Directing Bidston

Graham Alcock, 21 October 2016

I joined Bidston in 1972 and took early retirement in 2000, having survived five name changes (Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides, Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, Centre for Coastal and Marine Science and back to the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory). Here are anecdotes about some of the Directors during that time.

I only met ICOT’s Director, Jack Rossiter, when he was chair of my interview panel in May 1972, because unfortunately he died before I was appointed. The subsequent ICOT Acting Director, Geoff Lennon, had a turn of phrase – “it occurs to me” – and that was used in my letter of appointment, suggesting that I might like to join a scientific cruise in September 1972, pre-dating my actual appointment date of 1 October. What Geoff omitted to say was that the cruise was on the RRS John Murray, an ex-fishing trawler rumoured to have been bought by NERC for £1, which had such a nasty rolling motion in anything higher than a Force 2 breeze that it was always difficult to encourage Bidston staff to go on it. That was my introduction to “wet” oceanography – subsequently I always preferred the “dry” oceanography remotely carried out by land-based radar and space-borne satellites.

The first of the frequent reorganisations of NERC’s marine science occurred in 1973, when Bidston became part of IOS, together with what had been the National Institute of Oceanography at Wormley and the Unit of Coastal Sedimentation at Taunton. Scientific rationalisation brought the Tides staff at Wormley to Bidston and David Cartwright was appointed as IOS Assistant Director.

David was a world-class researcher and an elected Fellow of the Royal Society; but as he said on his interview for The British Library’s “Voices of Science”, he “wasn’t temperamentally suited to getting too much involved with administration”. I remember attending an IOS meeting at Wormley to allocate funding for the year (in my capacity as responsible for contracted and commissioned research at Bidston), when David left early to catch his train back to Birkenhead before Bidston finances had been fully discussed and agreed. James Crease said: “I suppose we had better allocate some funds to Bidston”.

I worked on a number of projects for David and although he was the senior author of our joint papers he used the format of listing the authors in alphabetical order. For the George Deacon 70th Birthday commemorative volume of “Deep Sea Research”, we wrote a paper on our analysis and interpretation of telephone cable voltages across the English Channel to provide information on the ocean current flow. The DSR Editor knew of David but not me, and on his assumption that the first named author was the senior author, his acceptance letter (no emails then) to us was addressed to Professor Alcock; much to our amusement.

Another project that I worked on with David was the analysis of data from SEASAT – the first satellite dedicated to oceanography. In the 1970s, our visit to Venice for a SEASAT Workshop enabled David to indulge in two of his passions: railways (Liverpool – London – Calais – Venice is some train ride) and wine (his wife was French). A very good bottle consumed by us on the return rail journey was paid for using a pile of Italian Lire left over when we had discovered that our Hotel accommodation had been paid by the Workshop organisers.

After our successful campaign in the late 1980s against Bidston’s closure and transfer to Wormley, Bidston became autonomous and was renamed the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory. (The IOS Taunton site was closed and staff transferred to Bidston or Wormley.) Brian McCartney was appointed POL Director and, in my opinion, the next eight years were Bidston’s halcyon days: we reported directly to NERC HQ, without an intervening level of bureaucracy of IOS or later CCMS or NOC.

Brian always let Group and Project leaders have a full say at the Management Committee; especially at the annual allocation meeting (consequently it sometimes went on for two days); so I felt that if you inevitably didn’t get all the money or equipment that you had bid for, you still accepted his final decisions because you had had a fair hearing. Brian was also careful to include all “Prime-movers” (the researchers) in the vision and major decisions that directed our strategy. In those ways, I believe that he made sure that all staff felt that they had had some input in formulating the strategy that POL took under his Directorship, with ensuing collective responsibility and underpinning the Bidston “family” atmosphere that John Huthnance mentions in his article.

Brian had been Head of the Engineering Group at Wormley, so it was not surprising that technology development at Bidston thrived during his Directorship. Bidston became one of the few European laboratories with the capability of developing and deploying oceanographic instruments in the coastal zone, shallow or deep water. Together with our expertise in the analysis and interpretation of the data and the world-class hind-casting and fore-casting modelling expertise developed under Norman Heaps’ leadership, Bidston’s scientists and engineers were in great demand for European Community/Union oceanography projects. Not bad for an organisation later accused of scientific isolation because it was on a hill five miles away from Liverpool University.

