Tag Archives: 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.

Observations

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, but we know very little about them. (The alarm beacon on Bidston Hill was set up at the same time.) 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.

The world’s most inland lighthouse

Bidston Lighthouse is the world’s most inland lighthouse.

By this I mean that of all the lighthouses in the world that were constructed as genuine navigational aids to mariners, none were built further from the body of water they lit than Bidston’s.

Liverpool’s Sea Lights were a pair of leading lights that guided ships through the Horse Channel.  A line drawn from the upper light at Bidston through the lower light at Leasowe crosses the high water mark on Mockbeggar Wharf at a distance of 2.1 nautical miles (2.4 statute miles, or 3.9 kilometres). The distance between the upper and lower lights is 2 nautical miles (2.3 statute miles or 3.7 kilometres), also making the Sea Lights the furthest apart of any pair of leading lights in the world.

There are, of course, many lighthouses further from the sea than Bidston’s. They can be found on river banks, or canals, or lake shores, and have provided valuable service to mariners as navigational aids. But these were all built relatively close to the body of water that they lit.

I also rule out aerial lighthouses, such as the one at RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire. A few of these were built as navigational aids to pilots, not mariners, and they lit the sky, not the sea.

Some otherwise interesting “lighthouses” are disqualified on the grounds of not being genuine navigational aids to mariners.

During  the 1920s, Benito Mussolini ordered the construction of a lighthouse atop his summer palace at Rocca delle Caminate, some 25 kilometres from the Adriatic Sea, and commanded the Italian Navy to include it in their list of operational lights. Flashing red, white and blue when Il Duco was in residence, it provided good service as a monument to the dictator’s vanity. Perhaps it helped the locals find their way home in the dark, but it was of no use to mariners as a navigational aid.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Rocca delle Caminate in 1939. Photo by E. Zoli Forlì.

Cape Todd Lighthouse stands in the desert of central Australia, near Alice Springs, on the banks of the Todd River, which is usually dry. That doesn’t stop the Aussies from holding the annual  Henley-on-Todd regatta, in which contestants bring their own bottomless boats and carry them at a run along the Todd River. They like to claim that the Lighthouse is a navigational aid, because it stops the contestants from running out of bounds during the race. Built by amateur radio enthusiasts, Cape Todd Lighthouse took part in the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend in 2013 and again in 2014, when it was listed as a “faux” lighthouse.

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

Cape Todd Lighthouse, near Alice Springs, Australia

I stand by my claim until such time as someone provides evidence of a greater distance, or the Italian Navy blockades Liverpool in protest.

If you do know of any interesting inland lighthouses, please let us know by commenting on this post. We’d also like to hear about any claims for the most inland operational lighthouse, or for the most widely separated operational pairs of leading lights.

Further reading

 

Female Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse keeping is generally regarded as a male profession. But it was not uncommon for a lighthouse keeper to be assisted by his family, and no doubt many seafarers owe their lives to the wives and daughters who kept the light burning when the keeper was ill, asleep or in his cups.  Most of these women have been forgotten by history, with the notable exception of Grace Darling.

Lucy, the keeper in Margaret Elphinstone’s well-researched and insightful novel “Light“, is fictional.

Trinity House, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2014, never appointed a woman to the post of Principal Keeper (PK). It probably never will, because the UK’s last manned lighthouse, North Foreland, was automated in 1998.

Liverpool’s Dock Committee was more enlightened. They appointed Elizabeth Wilding as keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1797 (albeit with conditions attached), following the death of her husband Richard. She was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson in 1800. Ann Urmson, William’s second daughter by his second wife,  was PK at Bidston from 1835 until 12 May 1869. Richard, Elizabeth, William and Ann all died in service. William’s other daughters helped at the Bidston station: Jane kept the telegraph, and Catherine assisted at the lighthouse.

Leasowe Lighthouse also had two female Principal Keepers. When John Jones was dismissed “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed in his place. John died in 1857, still a resident of the lighthouse. Ann Jones died in service on 23 Jul 1867. [1, pages 33-34]. The last lighthouse keeper at Leasowe Lighthouse was Mary Elizabeth Williams. When her husband Thomas Williams died in 1894, Mrs Williams took over as PK. Apart from the lighthouse, she also had eight children (including a baby) to look after. Fortunately, some of her children were old enough to help. She was still in post when Leasowe’s light was discontinued on 15 July 1908. After the closure, she carried on as caretaker until November of the following year [1, pages 37-40].

