Tag Archives: Wirral

The Inundation of Leasowe

Robert Stevenson, the Scottish Lighthouse Engineer, first visited the Wirral Lighthouses in 1801, while he was still learning his trade, six years before he started construction on the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Stevenson returned to Wirral in February of 1828 to carry out an investigation of the Cheshire shore, between the Mersey and the Dee, in the company of William Laird (the shipbuilder) and Sir John Tobin (former slaver, privateer and Mayor of Liverpool). Presumably his expertise was enlisted after the sea breached the bank at Leasowe on 16-18 February, and threatened to turn much of Wirral into a “permanent salt lake”. Stevenson promptly presented his findings to the Wernerian Society in Edinburgh on 8th March 1828. His account of these investigations touched upon the submerged forest of Meols, the loss of the original lower sea-light at Leasowe, and the general encroachment of the sea upon the land. Today, we would explain this encroachment in terms of rising sea levels caused by global warming, but terms like “climate change” and “global warming” were not part of Stevenson’s vocabulary.

The construction of a new embankment at Leasowe commenced in 1829.

Here is the full text of Stevenson’s 1828 paper, transcribed from the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.

Remarks upon the Wasting Effect of the Sea on the shore of Cheshire, between the rivers Mersey and Dee

By Robert Stevenson, Esq. Civil-Engineer, F.R.S.E., M.W.S., &c. Communicated by the Author.

On a former occasion, I had the honour to make a few observations, which appeared in the 2nd volume of the Society’s Memoirs, regarding the encroachment of the sea upon the land generally. The present notice refers only to that portion of the coast which lies between the rivers Mersey and Dee, extending to about seven miles. To this quarter my attention, with that of Mr Nimmo, Civil Engineer, had been professionally directed in the course of last month. In our perambulatory survey we were accompanied by Sir John Tobin, and William Laird, Esq. of Liverpool, along the Cheshire shore, and its connecting sand banks, between Wallasea Pool, in the Mersey, and Dalpool, in the river Dee. Within these estuaries, the shores may be described as abrupt, consisting of red clay and marl, containing many land or boulder stones, of the cubic contents of several tons, and very many of much smaller sizes, diminishing to coarse gravel. But the foreland, or northern shore, between these rivers, which I am now to notice, is chiefly low ground, and, to a great extent, is under the level of the highest tides. The beach, or ebb, extends from 300 to 400 yards seaward and, toward low-water-mark, exposes a section of red clay ; but, toward high water, it consists of bluish coloured marl, with peat or moss overlaid by sand. This beach, at about half-tide level, presents a curious and highly interesting spectacle of the remains of a submarine forest. The numerous roots of trees, which have not been washed away by the sea, or carried off by the neighbouring inhabitants for firewood, are in a very decayed state. The trees seem to have been cut off about two feet from the ground after the usual practice in felling timber, and the roots are seen ramifying from their respective stumps, in all directions, and dipping towards the clay subsoil. They seem to have varied in size from 18 inches to perhaps 30 inches in diameter, and, when cut with a knife, appear to be oak. Several of the boles or trunks have also been left upon the ground, and being partly immersed in the sand and clay, are now in such a decomposed state, that, when dug into with a common spade, great numbers of the shell-fish called Pholas candida, measuring about three-fourths of an inch in length, and two inches in breadth, were found apparently in a healthy state. These proofs of the former state of this ebb or shore, now upwards of 20 feet under full tide, having been once dry land to a considerable extent beyond the region of these large forest trees, were rendered still more evident by the occurrence of large masses of greenstone, which, at a former period, had been imbedded in the firm ground here, and especially on the shore within the river Dee. It may farther deserve notice, that the inhabitants of this district have a traditional rhyme, expressive of the former wooded state of this coast, where not a tree is now to be seen, viz. “From Halbre Isle to Birkenhead a squirrel may hop from tree to tree;” that is from the Dee to, the Mersey, now presenting a submarine forest.

As these evidences of great changes upon the state and former appearances of the land were highly interesting to the party, and intimately connected with the professional inquiries of myself and colleague, it seemed desirable to get them, if possible, corroborated by oral testimony. Sir John Tobin accordingly, very obligingly, took measures for examining the oldest people in the neighbourhood, as to their recollection of the former state of these shores. In particular, Thomas Barclay, aged 93 “all but two months”, by profession a mason and measurer of country work; Henry Youd, labourer, aged 86; and John Crooksan, labourer, aged 80, were examined. Barclay stated, that he had been employed at the erection of the Leasowe landward Lighthouse in the year 1764; that there were then two lighthouses near the shore, for a leading direction to shipping through the proper channel to Liverpool ; and that the Sea Light became uninhabitable, from its being surrounded by the sea. A new light was then built upon Bidstone Hill; and the present Leasowe Lighthouse, formerly the landward light, which he had assisted in building, became the sea-light. He could not condescend upon the distance between the two original lights, but was certain that it must have been several hundred yards; that he knows that, in the course of thirty years, the shore of the Leasowe lost, by measurement, eleven Cheshire roods, or 88 yards; and verily believes, that, since he knew this shore, it has lost upwards of half-a-mile of firm ground. To the correctness of these statements, the other two aged men gave ample testimony; Henry Youd having also worked at the Lighthouse.

