Sylvia Asquith at Bidston Observatory

This is the text of a speech given by Sylvia Asquith on 27th September 2017 at the Foundation of Art and Creative Technology (FACT) during the New Observatory Exhibition. Sylvia’s speech was followed by the screening of a short film by Yu-Chen Wang entitled “I wish to communicate with you”.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

My name is Sylvia Asquith and I joined the Bidston Observatory staff in February 1947 as Sylvia Brooks. It was a long time ago but I well remember those early days.

I was employed as a junior member of staff comprising six women and two men – Dr Doodson and Dr Corkan. As well as learning to be a meteorological observer I was introduced to two ammazing tide predicting machines! These were kept running continuously from 9 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. (4.30 to 6.30 being overtime) at 2 shillings and 6 pence per hour which is 12½ pence per hour in current money, except that we do not even have ½pence any more. The minimum wage obviously did not exist in those days!

During the wartime years the male members of staff were enlisted in the armed forces while the women gallantly went on with the work which was so vital at that time. They also did fire-watching on the roof and could tackle incendiary bombs very efficiently.

The Roberts-Légé machine was moved to a purpose-built underground room in the grounds and kept running from there as protection in case the Observatory was bombed. The Kelvin machine was already kept in a cellar. There were incidents of bombs falling on the roof and on the hill generally and on one occasion a landmine landed near the building causing windows to be blown out but without causing significant damage.

After the war Dr Rossiter and two female staff were demobbed and returned to their duties at the Observatory.

After joining in 1947, I received instruction on running a tidal machine, stopping at the correct moment and reading off the time showing at the zero point, and noting down high and low waters in succession. Times done first and the high and low to correspond. Also, you need to check the data when taking over from someone else in case they had got it a day out. All the wheels and pulleys are connected by a fine gold wire and represent forces of the moon and sun on the tide. As the biggest influence on the tide is the moon, that is represented by the largest wheel, “M2”, which has the largest amplitude on it. The names denote George Darwin, a relation of Charles, who was first to devise the method of harmonic analysis. The “M” and the letters nearest to it alphabetically refer to the Moon and similarly “S” to the Sun. The “2” means twice, etc.

The machines were stripped down and cleaned regularly by the three Doctors. However, one day they were away on business in London and the belt snapped! Someone remembered that bootlaces sewn together and carefully measured would be a good standby, so a staff member rushed to the shops and came back with laces and with a sewing machine supplied by Mrs Doodson from the house, and a new belt was made. Fitting was a bit tricky but we managed and the work was able to continue. The returning staff were most impressed by the ingenuity of their colleagues.

Returning to the process… The predictions came off the machine and the sequences were differenced and the differences smoothed by a senior staff member. The smoothed predictions were then typed up for publication in the Admiralty Tide Tables and photograph copies made of the originals. Yes, we even had a photographic studio and print room on site. We always tried to work two years in advance to allow for the checking and printing of predictions.

For all tidal predictions a tidal analysis is required using twelve months of actual height values and following the completion of this any year can be put onto the machine going as far back or as far forward as desired. That means that, provided we know the exact date in history for an event, we could identify the tidal conditions existing at that time.

Bidston was also a Met Office recording station and I was put in charge of the observers. I’m proud to say that we received two awards for our Met returns to London, indicating the very high standards, consistency and quality of our recording and reporting.

The one o’clock gun was a feature of the Observatory dating back to Victorian times giving an absolute and accurate timing to enable chronometers for shipping and people and businesses across Merseyside to set their own timepieces by. This was resumed in 1946 and fired electronically every day from Bidston to the gun at Morpeth Dock. Eventually this finished on July 18th 1969 and I had the pleasure of being the last person to fire the gun.

I returned part time in 1967 after ten years working from home – not so much of a modern concept as you may have thought – and continued as a Scientific Officer until retirement in 1990. Yes, I saw many changes in my 43 years association with Bidston, from a staff of 8 to a staff of 80 housed in two buildings. Today computerisation means that predictions now take microseconds where at the start using these machines they took about three days per port, but we are talking pre-computer times and these machines represented the height of technology in their own era and as such deserve their place in history.

I hope that I have given you a flavour of the history and use of these machines and the fantastic team that I worked with to operate them.

We should always remember that the outputs from these machines were used by individuals and organisations across the world who depended totally on their accuracy to help ensure safey at sea and around coastlines.

Thank you for listening and I hope that you enjoy the film.

My early life at Bidston Observatory

Joyce Scoffield

Originally, from 1955, I worked in the Met Office at Speke Airport (later to be called Liverpool Airport and subsequently John Lennon Airport). I very much enjoyed being a weather observer – sending observations up to the control tower to be passed on to aircraft, but the job involved shift work, which included regular night duties. This was fine till I got married in 1961. At that stage, I became less enthusiastic about shift work and about the amount of travelling involved between Greasby and the airport: bus – ferry – bus – at least an hour each way. I didn’t drive in those days.

