by Barry Humphreys
Even before Liverpool’s first dock was built in 1715 the amount of vessels on the Mersey was
such that there was a need for something to denote the hazard of the Black Rock which snaked
out into the river from what we now call New Brighton. So in 1683 the Liverpool Corporation
paid for a tall post and beacon – a simple affair referred to as a “perch” – just an open brazier fixed
to the top of a stout wooden pole and attached to the Black Rock itself. By day in clear weather
the “perch” was visible to incoming and departing ships, and at night time a beacon burnt in the
metal basket at its apex. The Rock Channel – the safest point of entry to the Mersey at that time had been marked.
But the perch-beacon was often lost. Firstly it was no match for the worst of the winter storms and
secondly, there was also a suspicion on the part of theLiverpool Corporation that sometimes
Wallasey’s notorious 18th and early 19th Century ship wreckers were to blame. At one point the
Corporation were so convinced of this that they offered a 20 guinea reward for information that
would lead to the arrest of anyone who had tampered with the Perch.
By the early 1820’s the arrangement was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of modern
requirements. The Trustees of the Liverpool Docks demanded a solidly built permanent
lighthouse. There then followed three years of arguing over who would pay for it, with the
Council reluctant to spend money on it if it could be avoided. But in the end – possibly spurred on
by the Dock Trustee’s reminding the Council that firstly in February 1821 the pilot boat “Liver”
had crashed into the perch and demolished it and that secondly when it was washed away once
again in March 1824 it wasn’t replaced for nine months, the Liverpool Council finally agreed (in
March 1826) to spend the money.
An early idea was for a combined Mersey Battery and Lighthouse at Black Rock, but the final
decision was for a stand-alone lighthouse based on the plans drawn up by John Foster, Liverpool
Corporation’s surveyor. Foster’s design was a copy of the Eddystone Lighthouse, built in 1759.
The military garrison – the Battery – to defend the mouth of the Mersey from attack was already
under construction when the building of the lighthouse began. Strange really, because it has
always been said that had the Fort Perch Rock guns ever been needed for an all out
bombardment of incoming enemy ships, then the first casualty would have been the Black Rock
Lighthouse itself…. standing as it was in the immediate line of fire of the guns of Fort Perch Rock.
Arrangements at Black Rock now proceeded in earnest. The Dock Committee allowed the use of
buildings and land at the recently completed Prince’s Dock for the preparation of the stone.
From there it would be transported by flat bottomed sailing barges. Most of the stone – costing
1/6d per cubic foot – came from Fleetwood and Williams in Anglesey. John Tomkinson – a North
Western stone mason – would be the main contractor for the masonry work. Gladstone and
Foster were the ironworkers and Foster and Stewart were the joiners – the Fosters in both these
firms being brothers of the corporation surveyor John Foster – he who had drawn up the design
plans and was also responsible for awarding contracts!. Then numerous smaller local
companies were recruited to provide coal, nails, timber, tools and also on site labour.
On June 8th 1827 the foundation stone was laid by the Mayor of Liverpool Thomas Littledale.
Surrounded by a small gathering of Liverpool dignitaries, local landowners, some soldiers and
labourers from the under-construction Battery and also a handful of intrigued people from the
surrounding area, Mayor Littledale used a silver trowel that had been made especially for the
occasion. Under that foundation stone a complete set of coins of the realm were left – their total
value being £3 19s 1 3/4d. As the work began, so the new lighthouse was referred to as either
Rock Light, the Black Rock Light, the Perch Rock Light and even the Rock Perch Light. It wasn’t
until the 1870’s that it was more consistently referred to as the Perch Rock Lighthouse and even
later still that the name New Brighton Lighthouse attached itself.
The work was hard and slow… and was further impeded by the onset of winter – in the first year
building work was suspended in October to await the better spring weather. But finally by June
1829 the stonework was complete and the stonemasons received bonuses for their “attention
and good conduct”. The fitting out of the interior now began as masons, carpenters and
metalworkers set about tasks inside. And it was built to be an immovable object. As William
Williams Mortimer’s 1847 History Of The Wirral tells us:-
“At New Brighton on a ledge of rocks which project into the sea, is an admirable Lighthouse which rises 90 feet. It is built with remarkably hard stone. Every stone is dovetailed to the next; each course of masonry united to the previous by iron braces; and the whole compacted together by liquid cement of puzzalano from Italy. The masonry is solid to 35 feet, when a spiral staircase leads to the chamber of the keepers, and the lanterns”.
Later in 1829 £3884 12s 9d worth of machinery, glass and oil for the light arrived from a
specialist company in London. It was transported to Black Rock by the North West’s Pickford
and Company freighting agents – a company established in the early 17th Century and today one
of the oldest companies still operating in the United Kingdom.
On 1st March 1830 the lighthouse shone for the first time – the repeated sequence was two white
flashes then one red. Sixty three feet above the level of the rock, the range of its light was between
13 and 15 miles. Two keepers were employed. One would begin work at sunset and stay until
midnight; the other would be on site until sunrise. Their work was detailed in the 1830 “Rules for
the Keepers Of Black Rock Lighthouse”. Which noted:-
1. Keepers salaries to be £85 per annum
2. Keepers will ensure that the mirrors are polished with only the fine cloths, polishing powder and leather skins provided.
3. Shutters to the windows of the building will be kept closed at night so that no confusing lights will shine out.
4. No visitors will be allowed on the lighthouse premises.
5. In foggy weather day or night the bell will be rung every five minutes.
6. Cotton wicks of the light will be trimmed so that they are level at the top.
7. The revolving machinery of the light will be kept fully wound.
8. At sunrise the lamps will be extinguished, lenses and reflectors cleaned, oil reservoirs refilled and the light made ready again for the evening.
9. A weather and observation journal will be kept.
10. Cleaning, stores and clerical duties will be undertaken during the day.
They were men that would be kept busy…..
The Liverpool Dock Committee now had responsibility for the Lighthouse, and paid the
Corporation a token one sovereign a year. The first two keepers were John Williams and Thomas
Appleton and it was quickly apparent that it was more than a two person job. The Lighthouse at
Black Rock had 22 lamps – twice the number at Bidston – and the work of maintaining these was
always harder than that of a “typical” lighthouse. So a third keeper – William Flockhart – was
appointed in June 1830.
But it was monotonous work and temptation was close at hand. During the building of the Fort
and Lighthouse a community of cottages and roughly built houses had sprung up to the south of
what we now know as Victoria Road. And it fast became a drinking den and a place of ill-repute –
referred to as “Hell Town” or more commonly “The Devil’s Nest”. It was to there that Deputy
Lighthouse Keeper John Williams was immediately drawn….. with the result that he was
dismissed from his duties in November for drunkenness and neglect. More trouble was to