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Insight into marine science
Observatory history

A brief history: Bidston Hill, the Observatory and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory

From Astronomy to Oceanography (detailed history, 996K)
(pdf files require Acrobat Reader v4).

1609   The first reference to a wooden windmill on Bidston Hill appeared in manuscripts.


1763   A signal house on Bidston Hill was first mentioned - although Bidston had probably been used as a lookout from pre-Roman days. A telegraph service was set up to give early notice of the arrival of ships in the Port of Liverpool. Over one hundred signalling poles were erected, extending from north of the lighthouse to beyond the windmill, belonging mainly to the merchants in Liverpool. As the ships carrying their cargoes were spotted out at sea, the relevant flags were raised and could be seen from Liverpool. The advance knowledge of their ships' arrivals enabled the owners to hasten the unloading of their cargoes.

1771   The first Bidston lighthouse, an octagonal structure, was built. The Government established a chain of stations fitted with semaphore signals, between Bidston and Holyhead, in order to 'give alarm upon any intelligence of an enemy'. It took only eight minutes to transmit messages from Holyhead to Liverpool.

1791   The wooden windmill was destroyed in a gale and was replaced by the present one.

1834   The Royal Navy recommended the establishment of an astronomical observatory in the Port of Liverpool. The exact longitude of Liverpool was then unknown, so all the ships' chronometers rated in the port would have carried an error with them, resulting in the loss of life and property. Mariners also did not know the weather conditions when they left port and consequently sometimes ran into storms.


1845   Liverpool Observatory was built on Waterloo Dock, with the objectives:

  1. to determine the exact longitude of Liverpool. This was achieved when the difference in longitude between Greenwich and Valentia, Ireland, was calculated, in conjunction with two intermediate stations, one of which was Liverpool Observatory.
  2. to give accurate time to the Port of Liverpool. This was determined by observing the stars with the transit telescope, thus calculating Greenwich Mean Time. A daily signal was given at 1 p.m. by the release of a time ball.
  3. to test and rate ships' chronometers against the stars. Accuracy was achieved by setting up chambers with regulated temperatures in which to carry out tests.
  4. to commence meteorological observations in order to provide local forecasts for shipping.

1858   The Bidston telegraph service was superseded by the electric telegraph, and the lighthouse and telegraph services were amalgamated.

1864   Due to the expansion of Waterloo Dock, the decision was taken to close Liverpool Observatory and build a new one on top of Bidston Hill, where there was also the advantage of clearer skies for astronomical observations.


1866   Land was purchased from a local landowner, Mr Vyner, and Bidston Observatory was built, faced with sandstone excavated from the site. There was an equatorial telescope in the west dome, which was used mainly for the observation of comets, and a transit telescope in the east dome, which was regularly used for the determination of time from the stars. These telescopes are now in Liverpool Museum. There was a large instrument room - the through room on the ground floor - which contained two warm air chambers. Each of these could hold up to one hundred chronometers. These chronometers were tested over several months at varying temperatures and had to be very accurate before they were considered safe to take to sea. Sextants, barometers and thermometers were tested in the basement.


One o'clock was still indicated to the citizens of Liverpool, but now by the One O'clock Gun. This was situated at Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead and was connected by telegraphic line to Bidston Observatory. It was fired from here by the staff each working day, except for a six-year break during the Second World War. It was also fired at midnight to mark the beginning of the 20th century. The original cannon was a relic of the Crimean wars, and after it was replaced by a naval Hotchkiss gun, was on display in the Observatory grounds for many years.

1867   Meteorological observations began.

1872   The original lighthouse was replaced by the present one.

1875   The windmill ceased working.

1897   Several seismographs were set up in the deep cellars for experiments in the then new science of seismology.

1913   The lighthouse ceased operations, having acted as a guide to mariners for 142 years.

1924   The Liverpool Tidal Institute, under the directorship of Professor Proudman at Liverpool University, relocated to Bidston Observatory. Tidal predictions, which were calculated by hand, were produced on a commercial basis.


1929   The Liverpool Observatory of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and the Tidal Institute of the University of Liverpool amalgamated becoming the Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute. Two tide predicting machines were now in use, and the tidal expertise of the institute received worldwide acclaim. Weather forecasting at Bidston ceased, although observations continue to be made to the present day.

1939-1945   Much valuable work was done during the Second World War. The staff worked seven days a week, from early morning to late at night, analysing and predicting tides towards the war effort. Tidal predictions were swiftly predicted for the seas around Burma, France and Holland. During these years one of the tide predicting machines was placed in an underground room in the Observatory grounds for security reasons. Photographic facilities were obtained, so that further copies of the predictions could be quickly provided in the event of their loss at sea.

1961   On the retirement of the Director, Dr Doodson, The Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute was renamed The University of Liverpool Tidal Institute and Observatory.

1969   The Institute became a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council and was renamed the Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides. An expanded marine research programme was embarked upon, with a corresponding increase in staff. The One O'clock Gun was fired for the last time on July 18th.

1970   The Institute's first mainframe computer was installed.

1973   Three previously separate NERC Institutes were amalgamated, becoming the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, including Bidston Observatory.


1975   The Joseph Proudman building in the Observatory grounds was completed, to accommodate the increase in staff and also the latest computer.

1987   The Institute at Bidston was renamed the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory.

1992   An automatic weather station was installed, replacing the manual station which had been operating since 1867.

1994   The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, together with the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory near Oban, and Plymouth Marine Laboratory became the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences.

2000   The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory once again became an independent institute under the Natural Environment Research Council.


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