As to the present state of things, the party alluded to were eye witnesses of the tides, on the 16th, 17th and 18th of February 1828, having exhibited a very alarming example of the encroachments of the sea upon the Leasowe shore. At high-water it came over the bank, and ran in a stream of about half-a-mile in breadth, surrounded the lighthouse, and continued its course through the low grounds toward Wallasea Pool, on the Mersey, thereby forming a new channel, and threatening to lay several thousands of acres of rich arable and pasture lands into the state of a permanent salt lake. The present Leasowe Lighthouse, which, in 1764, was considered far above the reach of the sea, upon the 17th of February last was thus surrounded by salt water, and must soon be abandoned unless some very extensive works be undertaken for the defence of the beach, the whole of the interior lands of the Leasowe being considerably under the level of high-water of spring-tides.

This coast, with its sand banks in the offing; its submarine forest, and the evidence of living witnesses as to the encroachment of the sea upon the firm ground, is altogether highly interesting to the geological and scientific enquirer. The remains of forests in the bed of the ocean occur in several parts of the British coast; particularly off Lincoln; on the banks of the Tay, near Flisk; at Skiel, in the Mainland of Orkney, and in other places, noticed in the Transactions of this Society, and are strong proofs of the encroachment of the sea upon the land. However difficult, therefore, it may be to reconcile the varied appearances in nature, regarding the sea having at one time occupied a higher level than at present, yet its encroachment as a general, and almost universal principle, seems to be beyond doubt in the present day. Since I had last the honour of addressing the Society on this subject, opportunities have been afforded me of making many additional observations on the British shores; and of personally extending these to almost every port on the Continent, between the Texel and the Garonne. I have also through the obliging communications of friends, been enabled to extend my inquiries to other quarters of the globe; and I am now prepared to state, that, with a few comparatively trifling exceptions, the sea appears to be universally gaining upon the land, tending to confirm the theory, That debris, arising from the general degradation of the land, being deposited in the bed of the minor seas, is the cause of their present tendency to overflow their banks.

Former Joseph Proudman Laboratory for sale

The site of the former “Joseph Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory” is for sale. The land – where the Joseph Proudman Building stood for a little while – is being marketed as a “development opportunity”.

If you are thinking about making a bid, read this first. It will help with your “due diligence”.

The vendor, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is only in a position to offer the leasehold. The freehold is retained by Wirral Council, who can veto a transfer of the lease. To do anything with the land, the purchaser will have to re-negotiate the lease or acquire the freehold.

The next few days will be critical for the future of Bidston Lighthouse, Bidston Observatory and Bidston Hill. It could go two ways.

In one possible future, the land is used for the amenity of visitors to Bidston Lighthouse, Observatory and Hill. Open-air events are held on the site. Bidston Observatory is re-invented as an artistic research centre, incorporating a permanent exhibition about its scientific heritage. Bidston Lighthouse becomes self-sustaining as a place to visit. This is the future we dream about. We have, of course, made our own bid to acquire the land for this very purpose.

In the other possible future,  a developer or property speculator succeeds in acquiring the land. A long, drawn-out battle with local pressure groups, including ourselves, ensues. The developer might eventually obtain planning permission and listed buildings consent for some kind of development on the site. Let’s say its a residential development (which would also require change-of-use). Wilding Way would probably need to be widened, creating a danger to wildlife and dog-walkers, who stop using the northern end of Bidston Hill. You can see where this leads: Bidston Hill is sacrificed to meet the government’s targets for new housing. The prospect of public-facing, sustainable uses for the Lighthouse and Observatory is compromised. Maybe the Lighthouse and Observatory struggle on, or maybe they don’t.

Of course, the developer might ultimately lose the battle for planning permission. Maybe they sit on the land for a few years, letting it go to seed. Fly-tippers take advantage. No-one visits the Lighthouse or Observatory. Everyone is out of pocket (except the lawyers). Everyone suffers.

