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Captain William Hutchinson's obsession with tides

William Hutchinson

In the small hours of 8 November 1770, a middle-aged man emerges from a house near the Old Dock in Liverpool, one of the busiest ports in England. Through freezing rain and gale-force wind he crosses to the dock gates and peers down into the water, trying to read the height of the tide from numerals cut into the stones of the dock wall. More than 20 wet, cold minutes pass before he is certain the tide has peaked, which it does at 2.10 am. The level is 16 feet and 10 inches. He notes the figures, plods through the rain to his house and climbs back into bed. For more than six years, Captain William Hutchinson (above) has been performing this twice-daily ritual. He will go on doing so for another 23.

“I was in a West Indies ship running for a bar harbour in Ireland…when we beat off our gripe, rudder and a great deal of the stern port, and an after part of the keel upon the bar, and had seven feet water in the hold when we got into the harbour, and was obliged to run on shore to prevent sinking.” William Hutchinson, dock master of the Old Dock at Liverpool, knew from experience what could happen if you misjudged the tide.

In the 18th century, ships on their way into port were frequently stranded or holed when they unexpectedly hit a sandbar or rammed the stone sill at the dock entrance. The common methods of predicting the height of the tide were woefully inadequate and such accidents were an occupational hazard. So when Hutchinson swapped the seafaring life for a steady job ashore, he was keenly aware of the need for a better way of predicting tides. And so he turned out day and night in all weathers to produce the first systematic record of tides anywhere in Britain. “He had to stand there and watch as the water slowly rose and wait for the tide to turn,” says Philip Woodworth of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool, one of today's leading centres for tidal prediction. “Doing it once would have been intensely boring. Imagine doing it twice a day for 30 years.”

Yet Hutchinson's life was anything but boring. Born in 1716 in Newcastle, he went to sea as cabin boy on North Sea colliers carrying coal from Newcastle to London. By the late 1730s, he was voyaging to China with the East India Company. A few years later, he was fighting the French and Spanish in the Mediterranean as a mate in the Royal Navy. And by 1747 he had command of his own ship. It was a privateer.

Although sometimes confused with pirates, privateers had the Admiralty's blessing. Their aim was to find merchant vessels belonging to enemy nations, attack them, and seize the ships and their cargoes. The profits enriched the crews and the ships' owners. Liverpool was the home port of many of these freelance maritime predators.

One of the most celebrated of the Liverpool contingent was Captain Fortunatus Wright. Like others of his ilk, he specialised in plundering foreign merchantmen returning from the colonies. From 1745 onwards, Hutchinson sailed with Wright. Later, as captain and part-owner of the vessel Liverpool, he earned a reputation as “the ablest and boldest” of the city's privateers. Swashbuckling wasn't the only thing he was good at. He was a prolific inventor too. On a voyage to China in 1738 he suffered horribly from scurvy. Blaming it on the monotonous diet of salt meat combined with short rations of water, Hutchinson vowed to eat only small morsels of meat “to give relish to my bread or rice” and none at all for breakfast to reduce his thirst during the day. When he reached China he saw that the Chinese did much the same, always washing down their meals with tea. He followed suit, and stayed free of scurvy for the rest of the voyage. Making tea aboard ship required some ingenuity, but he solved the problem “by putting the tea into a quart bottle, filled with freshwater corked up and boiled in the ship's kettle, along with the salt beef. When it came out it was as fine drawn tea as ever I saw”. Later, he devised an ingenious contraption for scraping barnacles and weed from a ship's bottom while it was afloat. This was a wooden frame bearing a set of stiff brushes, a couple of air-filled casks to maintain upward pressure, and a set of ropes with which to drag it back and forth beneath the hull.

In 1758 Hutchinson gave up his seafaring adventures and settled down to a new life ashore. Soon he was ensconced in the dock master's house, just yards from the entrance to Liverpool's Old Dock, the world's first commercial dock. His main duty was to oversee the arrival and departure of ships, but as they could enter and leave only around high tide he had plenty of time to pursue other interests. He helped set up the world's first lifeboat station and founded a charity to support the widows and children of Liverpool seamen. He designed new types of rudder, experimented with reflecting mirrors for lighthouses and developed an oil-fired light apparatus to replace the lighthouse's traditional fire basket. Then there was his magnum opus: the tide measurements.

Although Hutchinson became dock master in 1759, it was another five years before he began his systematic recording. The suggestion came from James Ferguson, astronomer and maker of tidal clocks, whom Hutchinson had met at one of Liverpool's regular scientific gatherings. He needed little persuading. “The tidal range at Liverpool was huge and very variable and he was probably curious to know more about it,” Woodworth says. He had seen enough near disasters to know there was a pressing need for better tidal predictions. “But more than that, there was a good practical reason to do it. Better knowledge of tides would help him to run a more efficient operation in his dock.” “He earned a reputation as the ablest and boldest of the city's privateers”

So it was that in 1764 Hutchinson embarked on his twice-daily ritual. As high tide approached, he walked to the dock gates, where a set of markings was cut into the masonry to indicate the depth of water above the entrance sill, which ships had to clear to enter the dock. In his journal he recorded not only the time and height of every tide, but also wind direction and speed, barometric pressure and general weather conditions.

Hutchinson's diligence quickly paid off. His first four years of records played a vital part in producing Britain's first accurate set of tide tables. In 1767, he handed the first 3000 entries in his journal to local mathematician Richard Holden and his brother George. The Holdens were working on a new way of predicting tides and used Hutchinson's data to check its accuracy. In 1770, they published tide tables for Liverpool that were so good all Liverpool pilots were required to use them or face a £5 fine. Unfortunately, the Holdens didn't return the pages of data and they have since been lost. Hutchinson's surviving records stretch from the beginning of 1768 to 10 August 1793, when he finally retired.

