Tag Archives: telegraph

Hull-Spurn telegraph

Last week, I had the good fortune to visit Hull for the Maritime Heritage Forum.

I picked a great year to do it. Hull, in case you didn’t know, is the UK City of Culture for 2017. There’s a veritable buzz about the place, and the low skyline makes for a refreshingly open feel. Across the road from the Hull Maritime Museum is the Ferens Art Gallery, home to this year’s Turner Prize. The Spurn Lightship is part of the Maritime Museum’s Collection. (I don’t know why it’s painted black, any more than I know whether we’ll ever see the Bar Lightship “Planet” back in Liverpool again.)

 

Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

Hull Maritime Museum, October 2017

I’d been thinking about Hull – or Kingston-upon-Hull to give it its full name – for a while. Like Liverpool, Hull’s heritage derives from the sea, and I wanted to explore the connections.

The Trinity House of Kingston-upon-Hull is the oldest of the three surviving Trinity Houses, the others being Trinity House of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the Trinity House of Deptford Strond. The last one is the Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, but all three have had various maritime responsibilities over the years. In Hull, this is especially confusing, because the jurisdictions of the Trinity Houses have often overlapped, to the discomfort of both Kingston-upon-Hull and Deptford Strond. At one time, Samuel Pepys has a position of authority in both organisations. Some aids to navigation built by Trinity House (Hull) are now operated by Trinity House (Deptford Strond). If someone in Hull mentions Trinity House, its rarely clear which organisation they mean, and more than once I was left with the impression that the speaker thought the two Trinity Houses were branches of the same organisation. During the heyday of lighthouse construction, both Hull and Liverpool found themselves at odds with Trinity House of Deptford Strond.

As a lighthouse enthusiast, I had to make the pilgrimage out to Spurn Lighthouse. The lighthouse is no longer operational, and the site is now managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a long hike out to the lighthouse from the nearest public parking – the Spurn was breached by the sea a few years ago, and the road out to the lighthouse is no longer open – so I booked a place on the Spurn Safari Unimog. The history of the Spurn Lighthouses (there have been many, including one built by Smeaton himself) is a fascinating intersection of changing technology, politics, and geography. Spurn Head (or just “the Spurn”) is a spit at the northern bank of the Humber estuary – and it’s constantly changing. It’s possible that there’s been as many as four distinct Spurns in the last 1000 years, each new one building up as the previous is breached and destroyed by the sea.

Both Hull and Liverpool have traditions of telecommunications, born out of the ports’ hunger for information.

This is reflected in the fact that in 2017, both cities hosted completely independent art projects with the same title: “I wish to communicate with you”. You see, in the International Code of Signals, the flag for the letter “K” (pronounced “Kilo”), when flown alone, means “I wish to communicate with you”. In Hull, this inspired a full-colour makeover of the Thornton Estate. Back in Liverpool, “I wish to communicate with you” was the title of a project by artist Yu-Chen Wang, as part of the New Observatory Exhibition at FACT, curated by Sam Skinner. Another outcome of Yu-Chen Wang’s project was a short film, shot mostly at Bidston Observatory and Bidston Lighthouse, entitled – wait for it – “I wish to communicate with you” and screened at FACT on 27 September. This was my first and probably last appearance as an actor.

Liverpool and Hull share a more historic connection. In the first half of the 19th century, both cities had optical (semaphore) telegraphs, connecting the port to the coast, and both were built by the same man, Barnard Lindsay Watson.

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the Hull-Spurn telegraph. So I asked almost everyone I met, including historians, archivists and guides, at lighthouses, libraries, museums, and lightships, whether they knew anything about, or even heard about, the Hull-Spurn telegraph. No-one knew anything. Most looked blank. Only one or two thought it rung a bell.

This brings me at last to the main purpose of this post, to set down what little I know about the Hull-Spurn Telegraph.

In an earlier post, I noted that a certain Mr Boaz proposed, way back in 1803, to construct a system of telegraphs linking Liverpool to other major seaports in the United Kingdom, including Hull. Although the Admiralty did establish a line of coastal signal stations in 1804, it wasn’t until much later that commercial telegraphs began to appear, the first of these being Barnard Lindsay Watson’s Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph in 1826.