Elizabeth Wilding was the first female lighthouse keeper to be appointed by Liverpool. But the Chester trustees were a few years ahead, having appointed Mrs Cormes as keeper of Point of Ayr Lighthouse in 1791 [1, page 46].

In 1975, the Lancaster Port Commission appointed Peggy Braithwaite née Swarbrick (9 Jul 1919 – 12 Jan 1996) as Principal Keeper of Walney Island Lighthouse, when her husband, the lighthouse keeper, died. Peggy retired at the age of 74.

If you know of any women who served as Principal Keeper, please let us know by commenting on this post.

References

  1. John and Diane Robinson, Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Memorandum to George F. Lyster

Our latest acquisition is this memorandum from the Secretary of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to George F. Lyster, the man who built Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory (and many other important buildings and docks).

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

MDHB memo to G.F. Lyster, 1889

The memorandum is dated 15 April 1889. In red ink, initialled by GFL, there is a brief instruction addressed to AGL. At the foot of the memo there is a longer reply to the secretary, initialled by AGL.

GFL is George Fosbery Lyster (1821-1899), then Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. AGL is his 37-year old son, Anthony George Lyster (1852-1920).

The following year, Anthony became Acting Engineer-in-Chief to the MDHB. He eventually succeeded his father as Engineer-in-Chief when George retired in 1897. This memo shows that the father was already in the habit of delegating to his son in 1889.

Between them, George Fosbery Lyster and Anthony George Lyster probably added more acreage to the docks of Liverpool and Birkenhead than their predecessors Jesse Hartley and his son John Bernard Hartley.

We are delighted to have this sample of the handwriting of both father and son in a single document.

 

St. Bees

Yesterday, I posted this drawing of an unidentified lighthouse, and appealed to Twitter and Facebook for help in identifying it.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

The drawing shows a site plan along with front and side elevations. We found it several years ago in a box containing plans of Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. It is signed and dated Jas. N. Douglass, 5th April 1871. If my reading of the signature is correct, then the architect would be the famous James Nicholas Douglass F.R.S. who built many important lighthouses for Trinity House, including the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse.

Today, the mystery is solved, thanks to social media.

Facebook user Steve Kean was the first to identify the lighthouse correctly. It is St. Bees Lighthouse in Cumbria.

Then Jay Gates found an aerial view that clinched the matter.

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

The distinctive kinks in the perimeter wall, the paths within the lighthouse compound, and the location of the buildings and outbuildings all match perfectly. Even the annotations “Fence Bank” on the drawing make sense once you realise that these describe features that are clearly visible in the aerial view. It’s astonishing how little St Bees has changed in 145 years.

A little research reveals that St Bees was re-built in 1865 (although, strangely, Trinity House’s page on St. Bees doesn’t mention this at all).

So how did a drawing of St Bees Lighthouse come to be filed in a box of drawings pertaining to Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection?

Here is one possible explanation. In 1871, George Fosbery Lyster, then Engineer-in-Chief for the MDHB, was planning a replacement for the first Bidston Lighthouse. He would have been aware of the new (1865) lighthouse at St Bees, and may well have written, one engineer to another, to his counterpart James Douglass at Trinity House requesting a drawing. Then Douglass’ office prepared a drawing, perhaps a copy of an existing drawing or perhaps a fresh one, which was signed off by Douglass and sent on to Lyster’s office. It may have inspired some aspects of Lyster’s own 1872 design for the new Bidston Lighthouse. The layouts of Bidston and St. Bees do have much in common, but Lyster gave Bidston’s cottages a third wing, as Bidston needed three keepers to look after the telegraph as well as the lighthouse. Then, it would be natural for Douglass’ drawing to be filed away with the rest of the Bidston papers, where it stayed until the MDHB collection was deposited in the archives many years later.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that James Douglass was the architect of St. Bees – he could have just signed off a copy of an earlier drawing by someone else. However, he had been Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House since 1862, and even if someone else did draw up the plans for St. Bees, it was Douglass who was ultimately responsible.

I then turned to email, and wrote to Neil Jones at Trinity House, and to the Cumbria Archives Service (since they have some of the best on-line resources about St. Bees).

Then I went to bed.

Next morning, my inbox held a reply from Neil Jones confirming that the drawing is indeed of St Bees, and that it is most likely a tracing or copy of an earlier drawing.

