Tag Archives: Signals

A new gate on an old theme

We have a new gate. We hope you like it.

New gate onto Bidston Hill

New gate onto Bidston Hill

The gate leads from the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse onto Bidston Hill, where it joins the path from Bidston Village to Bidston Windmill, alongside Penny-a-Day Dyke, the medieval wall. It replaces a derelict gate that had been disused for decades.

We have wanted to renew the gate for a long while. The derelict gate was an eyesore, and Bidston Hill deserved better. A functioning gate would benefit visitors to the lighthouse as well as the many thousands who walk past it every year. And wouldn’t it be nice if the gate could incorporate a motif reminiscent of the flag signals that used to run the length of Bidston Hill?

So we applied to the Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund for financial support, and we were awarded a small grant. See below for more information about DONG Energy and the Burbo Bank Extension, and Grantscape, who administer the Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund.

Next, we had to find a local blacksmith with the right skills for the project, and then work out the details of the design. When we found artisan blacksmith Alex Price, we knew we had our man. What convinced me was some fine examples of his intricate metalwork, especially a fire-grate featuring a leaf motif – if anyone could work a flag motif into a bespoke gate, it was Alex.  I visited his forge at the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port and briefed him on the project: the gate had to fit into the existing opening, had to feature a flag motif, and should incorporate a wooden panel (in keeping with the old gate as well as the nearby “lych gate” at Bidston Observatory), and be achievable within our limited budget. Alex came back with a series of designs, one of which stood out. There was no turning back. This gate just had to be made.

But before we could start work, we needed to obtain Listed Buildings Consent. You see, the wall in which the gate is located is a Grade-II listed building in its own right. The perimeter wall enclosing the site of Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory was remodelled in the 1860s by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, around the same time that the Observatory was built. The lower part of the wall is about a century older, probably dating back to when the Bidston Signals Station and Bidston Lighthouse were established. Apart from Listed Buildings Consent, we also had to obtain consent from everyone else who owned part of the building in question, namely Wirral Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, and the new owners of Bidston Observatory. We also discussed the project with the Friends of Bidston Hill. Needless to say, this process took several months, but finally the necessary consents were secured and we could give Alex the go-ahead.

Edward Clive agreed to fabricate the wooden panel.

The Friends of Bidston Hill helped out by clearing away some of the ivy which was encroaching on the wall.

At the forge. Gate ready to be galvanised.

At the forge. Gate ready to be galvanised.

The gate was installed on 15th September.

Blacksmith Alex Price by the new gate to Bidston Lighthouse, 15 Sep.

Blacksmith Alex Price by the newly installed gate to Bidston Lighthouse, on 15th September.

There were other complications along the way. At some point in the past, tarmac, about 8 inches deep, was laid on the inside of the gate. We had to excavate this, and remove the tree roots and soil that had built up underneath the old gate. Eventually I uncovered the original sandstone threshold beneath the gate. I also exposed a telephone cable, which does not appear on any utility survey, but probably serves the lighthouse cottages. So I still have some work to do: bury the telephone cable and make a step up from the threshold to the level of the tarmac – and paint the railings, of course.

Deciding on the colours for the flags and penants was a little tricky. We wanted to be historically accurate, only using flags that were known to be flown on Bidston Hill in the heyday of the flag signals. But there’s very little documentation on this subject. Salmon’s painting from 1825 shows a few flags in full colour; but in another painting by him of the same subject, he chose different colours for the same flagpoles. There is an 1807 engraving of the Bidston Signals in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery, but the colours were added later, and may be fanciful. We don’t even know for sure whether the colours of flags shown on a flagpole were significant; the position of the flagpole was certainly important, and contemporary accounts describe people as counting the poles to determine if a certain shipowner’s flag is flying. There is some documentation on the house flags of shipping companies (such as Brown’s Book of Flags and Funnels) but this first appeared long after the Bidston Signals had ceased. So we compromised. We restricted the choice of colours to flags that were in one of several systems of flag codes for ships, viz. Marryat’s Flags, the Liverpool (or Watson’s) Code, the Commercial Code, and the International Code of Signals, even though these systems came along much later. If more information comes to light, we can always re-paint them!

More information

About DONG Energy

DONG Energy (NASDAQ OMX: DENERG) is one of the leading energy groups in Northern Europe, headquartered in Denmark. Around 6,700 ambitious employees, including over 700 in the UK, are engaged in developing, constructing and operating offshore wind farms; generating power and heat from our power stations; providing energy to residential and business customers on a daily basis; and producing oil and gas. Group revenue was DKK 71bn (EUR 9.5bn) in 2015. For further information, see www.dongenergy.co.uk or follow @DONGEnergyUK on Twitter.

About GrantScape

GrantScape is a grant-making charity committed to enhancing the environment and strengthening local communities through its grant programmes. GrantScape’s experience stretches back to 1997 and it has awarded grants totalling over £80 million to deserving projects over this time.

