Tag Archives: Hull

Hull-Spurn telegraph

Last week, I had the good fortune to visit Hull for the Maritime Heritage Forum.

I picked a great year to do it. Hull, in case you didn’t know, is the UK City of Culture for 2017. There’s a veritable buzz about the place, and the low skyline makes for a refreshingly open feel. Across the road from the Hull Maritime Museum is the Ferens Art Gallery, home to this year’s Turner Prize. The Spurn Lightship is part of the Maritime Museum’s Collection. (I don’t know why it’s painted black, any more than I know whether we’ll ever see the Bar Lightship “Planet” back in Liverpool again.)


Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

I’d been thinking about Hull – or Kingston-upon-Hull to give it its full name – for a while. Like Liverpool, Hull’s heritage derives from the sea, and I wanted to explore the connections.

The Trinity House of Kingston-upon-Hull is the oldest of the three surviving Trinity Houses, the others being Trinity House of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the Trinity House of Deptford Strond. The last one is the Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, but all three have had various maritime responsibilities over the years. In Hull, this is especially confusing, because the jurisdictions of the Trinity Houses have often overlapped, to the discomfort of both Kingston-upon-Hull and Deptford Strond. At one time, Samuel Pepys has a position of authority in both organisations. Some aids to navigation built by Trinity House (Hull) are now operated by Trinity House (Deptford Strond). If someone in Hull mentions Trinity House, its rarely clear which organisation they mean, and more than once I was left with the impression that the speaker thought the two Trinity Houses were branches of the same organisation. During the heyday of lighthouse construction, both Hull and Liverpool found themselves at odds with Trinity House of Deptford Strond.

As a lighthouse enthusiast, I had to make the pilgrimage out to Spurn Lighthouse. The lighthouse is no longer operational, and the site is now managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a long hike out to the lighthouse from the nearest public parking – the Spurn was breached by the sea a few years ago, and the road out to the lighthouse is no longer open – so I booked a place on the Spurn Safari Unimog. The history of the Spurn Lighthouses (there have been many, including one built by Smeaton himself) is a fascinating intersection of changing technology, politics, and geography. Spurn Head (or just “the Spurn”) is a spit at the northern bank of the Humber estuary – and it’s constantly changing. It’s possible that there’s been as many as four distinct Spurns in the last 1000 years, each new one building up as the previous is breached and destroyed by the sea.

Both Hull and Liverpool have traditions of telecommunications, born out of the ports’ hunger for information.

This is reflected in the fact that in 2017, both cities hosted completely independent art projects with the same title: “I wish to communicate with you”. You see, in the International Code of Signals, the flag for the letter “K” (pronounced “Kilo”), when flown alone, means “I wish to communicate with you”. In Hull, this inspired a full-colour makeover of the Thornton Estate. Back in Liverpool, “I wish to communicate with you” was the title of a project by artist Yu-Chen Wang, as part of the New Observatory Exhibition at FACT, curated by Sam Skinner. Another outcome of Yu-Chen Wang’s project was a short film, shot mostly at Bidston Observatory and Bidston Lighthouse, entitled – wait for it – “I wish to communicate with you” and screened at FACT on 27 September. This was my first and probably last appearance as an actor.

Liverpool and Hull share a more historic connection. In the first half of the 19th century, both cities had optical (semaphore) telegraphs, connecting the port to the coast, and both were built by the same man, Barnard Lindsay Watson.

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the Hull-Spurn telegraph. So I asked almost everyone I met, including historians, archivists and guides, at lighthouses, libraries, museums, and lightships, whether they knew anything about, or even heard about, the Hull-Spurn telegraph. No-one knew anything. Most looked blank. Only one or two thought it rung a bell.

This brings me at last to the main purpose of this post, to set down what little I know about the Hull-Spurn Telegraph.

In an earlier post, I noted that a certain Mr Boaz proposed, way back in 1803, to construct a system of telegraphs linking Liverpool to other major seaports in the United Kingdom, including Hull. Although the Admiralty did establish a line of coastal signal stations in 1804, it wasn’t until much later that commercial telegraphs began to appear, the first of these being Barnard Lindsay Watson’s Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph in 1826.