Research on tides, tide prediction and meteorology have all benefited from Hutchinson's meticulous observations. Most recently they have been used to study a development that no one in Hutchinson's day would have worried about: climate change. Among the consequences of global warming is a rise in sea level. Woodworth and his colleagues at the Proudman Laboratory have compiled one of the world's longest near-continuous records of tidal height. The first 25 years, 7 months and 10 days are Hutchinson's. This long stretch of data provides clear evidence that sea level has been rising since the 18th century and that it began to accelerate during the second half of the 19th century - which is what you would expect if today's climate change is related to our output of greenhouse gases.

How accurate were Hutchinson's measurements? Boredom and creeping old age might have led to sloppiness or tempted Hutchinson to make up the odd measurement on a particularly foul night. Not according to Woodworth. Hutchinson's records of air pressure provide a way to check up on him. As air pressure increases, it depresses the height of the sea, with each extra millibar lowering sea level by a centimetre. When Woodworth analysed the two sets of data, they demonstrated this “inverse barometer effect” perfectly. “This means he couldn't have faked any of his data. His measurements were good.”

From issue 2556 of New Scientist magazine, 17 June 2006, page 58

Some Aspects of Hutchinson's Life

Born in 1715 Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Early years as cook's cabin boy and 'beer drawer' through to forecastleman in small colliers in east coast coastal trade.

Sailed as forecastleman in East Indiaman to India and China in 1738-39. Served as mate of bomb's tender in Hyères Bay around 1743 during the Mediterranean war and by 1747 was in command of a privateer alongside Fortunatus Wright, the most famous of the Liverpool privateers. Sailed with Wright in the private Lowestoft frigate to West Indies in 1750. The Lowestoft was an old 20 gun frigate sold out of the Navy to Wright. Wright was born in Wallasey and was lost at sea in 1757 in command of the St.George privateer.

Observed a particular day each year for devotion for deliverance after loss of vessel. He and crew being without food on a barren coast had drawn lots to be put to death to feed remainder. Hutchinson lost the draw but was saved when another vessel appeared.

Made Freeman of Liverpool gratis in 1755 'in consideration of his efforts for the better supplying the town with sea fish by fitting out well boats (or cod smacks)'.

Captain and part-owner of the Liverpool privateer during the first part of the Seven Years War (1756-63). Two years of successful cruises in the Liverpool in the Mediterranean and home waters in 1757-58. Hutchinson was described as 'the ablest and boldest of the Liverpool privateers'. The Liverpool was launched soon after the start of the war. She was a 22 gun frigate (18 of which 12 pounders) with 160-200 men. She was sold in April 1759 and used for the New York - Liverpool trade. There was also a King's ship at this time called the Liverpool as there has been for over 250 years.

Developed special method for making tea (quart bottle boiled in ship's kettle with the salt beef).

In 1758, there was an attempt by Hutchinson to 'curb the insolence' of the notable French privateer Fransois Thurot in the Irish Sea by regaining command of the Liverpool from Captain Ward, who had just replaced him. The attempt got nowhere. This was the last privateering adventure by Hutchinson. Thurot was killed in a battle between three British and three French frigates, which he commanded, off the Isle of Man in 1760.

Appointed Dock Master and Water Bailiff on 7 February 1759.

Survived through pistol misfire an attempted murder in 1759 (about 3 months after becoming Dockmaster) by a seaman called Murphy from the New Anson privateer. Murphy was sentenced to the Navy for life. Inventor of reflecting mirrors and oil burning apparatus for lighthouses. Mirrors tested at Bidston Signal Station in 1763. One of the original mirrors still exists at Trinity House Museum in London.

In 1779 improved on a quick-match priming mechanism for large guns developed originally by Henry Ross, another Liverpool inventor.

Measured heights and times of high waters and meteorological parameters at Old Dock 1764-1793 (data survive for 1768-1793).

Author of the 'Treatise on Practical Seamanship' 1777. Second version 1787.

Instrumental in the establishment of the world's first lifeboat station at Formby, and of Mersey pilotage services and, with Dr. Thomas Houlston of the Liverpool Infirmary, developed early methods of artificial respiration.

In April 1778 commanded the 'Queens Battery' in defence of the town against the American corsair John Paul Jones (who did not appear). The Bidston light was extinguished in this period.

Founded Liverpool Marine Society in 1789 for the benefit of masters of vessels, widows and children. 'Contributor to all the benevolent institutions of the town'. Also proposed, unsuccessfully, Maritime Academies at Liverpool, North Shields and Limehouse, London for students of seamanship.

Inventor of marine equipment (e.g. types of rudder) and commentator on ship design (ships at this time were being built too high with extra decks). Author of a 'Treatise on Naval Architecture'.

Ridge of rock and gravel near Fort Perch Rock, New Brighton named after him. Hutchinson cut away the rock and deepened the channel.

Died 7 February 1801 aged 85 and interred in St.Thomas's churchyard in Park Lane. His Will records that his estate was left to his sister and nephew and makes no mention of a wife or children. In 1777 he described himself as 'a former cook of a collier …. and a seaman who had done his best' which provides an understated obituary. Bryan Blundell (mariner, ship owner and founder of the Blue Coat Hospital) considered Hutchinson's life to be 'one unwearied scene of industrious usefulness'.

Hutchinson is commemorated in the pavement of the Liverpool One waterfront commercial development

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