Hilbre Island

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A 1908 map of the large and middle islands. The dotted line is the undersea telegraph cable.

Hilbre is an island at the mouth of the River Dee. The grid reference of the centre of Hilbre Island is SJ 185 879. It is the largest of a group of three islands which form part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The other islands are named Middle Eye and Little Eye. Hilbre Island is approximately 47,000 square metres in area and it is about 1.6 km from the nearest part of the mainland of the Wirral Peninsula.

Rocks on Hilbre Island are of Lower Triassic age (around 250 Million Years Ago) and form part of the Sherwood Sandstone Group. These rocks are mainly reddish brown to yellow grey coloured sandstones, although there is a band of conglomerate and some red brown siltstone layers exposed on the island. The rocks were originally deposited as sand and gravel in river channels forming river terrace deposits or as fine silt and clay deposited on flood plains during times when the river flooded over its banks. After they were formed the rock layers were affected by earth movements. The layers have been tilted slightly to the north and faulted. A steeply-dipping normal fault is exposed in the cliff sections on the southern side of the island. Since 1865, the rocks on Hilbre have been regarded as the Lower Triassic Bunter Pebble Beds (now renamed Chester Pebble Bed Formation), within the Cheshire Basin. Fossil footprints were first found on Hilbre in 1991 (Tresise, 1992; Bell 1993). This was followed on the 29th August 1993 by the discovery of the most complete in situ assemblage of Lower - Middle Triassic vertebrate footprints found in Britain in the last 80 years. The sedimentary sequence at Hilbre is typical of braided river deposits. Argillaceous sediments deposited on floodplains or in abandoned channels took the impressions of animals walking over the surface and burrowing through the sediment. Fossil rain drop casts are preserved near the fossils, showing that the area was not a completely arid desert.

Hilbre is interesting for several historic reasons having a connection with Chester: including the origins of the name of the island and the now-vanished community of monks, and, as the most accessible site of parts of the first commercial semaphore communications chain which stretched from Holyhead to Liverpool and was "faster than the wind". The chain appears to have been proposed by a James Boaz of Glasgow who is almost entirely forgotten. While his initial suggestion was impractical it sowed the seeds of a telecommunication link from Liverpool to Holyhead, which was extended to Ireland and then to the US. The first part of this line, through Hilbre Island greatly contributed to the spread of information concerning weather and sailing conditions. One of the reasons for the establishment of the chain was the competition between the ports of Chester and Liverpool. A further connection with Chester is found in the involvement of Robert Lewis Jones who was initially a chemical supplier with a factory at Chemistry Lock in Chester and later General Manager of Chester Station. Jones seems to have become interested in remote electrical clock regulation following a tailway accident near Chester and performed his early experiments on the station clock at Chester.

The signal station on Hilbre Island.

The telegraph has long been replaced by more modern communications. The Dee Estuary is nowadays designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has been designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), and a Special Area for Conservation (SAC), under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. It is a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands of International Importance. It is primarily of importance for its assemblage of wintering waders and wildfowl and as a staging post for migrating birds.The Friends of Hilbre was formed in 2001 and they act to promote the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of Hilbre Islands Local Nature Reserve for the benefit of the public.

Hilbre Islands History

"Il Bre" from Mercator's map of 1564 (north is to the right).

Formed by the last Ice Age, these islands show signs of having been visited by Neolithic and Bronze Age people by the artefacts that have been discovered. Geological evidence suggests that originally, there was one large island. But, over the years, tide and weather erosion have worn away at the soft red sandstone to create three islands.

There was permanent habitation at least from Roman times, which continued through Norman times, when the first written records were made by a cell of Benedictine Monks associated with Chester Cathedral. The monks lived here until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538. The Monks are also reputed to have tended a light or beacon known as St Mary's light, but there is little evidence of it's function - what is known is that Earl of Chester John Canmore contributed ten shillings annually for its upkeep in 1236.

Early History

Occupied since as far back as the Stone Age, there have been numerous archaeological finds on the island, arrowheads, scrapers and flakes, dating from the Stone Age and Iron Age, a bronze axe-head and a buried urn indicate visitations during the Bronze Age period. As regards early occupation of the Wirral, funerary evidence is confined to the north west coast. lnurned cremations were found at West Kirby and on Middle Eye, a crouched burial under a cairn on Little Eye and a partly cremated inhumation, dug into the forest peat, at Great Meols.

In the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemaeus, mathematician and astronomer of Alexandria, known to history as Ptolemy (or Klaudios Ptolemaios in Greek), produced "maps" of the entire known world, including the British Isles, accompanied by a list of the latitude and longitude of every place of importance. Ptolemy appears to name the estuary of the Dee as "Seteia Aest" (Σετηια εισχυσις). Much ink has been spilt on the issue of just which feature is where on this coastline and it was even (almost certainly erroneously) stated by some that the Mersey flowed into the Dee in historic times (see: Black MEMOIRS OF THE LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF MANCHESTER). Black mentions an island in Ptolemy which he describes as "barely discernable" at the mouth of the Dee but this turns up in no existing version of the Ptolemaeic map. There is a possible island marked on Mercator's 1554 map and this may be what led to Black's comment but the mere mark in the mouth of the Dee could be a blemish. One of Mercator's principal sources for his early maps was almost certainly George Lily's map of the British Isles, printed in Rome in 1546. This does not show Hilbre but like Mercator shows a hugely inflated Puffin Island.

John Horsley (antiquarian) in his "Britannia Romana", or The Roman Antiquities of Britain, published in 1732, makes no mention of Hilbre but identifies Seteia as the Dee. A possible parallel, in terms of geography as well as name, is Sète in the south of France, about which Strabo (4,1,6) wrote “the Gulf of Massalia ... is double, for ... Mount Setium (Σητιον) ... juts out and thus marks off two gulfs” (the origin of that name is uncertain, but it might have come from Punic). Ptolemy did not draw actual maps but gave latitudes and longitudes which enabled later cartographers to draw maps based on his work. One of these published by Gerard Mercator in his 1578 edition of Ptolemy's Geography may even show Hilbre. Mercator's own late map of the British Isles (published 1564) also shows Hilbre, this time marked "Il Bre", in slightly the wrong place amd much larger than it actually is.

Other finds were Celtic and Viking. A cross head, carved out of a piece of red sandstone, was discovered on Hilbre in 1862. It is thought to have been made about 1000 A.D. by masons based at Chester, possibly at St Johns. The cross head was the subject of a paper, "The Hilbre Cross" by the Rev A Hume, which contains an illustration.

Another archaeological find, made in 1864, was a burial slab, under which were said to be found four skeletons (since lost). The burial slab is thought to have been made in about 1050 A.D., and is still in existence (although moved to the mainland).

The west coast of the Wirral seen from Hilbre Island towards low tide (taken 2012). The white painted buildings are at West Kirby (from the Old Norse "Kirkjubyr", meaning 'village with a church'). The hill behind is Bidston, which has a distinctly Anglo-Saxon ring, and is another link in the semaphore chain.

From the 9th to the 12th century Viking Dublin in particular was a major slave trading center which led to an increase in slavery. In 870, Vikings, most likely led by Olaf the White and Ivar the Boneless, besieged and captured the stronghold of Dumbarton Castle (Alt Clut), the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde in Scotland, and the next year took most of the site's inhabitants to the Dublin slave markets. When the Vikings established early Scandinavian Dublin in 841, they began a slave market that would come to sell thralls captured both in Ireland and other countries as distant as Spain, as well as sending Irish slaves as far away as Iceland, where Gaels formed 40% of the founding population, and Anatolia. During these turbulent times, in 902, a Hiberno-Norse community settled in Wirral after its expulsion from Dublin, arriving somewhere between "Vestri-Kirkubyr" (West Kirby) and "Melr" (Meols). The exiles, led by one Hingamund, were granted land in Wirral by Æthelflæd and soon established a community with a clearly defined border, its own leader, its own language (Norse), a trading port, and at its centre a place of assembly or government (þing vollr) - the "Thing" at Thingwall. They also brought their religion with them to "Thor's Stone" (Mjollnir) at "Thorsteinn's farmstead", now Thurstaston Hill. It is also possible that the Norwegian "Labskause" may have come to this part of the country at that time and survived as "scouse".

Just what the status of Hilbre was at this time is unclear. The Mercians were involved in campaigns in North Wales under King Coenwulf (796 - 821); a battle was fought at Rhuddlan in 796 and Coenwuif harried the land between the Ciwyd and Snowdonia in 816 and 821. Further Mercian action was necessary in 822/23 when Deganwy was taken and Powys invaded. Any gains appear to have been short-lived, as the Mercian monarchy rapidly descended into confusion after Coenwuif's death. The marginal and remote status of the area in the mid-ninth century is part of a general impression of Mercian weakness. Asser, writing around 893 in his "De Rebus Gestis Aifredi" described the victory over the Welsh of Burgred of Mercia, in which the Mercians needed West Saxon assistance. Coenwulf was the last king of Mercia to exercise substantial dominance over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Within a decade of his death, the rise of Wessex had begun under King Egbert, and Mercia never recovered its former position of power.

The distribution of "Hog-back" monuments in England and Wales. The West-Kirby hog-back is a somewhat mysterious outlier to the general spread. There are no hog-back tombs on the Ise of Man and Ireland has a single outlier.

The West Kirby "Hog-back" Stone

In the museum in the old school-house by the churchyard at West Kirby one may see a stone, which, from its shape, antiquaries call a 'hog-back'. The hog-back is generally believed to be a tombstone or grave-slab that marked the burial-place of some Scandinavian chief, although hogbacks are not found in Scandinavia. They are considered a unique invention made by the Viking settlers in Northern England. The hog-back stone bears heavy damage on its top surface and there has been speculation that it has lost short parts of both of its ends (which possibly included "end-beasts" - although not all do). The decoration consists of three bands; wheel and bar ornament on side A’s top, skeuomorphic shingle-roof tegulae (tiles) in the middle and plaitwork beneath. This stone, said to date from the 10th century AD was discovered during the restoration of the church in 1869. It has been suggested that the monument type was invented in the late 9th century, at a time when Viking warlords had seized power at York. However, a tenth-century date has been generally accepted due to the ornament on hogbacks, largely influenced by the Borre and Jellinge styles which appeared in Scandinavia in the late ninth and early tenth centuries.

The first recorded raid on Wales occurred in 852, and we know of attacks by Vikings on Anglesey and Gwynedd from 854 onwards. Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd (844-78), led resistance to these early onslaughts, killing the Danish leader Gorm in 855. In 903 Vikings came to Anglesey after being driven out of Dublin. According to both Irish and Welsh records they failed to gain a foothold in Wales, and sailed on down the River Dee to Chester. Again in 918, Anglesey was ravaged by Vikings. Frequent attacks occurred on the island during the second half of the 10th century on the island; Olaf of Dublin built a castle known as 'Olaf's Castle' or 'Castell Bon y Dom' about the year 1000. Place-names of Scandinavian origin have been given to prominent coastal features as navigational aids: Onguls-ey itself, traditionally thought to incorporate a personal name - presumably a Viking leader, The Skerries, Piscar, Priestholm (prestaholmr) and Osmond's Air near Beaumaris, from Asmundr & eyrr, a gravel bank near the sea. Recent excavations at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey have produced evidence of cultural and trading links with the Viking world – and possible later Viking settlement. One or two other places have been claimed as sites of Viking occupation, while a few Viking burials and hoards around the coastline, and increasing numbers of stray Viking finds, suggest occasional contact. But there is little else and no Welsh source exists for any permanent settlement of Vikings in Wales.

The West Kirby stone presents something of a puzzle as it is not of the local rock but appears to be from the Cefn quarries near Ruabon/Wrexham. This was a much sought-after building stone for centuries, but the quarries are well outside the Hiberno-Norse sphere of influence. The Pillar of Eliseg is from the same hard, grey, quartz-rich sandstone, as is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee. Despite that some earlier hogbacks have pagan imagery, the fact that they are typically found in churchyards may indicate that they were made for wealthy Christian Scandinavians. The puzzle is further complicated by looking at the distribution of hog-backs through England and Wales - this type of monument is rare outside of the north-east, with only a few elsewhere. The majority of the stones appear to come from areas which were not settled by what might be called "Ingamund's People". However, the coincidence of hogback distribution with that of Norse-Irish place-names in Northern England allows for the possibility of ultimate Irish influence. Tegulated house-shaped caps are common on tenth-century high crosses in Ireland. The earliest forms of hog-back are found in the Allertonshire area of North Yorkshire, those from Brompton being well executed copies of long houses with "bombe" sides and large-muzzled bears as end-beasts, each occupying a third of the monument. Houses of this type have been revealed in an eleventh-century context in England, though not in Yorkshire as yet, and Scandinavian sites, notably the Danish forts of Trelleborg and Fyrkat, have yielded ground plans of very similar buildings. Curiously, recent excavations at Hilbre may have revealed a similar structure.

Saint Hildeburgh

The name "Hilbre" is said to be derived from the name "Hildeburgh". The 19th-century St Hildeburgh's Church, Hoylake, built nearby on the mainland, is also named for her (it was designed by Edmund Kirby and built between 1897 and 1899 - Kirby also worked in Chester). The island and supposed chapel of St Hildeburgh upon it are far older. There are several possible contenders for the original "Hildeburgh".

Some versions are that Saint Hildeburgh was a legendary figure said to have visited the island's monastery whilst on a pilgrimage. According to other versions Hildeburgh is said to have lived on Hilbre Island in the 7th century as an anchorite. Some consider that she never existed.

The various people thought to be depected on the Werburgh shrine at Chester Cathedral, with blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish and the women in yellow. The identification of Werburgh's mother Saint Eormenhild, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and his wife Saint Sexburga is somewhat speculative and in part based on the fact that many related saints are believed to be depicted.

