Tag Archives: Liverpool

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.

The Scottish Visitor

Robert Stevenson (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.