1839 was a tumultuous year for Watson. January brought the great gale of 1839, which laid waste to much of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph. Watson started to re-build. In the original telegraph, each station had a single tall mast with three pairs of semaphore arms, each of which could signal a digit from 0-9, and an extra indicator on top. The new telegraph had two, shorter masts, each with two pairs of arms, giving an enlarged vocabulary of 10,000 words. Around this time, in an effort to raise funds, Watson announced that only subscribing vessels would be reported by the telegraph.

In March of the same year, the Hull Chamber of Commerce and Shipping commissioned Watson to survey potential sites for a telegraph along the Humber.

The Liverpool Dock Committee didn’t take kindly to all this. This was not the behaviour the Trustees expected of an employee. Watson’s outside interests could no longer be tolerated. Watson had been allowed to sell his propriety flag signals to ship-owners for many years. But when the Dock Committee learned that he’d been secretly collecting intelligence for insurance companies, it was the last straw.

In May 1839, the Liverpool Dock Committee dismissed Watson. The re-construction of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was completed under a new superintendent, Lieutenant William Lord, R.N.

Perhaps relieved to be freed of his obligations to the Liverpool Dock Committee, Watson pressed on with the construction of a new telegraph linking Hull to Spurn Head. The telegraph opened in September 1839.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From "The Old Telegraphs" by Geoffrey Wilson.

Stations in the Hull-Spurn optical telegraph. From “The Old Telegraphs” by Geoffrey Wilson.

The line criss-crossed the Humber estuary, with stations at Hull, Paull, Killingholme, Grimsby with the last (or first station) at “New Sand Light”. So, where or what exactly was “New Sand Light”? It probably wasn’t on the Spurn proper, if Geoffrey Wilson’s sketch in his excellent book “The Old Telegraphs” is to be trusted. My guess is a lightship at the Bull Sands station, which was establised in 1832. Watson himself mentioned “the valuable assistance afforded me by the Corporation of the Trinity House, in granting me permission to place a telegraph on board their floating light off the Humber”.

I don’t know whether anything remains of any of the telegraph stations in the Hull-Spurn line. If

After the opening of the Hull-Spurn line, Watson did go on to build more telegraphs, including:

  • a line linking London to the Kentish downs, terminating at the old Shot Tower near London Bridge. This ran only briefly, from about 1842 to 1843, when the station in London was destroyed by fire.
  • a line linking Southampton to the Isle of Wight (with stations at Southampton, Ashley Down, St Catherines, and the Needles).
  • a line from Dartmouth to Start Point (possibly never completed).

He also established independent (i.e. not part of a telegraph) signals stations at various places around the country, such as Flamborough Head. Very often these stations were located at or near the site of an existing lighthouse.

Watson's Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson’s Telegraph to the Downs, 1842

Watson went bankrupt more than once: in 1831, while a flag manufacturer in Liverpool; and again in 1842, now based in London and Kent.

Following his 1842 bankruptcy, Watson re-launched the General Telegraph Association as a joint stock concern. The fire of 1843 was the last straw. The semaphore tower was not insured, the London smog was an ongoing problem, and new technology – the electric telegraph – posed an emerging threat. Watson left the telegraph business, and set himself up as a hotelier, at the Pulteney Hotel in Bath (now the Holburne Museum) only to go bankrupt again, in 1848. His last gig was as manager of the refreshment rooms at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. He died in Suffolk in 1865, and was buried at St Peter’s, Monks Eleigh.

Only two of Watson’s telegraphs survived the failure of the General Telegraph Association.

The Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was the longest lived.  The Liverpool-Holyhead line continued until 1861, when a new electric telegraph along (approximately) the same route was finally completed. Construction had started in 1858 and the line was partially operational in 1859, but submarine crossings proved problematic – this is why Puffin Island was removed from the circuit.

The Hull-Spurn optical telegraph survived the failure of Watson’s General Telegraph Association,  and continued independently as the General East Coast Telegraph and finally as the Hull and East Coast Marine Telegraph Association.  Just as in Liverpool, it was the advent of the electric telegraph that doomed the optical one. Part of the line (Hull-Grimsby) was relaced by a new electric telegraph in 1857, leaving only the Grimsby-Spurn leg to the semaphore. This was not a satisfactory arrangement, as the electric and semaphore telegraph stations in Grimsby were too far apart. Ultimately, the electric telegraph was extended to Cleethorpes where incoming ships could be observed, and the semaphore stations abandoned altogether. In its adoption of the electric telegraph, Hull was – for once – ahead of Liverpool.