Others equate her with Saint Ermenhilde (Eormenhild of Ely), wife to Mercian King Wulfhere and the mother of Saint Werburgh to whom Chester Cathedral is dedicated. After the death of her husband, Eormenhild retired to the abbey her mother Seaxburh had founded on the island of Sheppey in Kent, now Minster-in-Sheppey. Eormenhild succeeded her mother as abbess when Seaxburh went to join St Etheldreda at Ely. She then subsequently went to Ely herself, and died and was buried there. Her cult was tiny, almost non-existent; there were no churches dedicated to her, and her name only appears in a handful of post-conquest calendars giving her feast day as 13th Feb.

Ermenhilde/Eormenhild of Ely has very little contemporary historical evidence - most being taken from the "Kentish Royal Legend", which possibly dates from the 8th Century and is a diverse group of Medieval texts which describe a wide circle of members of the royal family of Kent from the 7th to 8th centuries AD. When discussing Wulfhere, Bede does not mention the matrilinear succession established at Ely by Æthelthryth, where power passed in turn to Seaxburh before subsequently transferring to Seaxburh's daughter Eormenhild and to her granddaughter, Werburgh. However, Eormenhild's name is possibly mentioned (once) as an abbess in a copy of a charter of King Wihtred of Kent, dated 699, along with three other abbesses present at the occasion when the charter was issued: "hoc est Hirminhilda, Irminburga, Aeaba et Nerienda". Ermenhilde is said to be one of the (much damaged) figures on the Shrine of St Werburgh in Chester Cathedral. Her daughter Werburgh was instrumental in convent reform across England. She eventually succeeded her mother Ermenilda, her grandmother Seaxburh, and great-aunt Etheldreda as fourth Abbess of Ely. She died on 3 February 700 and was - after some trouble - buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire. Her mother's "life" is given in the "List of saints' resting-places" in BL Stowe 944 (ff. 36-7) as follows:

  • "St Eormenhild, daughter of Eorcenberht and Seaxburh, was given in marriage to be King Wulfhere's queen. He was the son of Penda, king of Mercia, and in their time the Mercian people received baptism. Their daughter was St Werburh the holy virgin, and she was buried in the minster which is called Hanbury, and now rests in the city of Chester. And St Eormenhild rests at Ely with her mother and with her aunt St Etheldreda, and her powers are often manifested there."

The first shrine of St Werbergh originally remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation (around 875) to within the walled city of Chester. It is unlikely that Hilbre Island would have named after Eormenhild until after that date of translation.

Other versions equate Hildeburgh with St Edburga of Mercia (Eadburh of Bicester), daughter of the pagan king Penda. There are two very confusing saints said to be the daughters of Penda: Edburgh of Caistor (Lincolnshire) and Edburgh of Bicester (Oxfordshire). According to one version, she was born around 620 and for a time she was a nun at Castor in Northamptonshire under her sister, Saint Cuneburga (another daughter of Penda the pagan). However, with yet another sister, Saint Edith of Aylesbury, she built a small monastery, on land given by her father, at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Here, the two educated their niece, later to become Saint Osith. While originally buried at Aylesbury (or in some versions Caistor), her relics were relocated to Bicester Priory in 1182 and became a popular attractions with medieval pilgrims (other versions have her relocated to Peterborough). However, in 1500 Pope Alexander VI (the infamous Rodrigo de Borgia) ordered her remains (in both the Edburgh of Caistor and Edburgh of Bicester versions) to be removed and relocated to Flanders in Belgium, where they are presumed to remain, in an unknown location. There is nothing to connect her (or either of her) with the Wirral and it seems unlikely she is the original "Hildeburgh".

A further St Ermenburga (of Kent) also sometimes known as "Domme Eafe" was a daughter-in-law of Penda and lived c650-700. Her legend is very confused and again her story takes place far from the Wirral and she is an unlikely candidate.

Mercian defence strategy. The green areas are occupied by the Hiberno-Norse, while the blue are occupied by the Danes. The line of fortifications from Chester to Manchester is intended to prevent a flank/rear attack on Tamworth, the Mercian political center and protect the Dee Valley. The approximate boundaries of England for 917, 920 and 927 are shown. The establishment of a major religious and military center at Chester does seem to be part of a concerted plan. The extent to which Æthelflæd is involved needs to consider that she died in 918.

Viking origins for the name of the island are difficult to find, although there are local rocks whose names have Viking origins: the "Svartskere" – Black Skerries or Rocks at New Brighton, upon which Fort Perch Rock has been built, and "Tonnskere" – Tooth skerries or Tanskey rocks just to the south of Hilbre Island. "Ay", "ey" are both Old Norse place-name elements for island.

Æthelflæd and the Vikings

In 900 Alfred died and Edgar the Elder was consecrated at Kingston-upon-Thames by the archbishop of Canterbury, Plegmund (of St Plegmund's Well fame):

  • "Edwardus rex Anglorum est consecratus in regem a Pleemundo Dornobernensi archiepiscopo apud Kingestune." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

The association of Archbishop Plegmund (from 890 to 914) with Chester might be taken as some support that there was already an important religious community in Chester. No doubt Plegmund took the opportunity to remind Æthelflæd of this.

In 902, a Hiberno-Norse community settled in Wirral after its expulsion from Dublin, arriving somewhere between "Vestri-Kirkubyr" (West Kirby) and "Melr" (Meols). The exiles, led by one Hingamund, were granted land in Wirral by Æthelflæd and soon established a community with a clearly defined border, its own leader, its own language (Norse), a trading port, and at its centre a place of assembly or government (þing vollr) - the "Thing" at Thingwall. Also, by 902 Æthelflæd's husband (Aethelred) had become ill with a debilitating disease and Aethelflaed was effectively ruling Merica in all but name.

While it perhaps seems odd that Æthelflæd should cede land to an army evicted from Ireland and defeated in their failed attempt to invade North Wales, she may have seen it as a good policy move, especially as her strategy was to strengthen Chester both culturally and in military terms. This was important as it protected the important food producing area of the Cheshire plain and prevented any link-up between the Irish Sea Hiberno-Norse to the west and the Danes to the north and east. Having a Viking presence in the Wirral that was hostile to Dublin could well be to her advantage. Æthelflæd's refortification of Chester was part of a larger strategic intent. At the time the Danes had occupied much of the North Sea coast and were in a position to threaten the Mercian political center at Tamworth. The Vikings were essentially sea raiders. Even when they moved swiftly inland, the key to their strategy was always a surprise arrival and an easy departure. In broad outline, their movements were predictable. They wanted loot and loot easily obtained if possible, so that their targets were the rich monasteries and town churches. They only had a secondary interest in ravaging the countryside: that was necessary for food, and the "entertainment" of terrorising the population, but it yielded little in the way of valuables to take home. It was the rich ecclesiastical and urban centres that were at risk and had to be protected: bothsides knew where they were and how they could be reached.

The Cheshire plain offered an easy line of approach to Tamworth assuming landings along the Dee and Mersey estuaries, so Æthelflæd and her brother built a line of "burhs" (fortified sites) at Chester, Eddisbury, Runcorn and Manchester. At Chester and Manchester this involved the use of Roman fortifications, whereas at Eddisbury an Iron-Age hill-fort was re-used. The reality of the danger was emphasized in 920 when a Norse army from Dublin landed and penetrated as far as Davenport in Cheshire. With her flank secure Æthelflæd was able to take part in the campaigns against the Danes who hand been driven out of much of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire by 927 (although Æthelflæd herself was dead by 918).

Æthelflæd had a precident for her arrangement with the Vikings in the arrangement reached between her father, Alfred, and Guthrum, a Danish ruler in Eastern England. Alfred defeated Guthrum at the Battle of Edington in 878 and, under what is referred to as the "Treaty of Wedmore", borders dividing the lands of Alfred and Guthrum were established, with the additional condition that Guthrum should convert to christianity. Following this Guthrum returned to East Anglia, where he ruled in what had been East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. Over time these lands became known as Danelaw. The modern view is that the "treaty" was most likely a series of agreements reached between 878 and 890. Alfred was incredibly fortunate to win his fight with the Danes - who almost defeated him several times and lost in part due to bad luck such as having their sea-borne reinforcements wrecked in a storm. Æthelflæd, born around 870 would have been well aware the conflict with Guthrum and how it was resolved.

Æthelflæd and the Church

Æthelflæd's cultural changes were also far-reaching. She is believed to have been a follower of the cult of St Oswald(the same Oswald who had ruled Northumbria and waged war on Mercia). In 909 Oswald's remains (they were now at Bardney Abbey) were captured by a Mercian expedition and (mostly) taken (by Æthelflæd) away for reburial at Gloucester. Oswald's head was interred in Durham Cathedral where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe. One of his arms is said to have ended up in Peterborough Abbey later in the Middle Ages - where the monks built a watchtower to stop it being moved again. A late tradition holds that the cult of St. Oswald was introduced at Chester when the minster was refounded by Æthelfiæd and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907. The foundations of St Oswald's church forms part of the Cathedral. If 907 was the time when the minster was refounded, it would be an apt time for a related religious establishment on Hilbre. She did not stop there - in 906 the Abbey of St John the Baptist was founded by Æthelred, Earl of Mercia (he was married to Æthelflæd). Mercian independence was not to last as in 907 Edward the Elder "regained Chester" after a battle. Some scraps of physical evidence remain: in 1860 a hoard of some 40 coins from the reign of Edward the Elder (899–924), found sixteen feet down just west of the present church, and perhaps buried in troubled times. Hughes believed that these were "foundation coins" and when they were originally displayed they were labled as such. However, in 924 Chester joined a Welsh revolt against English rule (William of Malmesbury records a Mercian revolt at Chester) - Æthelflæd had died in 918. The revolt was put down by Edward the Elder who died leading his army on 17 July 924 at Farndon - given that Edward had only "regained Chester" in 907 (presumably from his sister - unless this is an error for Leicester), these do seem to have been troubled times. In 912 Chester was besieged by Ingamund, only to be repulsed by the "great army" which Æthelflæd assembled in the city (with the aid, so the popular version goes, of boiling beer and beehives).

Stone cross fragments on display at St Johns in Chester.

Fragments of several crosses, probably memorials dating from the 10th century, were recovered from St Johns churchyard and among the rubble of the collapsed tower in the late 19th century. The crosses, and others from Wirral and North Wales, were probably made at a workshop based on St. John's, using stone from the nearby quarry (now the bowling green down the hill). Indeed Bailey 2010 reports an unfinished cross at Chester. Such evidence suggests that St. John's was an important church in later Anglo-Saxon Chester. Links between the Chester crosses and those from Neston and Hilbre Island can be seen in that the circle diameter of the crosses are similar as are the interlace patterns. The crosses have been described as follows (by a past Bishop of Bristol):

  • "It is more easy to describe these crosses negatively rather than positively. They are un-Anglican, un-Scottish, un-Irish, un-Scandinavian, they resemble most closely a head of one of the few great crosses made in Wales, known as Maen-Ach-Wynfan and the head of a cross at Diserth."

Concerning the cross heads, a printed sign in the Church says :

  • "These stone crosses are reputedly from the workshop established in the quarry of St Johns by Irish - Norse traders who settled in Chester during the 10th Century. Similar crosses thought to have been from the same workshop have been found over a wide area as shown on the map."

..but a hand written note, very faded, also says:

  • "Remains of Saxon crosses; these were unearthed from the eastern area of St Johns 1870 restoration. Their circular head design and squared shafts suggest Celtic origin, early Mercian AD750-900..."

One point of note is that Ely had as its later sainted Abbesses Æthelthryth and her sister Seaxburgh, the latter's daughter Ermenilda/Eormenhild, and Ermenilda's daughter Werburgh. The abbey at Ely was destroyed by the Danes in 870 (i.e. within living memory around 900). Perhaps the choice of the dedication was linked to that destruction, although it seems an edgy choice. To take this analysis to a limit, St Bridget in Chester may be of very early date and the dedication was especially likely to have been favoured by immigrants from Ireland and was used also at West Kirby, in the Scandinavian settlement on Wirral. Moreover, since the medieval parish of St. Bridget's at Chester was in two portions, separated by parts of other parishes, it was perhaps once larger and had been eroded by later foundations. There is some debate over whether St Brigid was a real person. She has the same name, associations and feast day as the Celtic goddess Brigid, and there are many supernatural events, legends and folk customs associated with her. In many version of her story Bridget is a virgin, as was Werburgh. Werburgh's mother, grandmother and great aunt had all taken the veil and Æthelflæd helself (soon to be windowed) had a complicated birth of her daughter and had long since given up on her husbands advances. There is definitely a hint of a virgin-cult here.

In Nov 1892 there were still suggestions that Hilbre should belong to the Welsh (Flintshire Observer, Mining Journal and General Advertiser - 17th Nov). Puffin Island now belongs to Anglesey.


The story of Æthelflæd's establishment of a cult of Werbergh and Oswald at Chester, with a chapel at Hilbre, her refortification of Chester, and the establishment of a "buffer-zone" of Viking settlers in the Wirral may do something to tie together the historic fragments and link the hog-back "Viking" stone to St Werburgh in some manner there are still huge gaps in the story of Hilbre Island. However the monks would stay on the island for hundreds of years, finally leaving about 1550.