So I decided to look for another job. Bidston Observatory came to mind. It was much nearer home and I knew they had a weather station there. So I wrote to the Director asking him if there were any job vacancies. He – Dr. Rossiter – invited me to go for interview and duly offered me a job! It was as easy as that in 1961. Nowadays, with high competition for every post, people can’t believe that it could ever be that easy.

I was a very basic assistant at Bidston – one of 10 girls who were classed as ‘computers’. We operated tidal prediction machines – large machines consisting of gears, weights and pulleys which could be set to represent the contributions of sun, moon, location, etc. to the tides of a port. You can read all about these machines in other articles on this site.

The scientific programs which turned these numbers into tidal predictions were written by the scientists – them upstairs! – it was all way beyond our understanding. We just operated the machines by foot pedals and a hand wheel and wrote down the answers – the more senior girls scanned our numbers looking for obvious errors. When plotted on a graph, the figures would form a smooth curve representing the pattern of the tide on consecutive days at the port concerned. Once the figures had been accepted as correct, we had to write them down on prepared forms – using pen and ink – no biros allowed – neat handwriting was essential for the job! There was a darkroom in the basement where our carefully written-out tables were photographed before being sent to the port authority concerned. This was a typically old-fashioned dark room with trays of chemical developers, subdued red lights, etc. In those days we did tidal predictions for many parts of the Commonwealth.

Another of the girls’ duties was to maintain a daily weather diary. At 9 am each day – Saturdays, Sundays and Christmas Day included – the duty observer would take readings from the thermometers in the Stevenson’s Met. Screen sited on the Observatory lawn, change the temperature and humidity charts on the analogue instruments also sited in the met screen and change the chart in the tipping bucket rain gauge, as well as measuring any rainfall recorded in the rain bottle. The observer would then go up to the roof to change the daily sunshine card in the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder. The sun’s rays were concentrated through a solid glass ball to produce a burn on the specially-treated card. In the summer, this recorder was located on the roof of the ‘Dines cabin’ – the climb up the ladder to this site could be rather precarious on a windy day. In winter, the sunshine recorder was moved to the outside of one of the domes accessed from inside the dome by a small door (again up steps) facing due south. Because the sun is a lot lower in the sky in winter, and needing a smaller range of exposure, this was obviously safer for the staff than the outside summer climb.

Inside the ‘Dines cabin’ was the Dines anemometer recording wind speed and direction on an analogue chart. There again the observer changed the chart on the instrument’s cylinder. The final job was to note the visibility from all sides of the roof. On fine days, we had a great view over Liverpool with the Pennines in the distance. To the north, we could see Blackpool and occasionally Black Coombe in Southern Scotland. To the west, we could see the Great Orme and the Snowdonia range.

Taking the retrieved charts and the sunshine card, the observer returned to the office and calculated three hour readings for the past 24 hours and entered them into the weather diary. These diaries were beautifully produced for us by a company in Liverpool and, I believe, they are now housed in the Wirral Libraries Archive in the Cheshire Lines Building in Birkenhead.

Photo of the One O'Clock Gun, still sited in Birkenhead
The One O’clock Gun is still sited in Birkenhead

Another job for the duty observer was to fire the one o’clock gun at precisely 1 pm Mondays to Fridays. This was a tradition dating back to the building of the Observatory in 1866, when accurate time was not available to the business people of Liverpool. A very accurate clock in the Observatory was connected by landline to a gun sited at Morpeth Dock, on the Birkenhead side of the Mersey. When the observer flicked a switch at Bidston the gunfire was heard in Liverpool (the gun having first been duly primed by a docker at Morpeth). The practice was discontinued at Bidston in 1969, but still continues at observatories in other parts of the world.

The girls had little association with the scientists who were mostly men. At coffee time – strictly 1045-1100 am (we daren’t overstay our time limit) – the men stood round the marble fireplace in the old dining room and the girls sat at the tables. There was little communication between the two groups. Incidentally, the girls prepared the coffee on a rota bases – strictly 50% warm milk – heated in a pan and 50% water. When the coffee was ready, spot on 1045 am, we pressed a buzzer – I think it was 2 buzzes for coffee break – to summon the staff from upstairs.

At lunch time, on a fine day, the menfolk would often take a brisk walk over Bidston Hill usually talking shop. The girls tended to sit on the observatory front door step eating their sandwiches.

It was quite a hierarchical situation at the observatory in those days – a total staff of only about 18 people – a sort of strict family atmosphere – and always quiet. I enjoyed working there.

When I was expecting my first baby in 1964, people seemed quite relieved. It was several years since anyone had become a mum and they had thought there was a hoodoo on the place! Dr. Rossiter was very solicitous towards me when I became pregnant – he insisted on my desk being moved downstairs to save me having to climb anywhere or do anything at all strenuous. There was no thought of my returning to work after having the baby. Mums did not return to work in those days! In the event, I did return to Bidston part time when my younger son was nine years old and attitudes towards working mums were starting to ease.

More stories of life at Bidston Observatory at this time can be found in my book “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People” (Countryvise Ltd. 2006. ISBN: 978190121687).