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).

Reflections on Time

Kevin F. Taylor

I was recently invited to attend a garden party to celebrate 150 years of the Bidston Observatory, hosted by Stephen and Mandy Pickles on Saturday 17 September 2016 in the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse. This gave me a deep sense of déjà vu, as it reminded me so much of my first day as a member of Bidston staff at the start of 1972.

On that day, I drove up the same well-worn drive, past the sandstone wall entrance, and into the grounds. On my right hand side was a lawn that was shortly to be occupied by the new Proudman Building. But in early 1972 that area looked almost the same as it does now, except for a small vegetable patch that was attended to by a Mr. Connell. He and his family occupied the cottages that belonged to the lighthouse and had been built by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. On that balmy Saturday evening in September, I thought it quite strange that, here I was celebrating 150 years of the Observatory, and yet the ‘new’ Proudman Building had been built and demolished (in early 2013) within little more than 40 years, a fraction of the Observatory’s lifetime.

The nostalgia continued as I parked my car behind the rear of the Observatory in almost the same spot as I had on that first day at work. I remembered thinking back; my father would quite often force me to join him on one of his marathon walks. One of his favorite treks was from Moreton to Bidston, then over the Vyner Road footbridge, past the windmill, around the Observatory boundary wall down to the village, then home. In the 1950s and early 60s, I was infatuated by science fiction and men-from-outer-space movies, and TV dramas like Quatermass and Doomwatch. For me, looking over the walls surrounding the Observatory presented all kinds of mysteries: What secrets were hidden inside the huge white domes? My youthful and vivid imagination had no bounds in ‘them days’.

On my first day in 1972, I now had the chance to look at the Observatory from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in. How exciting! As I got out of my car and approached the entrance, a gentleman in front of me held the door open and greeted me with the words “Hello Kevin, glad to see you are joining us”. We then passed through the vestibule door and continued to chat in the hallway for a good ten minutes. He then finished by saying “you will be with Dr. Skinner’s group. I will take you to his office”. He gave a quick knock on the door, popped his head around, and said “Sorry Len, Kevin is not late, my fault I kept him chatting”. I was later taken through to the rear of the building for the mid-morning tea break when the same gentleman entered. I turned to one of the staff and asked “who the nice man was”. “That is Dr. Rossiter our director” was the reply. I was then informed that he was the brother of that brilliant actor Leonard Rossiter from the Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin television shows (come to think of it, they did look alike). [Editor’s Note: see mention of Rossiter and other Bidston Directors in an article by Graham Alcock].

So, allow me to digress about a couple of things that have struck me about time, and why I have given the title of this article as ‘Reflections on Time.’ It seems to me that we have different perceptions of time depending on the situation. For example, my first day at the Observatory was over forty years ago, and yet on that recent Saturday in September, it felt like only yesterday. Another example concerns my grandmother, who was 104 years of age when she passed away. When she was born in 1889, the Observatory building had been completed (in 1866) only 23 years before. So, why were we so concerned with celebrating the Observatory as an ‘historic building’, when my memories of my grandmother do not feel ‘historic’? She was just my Nan. So, time is a funny business.

One of the main reasons for the Observatory was to provide accurate time. This gives me a chance to refer to a hero of mine called John Harrison, who had nothing to do directly with the Observatory but, of course, also had an important role in our maritime history. When a fleet of warships ran aground with the loss of many lives and ships due to bad navigation, a vast reward was offered by the King to anybody who could come up with a good way to improve navigation at sea. The main problem was how to calculate longitude, and many ideas were offered: for example, a crazy scheme for anchoring old redundant ships at fixed positions apart, distributed across the whole ocean. The establishment was convinced that the only way that longitude could be calculated, was by using the stars and planets. Harrison in the meantime concentrated on trying to develop a precision marine chronometer. His theory, that longitude could be calculated by the use of time to good precision, was treated with great disdain.

