Tag Archives: JosephProudman

Bidston Observatory – Heritage for Sale

Bidston Observatory is up for sale, again. Here is the listing on RightMove: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-28459380.html

Prospective buyers have only until 30th November to make their “best and final offer”. This seems a little rushed, given that the advert appeared in Wirral News only last week.

I hope the new owners appreciate what an important piece of Merseyside heritage they are taking on.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

The Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.  John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr  died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.

Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Marine chronometers from all over the empire were calibrated at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from the Observatory by electric cable.

Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.

In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.

In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.

In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre. NERC’s plans to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted.

Bidston Observatory has featured on TV on several occasions, including episodes of Coast (Series 7, Episode 5: “The Riddle of the Tides”), Inside Out, and Where’s Fred. Joyce Scoffield, who used to work in the Observatory, has written a book about it: “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, 2006 (available on Amazon). J. Eric Jones wrote “From Astrononomy to Oceanography – A brief history of Bidston Observatory”, which you can download from the NOC web site.

View from Observatory roof, March 2013

View from Observatory roof, March 2013.

Dust to Dust

The Joseph Proudman Building has been reduced to rubble. I’ve posted a time-lapse video of how it happened.

Joseph Proudman Building reduced to Rubble

Joseph Proudman Building reduced to rubble

For a while, during a spell of dry weather, the lighthouse and cottages were covered in a blanket of dust — fine, sticky stuff composed of powdered concrete and who-knows-what that blew off the demolition site, turning our hair to straw and leaving a gritty taste in our mouths. When we complained, the demolition contractors promptly deployed a “dust reduction unit”, which sprayed a mist of water into the air, stopped most of the dust from blowing over us, and made our breathing easier. Eventually the rains should wash away the dust that remains. We had been worried about the effect the dust was having on the vegetation. But this morning, we saw the crocuses in bloom, a little late in the season, but apparently healthy.

Soon it will be all over, and we’ll be waking up to the sound of birdsong instead of the rumble of heavy machinery.

One evening a couple of weeks ago, we noticed from our dining room window some pretty lights twinkling through the trees to the east. We hadn’t seen these before, and wondered what they were. Then it dawned on us that we were looking at the lights of Liverpool at night. We will not miss the Joseph Proudman Building.

People keep asking me what will happen next. In the short term, the site will be landscaped and new grass will be sown. In the longer term, we can only guess. We know that NERC want to dispose of their property on Bidston Hill. This includes the Observatory, the site of the former Braehead Cottage, and the leasehold of the site of the former Joseph Proudman Building (Wirral Borough Council own the freehold).

Meanwhile, Wirral Council’s “Interim Planning Policy” precludes new residences on Bidston Hill. While this is in force, I can’t see planning permission being granted for a residential development on either the Braehead Cottage or Proudman site. Presumably, it would be possible to obtain planning permission for a new research facility or office space on the Proudman site, but this does not seem likely — the location is too remote and the network infrastructure is too poor to make a good location for offices

However, Councils are fickle creatures, and Wirral Borough Council, like every other local council in the country, is under severe financial pressure and this shows no signs of letting up. The Council could benefit financially by selling the freehold of the Proudman site to a developer, and the only thing standing in its way is its self-inflicted Interim Planning Policy.

So it’s probably only a matter of time before the council revises its planning policy to suit itself, and the Proudman site is sold to a developer. We have to hope that what’s put in its place is in keeping with the Observatory, Lighthouse and Bidston Hill. A residential development comprising a couple of sandstone cottages might be a satisfactory outcome.  An eleven storey high-rise would not (although plans for such a monstrosity were actually drawn up only a few years ago).

I’d quite like to see the land dedicated as a public park, with a few benches and tables for picnics, and perhaps a visitors’ centre or ranger’s hut. This would be consistent with the spirit in which Mersey Docks and Harbour Board originally sold the Lighthouse site (including what is now the Proudman land) to the Birkenhead Corporation back in the 1930s for the greatly discounted price of one thousand pounds, on the understanding that it would be used for the recreation of the people of Birkenhead. Incidentally, there is in the document that conveyed the land to the Birkenhead Corporation a covenant forbidding the erection of new buildings. But that covenant did not stop the construction of the Joseph Proudman Building…

After the demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building

After the demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building

Creating new horizons

4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill is to be demolished.

Not many people know that 4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill, CH43 7RA, is actually the postal address of the Joseph Proudman Building.

The Joseph Proudman Building was built during the 1970s on land which used to be the kitchen gardens of the Lighthouse Cottages. It was officially opened on 18 April 1979, and named after Joseph Proudman (30 Dec 1888 – 26 Jun 1975), CBE, FRS, Honorary Director of the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute. Joseph Proudman also gave his name to the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), the research institute which occupied Bidston Observatory, the Joseph Proudman Building and part of the Lighthouse until its relocation to the University of Liverpool in 2004. POL is now part of the National Oceanography Centre.

Few will be disappointed to see the Joseph Proudman Building disappear from the Wirral skyline. Amongst those few are fans of cold-war architecture and the well-intentioned Bidston Preservation Trust, who mounted a campaign to save the building as part of a longer-term strategy to protect the more important Bidston Observatory. They bought a few months for their campaign by applying to English Heritage to have the building Grade II listed. Wirral Borough Council, who own the freehold of the Proudman site, were forced to postpone their decision on whether to consent to the demolition until after English Heritage had considered the matter. To cut a long story short, English Heritage rejected the application at the initial assessment stage, the Council finally gave its consent, and the live-in guardians who have kept the Proudman Building secure for the last seven years have been given notice to quit.

The demolition works are scheduled to start on Monday 26th November 2012, and are expected to take 10-12 weeks. The contractor undertaking the demolition is Hunter Demolition. Their tag line is “creating new horizons”.

If all goes to plan, you will be able to follow the action on the web thanks to wirralcam.org. A webcam mounted on the east face of the lighthouse will give a panoramic view of the proceedings. At the beginning, you will see the Joseph Proudman Building. At the end, you will see the iconic Liver Buildings in the distance. Creating new horizons indeed!