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Visit to Formby Tide Poles

Organised by the Formby Civic Society and the Sefton Coast Partnership History and Archaeology Task group as a contribution to National Archaeology Week, an unusual walk was enjoyed by 30 people in fine weather on Sunday morning 22nd July 2007.

Led by Dr Reg Yorke (FCS) and Professor Philip Woodworth of the Proudman Oceanographic Observatory, Livepool University, the group walked over the sand dunes and into the inter-tidal zone seaward of Formby’s Lifeboat Station to examine and consider the history and function of the two surviving tide poles.

The group were reminded about William Hutchison, Liverpool’s Dockmaster in 1759 who was a pioneer in the recognition of the importance of accurate prediction of the height and strength of the tide, in the port. His records not only being the first known for Liverpool but in fact the first truly systematic measurements in the UK. Measurements started in 1764 ). This was the beginning of the famous series of annual Tide Tables for Liverpool Bay, which have continued to the present day.

These tidal observations were later extended to include outlying positions on the river and estuary by Captain Denham Liverpool’s first Marine Surveyor who had a very clear understanding of the importance of the scientific study of the hydrography of the river and its estuary.

We do not know when tide-poles were first installed at Formby but visual readings continued over a long period using a set of three Tide Poles set in a line between Formby Lifeboat Station and low water line. Each of them was marked in feet and inches up to 32 feet and carefully maintained free from barnacles and being repainted as necessary. From their position it was obviously possible to gather data at all states of the tide. In 1889 the Keeper of the Tide Gauge, who was also the Lifeboat Coxswain, was paid an allowance of 3/6d per day “to keep the tide gauge when ever it is required”. In the 1970s the MDHB continued to require the resident of Lifeboat Cottage to keep a continuous telescopic sighting record every 15 minutes from 9am to 4pm and send these observations to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.

Even after Lifeboat Cottage was abandoned 15 minute readings continued to be taken during day-light hours and forwarded to the MDHB The last Formby ‘Tideman’, David Simpson, interviewed by the Formby Times in 1972 described how he read off the depths using high powered binoculars. In poor visibility he had to walk to the edge of the water and stay there taking readings every quarter hour. Professor Woodworth confirms that The Proudman Oceanographic Observatory still has a long series of Formby records.

The two surviving poles are in the inter-tidal zone in front of the former Life-boat House. Their measuring scales are no longer visible, the poles themselves being encrusted with barnaclesand are unique in Liverpool Bay.

According to recent information from Michael W. Bankes a Formby resident and formerly hydrographic draughtsman for the MDHB, the meticulously kept readings were telephoned daily (as soon after 4 pm as possible), from Formby to the Marine Surveyor and Water Bailiffs Dept. The written sheets of measurements being sent in at the end of each week. Their purpose was to provide continuous ‘real time’ measurements of sea-level in the Bay which was not always the exact level predicted and which was then correlated with the ongoing and concurrent echo-sounding depth measurements carried out from the MDHB Survey vessel, particularly important in the Channels, the beds of which could ‘shoal up’ within a month with potential hazard to shipping despite being within the navigation buoys, training bank and revetment.

These Tide-Poles are a physical reminder of the tradition of meticulous tidal recording started in the Mersey by Hutchinson and its importance of detailed knowledge of tidal flow in the estuary and at low and mid-water levels re-established by Denham in the mid-19th century; Accurate tidal measurement in Liverpool Bay is today as important as ever and it is noteworthy that tidal data is still being recorded at Formby, by the Proudman Oceanographic Observatory, Liverpool, using an array of specialised radar antennae situated on the Ravenmeols Dunes.

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