Archaeological excavations on Hilbre have so far failed to identify any clear remains of a chapel. In 1926 Prof. Newstead of the Grosvenor Museum carried out extensive excavations, but failed to find anything conclusive. In a 2006/7 dig excavation revealed the remains of a structure defined by a series of post-holes cut into the top of the underlying bedrock, with stones packed around the original, now vanished, posts. In 2016, two new trenches were opened, one at each end of the 2006 trench, to examine the possible extension to the line of postholes. Nothing was found to date the building. The structure is earth-fast so is unlikely to be later tha the 14th century or so, and the slight curve evident in the post-hole alignment is said to be reminiscent of Scandinavian-type construction. Many ordinance survey maps mark "Church and Burial Ground (site of)" on maps of Hilbre, but little or nothing remains of any original buildings as anything suitable for use in building on Hilbre would be robbed-out for re-use. Even the head of an ancient cross from Hilbre was recovered from being used as part of a stable wall.

For the history of the monks there is therefore mostly only documentary evidence, but this is considered sound and contemporaneous. In 1066, Hilbre Island was part of the manor of Caldy (derived from "cold island" perhaps an apt description of Hilbre), held by the Englishman Leofnoth - possibly a son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. William the Conqueror gave Leofnoth's lands to Hugh of Avranches who passed them on to his follower Robert of Rhuddlan. Although not named directly, it is believed that the islands were mentioned in the Domesday Book in which mention is made of Chircheb (West Kirby) having two churches: one in the town and one on an island in the sea. According to Ormerod, Robert de Roelent (Robert of Rhuddlan) transferred the revenues of the Churches of West Kirkby and Hildeburgh-Eye (with lands and other Churches) to the Abbey of St. Ebrulf, now St. Evroul, at Utica in Normandy, where the bones of his ancestors reposed. This gift was confirmed by King William in 1081, in his Charter to the Abbey, in the following terms:

  • "Robertus de Rodelento, praefato Hugone Cestrensi comite domino suo concedente, dedit Sancto Ebrulfo, Cerchebiam cum duabus ecclesiis, unam scilicet quae in ipsa villa est, et aliam prope illium manerium in insula maris." (Robert of Rhuddlan, to the aforesaid Hugh, Earl of Chester, to his master's consent, has given to the Holy One of Ebrulfo, two churches in Chircheb (West Kirkby), one of which is now in the village itself, and has a different manor on the nearby island of the sea.)

In fact the abbot from Normandy was given West Kirby and Hilbre, as a result of a fund-raising appeal. He visited William I’s court in England, asking for money for his abbey, and got an odd assortment of little villages all over England. The Abbot and Convent of St. Ebrulf, however, were soon tired of managing this distant property, and in 1140 effected a transfer of their rights in respect to the Churches of St. Bridget and St. Hildeburga with that of St Peter, in Chester to the monks of St. Werburg (Chester Cathedral), subject to the payment of an annual rental, at the manor of Petheling, of £30. Lysons states that a further consideration was paid clown in the form of a palfrey and nine marks. This transaction was not final and argument about ownership apparently continued for centuries. Leyland writes of the separation in the times of Richard I:

  • "This convent released it to the Abbey of St. Werburg with that Church, under the name of Capelln de Hildburgh-eye, or the Isle of Hildburgha, from which the present name is corrupted; and William Fitz-Richard, rector of Kirkby about the time of Richard I, after Kirkby had passed to the Abbey of Basingwerk from that of St. Werburg, by a deed preserved in the Chartulary of the latter abbey, quit-claimed the isle Hildburgheye, with its chapel and appurtenances, to the monks of that house, reserving only the right of sepulture to the mother church of Kirkby. The cell which the monks of St. Werburgh established here, had a grant of £3 issuing from little Meoles by Robert de Lanoelyn about the time of Richard I. William Lancelyn, his son, quit-claimed also to the same monks for ever, the lake (meaning the fishery) of Hoyle lake adjacent, under the description of lacus de Hildburgheye. The same William Lancelyn gave also a messuage in Little Meoles, which grant was confirmed by Robert Grosvenor and Margery his wife." (Chrt of St. Werborgh, p. 33; Harl. MSS. 1865)

The monks were apparently established on the island during the lifetime of Richard of Avranches (possibly in 1119). One story tells how Richard when a young man, was performing a pilgrimage to St. Winifred's Well, in Flintshire, nearly opposite the islands, was set on by a band of "Welsh robbers", who drove him for refuge to the Abbey of Basingwerk, where, not feeling too secure, by the advice of a monk of the cell of Hilbre, he addressed himself to St. Werburgh, who is said to have instantly parted the waters of the Dee, throwing up a huge sand-bank, over which his constable, the Baron of Halton, marched his men to the rescue and that is why the sands are called "The Constable's Sands". The story is interesting because most sources claim that Basingwerk was only founded some time later by the later earl Ranulph De Gernon. In any event the protection granted by St Werburgh did not last - Richard of Avranches drowned in the wreck of the "White Ship" in 1120.

An 1870 article by Henry Ecroyd Smith (a botanist and the first curator of the Liverpool Museum) may shed further light on matters (see links below) but appears dubious in parts.

Camden mentions it briefly in his discription of Wirral (1586):

  • "In the utmost brinke of this Promontorie lieth a small, hungrie, barren and sandie Isle called Il-bre, which had sometime a little cell of monkes in it."

William Webb uses almost the same words:

  • "Here in the utmost western nook of this promontory, divided from the land, lies that little barren island called Ilbree, or Hilbree, in which it was said there was sometimes a cell of monks, though I scarce believe it ; for that kind of people loved warmer seats than this could ever be."

Leyland (1540) gives a fuller description:

  • "And half a mile lower is Hillebyri, as the very point of Wyrale. This Hillebyri at the floode is al environid with water as an isle, and then the trajectus is a quarter of a mile over, and 4 fadome depe of water, and at ebbe a man may go over the sand. It is about a mile in cumpace, and the grounde is sandy and hath conies. There was a celle of monkes at Chestre, and a pilgrimage of Our Lady of Hilbyri."

Later History

A view towards Hilbre from Richard Ayton's "A voyage round Great Britain, undertaken in the summer of the year 1813, and commencing from the Land's-End, Cornwall". It is just possible that the two "tower-like" structures on Hilbre are the "two beacons" mentioned by Ayton.

In 1538 the islands passed to the Dean and Chapter of Chester Cathedral and remained under this ownership until 1856. Two monks were allowed to remain on the island, as they apparently maintained a beacon for shipping in the river mouth. Brownbill gives the extract from the Chester Chartulary in his "History of West Kirby" thus:

  • "John, Earl of Chester, 1232-37, had given to the Chapel of Hilbre, and the monks there abiding, 10s. a year for the lamps of St. Mary, payable out of his revenues as earl."

This might refer to a beacon or to lamps in the church. The last monk left the island in about 1550, the money for the lamps having been paid up to around that date. "West Kirby & Hilbre Island Shipping and Trade (1909, Harold Edgar Young), gives the following information:

  • From a most interesting Chester document, recently discovered at Chester by Mr. Sanders, it appears that three hundred years ago a somewhat eccentric Lincolnshire knight a certain Sir Richard Thimblebye, after whom Thimblebye's Tower on Chester walls was named was a resident in the island as a tenant of Sir Rowland Stanley, of Hooton, though how Sir Rowland came to be landlord I am at a loss to conceive. In addition to Sir Richard there must have been several shipowners living on the island, for in the list of shipping for 1572, mentioned above, eleven of the ships are definitely stated to be 'of Hilbree,' and only one from West Kirby. And in 1544 six ships are entered at Chester as of Hilbree and one of Caldy. The document found by Mr. Sanders at Chester is the evidence given by different witnesses in a suit brought by Mr. Massie, who farmed the rectory of West Kirby, against Sir Richard Thimblebye. The evidence, which contains many curious details, goes to show that the claiming of tithes by Mr. Massie from Hilbre Island was quite a new imposition. Thus Mr. John Brassie of Tiverton, aged sixty years, states that 'about forty-four years ago, being then a child, he was one of the boys of the Chamber to Abbot Birkenshaw, then Abbot of St. Werburgh's, Chester, and by reason thereof . . . familiarly acquainted with Dom John Smith or Dom Robert Harden, monks dwelling on the Isle of Hilbree, and that he was wont to go to Hilbree and there stay for the space of a fortnight together at certain times,' at which times he had seen 'fyshe taken for the monks' use within the water running about the said island with nets, but whether with boat or not he doth not remember, and further saith that he never heard that the said monks paid any tythe of fyshe taken there to the parson of West Kirkbie, or any other, for he saith the said isle was then taken to be of no parish, but was called a cell, belonging to the monastery of Chester, and therefore free from all manner of tythe paying.' " Another witness states that he lived at Hilbre with the monks for fourteen years I presume as servant and adds " he knoweth verie well that the saide Prior and monks had a fishing boat called the Jack Rice, and used to fish there by their servants, and he had often seen much fish taken there to their use," and further states " that the monks had certain kine on the same island and yet paid no tithes of the same.
Robert Morden's map from William Camden’s “Britannia”. Revised by Edmund Gibson, D.D. Published 1753. This shows Hilbre as a single island, and indicates the cross which stood there. The accuracy of the map is made doubtful by its inclusion of a non-existent river flowing across the Wirral through the Backford Gap - clearly this is a copy of an earlier somewhat inaccurate map. The Survey of Captain Greenville Collins, published in 1689, correctly shows the Hilbre as three small, smaller and tiny islands.

At one point a Richard Thimbleby, possibly the same, owned Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. The Newton family had taken possession of Woolsthorpe Manor in 1623 and their heir, Isaac Newton was born premature and sickly on Christmas Day in 1642, becoming lord of the manor at birth. Isaac's father, a prosperous Lincolnshire farmer, had died two months before his son's birth. Richard also, despite coming from a staunchly Catholic family, converted to the Church of England during the reign of Queen Mary (18 February 1516 – 17 November 1558) - Mary is remembered for her restoration of Roman Catholicism after her half-brother's short-lived Protestant reign. During her five-year reign, she had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake (including George Marsh - burnt at Chester). Richards's father, Sir John Thimbleby, is listed as the particular ringleader of the 1536 "revolt" that Richard Cromwell (nephew to Thomas Cromwell) would be most keen to capture.

The first map showing Hilbre and naming it as such appears to be the 1616 edition of John Speed's map of the British Isles. It is based on Saxton’s England and Wales, the 1591 Hondius map of Ireland and Mercator’s map of Scotland.

It was no longer a place of worship but simply a piece of property which was leased to various people over the years. Since the monks left the islands have used by fishermen and as a stop-off on the voyage from Chester to Ireland. It was busy enough that a customs house was set up on the island after the monks left. In the reign of Elizabeth I, when the Earl of Essex was pursuing his campaign in Ireland, 4,000 foot and 200 horse troops were encamped on Hilbre en route to Ireland. This would scarcely be possible today, given the size of the island. 17th century maps of Cheshire, such as Saxton's of 1577, Speed’s of 1610, and Blaeu's of 1648 show Hilbre as a single island roughly square in shape and about a mile long with a deep inlet on the southwest and it has been suggested that the island has been eroded into the three remnants since then. Prior to 1682, no sea charts of the British coasts existed, and it is to Charles II that we are indebted for the first. He instructed his "Hydrographer", Captain Grenville Collins, to make a survey of the coast and channels, and those charts of the rivers Dee and Mersey were effected by him in 1687. The Collins survey of 1687, shows three islands very much as exist today. It is probable that early maps may have reproduced errors made by the first map-makers as there is no record of a major loss of land at the islands between the wildly different maps of 1648 and l689. However, bearing in mind that the islands were only separated from the mainland some 7,500 years ago, it seems fair to speculate that the next thousand years could witness the virtual disappearance of the islands. The revetment works of the past 150 years and the construction of the former Lifeboat Station have done much to prevent erosion at the north end of Hilbre Island. However, Little Eye has now been almost completely eroded away.

In 1692 there was a scheme to produce salt on Hilbre Island. This probably involved boiling in seawater quantities of Cheshire rock salt brought to the island via the River Dee. The scheme was short-lived but may well have left some traces in the form of depressions in the ground outside the present bird observatory. In 1755 there was a proposal to establish an oyster fishery around the island but this was opposed by a combination of Liverpool Corporation, traders, shipowners, fishermen and pilots and the proposal was dropped.

A public house (The "Seagull Inn") had been established by the 18th century at the latest. It was visited by dramatist Richard Ayton in 1813. Its patrons were "the crews of some small vessels which find a harbour under one side of the Island". The islands have a more dubious reputation for wrecking and smuggling and the innkeeper in the early 19th century was said to be unaccountably wealthy. Traveler Richard Ayton recorded in 1813 the local gossip about the Hilbre innkeeper and his wife that:

In Feb 1856, when Hilbre was purchased for £1500 beef was 5-8 old pence a pound. The islands were sold to Hoylake Council in 1945 for £2,500, passing to Wirral Borough Council on its formation in 1974.
  • "their riches have been gained principally by wrecking, for which business their situation is said to be admirably calculated"

Richard Ayton, also refers to Hilbre being most important:

  • "as a station for two beacons which are raised upon it, as guides to vessels through the Swash, a channel between the two Hoyle Sands, leading into Hoylake".

The full text of Ayton's Voyage Round Great Britain is available online.

In the 1820's Thomas Telford and his associates produced a scheme to construct a "Floating Harbour" along the entire length of the North Wirral coast with two sea ports, one in the mouth of the Dee and one in the mouth of the Mersey. Hilbre Island would have become the pierhead of the Dee port, linked via. Middle Eye and Little Eye to the mainland by an embankment and road. A further embankment from Red Rocks to the northern tip of Hilbre Island with an opening 300 feet wide would have turned the sands between the islands and the mainland into a 50-acre tidal harbour. Needless to say this scheme and a contemporary scheme to build a ship canal from Hoylake to Wallasey Pool were never implemented.