To prove his theory, he would be entirely dependent on producing an accurate timepiece. This proved to be a formidable task. Not only had it to overcome a ship’s movement, but temperature played a significant part in the reliability of the timepieces he produced. Originally, clocks used a pendulum and weight with an escapement movement, but temperature would increase and decrease the length of the pendulum, making the precision he was looking for unsatisfactory. He spent many years trying to overcome this, by making the pendulum out of metal rods with different thermal coefficients of expansion, but alas to no avail. It was not until the latter part of his life that he produced the famous Harrison timepiece. The connection to the Observatory in this story is, of course, that the calibration of marine chronometers was subsequently to form an important part of activities at Bidston, in addition to the astronomical work in establishing the longitude of the port of Liverpool.

Accurate time has historically not been very important for most ordinary people – the sun came up, the sun went down, and what happened in between was neither here nor there. However, for those people who did need accurate timing (on land), the development of affordable watches and clocks, supplemented by sundials, was enabling decent and routine measurements of time by the end of the 18th century. One way of providing accurate timing information to the general population was by the use of time balls controlled by nearby observatories such as Bidston. A time ball was a large sphere (a ball) on top of a shaft positioned on the roof of a prominent building. At precisely midday (or another time such as 1 pm), the sphere would be dropped and people (including ships’ captains) would set their watches. This was a satisfactory situation only when visibility due to the weather allowed the time ball to be seen. Instead, the time balls were eventually complemented by an audible signal such as made by a canon. Hence, the famous Liverpool “One O’clock Gun” came into being. Originally the Liverpool Observatory was located at Waterloo Dock, and the gun (a remnant of the Crimean War) was fired from the Liverpool side of the Mersey. An improvement was made by moving the Observatory from Liverpool to the highest point on the Wirral side of the river, but close to the Dock Estate, this being Bidston Hill. The gun was relocated to Morpeth Dock in Birkenhead, and was now fired directly by an electrical signal from the Observatory.

Time eventually became a significant factor in everyone’s life, and now controls our lives more and more. Everyone knows about the advent of the industrial revolution, and the development of the railway, and the national adoption of Greenwich Mean Time. Now we are controlled by our smart-phones by time that comes from space via GPS satellites. Everyone is in a hurry or we’ll be ‘late’.

So I have been thinking back to that first day at work. At that time, I had many questions, such as “Why is the Observatory called The Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides, or ICOT for short?” Or, “What has oceanography got to do with astronomical observations?” These questions were answered for me over the years as I got to understand the relationships between the heavens and earth, and in particular the relationships between time and the tides, and so the ocean, and how these topics have evolved to become a crucial part of everyday life.

This has been a very brief look, from my perspective, at ‘time’ and at some small aspects of life at Bidston Observatory. It would take many volumes to do it justice to it regarding topics such as the development of tide tables, the use of precise instruments (e.g. for earth tides), the collection of oceanographic data from around the world, the fieldwork at many locations etc. Perhaps other people can cover these topics on this web site. Some of the world’s most famous oceanographic scientists have worked at or passed through the Observatory during its history. I feel very fortunate to have experienced a small part of the wealth of that Bidston history. And I hope that its historical significance is appreciated by future generations.

 

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 http://www.bl.uk/voices-of-science/interviewees. As well as David Cartwright, other oceanographers interviewed are James Cease, Anthony Laughton, John Woods and Philip Woodworth.)

Bidston recollections

John Huthnance, 7 Oct 2016.

I joined IOS Bidston (as it was then) in October 1977. The validity of my appointment could be questioned as the appointment letter came from DB Crowder (the Bidston administrator) who left before I arrived.

It was a good time to join. There were about 80 staff in total, few enough to give a “family” atmosphere with the feeling that everyone knew everyone else. Several colleagues had been taken on during the early 1970s but it was still a time of expansion rather than otherwise.   Scientists like myself had a fairly free hand to pursue promising lines of research within a fairly broad remit. I enjoyed a feeling of support from fellow scientists to do just this. Much of the funding came through a consortium of several government departments with an interest in our research. The negotiations were at some distance from most of the scientists who did not have to spend much time writing proposals, yet it was good to know of “user” interest in our work, always a characteristic of Bidston science. It was still possible to be “the” expert in a topic, a rarity today. I was lucky.