1839 was a tumultuous year for Watson. January brought the great gale of 1839, which laid waste to much of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph. Watson started to re-build. In the original telegraph, each station had a single tall mast with three pairs of semaphore arms, each of which could signal a digit from 0-9, and an extra indicator on top. The new telegraph had two, shorter masts, each with two pairs of arms, giving an enlarged vocabulary of 10,000 words. Around this time, in an effort to raise funds, Watson announced that only subscribing vessels would be reported by the telegraph.

In March of the same year, the Hull Chamber of Commerce and Shipping commissioned Watson to survey potential sites for a telegraph along the Humber.

The Liverpool Dock Committee didn’t take kindly to all this. This was not the behaviour the Trustees expected of an employee. Watson’s outside interests could no longer be tolerated. Watson had been allowed to sell his propriety flag signals to ship-owners for many years. But when the Dock Committee learned that he’d been secretly collecting intelligence for insurance companies, it was the last straw.

In May 1839, the Liverpool Dock Committee dismissed Watson. The re-construction of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was completed under a new superintendent, Lieutenant William Lord, R.N.

Perhaps relieved to be freed of his obligations to the Liverpool Dock Committee, Watson pressed on with the construction of a new telegraph linking Hull to Spurn Head. The telegraph opened in September 1839.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From "The Old Telegraphs" by Geoffrey Wilson.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From “The Old Telegraphs” by Geoffrey Wilson.

The line criss-crossed the Humber estuary, with stations at Hull, Paull, Killingholme, Grimsby with the last (or first station) at “New Sand Light”. So, where or what exactly was “New Sand Light”? It probably wasn’t on the Spurn proper, if Geoffrey Wilson’s sketch in his excellent book “The Old Telegraphs” is to be trusted. My guess is a lightship at the Bull Sands station, which was establised in 1832. Watson himself mentioned “the valuable assistance afforded me by the Corporation of the Trinity House, in granting me permission to place a telegraph on board their floating light off the Humber”.

I don’t know whether anything remains of any of the telegraph stations in the Hull-Spurn line. If

After the opening of the Hull-Spurn line, Watson did go on to build more telegraphs, including:

  • a line linking London to the Kentish downs, terminating at the old Shot Tower near London Bridge. This ran only briefly, from about 1842 to 1843, when the station in London was destroyed by fire.
  • a line linking Southampton to the Isle of Wight (with stations at Southampton, Ashley Down, St Catherines, and the Needles).
  • a line from Dartmouth to Start Point (possibly never completed).

He also established independent (i.e. not part of a telegraph) signals stations at various places around the country, such as Flamborough Head. Very often these stations were located at or near the site of an existing lighthouse.

Watson's Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson’s Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson went bankrupt more than once: in 1831, while a flag manufacturer in Liverpool; and again in 1842, now based in London and Kent.

Following his 1842 bankruptcy, Watson re-launched the General Telegraph Association as a joint stock concern. The fire of 1843 was the last straw. The semaphore tower was not insured, the London smog was an ongoing problem, and new technology – the electric telegraph – posed an emerging threat. Watson left the telegraph business, and set himself up as a hotelier, at the Pulteney Hotel in Bath (now the Holburne Museum) only to go bankrupt again, in 1848. His last gig was as manager of the refreshment rooms at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. He died in Suffolk in 1865, and was buried at St Peter’s, Monks Eleigh.

Only two of Watson’s telegraphs survived the failure of the General Telegraph Association.

The Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was the longest lived.  The Liverpool-Holyhead line continued until 1861, when a new electric telegraph along (approximately) the same route was finally completed. Construction had started in 1858 and the line was partially operational in 1859, but submarine crossings proved problematic – this is why Puffin Island was removed from the circuit.

The Hull-Spurn optical telegraph survived the failure of Watson’s General Telegraph Association,  and continued independently as the General East Coast Telegraph and finally as the Hull and East Coast Marine Telegraph Association.  Just as in Liverpool, it was the advent of the electric telegraph that doomed the optical one. Part of the line (Hull-Grimsby) was relaced by a new electric telegraph in 1857, leaving only the Grimsby-Spurn leg to the semaphore. This was not a satisfactory arrangement, as the electric and semaphore telegraph stations in Grimsby were too far apart. Ultimately, the electric telegraph was extended to Cleethorpes where incoming ships could be observed, and the semaphore stations abandoned altogether. In its adoption of the electric telegraph, Hull was – for once – ahead of Liverpool.


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.


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.