Under Brian’s leadership, POL became the host laboratory for the North Sea Project, the first large “Community Research Project”, involving many other research institutes and university research departments. We developed a strategy of funding all our Laboratory Science and Technology Projects from a triple combination of Commissioned Research (mainly from the DoE, MAFF and MoD), EC/EU Programmes and the NERC Science Budget; giving us some financial stability.

Happy days!

With the movement of IOS Wormley to Southampton University in the 1990s, NERC carried out yet another reorganisation of its marine science, lumping its remaining oceanographic laboratories at Bidston, Oban and Plymouth, into a “Centre” for Coastal and Marine Science. Jackie McGlade was appointed to what I always considered was a poisoned chalice of a job as the CCMS Director. (CCMS was disbanded in 2000, the then NERC Chief Executive admitting that the CCMS experiment had failed.) Jackie faced a fair degree of hostility from some senior staff, particularly at Plymouth where her office was situated, as staff at the three previously autonomous laboratories tried to work out what exactly was the purpose of the “Centre”.

I worked closely with Jackie on aspects of commissioned research and scientific applications across CCMS and got on well with her. She tended to be quite open about what she felt (perhaps that’s what some senior CCMS staff didn’t like) and because of this I was probably the first Bidston staff member to find out about the proposed closure of Bidston and transfer to Liverpool; a decision that had been taken by the then Bidston Director, without, as far as I know, any consultation with Bidston staff (the Management Committee had been an early casualty of his appointment.) Jackie and I were travelling on the London Underground, back from a meeting with an Intellectual Property lawyer, when Jackie asked me what I thought about the plan to close Bidston and move everyone to Liverpool University. I was non-committal.

Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, had been a main factor in NERC’s decision not to close Bidston in the 1980’s and I informed him of the decision. I was summoned to the Bidston Director’s office and told, in no uncertain terms, that he was the Director and made the decisions, which I had to obey as a member of his staff without discussion. I demurred. I took early retirement in 2000, having thoroughly enjoyed most of the time at Bidston and working for most of the Directors.

(The British Libraries’ “Voices of Science” is at As well as David Cartwright, other oceanographers interviewed are James Cease, Anthony Laughton, John Woods and Philip Woodworth.)

A brief history of Bidston Observatory

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.

George Fosbery Lyster
George Fosbery Lyster

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.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907
Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

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.

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

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.




Hartnup moves in

This article appeared in the Liverpool Mercury on 20th December 1866, two days before Liverpool’s astronomer, John Hartnup, took possession of Liverpool’s shiny new observatory on Bidston Hill. It makes fascinating reading 150 years later.

The New Liverpool Observatory

Bidston-hill has hitherto been chiefly noted for its picnic parties, and for entertainments in which ham and eggs were the principal ingredients. It will now acquire a wider celebrity as the site of one of the most complete observatories at present in existence – one which is certain to make the Dock Board spoken of with respect by men of science, and to render Mr. Hartnup’s position, as astronomer of Liverpool, an object of something like envy to his professional brethren. For the interests both of the port and of science, it was certainly a good thing that the space which the old observatory has occupied during the last 22 years, on the Prince’s Pierhead, was required for docks. Close to the river on one side, and the murkiest part of the town on the other, Mr. Hartnup was often in a fog, not by any means intellectually, but materially, and still more frequently had his nicest observations interfered with by the smoky canopy which overhung his post of observation. Obliged to cast about for a new site, the dock board selected Bidston-hill as the most eligible situation to be found in the neighbourhood for an observatory. The design and erection of the building were left to Mr. Lyster, the dock engineer, and he and his staff have produced a work of which they have no reason to be ashamed. Commenced in 1864, it has been gradually growing up by the side of the old lighthouse, which formerly was the sole occupant of the height, and now with its two domes and picturesque outline, stands out as a prominent feature in the landscape. The transfer of instruments from the old observatory has been for some time in progress, and at the beginning of next year Mr. Hartnup will probably be able to resume his labours – made still more important by this change – under conditions more favourable than he has yet enjoyed.