GrantScape manages a range of community and environmental grant programmes on behalf of corporate and local authority clients. These are tailored to their individual requirements, which is the charity’s speciality. In addition, GrantScape offers a professional project management and grant process review service to groups requiring support with these activities.

For further information, please see: www.grantscape.org.uk.

About Burbo Bank Extension

The Burbo Bank Extension offshore wind farm will be located in Liverpool bay, at the entrance to the River Mersey. Onshore construction began in 2015 and offshore construction started in June 2016. Once completed the offshore wind farm will have a total capacity of 258MW, enough to power over 230,000 homes.

For further information, please see: www.burbobankextension.co.uk.

About Burbo Bank Extension Community Fund

The Fund supports community and environmental projects along the North Wales and English coast, off the Irish Sea, within a defined area. Approximately £225,000 is available each year. The Fund is split equally between two annual funding rounds. There are two levels of grants available:

  • Small grants between £500 and £5,000
  • Main grants between £5,001 and £25,000

Applications to the Fund are made using an online application system via the GrantScape website www.grantscape.org.uk .

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. (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.

Postscript

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.

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.

Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont

"Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont", Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image courtesy Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

“Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, Miles Walters, oil on canvas, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery, Newport Beach, California.

Miles Walters (1773-1849) was born in Ilfracombe, Devon. In his own words “The Artist in his Youthful Days worked in a Mold Loft and has been 13 years at Sea and has painted upwards of 200 Ships in the last Six Years and Sent them to all corners of the World.” He moved to Liverpool some time during the 1820s. Overshadowed by his more famous son Samuel Walters, Miles’ work is characterised by an exceptional attention to detail. His experience as a shipwright and seaman comes through in every line, flag and pennant, and the landmarks in the background of his paintings.

In this painting, the observer is looking across the mouth of the Mersey from Liverpool towards the Wirral peninsula. The ship Gipsey, the subject of the painting, is shown in three different positions. You can just make out Fort Perch Rock in the background, near the base of the rear mast in the central view of the Gipsey. Gipsey was built in 1826, and construction of Fort Perch Rock started in the same year and finished about 1829.

The artist has also taken pains to show Bidston Lighthouse and some of the signal poles that ran the length of Bidston Hill. You can see them clearly in this higher-resolution detail of the extreme left of the painting.

Detail showing Bidston Signals.

Detail of “Gipsey in Three Positions Off Egremont”, showing Bidston Lighthouse and Signals. Miles Walters, c. 1828. Image (c) Vallejo Maritime Gallery.

I am grateful to Vallejo Maritime Gallery for permission to use these images, and to Colin Dilnot for bringing this wonderful painting to my attention.

Further reading

  • “Marine Art & Liverpool: Painters, Places & Flag Codes 1760-1960″, A. S. Davidson, Waine Research Publications, 1986, ISBN 0 905184 10 6.

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.

Mortimer 1847

Here is an extract from “The History of the Hundred of Wirral”, by William Williams Mortimer, 1847.

Bidston Lighthouse is an object very familiar to the inhabitants of Liverpool, and is one of the localities which command attention, as much from its prominent appearance as its mercantile utility. The Corporation of Liverpool having obtained an Act of Parliament, authorizing the purchase of Bidston Hill and the erection of a Lighthouse upon it, an edifice for that purpose was built in 1771. It consists of a substantial stone building with an octagonal tower, which from a distance has the appearance of a church, and is frequently taken by strangers for one. A long range of poles were formerly placed on the ridge of the hill, on which signals were hoisted to announce to the merchants of Liverpool the approach of their shipping; but the establishment of a line of telegraphs, from that town along the coast of Wales to Holyhead, has nearly superseded the old mode of communication. But as the lights, from their elevated position, are visible for a circle of fourteen miles, and blending with those at Leasowe Lighthouse, point out the entrance into Liverpool, the continuance of the establishment is indispensable for the safety of the numerous shipping trading into that port.

The Lighthouse of Bidston is deserving a visit, and the stranger will be amply gratified, not only with its construction and appendages, but with the varied and extensive prospect which is obtained from a small gallery that projects round the upper storey of the tower, at an elevation of three hundred feet above high-water mark. To the westward, the marshes, a plain of upwards of five hundred acres, on which graze more than a thousand head of cattle, lay extended beneath the eye of the spectator, protected from the inundations of the sea by a range of sandhills and an artificial embankment, which cause the numerous vessels in the Rock Channel to have the appearance of sailing on dry land.

 

A Vision of Biddestone Through Time

Here is a delightful excerpt from A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, by George Head (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836). I found it on that most excellent of websites, “A Vision of Britain Through Time“, which I commend to all local and family historians in need of historical and geographical context for British place names since 1801.

BIDDESTONE LIGHTHOUSE

As I was walking from Woodside towards Biddestone lighthouse, the day being hot, I heard the clattering of hoofs behind me, and was accosted by a little boy, with the offer of a pony. I at first sight thought the whole troop were donkeys; but, on a second glance, I did certainly perceive that one of the quadrupeds really was a pony. The boy had just emerged, with his long-eared squadron, from the village of Biddestone, on his way to Woodside, in order to pick up customers for the day.