References

Women in the workplace

On International Women’s Day, we remember some of the important women in the history of Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory.

Elizabeth Wilding, Liverpool’s first female Lighthouse Keeper.

When Richard Wilding, keeper of Bidston Lighthouse, died in March 1797 at the ripe old age of 85, the Liverpool Dock Committee needed to appoint a successor. Richard’s widow, Elizabeth Wilding,  35 years his junior, had already been doing a lot of the work, so she was the natural choice but for one problem – she was a woman. Perhaps the Dock Committee were influenced by the fact that Mrs Cormes was doing a good job for the Chester trustees at Point of Ayr Lighthouse at Talacre, following her appointment as Lighthouse Keeper in 1791. Anyway, the Dock Committee did take the bold step of appointing Elizabeth in April 1797, albeit with some unusal conditions attached.

“Elizabeth Wilding Widow of the late Richard Wilding … is hereby appointed Keeper of the Bidston Lighthouse in Cheshire at the clear annual Salary of Fifty Pounds so long as she shall continue to behave herself properly and attentively and employ her Son in Law Captain William Urmson as her Assistant and shall not attempt to employ or use the said Building called the Bidston Lighthouse or any of its Appendages as a Publick House.”

Elizabeth died in service only three years later, and was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson, a former sea captain. She must have done a good job, because in later years the Dock Committee did not hesitate to appoint female keepers at other lighthouses – unlike Trinity House, who never appointed a woman as Principal Keeper in 500 years.

When John Jones was dismissed as keeper of Leasowe Lighthouse “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed as keeper in his place. Leasowe’s last lighthouse keeper was Mary Elizabeth Williams, who served from 1894 to 1908. And at Bidston, we had the Urmson sisters.

The Urmson sisters

William Urmson was assisted by his three daughers Ann, Jane and Catherine. This contemporary account by George Head in 1835 is delightful and illuminating.

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 in the story 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, who attended the light), and Jane (who kept the lookout and called the numbers).

In their turn, Ann and Jane respectively held the offices of lighthouse and telegraph keeper in their own right. But you would glean a very different impression from the census records, which list Ann only as the wife of John Urmson, Lighthouse Keeper and Jane as the wife of Thomas Nichols, Telegraph Keeper. Urmson was both Ann’s maiden and married name; her husband John was a second cousin.

Doodson’s “Computers”

Arthur Doodson, the man behind the mechanical tide predicting machines at Bidston Observatory, exclusively employed young women to operate them. Their job title was “computer” and an essential qualification for the post was good handwriting. These young ladies computed tide tables around the world, including those that were used to plan the D-Day landings.

The ladies in this post-war photograph of the Observatory Staff by the One O’Clock gun are, proceeding clockwise from Valerie Doodson at the front left:
Valerie Doodson née Boyes, Jean Harman née MacFarlane, Dorothy Ainsworth, Eunice Murrell née Heath, Barbara Trueman-Jones, Margaret Lennon née Weston, Sylvia Asquith née Brooks, Margaret Ireland née Wylie, and Olwyn Branscombe.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun.

Mary Connell

For seventy-seven years, Mary Connell was a constant presence on the hill that she loved. She moved into the Lighthouse Cottages in 1937 with her parents Mick and Mary Connell and younger sister Patricia. She worked as a funeral director for many years, and walked her dogs on Bidston Hill twice a day. She fought the combined lawyers of Wirral Borough Council and the Natural Environment Research Council for the right to stay in the Lighthouse Cottages, and against all the odds, she won. She was in her seventies when ill health forced her to retire.

After the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory abandoned Bidston Hill in 2004, Mary was the only person living on the site (until guardians were eventually installed in the Joseph Proudman Building and the Observatory). Her only defenses against the disaffected youths who prowled the site at night were a walking stick, her sharp tongue, and the brambles she allowed to grow around the Lighthouse Cottages. Her sharp tongue was the most formidable of these. We miss her.

Mary Connell, 1934-2014

Related articles

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:

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.