At this point, I left my investigations for a pleasant Maritime Heritage conference. Proceedings started aboard the newly re-launched steamer the Daniel Adamson at Liverpool’s Canning Dock.

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

After lunch, the conference resumed at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the very same building where we first found the drawing several years ago. Even as young Jamie Davies of the Ironbridge Institute was lecturing on the value of social media for heritage projects, my phone beeped to alert me of incoming email from Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service, which said:

I can confirm that the plan attached to your email is indeed St Bees lighthouse. The plan matches exactly with modern site plans we have in our collection, and photographs of the front elevation confirm its identity.

There is plentiful historical information regarding the old St Bees lighthouse scattered around various collection we hold here and at Carlisle Archive Centre. However information and plans relating to the rebuilt lighthouse is held at our reference YGLA/1 and spans 1962 – 1989 only.

I have not seen the attached plan before and it is a delight to see it.

Although I can confirm the plan is definitely St Bees, I cannot throw any light on how the plan came to be where you found it, but your theory is quite plausible.

I cannot thank you enough for bringing this fascinating plan to our attention.

I barely managed to contain my excitement. I waited for the opportunity for questions at the end of the talk, determined to share my social media success story with the audience, whether they wanted to hear it or not. No such opportunity came, as we were running behind schedule. By the time of the closing discussion the moment had passed.

All of which leads me, at the end of a most pleasant day, to write this post. Needless to say, I shall share it on social media.

Stephen, at Bidston Lighthouse, with thanks to Michael Vicente (photographer) and my wife Mandy for finding the drawing in the first place; to Steve Kean, Jay Gates, Neil Jones at Trinity House, and Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service for their help in identifying it; to the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society and the Maritime Heritage Trust for a great conference; to Jamie Davies for talking about social media at that particular time; and especially the Merseyside Maritime Museum for the parts it played at the beginning and the end of my story.

Deerhound, Alabama and Kearsarge

J.R.W. Davies, who gave us this article, reminds me that – arguably – the American Civil War ended 150 years ago today, in Merseyside. He writes:

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the last Confederate raider’s formal surrender, which took place in the Sloyne off Rock Ferry. I imagine you’d have had a good view of the ceremony from Bidston Hill. Shenandoah would have been alongside the Royal Navy’s 101-gun steam first-rate Donegal, with the latter’s captain and a detachment of her crew on Shenandoah’s quarterdeck to watch the flag lowered. Captain Waddell of the Shenandoah would then have put off in a ship’s boat, probably in the direction of the present ferry terminal at the Pier Head, carrying a letter for the Prime Minister handing over the ship to Britain, which he gave to the Mayor of Liverpool at the Town Hall.

When I introduced Davies’ article in this post, I was intrigued by the thought of what an observer at Bidston Lighthouse would have seen of the CSS Alabama’s sea trials in Liverpool Bay, and whether any telegrams from Thomas Dudley, the U.S. Consul at Liverpool, would have gone through the new electric telegraph station at Bidston in a final attempt to foil the Alabama’s escape. Since then, I have learned (thanks to Maurice Rigby), that there is an even more fascinating connection between the Alabama’s end and the people of Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station.

I am not referring to the fact that Cherbourg Harbour, the scene of the final showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge in 1864, was designed by Joseph Cachin, the same French engineer who drew this delightful illustration of Bidston Lighthouse in 1785.

No, what fascinates me is the identity of the Able Seaman who rescued the Alabama’s Captain, Raphael Semmes, from the sea after the Battle of Cherbourg. His name was Henry Adams, and he was the son of James Adams, Bidston’s Telegraph Keeper.

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864. Wikimedia commons (original currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1864, from Wikimedia Commons. The original is currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

When Henry Adams died in 1909, newspapers far afield ran his obituary. This is what the Aberdeen Journal reported on 20 March, 1909.

OLD SEA FIGHT RECALLED.

The death of Mr Henry Adams, which has occurred at Liverpool, recalls one of the most notable naval engagements of the nineteenth century. Mr Adams was mate on the yacht Deerhound which was present at the fight between the U.S. warship Kearsage and the Confederate cruiser Alabama off Cherbourg on 19th June, 1864. After doing enormous damage to the shipping of the northern states – for which Great Britain had subsequently to pay – the Alabama was cornered in the Channel, and Captain Semmes decided to give battle. The result was decisive, and when the Alabama, wrecked by the guns of the better-protected Kearsage, was sinking, Captain Semmes and some of her crew were rescued by a boat from the Deerhound commanded by Mr Adams. The captain of the Kearsage demanded that they should be given up, but Adams, wrapping a Union Jack round Semmes’s body, laid him at the bottom of the boat and defied anyone to remove him. For many years Mr Adams was employed by the Star Tug Company, of Liverpool, and he was both liked and respected in shipping circles on the Mersey.