Liverpool's first dock was the world's first enclosed commercial dock, the Old Dock, built in 1715. The Lyver Pool, a tidal inlet in the narrows of the estuary, which is now largely under the Liverpool One shopping centre, was converted into the enclosed dock. Further docks were added and eventually all were interconnected by lock gates, extending 7.5 miles (12.1 km) along the Liverpool bank of the River Mersey. From 1830 onwards, most of the building stone was granite from Kirkmabreck near Creetown, Scotland. The Trustees of Liverpool Docks financed much of this and even ran the quarries. The interconnected dock system was the most advanced port system in the world. The docks enabled ship movements within the dock system 24 hours a day, isolated from the high River Mersey tides. Liverpool's early wealth had, like their possible Viking forefathers sailing the Irish Sea, been built on the slave trade, This included the Triangular Trade in slaves. The town dues, which in 1704 had produced a mere £255, in 1829 produced £22,000.

Semaphore and Telegraph

Signal and shipping beacons are known on the Wirral from early times. In 1588 a beacon was set up at Bidston, and much earlier the Earl of Chester Ranulf de Blondeville had set up a beacon in 1220 as the "Everton Beacon". In 1804, during the Napoleonic wars, when the French broke the blockade of Toulon, the Admiralty established a number of signal stations between Liverpool and Holyhead. An "alarm beacon" on Bidston Hill was set up at the same time. The Lancaster Gazetter reported:

  • "A fire beacon is erected, a few paces to the southward of the Bidston Light-house, for the purpose of communicating the approach of an enemy, should any appear on this part of the coast"

Even the Romans took care to maintain good communications along the North Wales coast between their fortress at Deva (Chester) and their naval base at Caer Gybi (Holyhead).

The Grosvenor Bridge looking down a still River Dee - built between 1827-1833 in order to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge at Handbridge. It was built high above the river for shipping to pass: a very few years later (1846) the railway bridge downstream was very much lower.

The coastal signals stations appear to have been located at Liverpool (St. Domingo in Everton - incidentally the patron Saint of astronomers), Bidston Hill, Point of Ayr, Cabe Hill, Great Orme’s Head, Point Lynas and Holyhead. There was no signal station on Hilbre Island as part of that early chain and very little is known about the nature of the signaling used. It may well have been that the only thing that the Admiralty had in mind was a simple signal that an enemy flotilla or even fleet had been sighted. Then, the July 1804 issue of the Scots Magazine mentioned:

  • "A plan of a Telegraphic Establishment for Domestic and Commercial Purposes having been suggested some time since to Mr Boaz, the ingenious patentee of a Day and Night Telegraph, that gentleman has lately submitted proposals for a local experiment to the inhabitants of Liverpool. A line of Telegraphs is in consequence about to be established from Liverpool to Holyhead, for the purpose of announcing the arrival of ships bound for Liverpool, and of procuring pilots. Another line has been suggested, from Liverpool to Hull, through Manchester and Leeds; and another from Liverpool to London, thro’ Chester and Birmingham"

James Boaz (an accountant and founder member of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow) filed his patent on Dec 3rd 1801. He was elected secretary of the Philosophical Society in 1804 and remained as secretary to that society until his death in March 1830. The Society Journals say of him:

  • "The presidents were often chosen annually the secretaries have however been more permanent office bearers. Mr James Boaz continued in the office of secretary from 1804 till his death in March 1830. His minutes are written with great neatness and contain abstracts of papers and drawings of models or plans which have accompanied descriptive communications." (Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, Volume 1)

He was not to be the only person to claim to have been the original "inventor" of the Holyhead-Liverpool telegraph.

Description of Boaz's Diurnal and Nocturnal Patent Telegraph, published 1804 - free eBook. It was later claimed that the Liverpool Corporation simply stole the basic idea and paid Boaz nothing.

The Act of Union 1800, which unified Great Britain and Ireland, gave rise to a need to improve communication links between London and Dublin. In consequence, major changes in regional communication patterns were occuring at the time. The post road (the modern A5) built by Thomas Telford from London strengthened Holyhead's position as the port from which the Royal Mail was dispatched to and from Dublin on the Mail coach. The A5 terminates at Admiralty Arch (1822–24), which was designed by Thomas Harrison to commemorate a visit by King George IV in 1821 en route to Ireland and marks the zenith of Irish Mail coach operations. Holy Island and Anglesey are separated by the Cymyran Strait which used to be crossed on the Four Mile Bridge; so called, because the bridge was 4 miles (6.4 km) from Holyhead on the old turnpike. Thomas Telfords Menai Straights bridge of 1826 and the Stanley Embankment put the final links into the land route from London to Holyhead and its construction could have encouraged the merchants of Liverpool to do something to enhance their own trading position. Worse still for Liverpool, Great Britain and Ireland and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, after which Britain led efforts to block slave ships. Britain was to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Because Chester had good road links, Parkgate (in the Dee Estuary below Chester) had been the favoured base for sailing packets to Ireland up to the 1800s. The new post road changed this. In response, Chester's corporation, worried by the development of the A5, built the Grosvenor Bridge between 1827-1833 (but only after years of deliberation). Liverpool came up with an innovative solution which left its mark on Hilbre Island and had far-reaching consequences elsewhere.

Lieutenant Morrison - aka "Zadkiel"

1833 saw the issue of "A copious report of the Inquiry into the Affairs of the Corporation of Liverpool, before His Majesty's Commissioners ... commenced on the 4th and ended on the 30th November, 1833". This was essentially a corruption enquiry and involved Sir John Tobin (see below) and other members of the Liverpool Corporation. The report is lengthy but contains some interesting comments on the semaphore. On the seventh day of the Inquiry Lieutenant Richard James Morrison (RN) gave evidence to the effect that there were serious irregularities in the operation of the semaphore telegraph. These included charges made by the corporation that were not in the accounts, payments to Lieutenant Watson (see below) that were also not recorded and, most surprisingly, he (Morrison) had originally suggested the telegraph in July 1830 and that Watson had used his plans without any payment at all. Apparently, Morrison had repeatedly tried to have these matters investigated but was either ignored or rebuffed. The inquiry did uncover clear evidence that Morrison had approached the corporation in 1830, and suggested detailed plans for the semaphore, which were apparently used by Watson, but the matter was not taken further.

James Morrison - aka "Zadkiel Tao-Sze" - cheated designer of the Holyhead-Liverpool semaphore line, or complete nutter?

Morrison turns out to be an interesting character - again well known at the time and since largely forgotten. He was born 15 June, 1795 and after a moderately distinguished career left the fighting arm. His last appointment was to the Coast Guard, in which he served from April, 1827, until Oct. 1829, when he was "under the necessity of resigning from the effects of ill health, induced by the exposure he had suffered in rescuing 4 men and a boy from wreck in the month of Feb. 1828". His exertions on the occasion were acknowledged by a medal from the “Society for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.” He then devoted himself to the study of astrology and in 1831 issued "The Herald of Astrology", subsequently known as "Zadkiel's Almanac" after his psuedonym, Zadkiel (צָדְקִיאֵל). In this annual pamphlet (eventually published until 1931), Morrison and his successors published predictions of the chief events of the coming year. In the 1861 Almanac Zadkiel predicted ill-health for the Prince Consort and Albert obligingly died of cholera that year, doing nothing but good for the Almanac's sales. However, the Almanac was the well-known subject of satire, with Blackwoods publishing as a parody:

Morrison's almanac became a by-word for dubious predictions and was much parodied. In 1883 there was no war in Europe and it failed to predict the Krakatoa eruption.
  • "Blackwood's Comic Zadkiel; An Almanac at once Prophetical, Quizzical and Physical, Ombrological and Symbolical, Astronomically Comical, and Comically Astronomical, for the Year 1855: A Work Devoted to All the Ologies Except Tautology, and Containing Full Prophecies upon Everything which Nobody Wishes to Know; and Truthfully Foretelling Every Future Event, from the Winner of the Derby to the Next Revolution in the Wheel of Time."

Morrison died on the 5th of April 1874. Even after his death ridicule continued - somewhat jokingly The Athenaeum (16 May 1874, p. 666) noted that Morrison was:

  • “the restorer and Grand Master in this country of Tao-Sze, a secret society intended to be of immense power, and to outshine the Freemasons, but which, most probably, by his death, is reduced to two members."

The "Tao-Sze" were apparently a Chinese secret society dating back hundreds of years - they are actually mentioned by Marco Polo in 1300. In actuality "Tao-Sze" is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism, intimately connected with the Tao Te Ching and "primordial" (or "original") Taoism. Perhaps his association with such matters was sufficient for Morrison's evidence at the inquiry to be discarded and his claim dismissed. Morrison had not even been original in his choice of name, the same "Zadkiel Tao-Sze" pseudonym had been used by William Lilly (1602-1681) who in 1644, during the English Civil War, published the first of his many popular astrological texts. In early Victorian times there was still a strong link (at least in the public mind) between astrology and weather forecasting. For a while "weather prophets" such as Morrison, who also had some scientific knowledge meant that weather forecasting was a mix of science and superstition.

The Semaphore Line

On 15th November 1828 the Trustees of Liverpool Docks acquired the lease to the islands and established Hilbre Island as a telegraph station in a chain for communicating semaphore messages from Holyhead to Liverpool. The original proposal was for a site at Hoylake, but Watson preferred Hilbre. It appears that the lease to the "Mease or Celle called Hilbre" was acquired from "the executors of" Dr Trevor the absentee rector of West Kirby. Trevor apparently became rector in 1803 and died in 1827. Things then got rather complicated: Dr Trevor was succeeded in 1827 by a Dr Edward Coplestone (appointed Dean of Chester just the previous year). He appeared once in the church, and read himself in. He received a year's tithe, and was shortly after made Bishop of Llandaff. Upon his promotion the Crown presented Dr. George Murray in 1828, when the same proceedings were gone through; but upon being made Bishop of Rochester, he also resigned in 1829. Overall, the rectors appear to have been absent for much of the time. Liverpool actually purchased Hilbre island in 1856.

The fact that one semaphore station was set squarely in the mouth of the River Dee may of itself have been designed both to gather commercial intelligence about what was going into Chester and to lure ships into Liverpool. Survey and construction of the complete semaphore line was, in 1825, entrusted to ex-Army Lieutenant Barnard Lindsay Watson (26 Dec 1796 – 1865). He was made Ensign in the Oxfordshire Local Militia on 13 Apr 1813, and Lieutenant on 3 Nov 1820. Given that the army was shrinking after the end of the Napoleonic Wars he was probably retired on part pay fairly soon afterwards as he was very soon working as a schoolmaster. Watson went bankrupt three times: in 1831, while a flag manufacturer in Liverpool; in 1842, again a flag manufacturer, but now in London and Kent; and finally as a hotel keeper in Bathwick, Somerset in 1848. Watson would have been aware that the best weather was often found along the coast. The line of stations ran, from Holyhead, through Llanfaethlu, Point Lynas (North Amglesey), Puffin Island, the Great Orme, Llysfaen near Abergele, Foryd, Voel Nant above Prestatyn, Hilbre Island (a second choice after Hoylake) and Bidston Hill and the final station in Liverpool.

There is an excellent book on the Holyhead-Liverpool telegraph: "Faster than the wind" by Frank Large (1998): ISBN 09521020 9 9. It is apparently out of print, but copies may be obtained from second-hand sellers online. The publishers (Avid) specialise in marine titles.

Semaphore (usually said to have been realised by Claude Chappe in 1801 - who also named it) was the Internet of its day. It is parodied as "The Clacks" in the "Diskworld" novels of the late Terry Pratchett. Use of false semaphore signals to provide "fake news" was a plot element in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), where it is used to manipulate financial (bond) markets and gain revenge for the escaped Count. It has been suggested that during 1790–1795, at the height of the French Revolution, France needed a swift and reliable communication system to thwart the war efforts of its enemies. France was surrounded by the forces of Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Austria, and Spain, the cities of Marseille and Lyon were in revolt, and the British Fleet held Toulon. The only advantage France held was the lack of cooperation between the allied forces due to their inadequate lines of communication. In the summer of 1790, the Chappe brothers set about devising a system of communication that would allow the central government to receive intelligence and to transmit orders in the shortest possible time. The British Admiralty soon became interested in the French system and gathered useful information simply by walking up to the semaphore towers and engaging their crews in casual conversation.

Sir John Tobin was a pirate and a slave-trader. In more than one instance during the Napoleonic Wars he captured French slave-ships and sold the slaves on to the British. He also benefited from the information sent over the semaphore. He appears as Captain in 6 slaving voyages 1793-1803 and as owner in 10 slaving voyages 1794-1804, with William Aspinall in 7, with John Bridge Aspinall and James Aspinall and others (including Peter Whitfield Brancker in one) in 2, and with John Gladstone and others in one, in 1803, in which Tobin also appears as Captain. In later years he stayed on shore and became an insurer of the cargo of others.