More about the Proudman land

The land was once the kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse. Its official postal address is 4 Lighthouse Cottages, CH43 7RA. An oceanographic research facility, latterly called the Joseph Proudman Building, stood on the site from the 1970s until its demolition in 2013.

Since the Joseph Proudman Building was demolished, the land has been used from time to time by picknickers, dog-walkers and mountain bike enthusiasts, as an exercise ground by local schools and fitness fanatics, not to mention fly-tippers. Hedgehogs, foxes, owls, kestrels, woodpeckers and other wildlife have been seen on the site.

Photograph of the Joseph Proudman Building, during its demolition

Demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building, 2013

The land is enclosed on two sides by a sandstone wall. The wall is a grade-II listed building in its own right, and the land is within its curtilage. The same wall encloses Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Observatory, which are also grade-II listed. All three listed buildings were designed by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Every stone on the site was locally quarried, and every stone is exactly where Lyster placed it a century-and-a-half ago. There is no conceivable development that would not diminish the group value of the site.

The land was originally part of the title of Bidston Lighthouse when the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board sold the Lighthouse to the Birkenhead Corporation in 1935. At the time, the minutes of the Corporation said: “By this purchase the land would be available for all future generations for recreational purposes”. This intention was reflected both in the price – a modest £1000 – and in a restrictive covenant prohibiting new buildings. This covenant still attaches to the freehold title of the land in question, but it is not mentioned in the leasehold title. The covenant has not been tested in the courts – yet.

The drains of Bidston Lighthouse and Cottages run beneath the Proudman land. The route of these drains is not known by Unitied Utilities.

The western boundary of the land is disputed. The owners of Bidston Lighthouse claim an easement over the land in order to access their outbuilding, originally a coal-store and toilet block, and later a hazardous waste store.

The single-track access road, Wilding Way, is owned by Wirral Council, but it is not adopted. It is not a public highway. It doubles as a public footpath for most of its length. It is crossed by dog-walkers, horse-riders and wildlife.

The land comes with no rights over that part of the access road that extends beyond its western boundary. So without the willing co-operation of the Lighthouse and Observatory, the developer’s vehicles would have to turn within the boundaries of the land being developed.

 

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 Observatory – buyers beware

Bidston Observatory – that iconic symbol of Liverpool’s scientific, industrial, and maritime heritage – should be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Instead,  it is threatened yet again by unsympathetic, inappropriate development.

Bidston Observatory was built on the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse in 1866 by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The same man re-built the lighthouse a few years later, and renewed the perimeter wall enclosing the site. The site today looks much as Lyster planned it, wanting only a little loving care to remedy a few years of neglect. But there is a real and present danger.

Bidston Observatory is back on the market again, as the Wirral Globe, Liverpool Echo and the Media Penguin have noticed.

Now that the news has broken, it is time for us at Bidston Lighthouse to explain our position, and do what we can to disabuse potential developers of the notion that a residential development at Bidston Observatory would be welcome.

Our position

We are committed to preserving Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station, and operating the Lighthouse tower as an educational resource and visitor attraction. We see ourselves as temporary custodians of the building, with a duty to preserve the possibility of a future reversion to public ownership or at least a use sympathetic to its heritage with a significant public-facing component. We still hope that a sympathetic owner with compatible intentions can be found for the Observatory.

A residential development on car park of Bidston Observatory could force us to abandon our ambitions for the world’s most inland lighthouse. It is hard to see how we could continue to open the Lighthouse to the public if that were to happen. We would, of course, oppose any proposal for such a development with all the resources at our disposal.

We will happily support proposals for future use of the Observatory that are sympathetic to its heritage, sustainable and allow some form of public access.

We would support a proposal to convert the Observatory into a dedicated museum and visitor centre. We just don’t think it likely in these uncertain times. We would not look kindly on any alterations or subdivisions (such as conversion to flats) that would permanently preclude such a possibility.

We are aware of one proposal from a potential buyer that meets all our criteria: to operate the Observatory as an artists’ retreat, incorporating a museum and exhibition space that will be accessible to the general public. We would be delighted to see the Observatory used in this way.

Not an exciting development opportunity

The advertisement on the auctioneer’s website describes the property as “an exciting development opportunity” with potential for eight new dwellings in the Observatory grounds. It is probable that such a proposal would also require listed buildings consent, as these dwellings are within the curtilage not only of the Grade-II listed Observatory, but also the Grade-II listed perimeter wall that encloses the site.

No such plans have actually been submitted to Wirral Borough Council. This is not suprising, for such a proposal would outrage the local community. Only a developer totally lacking in fear and social conscience would start that battle.