More about Henry Adams

Henry Adams was born in 1840, in Penmon, Anglesey, probably on Puffin Island, where his father James was the Telegraph Keeper. On 8 April 1852, at the age of 12, he was appointed assistant telegrapher at Point Lynas, becoming the youngest employee in the telegraph service. He was replaced by Joseph Armitage on 11 August 1853, but took up the post again on 9 March 1854, following Joseph’s resignation. In the years that followed, he went to sea.

Henry Adams joined the crew of the Deerhound in Birkenhead in April, 1864, having known the captain, Evan Parry Jones, since childhood. The Deerhound was a steam yacht, owned by Mr John Lancaster, of Wigan. It was in port in Cherbourg when word of the impending showdown between the Alabama and the Kearsarge reached them, and the Deerhound put to sea in time to observe the fight from a safe distance, out of gun range. When the crew of the battered and sinking Alabama abandoned ship, Adams took charge of the Deerhound’s gig and rescued many of the Alabama’s crew from the sea, including Captain Semmes. The Deerhound refused to surrender the Confederates to Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge. In the years that followed, the U.S. sought compensation from Britain for the damage caused by the Alabama, and the testimony of Adams and others was an important part of the proceedings.

Presumably, Adams’ experience giving evidence in the protracted Alabama claims stood him in good stead, for he gained employment as a solicitor for a steam tug company, and went on to become the manager. Henry married Margaret Pryce, née Savage, the widow of Thomas Hargreaves Pryce, at St John the Baptist, Toxteth Park on 5 July 1870. Margaret and Henry appear not to have had any children. They lived for a while in Liverpool, before moving across the Mersey to Seacombe. Henry died on 16 March 1909, leaving an estate valued at £128 to his widow, Margaret.

James Adams, Henry’s father, was born about 1807 in Kilkhampton, Cornwall. He married Esther Jones in 1837, in Penmon. James and Esther had at least eight children together, from Ann (1839), Henry (1840) to Esther (1861). James was Keeper of Puffin Island Telegraph Station from 1838-1852, then Point Lynas (15 Jan 1852-1856), returning to Puffin Island until its closure in 1960. When the electric telegraph replaced the semaphore telegraph, there was no longer a need for a station at Puffin Island, and James was pensioned off, only to be re-employed at the new electric telegraph at Bidston later in 1861.  On 7 Apr 1861, the night of the census, he was living at Telegraph House, in Penmon, a pensioner. He was Keeper of Bidston Telegraph Station from 1861 to 1869, and was probably on duty  when the Alabama set sail from Liverpool Bay on 29th July 1862.  He became Keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1869, following the death of Ann Urmson.  He was in charge while the new Bidston Lighthouse was being built in 1872-3. He retired to Beaumaris in 1879.

 Acknowledgments

Thanks to Maurice Rigby, for pointing out the connection between Bidston Lighthouse and Henry Adams, the saviour of Captain Semmes.

Further reading:

CSS Alabama

On this day in 1862, the CSS Alabama – Merseyside’s most famous contribution to the American Civil War – set sail from Liverpool Bay. She would go on to have a remarkable career raiding Union merchant ships.

Her voyage began in the most exciting of circumstances. An apparent series of sea trials turned suddenly into a dash across the Atlantic, foiling the US Consul’s attempt to get her impounded under the Foreign Enlistment Act. An observer at Bidston Lighthouse would have seen the Alabama sail to and fro between the Bell Beacon and the Northwest Lightship until, instead of returning to port to let the Liverpool crew and their sweethearts ashore, she disappeared over the horizon near Great Ormes Head.

Guest writer J.R.W. Davies has written this excellent article on the subject.

"CSS Alabama" by User McMullen on en.wikipedia - From the US Navy's Naval Historical Center. Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here * 03:11, 14 November 2004 [[:en:User:McMullen|McMullen]] 740×571 (59,800 bytes) (Painting of CSS ''Alabama''). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSSAlabama.jpg#/media/File:CSSAlabama.jpg

“CSS Alabama” from the US Navy’s Naval Historical Center, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.