Faster than the wind

The 1825 Holyhead-Liverpool line was the first commercial semaphore line. The system enabled the sighting of a ship off Anglesey which "made her number" (with flags) to be transmitted to Liverpool within minutes. The same was true of weather changes - which could take at least an hour to be felt in Liverpool after a change at Holyhead, and vice versa. One Liverpool newspaper stated that it was "Faster Than The Wind". Knowledge of incoming ships had many commercial advantages as the process of selling the cargo and arranging the next voyage could then start. There was also a very active marine insurance business in Liverpool and the knowledge that a ship had successfuly crossed the Atlantic and was (almost certainly) about to arrive safely meant that money was freed-up for new risks. In the absence of such news of an overdue vessel, an underwriter might have to cover his potential losses by re-insurance: a very expensive measure. Typical sailing time from Holyhead to Liverpool was around 18-24 hours - but in adverse weather it could take a week. A yet further advantage of the telegraph is illustrated by the following example taken from "The Handbook of Communication by Telegraph":

  • "The Brig TINLEY, with a cargo of Timber, arrived off Point Lynas; before taking a Pilot on board, she made her number, and heaving-to, telegraphed as follows:- 4.519 (Inform the) 5.688 (Owners) 7.933 (I wait for orders). This was instantly sent through the line of stations to Liverpool and was directly communicated to the Owners, who having sold her cargo in Wales, the following was telegraphed to the Brig: 6.871 (Proceed without delay to) 9.182 (Beaumaris) - and she directly made for that port which was under her lee. Vessels calling off Holyhead have frequently been directed to proceed to the Clyde, Belfast, Dublin &c "

The system was also of benefit to the captains of vessels, as they could raise flags at Holyhead and have a pilot and instructions awaiting at Point Lynas, where pilots for Liverpool were taken up and put down. Captain, crew and owners all might well prefer Liverpool's Pilot, with up-to-date weather and knowledge of at times treacherous (but well-lit) passage, to a Dee pilot. As had been stated as early as 1765 (in the previous year alone eighteen ships were stranded and 75 lives were lost.):

  • "The entrance to the port of Liverpool is very dangerous without a skilful pilot, and many ships and lives have, of late years been lost owing to the negligence and ignorance of persons taking upon them to conduct ships and vessels into and out of the said Port. A proper regulation of the Pilots at the said Port and the ascertaining of their rates and prices would tend greatly to promote and encourage trade and navigation, and be a publick utility"

The record, set in clear weather during a demonstration for the Trustees in 1830, was claimed to be an amazing 23 seconds. The Welsh Coast Pioneer and Review for North Cambria (25th March 1909) mentions an even more impressive 18 seconds for a round trip. In poor visibility and at night the system was unusable. Even today (2019) it takes over three hours to take the train from Liverpool to Holyhead, a distance of over 70 miles as the crow flies. Sound travels a mile in 4.7 seconds, so even a noise which started as an incredibly loud explosion at Holyhead (say 50 tons of TNT) would take about 5 and a half minutes to cover the distance: - some ten times slower than the best working rate of the semaphore. Liverpool prospered, perhaps in part due to the semaphore, With the opening of the railway from London to Liverpool, Holyhead lost the London to Dublin Mail contract in 1839 to the Port of Liverpool. Only after the completion of the Chester and Holyhead Railway in 1850 and the building of Holyhead railway station did the Irish Mail return to Holyhead, operated from London Euston by the London and North Western Railway.

Even before the advent of electrical telegraphy the semaphore system could be used to send reasonably accurate time signals from the transit telescopes at Bidston. To do this a signal was sent back and forth along the semaphore chain several times. It was then a simple matter to calculate the time taken for the signal to traverse the chain and hence the delay which needed to be taken into account in getting a true time.

Watson's Watch

In June 1904 the Rhyl Journal reported a visit to the Voel Nant telegraphy station by the local naturalists society. During the visit it was noted that the "superintendant and adaptor" of the semaphore system along the North Wales coast was the Lieutenant Watson and that:

  • "..he was the possessor of a valuable gold watch presented to him by Sir John Tobin, a wealthy Liverpool merchant of that day, as a souvenir. It appeared that one of Sir John Tobin's ships, the Mayflower" I think he was named, with a valuable cargo from the West Indies, was considerably overdue, and Sir John decided to re-insure her, and as he passed out of his office he told the clerk what he was about to do, adding that he would not be long should anyone call. He had no sooner gone than Lt. Watson called, and finding Sir John out, said to the clerk, "Oh, tell Sir John when he comes in that the Mayflower has just been reported off Holyhead." The clerk rushed after Sir John with the news, and so saved the very heavy charge of re-insuring. The watch presented to Lieut Watson, as a slight acknowledgment of the courtesy shown, had engraved on the back of it the semaphore, with the arms up tor the "Maytlower." " (it is not recorded whether the clerk got anything for his trouble)
A postcard of Liscard Hall aka Moors Hey House - prior to partial descruction by arson in 2008 and subsequent demolition.

The above story illustrates how good communications with Holyhead could be of incredible value in such a commercially active city as Liverpool. Sir John the wealthy underwriter avoids the expensive re-insurance and this kindly old gentleman is so grateful that he rewards Watson with a watch. The ship was probably simply Tobin's "May", which somehow gained the priviledge of being able to avoid dues and fees and therefore probably bore the most valuable cargo. However, there is a darker edge to the tale. Sir John Tobin (1763-1851), 'merchant', was born on the Isle of Man (his father was from Ireland). By the 1790s was a master, operating in the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean, and operated as a privateer in the early years of the war with France. He married, 1798, Sarah Aspinall (1770-1853), daughter of James Aspinall (1729-1787), another prominent Liverpool slave-trader. It is said that 'This marriage may have brought him capital'. He was a pioneer of the palm oil trade, made money from ivory and was knighted in 1820. He became Mayor of Liverpool in 1819. According to the Liverpool Mercury - his political opponents - he paid six shillings per vote to get elected in one of "the most barefaced acts of bribery that ever disgraced even the electioneering annals of this venal rotten borough". With his ill-gotten gains he built Liscard Hall.

The Victoria Tower in Liverpool - used a Jones of Chester mechanism. The tower (built 1847-48) was designed by Jesse Hartley who also worked on the Grosvenor Bridge. The very large municipal electrically-controlled clock with six faces is said to be the largest existing in 1859 (when it was presumably installed), and was in circuit with the Liverpool Observatory at Bidston.

1839 was a tumultuous year for Watson. January brought the great gale of 1839, which laid waste to much of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph. Watson started to re-build. In the original telegraph, each station had a single tall mast with three pairs of semaphore arms, each of which could signal a digit from 0-9, and an extra indicator on top. The new telegraph had two, shorter masts, each with two pairs of arms, giving an enlarged vocabulary of 10,000 words. Around this time, in an effort to raise funds, Watson announced that only subscribing vessels would be reported by the telegraph. In March of the same year, the Hull Chamber of Commerce and Shipping commissioned Watson to survey potential sites for a telegraph along the Humber. The Liverpool Dock Committee didn’t take kindly to all this. This was not the behaviour the Trustees expected of an employee. Watson’s outside interests could no longer be tolerated. Watson had been allowed to sell his propriety flag signals to ship-owners for many years. But when the Dock Committee learned that he’d been secretly collecting intelligence for insurance companies: his benefactor Sir John Tobin was the chairman of the underwtiter's association in Liverpool. It was the last straw. In May 1839, the Liverpool Dock Committee dismissed Watson. The re-construction of the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was completed under a new superintendent, Lieutenant William Lord, R.N..

Alexander Bain - often drunk.

Waterproof Wires and Jones' Clock

Following the adoption of Gutta Percha after 1845, undersea cables became feasable, and by 1853, more successful cables were laid, linking Great Britain with Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. After tenders proposed in 1857 (see The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser - 17th January 1857) the Great Orme telegraph station was converted to electric telegraph by the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company. Charles Tilston Bright who oversaw the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858, joined the Magnetic Telegraph Company in 1852.

Landlines and submarine cables connected the Orme to Liverpool and Holyhead - and thence to Ireland. At first the new equipment was installed in the original Semaphore Station on the summit until it was moved down to the Great Orme lighthouse in 1859. Two years later the Great Orme semaphore station, and the others in the chain, closed with the completion of a direct electric telegraph connection from Liverpool to Holyhead. The whole conversion of the sephamore to electricity seems to have been funded by Liverpool. In 1853 Magnetic were successful with a cable from Holyhead to Ireland. Because of the infrastructure already in place there was now a direct link between Liverpool and Ireland. As Magnetic also had extensive infrastructure in Ireland they rapidly consolidated their Anglo-Irish business.

Before embarking on any voyage, it was important that a ship’s chronometer should be set accurately to GMT and that any daily drift in its time keeping be known. This could be done by reference to time obtained at a local astronomical observatory equipped with a transit telescope. The procedure would entail either taking the ship’s chronometer to the observatory, or checking with the port authority’s display of a chronometer synchronised to an observatory’s master clock. Many ports provided a time signal each day either by operating a time ball at the quayside or by firing a cannon.

In 1857 the "Magnetic" company acquired the patent of Robert Lewis Jones of Chester (once a chemical supplier to the Tanning industry in Chester and then the manager at Chester Station) for regulating electric clocks. Jones was not the first to use electrical regulation as earlier work had been done by the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain (1810-1877). Unfortunately, Bain was difficult to work with as he had a vile temper, was frequently ferociously drunk and was said to be very argumentative. Jones apparently applied his improvements on Bain's work to the clock at Chester Station. Bain had sold his patents to the "Electric Telegraph Company", Magnetic's major competitor, as part of a share deal. Competition for the best technology, in this age of "Railway Mania" and perhaps a little "Telegraph Mania" was fierce. Jones development in horology is described in "ELECTRIC CLOCKS" as follows:

The Chester Station exterior as portrayed in Hughes (1858). This was probably about the time when the Station Manager, Jones, was experimenting with electrically synchronised clocks. The clock he adapted (seen on the right) stood above the main entrance of the station and has since been replaced by a railway logo.
  • "Mr. R. L. Jones, the station master (sic) of Chester, evolved the idea of sympathetic pendulums by simply applying Bain’s electro-magnetic pendulum bob to existing key-wound clocks. His Patent, No. 702, of 1857, claims the obvious advantages of perfect synchronisation, of independent life in case of electrical failure, and small current consumption. He applied it with success to his own turret clock at Chester and to a turret clock in the Victoria Tower in Liverpool. Then Mr. F. James Ritchie, of Edinburgh, took hold of it and supplied many observatories with pairs and triplets of sympathetic pendulums. In 1873, Ritchie carried it a step further. Realising what a very small expenditure of electrical energy was required to keep two tuned pendulums in phase, he was tempted to dispense with the spring or weight-driven maintenance with its merit of independent life, and drove the hands from the pendulum as Bain had done in his earliest earth-driven clocks, but by an improved method which may be described as a reversed gravity escapement."
Jones lived at Brook Lodge in Hoole - just above the "R" in Chester. This map dates from before the railway came to Chester.

Jones' clock system had the advantage that it could survive short power cuts. It possibly also usefully avoided the Bain patents, since 1852 controlled by "Magnetic"'s rival "Electric". There had been considerable litigation over the Bain patents earlier. "Magnetic" began to use Jones' clocks in its offices. The public appreciation of such clocks it measured from the large electric clock it had in the window of its office at Exchange Buildings, Liverpool, controlled by the Observatory at Bidston. On February 4, 1861 it counted the number of people who "took the time from the clock" between 6am and 5pm – the number totalled 1,860. The Victoria Tower at the Birkenhead docks had a clock controlled in the same way. The career of Robert Lewis Jones illustrates well the changes happening in Chester: at first he was engaged in the chemical industry, manufacturing materials for the Tanning trade at the Canalside by Chemisty Lock in Boughton. After the arrival of the railways he became general manager of Chester Station and switched his patenting activities from chemistry to electricity. Fortunately for Chester, whose sea-trade and port had failed, the railway to Holyhead took the Roman coastal route rather than following the A5. Liverpool had soared past Chester as a port. In 1858, the year that the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board was formed, twelve pilot cutters and 200 pilots catered for nearly 9 million tons of cargo passing through the port of Liverpool. In 1862 Chester's utterly corrupt and inward-looking Corporation was considering a lavish new Town Hall.

Unfortunately some thought that Jones' clock had a fairly serious technical flaw. This is described in A Rudimentary Treatise On Clocks, Watches & Bells for Public Purposes by Edmund Beckett (1903):

  • "Mr R L Jones when manager of the Chester Station, about 30 years ago, hit upon the ingenious plan of controling rather than attempting to drive a subordinate clock, by sending a current over its pendulum at every beat of the normal or governing clock. It does not matter if the current sometimes fails for a few seconds, or even minutes, unless the subordinate pendulum has time to get more than a whole beat wrong, in which the error would be augmented into two when the connection was resumed, which is a rather serious evil; and I understand this plan has been abandoned in some places which adopted it."
The entrance to the Sutton Tunnel - where a massive disaster was narrowly avoided. The tunnel entrance is similar to that of the turreted and castellated Clayton Tunnel designed by David Mocatta which suffered a similar accident in 1861.

Despite Beckett's doubts we also learn that the clock in Liverpool was "attended with the most complete success" and was also proposed in Glasgow for controlling all of the public clocks in Glasgow, Port Glasgow, Greenock and Paisley after a successful trial in 1863 involving communication between the University clock on High Street and the Glasgow Horselethill Observatory. Presumably the clock system was good enough for navigational purposes. In the discussions at the time Jones himself reported that:

  • ".. a standard of accuracy of one tenth of a second had been maintained in all weathers and conditions. In addition the mechanism had been utilised for the operation of a time ball for the checking of chronometers, and that the system had been extended to include smaller clocks placed in shop windows and one at the Exchange Piazza."

Others referred to the success of the Jones system. In "Old Scottish Clockmakers" (1921) we read:

  • "It was Wheatstone, who, on the first introduction of the electrically-moved pendulum, suggested the idea of an electrically-controlled pendulum, which was taken up and successfully worked out by Mr Jones of Chester. Under this arrangement a standard clock is enabled by means of an electric current to regulate the pendulum motion of any number of other clocks, and so make the latter keep time with perfect precision. It is thus that the clock which fires the time gun on the Castlehill, as well as several other clocks in Edinburgh, are controlled by a standard clock at the City Observatory, and indeed, the method is now in use all over the country for the purpose of keeping public clocks up to Greenwich time."