Externally, the new observatory has a bold and massive appearance, which accords with the position in which it is placed. A building perched alone at the summit of a hill is in danger of looking insignificant from one or other points of view, but Mr. Lyster has so well arranged the different fronts that from all aspects an effective grouping is presented. Two domes, springing from octagonal towers at the east and west extremities of the south front, are prominent features of the building. Beneath one is the “equatorial”, for making astronomical observations, and beneath the other an instrument called the transit. The domes enclosing these instruments have apertures at several points, and are made to revolve, so that observations can be taken in any part of the heavens. The substantial character of the whole building strikes the observer at once. It is founded upon a rock, and if the waves as well as the winds could come to Bidston-hill, Mr. Hartnup’s castle would not be likely to fall. Strength and solidity are characteristics of Dock Board work, but there are special reasons for making an observatory, from foundation to summit, firm and secure as builders’ skill can contrive. Some of the operations carried on are so delicate that the variation of almost a hair’s breadth would seriously affect the results, and hence the utmost precautions have been taken to avoid the vibration to which all but the most substantial buildings are liable. A deep foundation excavated out of the solid rock and thick stone walls to form the superstructure were not considered sufficient to secure perfect immovability, and to prevent all possibility of vibration from anything short of an earthquake the building has been insulated from the surrounding rock to the depth of 12 or 14 feet by a trench about 18 inches wide. Even this has not been deemed a sufficently stable basis for the transit. That instrument is located immediately beneath the dome at the south-east angle of the building. It is used for taking the time, fixing the latitude, and determining the declination of the stars. These operations require the utmost accuracy of observation, and consequently the most perfect steadiness of position. To support the instrument a huge pillar, nine feet in diameter, has been carried up from the solid rock to the floor immediately beneath the dome, and this pillar, though passing through several floors, and apparently in contact with them, actually touches the building at no part. In other respects, the thorough adaptability of the building to the purpose for which it is intended has been studied. In many of the processes uniformity of temperature is very necessary, and towards securing this lofty cellars have been excavated in the basement, where an efficient heating apparatus, communicating with all the apartments in the building, is situated. The other internal arrangements are in a corresponding style of completeness. There is a fine chronometer room 36 feet long by 21 feet abroad; an anemometer room and a library, each 18 feet by 21 feet; a computation room; and, in short, every provision for carrying on efficiently the work belonging to an observatory. The northern portion of the building forms the private residence of Mr. Hartnup, and in reference to the arrangements of which it need only be said that the comfort and convenience of its occupant have been consulted in every particular.

There are a good many people in Liverpool, we dare say, who have a very shadowy notion of the objects of an observatory, and the labours which Mr. Hartnup has to perform. Quoting from his last report, we will let the astronomer tell in his own words what are the merely routine duties of the observatory :-

Observations are regularly taken with the transit instrument, for the purpose of ascertaining the local time. From the local time so obtained, the Greenwich mean time is deduced and communicated to the port daily by the dropping of the time-balls at the Observatory and at the Victoria Tower. The clocks at the Victoria Tower and Town Hall, and also the seconds clock seen from the Exchange flags, are controlled from the Observatory. The other public clocks on the dock estate are regulated twice each week, and a record is preserved showing their errors at the time they were regulated. The velocity and direction of the wind, and the fall of rain, as derived from the self-registering anemometer and rain-gauge, are tabulated for each hour of the day, and hourly readings are taken from the tracing produced by the self-registering barometer. The results thus obtained are tabulated, and the mean reading at each hour of the day is taken at the end of every month. The ordinary meteorological observations obtained by means of the standard barometer, thermometers, hygrometers, &c., are taken at eight and nine a.m., and at one, three, and nine p.m. daily. A telegram containing the corrected readings of the barometer, wet and dry thermometers, strength and direction of the wind, and general state of the weather for the proceeding 24 hours, is forwarded daily at eight a.m. to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade. Weekly meteorological observations are forwarded to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and to the medical officers of health for Liverpool and Birkenhead. Monthly and weekly meteorological observations are forwarded to the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages; and a tracing of the record produced by the self-registering barometer, together with an account of the hourly strength of the wind, &c., are supplied daily to the Liverpool Underwriters’ Association.

