Tag Archives: Semaphore

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.

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.