The proposal was opposed by Charles Piazzi "Pyramid" Smyth, but then Jones' system was adopted and used successfuly in Glasgow and its ports, for 50 years until its replacement by a nation-wide wireless radio service: the Greenwich Time Signal.

Jones and the Sutton Tunnel accident

There is perhaps a darker side to Jones' fixation with accurate time-keeping and communication on the railways. In 1851, when Jones was already Station Manager at Chester Station, he was involved in the events which led up to the Sutton Tunnel railway accident when 1600 people were trapped by a collision in a pitch-dark tunnel involving trains from Chester.

The area round Norton Priory and the Sutton Tunnel showing the various canals and railways which crossed the area.

The Chester-Warrington line was new. It had been opened by the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway Company only four months before. The BL&CJR was built to connect Chester and the manufacturing districts of Lancashire by making a junction near Warrington with the Grand Junction Railway; it opened in 1850. The BL&CJR had taken over the financially troubled Chester and Birkenhead Railway in 1847, keeping its own name for the combined company. Interests in the Birkenhead docks were aware that they needed a railway connection towards Manchester and the Lancashire manufacturing districts, to enable them to compete with Liverpool. There were also profits to be made by shortening the journey time from Manchester to Chester, for the races, and the new railway would avoid a detour via Crewe and cut the journey time in half. The Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway was incorporated on 26 June 1846 with capital of £1.5 million, to build from Chester to Walton Junction, near Warrington, where it would connect with the Grand Junction line, leading to Manchester. Construction of the Warrington line proceeded, although the shortage of money following the Railway Mania period slowed progress considerably. In October 1850 there was a formal opening, but the actual public opening took place on 18 December 1850. Such were the concerns over money and competition that the directors may have paid little attention to safety.

The line was to have two major engineering projects the first being the 1¼ mile long Sutton Tunnel and the viaduct to cross the Weaver Navigation near Frodsham. The tunnel was duly completed as was the impressive viaduct constructed mainly of brick with cast iron spans. The Sutton Tunnel is 1 mile 154 yards long and is located to the north of Frodsham, to the south of Norton and to the west of Preston Brook villages close to Sutton Weaver. Sutton Tunnel, also sometimes described as Halton Tunnel, is a single bore tunnel that has two tracks.

One puzzle is why a tunnel was needed at all. It is shallower than many railway cuttings. The answer seems to be that Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory, didn't like the idea of a railway accross his land. There was nothing new in this sort of objection. During the mid-18th century, Sir Richard Brooke was involved in a campaign to prevent the Bridgewater Canal from being built through his estate. The Bridgewater Canal Extension Act had been passed in 1762, and it made allowances for limited disturbance to the Norton estate. However Sir Richard did not see the necessity for the canal and opposed its passing through his estate. In 1773 the canal was opened from Manchester to Runcorn, except for 1 mile (2 km) across the estate, which meant that goods had to be unloaded and carted around it. Eventually Sir Richard capitulated, and the canal was completed throughout its length by March 1776. During the 19th century the estate was again affected by transport projects. In 1804 the Runcorn to Latchford Canal was opened, replacing the Mersey and Irwell Navigation; this cut off the northern part of the estate, making it only accessible by a bridge. The Grand Junction Railway was built across the estate in 1837. It seems that the Sutton Tunnel was constructed to avoid further objections and delay.

An advert for excursions to the Chester races.

The BLCJR advertised its new line to the Manchester population as The Direct Route to Chester Races and they laid on a number of special trains for the race meet of the 30th April 1851. It is estimated that 4,000 people gathered at Manchester Victoria station on the morning of that day. The trains struggled to get the passengers to Chester, with one train arriving 2½ hours late and passengers from another train of 50 carriages having to walk part of the way.

Details of the actual accident are given elsewhere on this site under Sutton Tunnel Disaster. It was known well in advance that station operations at Chester on the day would be a difficult and plans had been made to handle the increased traffic due to a race meeting. Jones was involved both in this planning and in events on the day. Nevertheless, an over-crowded train left Chester and had great difficulty remaining in motion on the journey towards Warrington. In the dark of the Sutton tunnel a second locomotive came into violent collision with the rear of the previous train, completely destroying several carriages and causing his engine to be derailed. Both lines were blocked and the tunnel almost completely filled with debris. Fortunately there was no fire in the tunnel, otherwise the death-toll would have been enormous with the ventillation shaft acting as a flue and air being sucked in from both ends of the tunnel to consume the wooden rolling stock. In 1861 the Clayton Tunnel rail crash occurred under very similar circumstances and became the worst accident on the British railway system up to that time killing 23 and injuring 176 passengers.

Jones was examined at the inquest and stated:

  • "My duty is to see that all the departments are carefully attended to hy competent persons. I have nothing to do with the arrival or despatch of trains beyond a general supervision. There is a station-master for that, and a superintendent under him. (Produced a book of the rules drawn up for the guidance of the officers and men employed at the station.) There is a supplementary rule that each person will be expected to be acquainted with the rules of the various companies working in the Chester station, so far as may affect his particular duties. There is no portion of the general station at Chester allotted specially to the Cheshire Junction Company, I saw most of the trains leave on Wednesday evening last. Remember particularly the train which left at a quarter-past seven, because there was a private carriage attached to it. There were, I should say, about 400 empty carriages in and about the station. Many passengers were anxious to go by this train, and some of them had got upon the roofs of the carriages, as there was not room inside. They were ordered to get down by me befure the train started."
The interior of the Chester railway station in Victorian times. Taken from Gresty's Illustrated Chester 1865. The octagonal hut was the office of the Station Manager. Jones might just be the person in the stove-pipe hat standing at the very center of the illustration.

The subsequent inquiry noted:

  • "A scene of fearful confusion ensued: 1,600 passengers found themselves crowded together in perfect darkness: while some of them were endeavouring to procure themselves a light from the engines, the noise of another train was heard approaching and led all parties to dread a second collision"

The inquiry even considered that the weight of passengers was so great that parts of the carriage woodwork distorted to the extent that it bore open the wheels of the train and acted as a brake. The inquiry (Captain Laffan), in considering the events at Chester before the departure of overloaded trains returning from the race meeting, pays particular attention to time-keeping at Chester Station. Captain Laffan concluded that:

  • "Throughout the present inquiry great difficulty was experienced, in consequence of its being impossible to obtrain from the Company servants any accurate evidence as to time. The Company do not require that their servants should carry watches; and the clocks at the stations are placed inside the buildings, and cannot be seen by the parties who have charge of the trains."

In fact, time-keeping at Chester was so poor that Laffan had to get all of the time data used at the inquiry from passangers on the ill-fated train. As noted above, Robert Lewis Jones was present at Chester Station and had attempted to control the crowding of the trains, especially when people started to clamber onto the roofs of the carriages. Although Jones was not personally censured the inquiry stated that:

  • "..all the servants of the Company, in any way concerned, acted with a singular absence of all ordinary prudence and discretion."

The inquiry recommended the installation of a telegraph through the tunnel and commented severely on the importance of timekeeping by railway staff. There are perhaps hints of a "whitewash": the inquest on the dead was held in the Red Lion, Preston Brook, from the 3rd May until the 12th. The foreman of the jury was a Dr. Wilson from Preston Brook. Wilson was Agent for Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory, who had insisted that the tunnel be built in the first place rather than have yet another transport link crossing his estate.

Perhaps this near disaster of 1851 (in which of the 1600 trapped, nine still died and 30-40 were injured) focussed Station Manager Jomes' mind on the issue of clocks leading to his subsequent invention just a few years later.

Surviving sites

The surviving remains of the semaphore signal stations on the Holyhead-Liverpool line are as listed below - the link "MAP" will in each case bring up a side by side view of an old map amd a modern view. The Telegraph keepers of Hilbre Island all appear to have kept a horse or pony for transport and sheep and some kept a cow, a pig and poultry. The sheep are said to have been kept in order to keep the grass short rather than for profit. As can be seen from the photographs and maps below, many of the signal stations were surrounded by small-holdings where the relatively isolated telegraphers could raise their own produce. In some cases the stations were relocated and further detail om relocation/bebuilding can be found in "Faster Than The Wind".

The course of the coastal semaphore line between Holyhead and Liverpool. This was the world's first commercial telegraph system and allowed communication between Liverpool ship-owners and their boats. It also provided a means of collecting and distributing weather information as well as time signals (from Bidston) especially once it was upgraded to an electrical telegraph. The electrical time signal system used the method devised by Robert L. Jones, station manager at Chester Station and resident of Hoole in the same house, Brook Lodge, that had been occupied by John Broster, printer and writer of guidebooks on Chester. The ever so helpful Chester History Hub were able to provide a date of birth for Robert Lewis Jones of 1806/7 and confirmed his address during the time he was moving from Chemistry to Railways as 71 Tarvin Road Boughton - very close to Chemistry Lock at Canalside (although the house numbering has probably changed).
  • (1) Holyhead Mountain: (MAP) The remains of the station are on a barren mountainside, but there are hints of green around the remains as if some attempt was made to improve the local land. The station was built for a previous local telegraph in 1810, taken over by the L&H Telegraph in 1827 and rebuilt in 1841. The building is now a ruinous walled complex.
  • (2) Llanfaethlu (MAP) /Cefndu: no trace remains of the later station at Cefndu, but the ruins of the original station still stand in a field.
Surveyor Jesse Hartley's portrait in later life. Artist unknown. Hartley worked on the Grosvenor Bridge, the signal station at Point Lynas and the Liverpool Docks.
  • (3) Point Lynas: (MAP) Is located on a headland in Llaneilian Community, on the north-east corner of Anglesey in North Wales (at grid reference SH479936). A pilot station was established with a landing stage on the point in 1766, to guide ships entering and leaving Liverpool, with an associated lighthouse added in 1779. The present building was built on the hilltop in 1835, so does not need a tower. Built and managed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, it did not come under the care of Trinity House until 1973. By 2001 the lights were fully automated, so no resident staff were needed. whilst the light is retained in operational use, the building and associated lighthouse keepers cottages were returned to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board who sold them to be a private home and holiday accommodation. The 1835 Lighthouse is considered to be important for its association with Jesse Hartley, the engineer responsible for the world's first great floating-dock system at Liverpool (1824 - 1860) and who worked (between 1827-1833) as the surveyor and clerk of works on the Grosvenor Bridge in Chester.
  • (4) Puffin Island: (MAP) is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and unfortunately it is not possible for visitors to land on the island without permission from the landowner. It is possible to take a boat trip around the island from which the ruins of the semaphore station can be seen. The station was once used as a "biological testing station". The island has a number of ruins of medieval monastic buildings, including the tower of a 12th century church. It is said that St. Seiriol himself is buried there, and perhaps also King Maelgwn Gwynedd, who was the ruler of North Wales and patron of St. Seiriol in setting up the religious community (he died of the plague). The island is mentioned by Gerald of Wales in his Journey through Wales in 1188. He notes that it was an ecclesiastical settlement at the time, "inhabited by hermits, living by manual labour and serving God". He also says that, according to legend, whenever there was strife within the community a plague of small mice would devour all their food. A modern day plague of rats has also affected the island. As the name suggests, Ynys Seiriol once had large numbers of puffins as well as other seabirds such as guillemots. However, brown rats found their way to the island in 1890s, decimating the populations of nesting birds. At this time the puffin population was already declining because the birds had become a delicacy, but the rats further reduced their numbers to just 20 pairs. In 1998 a program was begun by the Countryside Council for Wales to rid the island of the rats, in the hope of encouraging the birds to return. Visited by Royal Commission survey staff during the EU-funded CHERISH Project on 21 June 2018. The 1841 remains comprise a square, roofless brick building with four rooms arranged around a central chimney, and fireplaces serving each room. The building is entered by doors on the east and north sides, with steps descending into the ruin on the north side. Extending from the north-west corner of the building is a long observation/signalling room culminating in a panoramic curving window now represented by the rusting remains of vertical frames. Set externally on the south wall is a smart dressed stone engraved plaque pronouncing; 'PUFFIN ISLAND TELEGRAPH, Built in 1841 by the TRUSTEES of the LIVERPOOL DOCKS'.
The Great Orme goats feature prominently in this engraving of the Great Orme telegraphic station built in 1826. The station was closed around 1863, but by then had already been rebuilt in 1841. The goats are said to be descended from a pair given Queen Victoria by the Shah or Persia shortly after her coronation. Victoria was crowned in 1838.
  • (5) Great Orme: (MAP) First the "Telegraph Hotel" - now the Summit Hotel - was taken over by the RAF in 1939 and used as a Radar Station, The Hotel is a short walk from the upper tramway station. By the late 1860s, Llandudno's blossoming tourist trade saw many Victorians visit the old semaphore station at the summit to enjoy the panorama. This led to the development of the summit complex and the constuction of a cable-tramway from near sea-level (there is also a cable-car). By the early 20th century, a nine-bed hotel was built on the site. It served as the clubhouse for the Great Orme Golf Club that was founded in the early 1900s. The course closed in 1939 and is now a sheep farm. During the Second World War, the RAF built a Chain Home Low radar station at the summit. In 1952 the site was taken into private ownership until it was acquired by Llandudno Urban Town Council in 1961. The Great Orme lighthouse had an electric telegraph room in use until 1924 and the lighthouse was decomissioned in 1985. The lighthouse is 99 metres (325 feet) above sea level. It was erected in 1862 for the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board to the plans of its chief engineer, George Fosbery Lyster. It was taken over by Trinity House in 1873. Throughout its working life it used the original lantern that was made specially for it.
  • (6) Llysfaen: (MAP) The semaphore station as such has gone but the accomodation still exists as a private home: "Old Telegraph House", Ffordd Y Llan. Originally a 2-bay rectangular structure with central stack, it was extended to the S and N later in the C19; further, modern alterations and additions have been made. A large C19 stone tablet in the N gable bears the inscription: " Llysfaen Telegraph, built in 1841 by the trustees of the Liverpool Docks".
  • (7) Foryd: Built in 1828 as a supplementary station between Voel Nant (nprn 300823) and Llysfaen (nprn 300828). There are no remains. The station was superceded by one built at SH 994 805 (nprn 300826) in 1836.
  • (8) Voel Nant: (MAP) The present Voelnant building is listed and carries a stone tablet in south gable with the inscription "Voelnant Telegraph Built in 1841 by the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks". The original station was about 400 feet further up the Hill.
  • (9) Hilbre Island: (MAP) The station building still exists (without the semaphore) - but don't forget your tide tables while visiting or you could be "marooned". The coastguard rescued a record number of walkers trapped by the sea in West Kirby on a single day in Feb 2019. In total, the Lifeboat rescued 18 adults, nine children and two dogs.
A view of the northern section of Tower Buildings c 1847. The Merchants’ Coffee House is to its right and Tower Chambers to its left. The tower of Tower Buildings immediately became home to the Liverpool end of the Holyhead to Liverpool semaphore
  • (10) Bidston Hill: (MAP) Bidston Observatory was built in 1866 using local sandstone excavated from the site. One of its functions was to determine the exact time. Up to 18 July 1969, at exactly 1:00 p.m. each day, the 'One O'Clock Gun' overlooking the River Mersey near Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead, would be fired electrically from the Observatory. In 1929 the work of the observatory was merged with the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute, being taken over in 1969 by the Natural Environment Research Council. The Research Council relocated the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory to the University of Liverpool campus in 2004. There has been a lighthouse on Bidston Hill since 1771. The first lighthouse was built by Liverpool's dockmaster William Hutchinson; it was designed to work in conjunction with Leasowe Lighthouse, forming a pair of leading lights enabling ships to avoid the sandbanks in the channel to Liverpool. Being more than two miles from the sea, Bidston depended on a breakthrough in lighthouse optics, which came in the form of the parabolic reflector, developed by Hutchinson at the signals station on Bidston Hill. The reflector at Bidston Lighthouse was thirteen-and-a-half feet in diameter (probably the largest ever made for a lighthouse) and the lamp consumed a gallon of oil every four hours. The distance it was built from the sea is a record unsurpassed by any other genuine lighthouse, before or since (there is a probably fake lighthouse further ftom the sea in Kings Cross, London). The telegraph station stood next to the lighthouse and nothing survives today,
  • (11) Liverpool: (MAP) The first structure on the site had been a sandstone mansion, built in 1256 on the shore of the River Mersey. Its first owner is not known, but by 1360 it was owned by Sir Robert Lathom. By beginning of the 15th century it was owned by Sir John Stanley. In 1406 Sir John gained permission from King Henry V build a fortified house, which was named the Tower of Liverpool. The Stanley family later became the Earls of Derby. By 1737 the house was being leased from the Earl of Derby by Liverpool Corporation. In 1745 part of it was converted into a prison, and the upper rooms were used for civic functions. In 1774 the Corporation bought the building outright. A new prison was built in Great Howard Street, and the building ceased to be used for this purpose in 1811. It was demolished in 1819 to allow widening of Water Street. The site was used for a row of warehouses, until in 1846 the first structure to be known as Tower Buildings was built to a design by Sir James Picton (he also built Ormerod's Chorlton Hall]. The present building was designed in 1906 by Walter Aubrey Thomas and its construction was completed in 1910.