The value of the observatory in keeping an exact record of time is shown by the fact that in Liverpool there are, on an average, upwards of 2000 chronometers dependent on the time disseminated from the observatory for their errors on Greenwich mean time, and of their daily rates obtained while the ships to which they belong remain in port. Now that the observatory has been removed to Bidston, it is possible that the time-balls will give place to a time-gun, which is found to possess several advantages over the ball. With regard to meteorological observations, their importance is every year becoming more largely recognised, and during the last 20 years Mr. Hartnup has contributed not a little to the advance which this department of science has made by his carefully compiled tables of results.

In a more direct and immediate manner, the observatory at Bidston will be of immeasurable value to Liverpool by reason of the facilities it affords for testing nautical instruments. The seaman is chiefly dependent for a knowledge of his chronomoter, compass, sextant, &c. Errors in these have, times out of number, led to the destruction of noble ships, and the loss of many lives and the importance of efficiently testing nautical instruments has long been present to the mind of the astronomer. At the old observatory, chronometers only could be tested. Its nearness to the docks, the possible proximity of iron ships, and other disturbing influences, rendered the testing of compasses out of the question. At Bidston, all these difficulties will be removed, and it is proposed to erect a wooden house specially for the testing of compasses. If this be done, it is to be hoped nautical men will take advantage of the opportunity afforded them of ascertaining that their compasses act properly. It will also be possible at Bidston to test sextants; and if arrangements are made for that purpose, the Liverpool Observatory will be, with the single exception of Kew, the only place in the kingdom at which these instruments are tested. The practical advantage of subjecting instruments to a systematic test has already been exemplified in the case of chronometers. It is often that three or four voyages elapse before a captain ascertains the exact rate of his chronometer, whereas the testing process at the observatory puts him in possession of the information at once. This is the mode of testing chronometers –

All chronometers received at the Observatory are compared daily with the normal clock, which is kept as nearly as possible to Greenwich mean time. From subsequent astronomical observations, the daily errors of this clock, at the times of its comparison with the chronometer, are deduced, and the correction for each day, thus obtained, is applied to the daily comparisons of all the chronometers. In this way the error of each timekeeper is found daily, with as much accuracy as it is well possible to attain. The temperature in a glazed chamber is kept, by artifical means, between 50′ and 85′, and changed weekly 10′ or 15′, in order to show the change of rate that may be expected on going from a temperate to a tropical climate. The record supplied to the captain or owner of each chronometer, contains its error on Greenwich mean time for each of the first few days; and subsequently it is given at the end of each week, together with the mean daily rate, the temperature to which the instrument has been exposed, and the greatest variation of rate between any two days in each week. The corrections for imperfect adjustment are sometimes found to be so large or so irregular as to render it troublesome or difficult to apply them all efficiently, and in such cases the record becomes a serviceable guide to the maker, as it directs his attention to the peculiar fault, and often enables him to make the necessary adjustment at once.

It is rather puzzling to be told that the wind is made to register its own velocity, force, and direction; that the quantity of rain which falls is measured and recorded without human interference; and that the atmosphere marks its own variations on a sheet of paper. Yet all this is done by means of the anemometer, rain-gauge, and barograph – contrivances as ingenious as they are effective. Any one who has been in the neighbourhood of the observatory must have observed on the roof a sort of horizontal windmill, consisting of four hemispherical cups. These serve the double purpose of keeping a four-feet pressure plate facing the wind and turning the shaft which runs through into the room where the anemometer is situated. This shaft, by an ingenious contrivance, regulates the motions of a pencil placed in contact with a sheet of paper stretched round a slowly revolving cylinder. The sheets of paper which receive the record made by the pencil are divided by vertical lines into spaces equal to the hourly motion of the cylinder, and by horizontal lines into other spaces, representing the pressure of wind per square foot. The barograph, or self-registering barometer, has been in use about three years, and the Liverpool Observatory is the only institution which possesses an instrument of this character. It was invented by Mr. Alfred King, of this town, and shows great ingenuity of construction. In the ordinary barometer the variations in the atmospheric pressure are indicated by the varying height of a column of mercury within a tube; in the floating barometer these variations are made evident by the movements of the tube itself, and its changes of position are recorded in a somewhat similar manner to that adopted in connection with the anemometer. There are various other interesting features connected with the observatory, but we must bring this notice to a close. In many respects, the establishment of the new observatory is an important event, and there can be no question that Mr. Hartnup will turn to good account the increased advantages he will possess for carrying on his useful labours in the fine institution placed under his charge.