920s by Arthur Doodson and his colleagues — were used to calculate tide tables for the beaches of Normandy and other locations in Northern France.

One of Arthur Doodson's tide predicting machines.

One of Arthur Doodson’s tide predicting machines.

Nor let us forget the staff of the Observatory who operated these machines.

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. Eunice Murrell is the lady at the back.

Eunice Murrell sadly passed away at her home last Saturday, 31 May 2014.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Dutch visitors

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”.

What’s in a name?

As I mentioned back in “The Case of the Missing Letterbox“, we live on an unnamed road. It’s a narrow lane that runs up the hill from Boundary Road to the Lighthouse and Observatory on Bidston Hill.

But we can change that! As long as all the residents and owners agree on the new name, and we pay for the road signs, we can give our road a name. So, what should we call it?

We could name the road after one of the historic buildings to which it leads.

There’s been a lighthouse on the site since the 1771, when the first Bidston Lighthouse was built, further from the sea than any other lighthouse in Britain. This was after the Lower Sea Light at Mockbeggar Wharf had been destroyed by storms. The Upper Sea Light (the present Leasowe Lighthouse) became the Lower  Sea Light, and Bidston Lighthouse became the Upper Sea Light. It featured a massive parabolic reflector, 12 feet in diameter, developed on-site by William Hutchinson, which enabled the light to be seen at a distance of 21 nautical miles. The present Bidston Lighthouse was built by Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1873, after the original lighthouse was damaged by fire and demolished. Lighthouse Lane might be a good name for our road.

The Observatory was built in 1866, when the Liverpool Observatory relocated to Bidston Hill from what is now Waterloo Dock. It’s had many uses over the years, including chronometer calibration, tide prediction, meterological observations, signalling the firing of the One O’Clock Gun at Morpeth Dock, and offices for oceanographic research. The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory was based here until 2004, when it relocated to the University of Liverpool. But it would be confusing to name the road after the Observatory, because there’s already an Observatory Road nearby.

Braehead Cottage used to sell teas. It was located outside the boundary wall that surrounds the Observatory and Lighthouse, near to the old coach house. It fell into disrepair after the war, and was demolished.

The Bidston Signals were once a prominent feature along the skyline of Bidston Hill. More than 100 flagpoles along the ridge of Bidston Hill signalled the approach of ships into Liverpool, allowing the merchants time to ready their crews for unloading. The signals service was augmented by a semaphore based telegraph system that connected Anglesey to Liverpool. The original Signals Station predated the first lighthouse. In 1873, the signals function was incorporated into the new lighthouse. Signals Road? Semaphore Lane? Too obscure, perhaps?

Or we could name the road after a historical person.

Richard Wilding was the first lighthouse keeper of Bidston Lighthouse, having served previously at Leasowe. When he died in 1797, his wife, Elizabeth took over as keeper, and served until 1800. Elizabeth Wilding was Liverpool’s first female lighthouse keeper. She got the job on the strict condition that “she shall continue to behave properly … and shall not attempt to employ or use the said Building called the Bidston Lighthouse or any of its Appendages as a Publick House”. Wilding Way has a certain ring to it.

Dr. Arthur Thomas Doodson (31 Mar 1890 – 10 Jan 1968) was a British oceanographer. He was Associate Director of the Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute when it formed in 1929. He is perhaps best known for the Doodson-Légé Tide Predicting Machine, the mechanical computer that was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings. He lived and worked for a time at Bidston Observatory, and is buried in Flaybrick Cemetery. Mary Connell remembers him fondly. At Christmas he gave presents to the two Connell girls who lived in the Lighthouse Cottages, saying “here’s two-and-six for you and half-a-crown for you”. Mary was convinced that she was somehow missing out.  Doodson Drive or Doodson Lane might be good names for our road.

Joseph Proudman (30 Dec 1888 – 26 Jun 1975), CBE, FRS, was Honorary Director of the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute. The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory and the Joseph Proudman Building were named after him. At the moment, there is some controversy about the future of the Joseph Proudman Building. A vocal few want it turned into a drumming school and Grade-II listed. We think it is an eyesore and should be demolished.

What do you think we should call our road?

Make your suggestion by commenting on this post.