A Gallery of Signal Stations

Many of the sites are mentioned in the long-unpublished novel In Ballast to the White Sea by Wirral-born author Malcolm Lowry. The alcoholic Lowry is best known for his "Under the Volcano" considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century:

  • "A lone airman, that wintry Easter, was flying over the Irish Sea. Now that the fog had cleared completely he was following the line of the old telegraph stations to Liverpool: Holyhead, Cefn Du, Point Lynas, Puffin Island, Great Ormes Head. Making a spurt, he covered the seventeen miles between Llysfaen over Veryd to Voel Nant in seven minutes."

The Colfein database seems a little confused about which site is which, but links are provided under the images below. You can click on any image to enlarge it.

Hilbre Signal Station

One of the telescope mountings (gimbals) in the signal station windows. When not in use these are blocked with a wooden bung.

This is a listed building (LBS 443647) c.1841. It is in painted stone, with a slate roof. Built on one storey, it has a bowed north end. This bowed end has small-paned glazing with brass gimbals for telescopes set into the panes. The east facade has a timber platform and elliptical-headed entrance. The roof is hipped at the south end. It is the least altered of the surviving telegraph stations and is in fairly good overall condition.

The station operators dwelling-house is separate and bears a stone on the gable-end with the words "HILBRE ISLAND TELEGRAPH BUILT IN 1841 BY THE TRUSTEES OF THE LIVERPOOL DOCKS". It is of a standard four-room design with four fireplaces arranged around a single, central chimney. The singalman was supplied with twelve tons of coal a year.

One of the tasks of the signal station was to determine whether buoys were in the correct positions, or had drifted through slippage of their anchors. In order to do this use was made of a series of of a series of wooden struts inside the look-out windows which could be raised and lowered by thumb-screws. Telescopes were propped on these struts and the tube of the telescope could be inserted into the brass ginbals set in the windows. When a buoy or lightship was sighted a hole was drilled in the strut and provided with a wooden peg against which the telescope rested. On later observations, it was a simple matter to relocate the telescope and check whether the bouy had moved. On one occasion the Formby lightship could not be seen and Hilbre's telegraph message to the Dock Office in Liverpool was the first indication that the lightship had sunk after a collision.

.In marine navigation, a "pelorus" is a reference tool to measure bearing. It is a "dumb compass" without a directive element, suitably mounted and provided with vanes to permit observation of bearings.

Other navigational instruments in the signal station include a "pelorus" for the measurement of the bearing of a distant object. This consists of a compas rose ("pelorus card") with a movable sight. In Greek mythology, "Pelorus" was one of the Spartoi (similar to the famous skeletons from the 1963 film "Jason and the Argonauts"). Pelorus, is also said to have been the name of Hannibal's pilot when he left Italy (203 BC), hence the navigational connection.

In combination with providing "real-time" weather information over a coastal sea-lane, the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board (MDHB) established an impressive network of a dozen state-of-the-art sea level monitors along the Mersey, Dee and neighbouring coasts. They were used to provide the best possible tidal information to what became one of the most important ports in the Empire, together with data for surveying and coastal engineering. In the 1840s Francis Beaufort promoted the development of reliable tide tables around British shores and accurate weather recording. Beaufort trained Robert FitzRoy who achieved lasting fame as the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous voyage, In 1854, on the recommendation of the President of the Royal Society, FitzRoy was appointed as chief of a new department to deal with the collection of weather data at sea. His title was Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade, and he had a staff of three. This was the forerunner of the modern Meteorological Office. The semaphore lines and the soon to appear electric telegraph made this gathering of information presently useful rather than simply historical. A storm in 1859 caused the loss of the Chester-built Royal Charter after failing to pick up a pilot at Point Lynas. This wreck, with the loss of almostr all aboard, inspired FitzRoy to develop charts to allow predictions to be made in which he coined the term "weather forecast".


Watson (and his successor Lord) produced several books listing the concordance between numbered signal and the names of ships, owners and abbreviated phrases to be used in communications. The first of these also gives details of the mechanical construction and operation of the semaphore. The "Watson Code", which was unique to the Port of Liverpool, lasted until 1839 when it was replaced by Marryat's Code. The code is still useful today and can be used to identify sailing ships in maritime paintings from the 19th century.

Watson's code books provide useful short codes for many messages which might be needed. These include such useful phrases as (342) "a dreadful accident", (2565) "catastrophe", (2566) "melancholy catastrophe", (1353) "stuck on an iceberg", (8804) "attacked by privateer" and many others including "wreckers alongside". The short code "sunk with all hands" would presumably have been sent by a signal station rather than being the last flags run-up by a doomed crew,

Lifeboat, Lighthouse and Lodgings

With the growth in population of Hoylake and West Kirby towards the end of the nineteenth century and more particularly the completion of the Liverpool to West Kirby railway in the 1880's Hilbre Island became a popular destination for day-trippers. The following is an extract from R Anderson's chapter on the history of the Hilbre Islands in Hilbre, The Cheshire Island, edited by J D Craggs (1982):

  • "As early as 1885, solicitors acting for an anonymous client with an eye to the new possibilities created by the railways attempted to purchase the property 'to form a Marine Establishment on Hilbre Island forthe purposes of recreation, boating and bathing, and to connect the same with Hoylake Railway bymeans of a tramway'. A similar scheme was put forward by a Mr. Henry Summers, an Architect, adecade later; his ideas focused on the Little Eye, and involved 'the formation of a Promenade Pier constructed upon light iron stanchions or pillars starting from a station on the mainland.' The pier was to run to the Eye, where there would be 'suitable and ornamental pavilion buildings comprising assembly room, reading and refreshment rooms... (and) well-constructed sea-water bathing accommodation'."

The Dock Board resisted these ambitious schemes and more modest ones to extract rock and minerals from the islands, although it did approve another oyster-farming scheme - which was short-lived.

Hilbre: The Cheshire Island: Its History and Natural History - a very detailed look at the flora and fauna of the islands.


The lifeboat station on Hilbre was constructed in 1849. At that time it was operated by Liverpool Dock Board. In 1894, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute took over responsibility for the station until, in 1939, it was superceeded by the Hoylake Station. A bird-watching hide has been constructed over the beginning of the old slipway for ornithologists to observe the rare breeds that congregate on the island. Trinity House, the organisation responsible for maritime navigation, also used the island. They maintained a marker buoy store here until 1876 when it was moved to Holyhead in Anglesey. The island also possesses a tide height gauge. The gauge is still in use today and is situated at the end of a gully hewn out of the solid sandstone close to the derelict lifeboat station. The measurements from the gauge are sent to the Proudman Tidal Institute at the Observatory on Bidston Hill.


Hilbre Island Lighthouse is a white steel tower surmounted by a red lantern, built in 1927 to provide a port land mark for the Hilbre Swash in the River Dee Estuary. It is very easy to miss being only 3m high and looking nothing like a "conventional" lighthouse. Originally built by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, this small automatic lighthouse came under the jurisdiction of Trinity House as a general aid to navigation in 1973; it was converted from acetylene gas to solar powered operation in 1995. The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.

Lady Cave

One of the most visited parts of the Island is the Lady Cave. There are several different versions of the story telling how the cave got it's name. The most popular being of a young Welsh girl who had thrown herself from a boat taking her to an arranged marriage. Her drowned body was discovered by the monks on the rocks close to the cave that bears the name "Lady Cave". Embelisments of the story have the "Welsh" woman being the daughter of the custodian of the English Shotwick Castle, her having been betrothed to Llewellyn the Great, her having another Welsh lover whom she preferred, her living just long enough to tell the monks her tale, and, even her spending the rest of her life as a hermit in the cave. Unfortunately there is no version where her true love rescues her from the island and they sail away. In reality Llewellyn married Joan, a daughter of King John and their daughter in turn married John Canmore the Earl of Chester. The link to Shotwick is interesting as it is sited on top of a steep escarpment which then overlooked the river, it was protected on its north and south sides by water features that were filled at high tide possibly even making it an island almost like Hilbre.

Other Buildings

The present buildings date from the mid-19th century when the telegraph signalling station was built on the main island. Hilbre Island as it appears today is almost completely the creation of the Dock Trustees and the Dock Board (the successor body after 1858) during the mid-nineteenth century. The Dock Trustees sub-leased part of the island to Trinity House, who built the house and store adjacent to Telegraph House in 1850 to accommodate a Buoy Store and keeper who was charged with the job of maintaining buoys in the Dee estuary. The property built by Trinity House was leased to a succession of individuals after the buoy store was discontinued in 1876. A lease was granted for the construction of a clubhouse for the Mersey Canoe Club in 1896 and leases were also granted for the construction of holiday bungalows in 1897, 1905, 1908 and 1923. The only permanent resident was until recently the Dee Estuary Ranger, for whom a replacement to live on the island could not be found (no mains electricity, no toilets other than "composting", no running water). As a local councillor said to the "Wirral Globe" in 2011:

  • "We are finding it very difficult finding someone who will live there, cut off from the mainland half the time - unless they have some sort of hermit mentality."

The Dock Board and their various tenants became increasingly concerned at the number of day-trippers. August Bank Holiday of 1911 brought 2,000 visitors. There were a number of attempts to prevent public access but the public outcry was such that the Dock Board eventually settled on a method of controlling the number of visitors by issuing tickets that had to be obtained in advance. Even this system was not introduced without local opposition. As an aid to control, iron railings and gates were erected around Hilbre Island and Middle Eye in 1911 and a Dock Board Policeman was employed on Sundays to enforce regulations.

The Ranger's house (left) and the telegraph/weather station on Hilbre as seen from the ruined lifeboat station on the seaward tip of the northern-most island (taken 2012). The two towers are the lighthouse (center) and the radar operated by the National Oceanic Research Institute in Liverpool. In addition to the radar the tower carries various scientific instruments, meteorological gauges and a webcam.

Flora and Fauna


The Dee Estuary by the Hilbre Islands is home for a colony of Atlantic Grey Seals. Up to 500 individuals canregularly be seen in the area, especially as most haul out over low-water on the south east corner of the West Hoyle Bank near to the green buoy (HE4). Visitors to the area, sailors included, look forward to seeing them, and one can get quite close because they are tolerant of boats provided they are slow moving and not too close. The seals are not tolerant of people walking up to them on the sandbank. Once disturbed the seals will usually not haul out for the remainder of the tide, and so others are denied the chance to see them, also they become wary and so cannot be approached as closely by boat afterwards.