The same advertisement also mentions an “expired planning consent for 4 mansion apartments app ref APP/12/00536, likely to be granted again”. The advertisement does not mention that the change of use was linked to a Listed Buildings Consent (LBC/12/00537), which was granted subject to an extensive list of conditions. Neither the current owner nor the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who obtained the consent made a meaningful start on the works within three years.  So the listed buildings consent lapsed three years later on 5 July 2015, and the permission to change the use to residential expired with it.

It is not at all clear that this application would be approved on re-submission. In 2012, the community consultation exercise resulted both in letters of objection and letters of support. We have reason to believe that those who expressed support in 2012 have since reversed their position, and would likely be opposed to a fresh application to convert the Observatory to residential apartments.

Caveat Emptor

Any developer who is still considering making a bid for Bidston Observatory should also be aware of the following.

The Observatory and the site of the former Braehead Cottage were sold to Bidston Observatory Developments Limited (company number 09109510) for the stated price of £270,000 on 15 April 2015 (the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and the sinking of the Titanic). The two titles were amalgamated into title number MS621814. At the time of the sale, the directors and shareholders of Bidston Observatory Developments Limited were Craig Malcolm William Blackwell and  Jason Woltman. Craig Blackwell was the company secretary. On 16 June, 2015, Blackwell and Woltman ceased being directors and shareholders of the company, and Antwon Bonnick became the sole director and shareholder. On 5 August 2015, Cheryl Bernadette Galvin became a director of and the majority shareholder in the company. Company accounts made up to 31 July 2015 were due on 1 April 2016. On 28 July 2016, they were still overdue.

The Observatory is currently occupied by “guardians” who pay rent to Camelot. According to an advertisement on the Camelot website (retrieved 24 Jun 2016), rooms are available from £60 per week, and the amenities include two shared kitchens. Nine guardians live in the building, a further two rooms being uninhabitable because of water damage, which is believed to have occurred after Bidston Observatory Developments Limited took possession of the Observatory.

It is rumoured that internal alterations have been made to the building that should have required Listed Buildings Consent, including the installation of a new kitchen and shower cubicle.

The entire building is rated as a single band B for council tax purposes. This is anomalously low for a building of such size, and reflects the internal condition of the building. It is also anomalous that a building whose last lawful use was as offices should be subject to council tax instead of business rates.

The Observatory is approached by Wilding Way, which although owned by Wirral Council, is not adopted. Wilding Way is only wide enough to take a single vehicle. It is regularly crossed by dog walkers, horse riders and wildlife. To widen the road would compromise the amenity of visitors to Bidston Hill Recreation Ground and the wildlife that inhabit it.

Wirral History and Heritage Fair

Birkenhead Town Hall

Birkenhead Town Hall

Once again the annual Wirral History and Heritage Fair will take place in the impressive Grade II* listed Birkenhead Town Hall, on Saturday, March 7th, 10.00 am – 4.00 pm. Over 50 stalls and displays will showcase local history and heritage groups – books, memorabilia and postcards will be on sale. Hot and cold refreshments will be available for purchase – catering by Demspey’s. Something for all the family. Everyone welcome. Admission Free.

For details see www.wirralhistoryandheritage.org.uk

Bidston Observatory – Heritage for Sale

Bidston Observatory is up for sale, again. Here is the listing on RightMove: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-28459380.html

Prospective buyers have only until 30th November to make their “best and final offer”. This seems a little rushed, given that the advert appeared in Wirral News only last week.

I hope the new owners appreciate what an important piece of Merseyside heritage they are taking on.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

The Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.  John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr  died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.

Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Marine chronometers from all over the empire were calibrated at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from the Observatory by electric cable.

Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.

In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.

In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.

In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre. NERC’s plans to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted.

Bidston Observatory has featured on TV on several occasions, including episodes of Coast (Series 7, Episode 5: “The Riddle of the Tides”), Inside Out, and Where’s Fred. Joyce Scoffield, who used to work in the Observatory, has written a book about it: “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, 2006 (available on Amazon). J. Eric Jones wrote “From Astrononomy to Oceanography – A brief history of Bidston Observatory”, which you can download from the NOC web site.

View from Observatory roof, March 2013

View from Observatory roof, March 2013.

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.

 

Fog horns

I’d love to hear the “Foghorn reqiuem” at Souter Lighthouse tomorrow.

Did you know that foghorns owe a lot to Wirral? Modern foghorns rely on the diaphone, which was invented by Robert Hope-Jones. Robert Hope-Jones was born in Hooton, Wirral, in 1859. He was apprenticed at Laird’s shipbuilders in Birkenhead, then set himself up in business making electric organs.

More about the Foghorn Requiem.