Bidston 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. George Fosbery Lyster was the architect.
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.
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. Mariners sent their chronometers from all over the empire for calibration at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from Bidston Observatory.
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.
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.
The departure of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory from Bidston Hill began a 12-year limbo. NERC’s original plan 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. In 2012, NERC applied for and obtained planning permission and listed buildings consent (now lapsed) to convert the Observatory into four residential apartments. Later that year, the Joseph Proudman Building was demolished. Having put the Observatory to the market on several occasions, NERC finally sold it in 2015 to a developer (Bidston Observatory Developments Limited), who had outbid a community-led consortium. This was the lowest point in the Observatory’s history. A period of systematic neglect saw a rapid deterioration of the fabric of the building and the appearance of the grounds, exacerbated by water ingress, unpaid bills and a winter with no heating, and the Observatory was nominated to the Victorian Society’s list of the top ten endangered buildings of 2016.
Fortunately, the Observatory was sold again in September of 2016. The new owners have announced their intentions to operate the Observatory as a not-for-profit artists’ research centre and to incorporate an exhibition celebrating the Observatory’s scientific heritage.