This is a fairly large seal, with bulls in the eastern Atlantic populations reaching 1.95–2.3 m (6 ft 5 in–7 ft 7 in) long and weighing 170–310 kg (370–680 lb); the cows are much smaller, typically 1.6–1.95 m (5 ft 3 in–6 ft 5 in) long and 100–190 kg (220–420 lb) in weight. Individuals from the western Atlantic are often much larger, with males averaging up to 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in) and reaching a weight of as much as 400 kg (880 lb) and females averaging up to 2.05 m (6 ft 9 in) and sometimes weighing up to 250 kg (550 lb). Record sized bull grey seals can reach about 3.3 m (10 ft 10 in) in length. A common average weight in Great Britain was found to be about 233 kg (514 lb) for males and 154.6 kg (341 lb) for females.


The Hilbre Islands LNR, particularly Little Eye and Middle Eye, are a roost site for internationally important wading birds wintering in the Dee Estuary. The most common species are knot, dunlin, redshank, turnstone, sanderling and oystercatcher. Most of the wading birds feed on theplentiful supply of invertebrates concentrated in the alluvial sediments of the estuary. A few waders, however, notably the purple sandpiper, feed on invertebrates from the seaweed covered rocks surrounding the Hilbre Islands. These islands become particularly important roost sites on high spring tides and in storm conditions when other roost sites in the estuary (beach and saltmarsh) are completely covered. The islands are also an important staging post for migrating passerine (i.e. perching) birds during both spring and autumn. These feed on the invertebrate population of the island plateau before setting off on the next leg of their journeys. As with the waders, the main attraction of the islands is probably their strategic position and the fact that the birds are relatively undisturbed.


The islands represent the only natural hard rocky coast within the Dee estuary and are the only examples of this habitat between the limestone cliffs of the Creuddyn Peninsula in North Wales and the sandstone cliffs of St Bees Head in Cumbria. The supporting vegetation i.e. maritime heath land/grassland and hard cliff/ledge vegetation are thus of significant interest.

Hilbre is home to Limonium britannicum (rock sea lavender). There are four subspecies in Britain, and sub-species "celticum" is found in just a handful of sites on Anglesey, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. It is much smaller than the other Sea lavenders and grows just above the intertidal zone.

A Hilbre Gallery

You can click on any image to enlarge it and you can also view a "live" webcam. The cannon shown in one image is a bit of a mystery: a cannon was possibly eventually bought by Sir Alfred Paton (1861-1930) from telegraph station keeper, Lewis Jones (keeper 1888-1923). At some places in the Dee estuary small cannon were used to summon lifeboat crews and this one may possibly have once been linked to lifeboat operations.

Visiting Hilbre

Very important information about any visit to the islands. It may appear possible to cross by a more direct route but those who try this will find that they reach deep water just before reaching the island and have to make a long back-track to avoid it. Please note the rocks on and around the island can be very slippery.

Hilbre Island is one of 43 (unbridged) tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland of Great Britain. To stay on the island over high water it is necessary to reach the island TWO HOURS before high water. You must then stay on Hilbre Island until THREE HOURS after high water (i.e. five hours in total) before returning to the mainland. To visit the island between two successive high waters, it is advisable to follow the tide out starting from TWO HOURS after high water. Then, to return to the mainland it is necessary to leave the island TWO to THREE HOURS before the next high water (depending on the actual height of the tide on the day of interest, i.e. Springs or Neaps).

There are no shops or fresh water on the islands, and very little shelter. There are compositing toilets on the island. Always carry waterproofs, and warm clothing, and food and hot drinks in winter. Wear sensible footwear as rocks, barnacles and broken glass can cause injury. Overnight stays are not allowed.

One rare hazard is the Stingfish (Local names, "Bull-head", "Weever Fish"):

  • "This fish is variously called the sea-scorpion, the father-lasher, the short-spined cottus and the sting-fish, but that latter designation is much better kept for the true sting-fishes belonging to the genus Trachinus. It is a northern form, extending from the Arctic regions down to British seas, and, like some other northern species, attains to a very much larger size in the colder waters. On the coast of Greenland it is said to reach a length of 6 feet, while in our seas the usual size is about as many inches. It is found in the North Sea and the Baltic and all around the British Isles. In our district it is taken commonly in shrimp trawls in shallow water, and is sometimes found in shore-pools, where it lays its eggs in spring. It is common at Port Erin and elsewhere in the Isle of Man ; also about Piel in the Barrow Channel, and in the Menai Straits and round Anglesey."

If stung ALWAYS seek medical attention (you may also wish to jump up-and-down and scream a lot: the pain can be excruciating). The neurotoxin venom is a protein and can be deactivated by removing any sting and placing the affected part in water over 40 Celcius and preferably as hot as can be stood for 30-90 minutes. Caution must also be used even around dead fish as the neurotoxin (venom) can remain active for hours.

The Hilbre Monster

In 1149, there is a mention of a strange monster living in the sea off Hilbre Island which manifested itself as a maelstrom, or vortex, sucking under people and ships to their doom. Tales of the giant whirlpool are now thought of as exaggerated folk tales, but there have been a number of reports of a strange whirlpool in the vicinity of Hilbre Island over the years. There are also tales of a monster. The first report comes from a 13-year-old named Susan Rogers, who saw a huge crustacean creature, about four feet high and six feet wide, standing on four, perhaps even six jointed legs. It was grey and clad in segmented shells. The most frightening thing about it was the pair of huge blood-red eyes. The unknown shelled creature was allegedly seen on several more occasions at Hilbre Island in the 1960s, and there is even one report of a similar creature being washed ashore on Parkgate Promenade during a fierce storm in the late 1940s. Men delivering beer to a waterfront pub said the crab-like creature was some seven feet in length, and it kicked furiously on its back until a wave crashed over the promenade and righted it. The scary creature then crawled back into the sea. A creature with a long neck with a greyish green body was allegedly seen chasing a baby whale near Hilbre Island in 1901. In the mid 1960s, two men onboard the Liverpool to Dublin Ferry spotted a similar long necked creature moving at 30 knots through the waters of Liverpool Bay. Both men were seasoned mariners but they were not taken seriously and accused by being drunk. Monsters around Hilbre also turn up in "Gawain and the Green Knight":

  • "The islands round Anglesey he held to his left, crossing the fords along the high headlands by the Holy Head, till he returned to the shore by the wilds of the Wirral, where very few live loved either by God or men of goodwill… At times he fought dragons, sometimes wolves, or trolls of the forest that skulked in the crags. He fought wild bulls and bears and boars as well, and giants who stalked him from the fells above."

One "monster" sighted near Hilbre had the classic "hump and neck" appearance of a Loch Ness type of creature, although this was probably a Leathery Turtle: specimens of which have been very occasionally seen in North Wales. Another common story is that various "monsters" are know to cry for "help" in an attempt to lure victims. This is almost certainlly the call of a Grey Seal, which can be mistaken for a person in distress.

Hilbre Island showing the position of the wreck to the north of the island. Hilbre Swash is the channel to the west of the islands.


One of the more famous wrecks still visIble of Hilbre Island at low tide is the SS Nestos which foundered in 1941. Nestos started life in 1919 as the Arabian Prince owned by Prince Lines (Furness Withy and Co.) and registered in Newcastle. Her first year of service as the Arabian Prince was a year of disaster. Her propeller shaft fractured in mid-Atlantic, there was a fire in the hold in Gibraltar and then she was caught in a hurricane at Port Louis on Mauritius. In 1933 she was renamed the Zenada and owned by the Z Steamship Co., managed by Turner Brightman of London. She later passed into Greek ownership, managed by N. G. Livanos.

In 1941 she sailed under the protection of an east-bound convoy from Halifax to Liverpool. The Nestos, carrying 7,750 tons of sulphur (loaded in New Orleans), became separated from the other vessels. She met up with another convoy coming up from the south, but 33 days out of Halifax and in thick fog, this Greek steamship found herself alone once again. Bearings were taken of what was thought to be Point Lynas on Anglesey, and maintaining a course for Liverpool Bar at dead slow ahead and still in fog, she ran aground shortly after noon, Apr 2. Despite having an English mate aboard, they had probably mistaken the Great Orme Lighthouse for that on Point Lynas. This unfortunate mariner (Mr White) was on his way home after being topedoed (by U-96) on the Anglo Peruvian (23 Feb 1941) in outward convoy OB 288 - only a third of the crew were saved. A distress signal was sent, but because it was not in the correct code of the day it was ignored, since there was a possibility it had been transmitted by a German U-boat. Captain Pandelis Tsiropinos attempted to pull the ship off the sandbank by running out her anchors but with no success, and when the fog lifted, found he was just north of Hilbre Island. Her crew were rescued and attempts made to recover her cargo using lighters and 360 tons was recovered, but her rivets were already popping. After the coal-carrying coaster Maurita sank close at hand (12 Nov), having been mined in Hilbre Swash, all salvage ceased for fear of German aircraft attacks and further mines. The boilers/engine block of Nestos are visible from the Lifeboat Station at Hilbre Island under low water conditions.


Both wrecks mentioned above were used for practice by the RAF with "ASV" Air to Surface Radar Guidance controlled by The "Top Secret Boeing", Boeing (type 247D) RAF serial number DZ203 (built in 1933). The American radar was developed following the secret Tizard Mission to Washington in 1940, after the Fall of France while the United States was still neutral, ordered by Winston Churchill and agreed by President Roosevelt. The mission was charged with handing over to the Americans, without pre-conditions, the latest British inventions – including the MAUD report containing early plans for the atomic bomb, the jet engine and the cavity magnetron on which radar was based. Those who worked on these are far better known than the sharp-minded but forgotten James Boaz. Even Lieutenant Watson (whose watch was paid for by the slave trade) and the flamboyant (perhaps a little crazy) James Morrison are better known.

The signal station on Hilbre Island with the base of the RADAR tower to the right.

It is difficult to determine the extent to which the Holyhead-Liverpool signal system contributed to the ongoing decine of Chester as a port as compared with the growth of the Port of Liverpool, who funded the system. There are clear signs in Chester of the changes between 1820 and 1850 when the semaphore was operating - compare the height above the River Dee of the Grosvenor Bridge and the railway bridge downstream - shipping obviously declined. Other reasons for this decline include the silting of the Lower Reaches of the River Dee. It is clear however that the semaphore line was an important stage in the development of telecommunications with Ireland and thence to the development of a transatlantic cable system, and, that the gathering of weather information contributed to the development of forecasting, especially in coastal waters. The contribution of Robert Lewis Jones of Chester Station was an important step in the development of the accurate, long distance time-keeping used by GPS systems. However, but for blind chance the events of 1851 at the Sutton Tunnel, which may well have led Jones to become particularly intestested in clocks, could have instead led to one of the most lethal railway accidents in history.

Chronology of the Telegraph (Holyhead-Liverpool)

  • 1804: James Boaz makes his suggestion of a commercial telegraph;
  • 1806: Robert L Jones born;
  • 1807: Slave Trade outlawed;
  • 1810: Jones Snr operating oak chemical plant at Canalside;
  • 1825: Barnard Lindsey Watson appointed;
  • 1826: Menai Bridge opens;
  • 1828: Dock Trustees lease Hilbre;
  • 1829: Mail service moves from Holyhead to Liverpool;
  • 1833: Inquiry at which Morrisoon claims to have invented the telegraph. Grosvenor Bridge completed;
  • 1839: Storm wrecks much of semaphore; Watson dismissed;
  • 1846: Jones becomes General Manager at Chester Station, patent granted on lamp black;
  • 1848: Chester General Station completed;
  • 1851: Sutton Tunnel railway accident
  • 1852: Bain sells his patents to "Electric";
  • 1853: "Magnetic" lay cable from Ireland to Holyhead;
  • 1856: Dock Board purchases Hilbre;
  • 1857: Jones files patent on clock system: patent aquired by "Magnetic"
  • 1858: Transatlantic cable;
  • 1859: Jones system installed at "Dockers Clock"; "Royal Charter" storm;
  • 1861: Semaphore becomes electric telegraph;
  • 1862: Jones clock system installed in Glasgow;
  • 1866: Liverpool Observatory moves to Bidston;
  • 1867: One-O-Clock gun starts in Liverpool;
  • 1936: Hilbre lifeboat station abandonned

Related Pages

  • Hoole - home to Robert Lewis Jones;
  • Canalside - where Robert Lewis Jones had his chemical works;
  • Tanning - Robert Lewis Jones' first patents related to oak by-products;
  • Viking: their connection with Chester;

Sources and links

In many ways the semaphone and telegraph lines prefigured the Internet.

Visiting Hilbre



The Telegraph

Books not available online

  • Faster Than the Wind: A History of and a Guide to the Liverpool to Holyhead Telegraph (ISBN-10: 0952102099) - an excellent book;
  • Atgofion Ynyswr {Memoirs of an Islander} by Lewis Jones, 1939, translated from Welsh by Hugh Begley, 2003 {a copy of the translation is in West Kirby Library courtesy of the Friends of Hilbre};
  • Wirral: Jeffrey Pearson;
  • The Wirral Peninsula: Norman Ellison;
  • Hilbre: The Cheshire Island: Its History and Natural History by J. D. Craggs (Editor);
  • Ingimund's Saga: Viking Wirral (Stephen Harding); - see writers site

A shedfull of Viking stuff

Drone video of the sites

Point Lynas

Great Orme

Hilbre Island

Bidston Obs