Everyone was expected to go to sea at least once. My first experience was a long trip in October 1978 on RRS Discovery from South Shields to Recife (Brasil)! We had calm across the Bay of Biscay but gradually increasing seas as time progressed. Green terminal screens on board added to my discomfort. It also got hot enough to affect some of the electronics and the salinometer bath struggled to maintain any standard temperature. My struggles with the latter resulted in being one of many co-authors on a paper about steric height around the equator – as I discovered when the paper was published.

My next research “cruise” was less exotic, to the North Sea on RRS John Murray. The picture shows the arrangement for under-way surface sampling – a CTD (device for measuring the conductivity and temperature of sea water at a known depth) in a bucket lashed to the side.

Arrangement for under-way surface sampling
Arrangement for under-way surface sampling

I have seen some changes in the “style” of research – some for the better! In the 1980s John Bowman (Chief Executive of NERC) told us that if we wanted students, we should get a university job. Now student supervision is encouraged (and helped by being in Liverpool). When I started, current meter data processing typically involved printing out all the recorded values. Models were semi-analytic or had reduced dimension or coarse resolution. My thesis compared a few tidal harmonic constants between measurements and a simple model. Now we have millions of observed values, billions of model output values, and we need computer programs to translate these to something viewable. In the end, science wants to compare two independent numbers for the same quantity. With the “Big Data” that modern science generates, is it harder to think what we are aiming at?

 

North Sea Project - monthly surveys
North Sea Project – monthly surveys

Another change is towards “inter-disciplinary science”. I have been a believer in this owing to early good experience: a seminar at Bidston by John Allen (University of Reading) about sand transport gave me an idea for how sand banks might grow (I had already published about the character of tidal flow around the Norfolk sand banks). The “flip” side to inter-disciplinarity is the overhead of communication with a wider group of scientists. Anyway, Bidston (now Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory – POL) saw this in a big way in NERC’s first “Community Project”, the North Sea Project (formally 1987-1992). John Howarth and I were respectively coordinators of the monthly “surveys” (see figure) and intervening “process studies” for 15 months in 1988-89. I recall a “spat” with Philip Radford (PML) at the concluding 1993 Royal Society Discussion meeting. I showed a diagram characterised by physics-ecosystem. Philip countered with physics-ecosystem. These are of course quite compatible, differing only by which part is under the microscope.

The North Sea Project was followed by the “Land-Ocean Interaction Study” LOIS in the 1990s with POL at the centre of coastal, shelf-edge and modelling studies. Such large-scale projects with many participants involved a Steering group and many rail trips to London. At the same time (and possibly inspired by NERC) the EU Marine Science and Technology Programme (MAST) began. My main involvement was in “Processes in Regions of Freshwater Influence” (PROFILE; two phases), “Ocean Margin Exchange” (OMEX; two phases) – both inter-disciplinary – and “Monitoring Atlantic Inflow to the Arctic” (MAIA) which somehow managed to be only physics. MAST projects had several European partners; the beaten track became the M56 for Manchester airport and flights to partners’ laboratories, EU Brussels and MAST gatherings in rather nice places (e.g. Sorrento, Vigo, . . ).

After formation of Southampton Oceanography Centre SOC, there was an April 1st announcement setting up the “Centre for Coastal Marine Science” CCMS in the mid-1990s as a counterpart to SOC. CCMS incorporated PML, POL and SAMS and resulted in more trekking, to Plymouth and Oban. This was good for inter-lab communications but management went awry, especially regarding finances, and POL became “independent” again (within NERC) in 2001. 2001 was also the year of design for the new building for POL in Liverpool (pictured). There were several reasons for unhappiness about this; building down to a price, inevitable open-plan offices (being cheaper and set by Swindon precedent), more time and expense of commuting for most staff. I had the “joy” being project “sponsor”. In building procurement this does not mean having the money but rather liaison between the “owner” (NERC with the money) and the design team. I was in the architect’s Birmingham offices on “9/11”.

POL's new building in Liverpool
POL’s new building in Liverpool

After more than a year’s delay on completing the Liverpool building, we finally left Bidston at the beginning of December 2004.