The colour of the steed in question was a light sandy dun, a black streak extending the whole length from the withers to the tail; which mark of distinction not only assimilated him to his companions, but, from long habits of intimacy, his manners had become so near akin to theirs, that in reality he was, morally speaking, just as much a jackass as a horse. Such as he was, I immediately engaged his services, upon paying a shilling down, with a promise of more, according to time, on delivery. I was also furnished with a stick into the bargain, which latter I soon found was doomed to more wear and tear in my service than the pony, which was of a nature at all events not to be ridden away with. In a few minutes he was tied up to a rack of hay in a stable belonging to the lighthouse.

Biddestone Hill, about three miles from Woodside, commands an extensive view of the country inland, while the forest of signal poles, with which the lighthouse is surrounded, give it, at a distance, an extraordinary appearance—that of a dock or harbour on the top of a hill. Hence the merchant vessels bound to Liverpool are signalled and telegraphed in the offing, the poles alluded to bearing the private signals of different individuals. And what must be remarked as rather singular is, that, notwithstanding the arduous duty which necessarily falls on the station, the whole is performed, almost exclusively, by young women, daughters of the veteran in charge. The old man, who is thus ably supported in the winter of life, is fourscore years old, and has held the office upward of forty years. Although boys are employed to run backward and forward, out of doors, with colours to the poles, and haul them up; and one of the three young women is married, and occasionally assisted by her husband; yet it is she who, being perfect in the whole code of signals, performs the responsible part of the duty. This couple were both at work together at the time I arrived, the young woman keeping the lookout, and calling the numbers, while the man, merely at her bidding, pulled the ropes. She not only kept him employed, but managed meanwhile to iron a shirt into the bargain.

The business of the youngest sister is to attend the light, consisting of eleven Argand lamps, with plated reflectors. Every four hours during the night the lamps are trimmed; these, the stove, copper, oil jars, and paved floor, are preserved in a state of cleanliness not to be exceeded; while no doubt, many a mariner, on a wintry and stormy night, both knows and feels that his life and safety are thus well confided to the never-failing care of — woman.

The old man is William Urmson, who died later that very year. The three women were the surviving daughters of his second wife:  Ann (who was to succeed William as keeper), Catherine (the youngest), and Jane, wife of Thomas Nichols, the Telegraph Keeper.

It’s interesting to note that the single massive reflector of 1771 has been replaced by 11 smaller reflectors. Both William Hutchinson himself (in his Treatise of Practical Seamanship), and later, Robert Stevenson (the Scottish lighthouse engineer who visited in 1801), recommended multiple smaller reflectors instead of a single big one.

Dutch visitors

Recently, a Dutch gentleman, whom we shall call Jan VIII, visited Leasowe and Bidston Lighthouses. I hope Jan VIII and his gracious wife will forgive me for greeting them with a paintbrush in hand.

Jan VIII was retracing the footsteps of his ancestor, Jan van Heukelom (1784-1847). The elder Jan, whom we shall call Jan IV, visited England in 1805 and kept a detailed journal of his travels. These were interesting times. England was at war with France, alarm beacons were erected on Bidston Hill in April, and the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21st October.

Here is an extract from Jan IV’s journal entry for Monday 16 September, 1805, when he paid a visit to Bidston Lighthouse. My thanks go to Jan VIII for sharing his annotated transcription, and to Woutera Willemsen for translating this passage from the Dutch.

“I then crossed the Mersey in a boat with Rogers and walked to the lighthouse with him. It is but a kind of tower, with a room containing the light for the ships to navigate by when sailing into the channel. The light is a cotton lamp wick supplied by oil placed in front of an enormous reflector. This reflector is, I noticed, in the shape of a parabola and the lamp is in its focus. The largest circle must be approximately 18 feet wide and the reflector is made up of trapezia of mirror glass. The front of the room in which the lamp is located is entirely made of glass, which means the light can be seen freely. Closer to sea there is another smaller and lower beacon. The helmsmen must keep these two lights in a straight line in a certain position in the channel. These circumstances, which the caretaker informed me of and his statement that the light was by far not as visible from the side as from the front, strengthened my thoughts concerning the parabolic nature of the reflector. This lighthouse can be seen clearly from Liverpool. The pilots used this circumstance by placing a number of signal poles close to the lighthouse. As soon as a ship arrives from sea and comes within sight of this beacon, it will hoist its private flag from which the caretaker will recognize the owner. The caretaker will then go and hoist the owner’s flag on the designated pole while a general sign will show what kind of ship it is. This is how the Liverpool merchants (want to) know what is happening at sea close by. When we arrived back from the lighthouse, we just had time to dine after our crossing, which seemed to last a long time to me. Afterwards, I dressed and went to the theatre with Mr Tait and company.”

Jan IV used the English terms for “lighthouse” and “signal poles”, and the French “reverbère” for “reflector”.