Wyre Heal

A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula

Chapter 12

The Black Rock


For many hundreds of years the River Mersey has enjoyed maritime importance. Due to the geographical location of reefs in the estuary, ships sailing into the river have needed guidance at night and in poor weather. Many lighthouses have been built for this purpose such as those at Hoylake, Leasowe, and Bidston.

One of the most troublesome of the reefs was the infamous Black Rock. This was situated off the Northern tip of the Wirral Peninsula at what is now New Brighton. The reef was marked in 1683 by a wooden pole with vanes on top and known as The Perch.

The Perch was continually being swept away by storms. After such a storm in 1824, the Dock Committee was considering building a more permanent structure. There were already plans to build a fort or battary on the Black Rock to protect the Port of Liverpool, so a suggestion was put forward to combine the proposed battary with a lighthouse. This suggestion was, however, turned down and the decision made to build a separate battary and lighthouse.

The first plans for a battary on the Black Rock were made by a Colonel Pilkington of the Royal Engineers. He proposed a heart shaped construction with provision for seven guns. The heart shape would allow good gun placement and storm resistance. However, Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815 reduced the immediate need for a battary, and the plans were shelved.

With the growth of Liverpool’s trade, Liverpool Corporation petitioned the Duke of Wellington to rectify the defenceless state of the river. To this end, in April 1825, the Board of Ordinance instructed Second Captain John Sykes Kitson to liaise with Liverpool Corporation, design a battery on the Black Rock and make an estimate of the cost for the proposed battery.

Kitson had an interview with the Dock Committee at which the decision to construct a lighthouse at Black Rock was announced. Bizarre suggestions about mounting guns on the lighthouse and the combination of battery and lighthouse were made and quickly discarded. Subsequently, plans were made for two separate structures within a close proximity to each other.

The first plan drawn up by Kitson was similar to Pilkington’s heart shaped design, but this was dropped due to the Duke of Wellington’s advice that it should have at least twice the firepower. Kitson’s second design was for a trapezoidal fort similar to Fort Tignin in Malta but with two Martello Towers added. This design could accommodate fifteen 32 pound guns but was later changed to sixteen 32 pounders and two 16 pounders. Besides this and other minor details, the fort was built as designed.

Construction work commenced in September 1825. Some of the stone used was local, the remainder coming a quarry in from Runcorn. By January 1829 the construction work was complete and Kitson requested that the guns and mountings could be despatched. This was done and the fort was completed and opened on 30th April 1829. The total cost was £26965.... £100 less than the estimate.

As the years went by, the fort’s armaments were constantly upgraded. In 1880 breech loading guns were installed, then in 1894, the centre of the fort was rebuilt. The original magazine and parade ground were filled in and three new gun mountings constructed to accommodate Mark VI 6 inch guns. Shell elevators, generators and searchlights were also installed. This modernisation was completed in 1899. The guns were replaced yet again in 1909, and a new generator provided electricity for the whole fort.

On the opening day of World War 1, a shot was fired across the bow of a Norwegian sailing ship. A second shot was fired and hit the bow of an “Allen” liner at anchor in the river. When the ship eventually heaved to, the captain of the vessel stated that he was unaware of the outbreak of war. The guns remained silent during the rest of the war except for test firings and drills.

In 1916, two of the guns were removed, and after the war, in 1919, an observation post and searchlight were constructed on the east tower. The drawbridge was removed in 1930 and a solid causeway built. The fort was also connected to mains electricity at this time.

It is claimed that the first shots to be fired in World War 2 were made from Perch Rock when a fishing smack used the Rock Channel that had been closed for the duration of the war. Unusual camouflage was painted on the fort in the shape of grey “paths” on a green background. One of the roofs also had “teas” painted on it. Radar was installed in addition to improved range finding equipment and a taller observation tower.

The guns were fired for the last time in 1951 for the Festival of Britain celebrations. Three years later the guns were removed to Woolwich Arsenal and the fort decommissioned. There followed a period of uncertainty. The War Office offered the fort to Liverpool and Wallasey Corporations, both of whom declined the offer. Tommy Mann, a local amusement proprietor, along with a partner bought the fort for £4000 in 1958. Their plans to use the premises as a museum were short-lived and the fort changed hands again in 1969. The new owner, R P Ainsworth, converted the buildings into an amusement arcade, cafe and nightclub. These ventures were also unsuccessful and by 1976 the fort had been flooded and vandalised.

Mr Norman Kingham, a local architect, bought the fort and started a program of restoration work to make it into a museum and other worthwhile projects. Mr Kingham sold the now, grade two listed, buildings to Doug Darroch, a local man involved in the museum on the fort in January 1997. He planned to carry on the restoration work and hopefully, reinstate the original guns for exhibition purposes. Tragically, Doug fell in the fort and died on 20th March 2006. He will be remembered as an exceptional gentleman and was admired by everyone. He had many friends both in the UK and beyond, and was  recognised for his in-depth knowledge and devotion to Fort Perch Rock, its historical museums and its significance to the community.

The Lighthouse

The year after construction work started on the fort, work commenced on the building of the lighthouse. John Foster designed the structure based on John Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse of 1756. The foundation stone was laid on 8th June 1827. Whilst construction was in progress, temporary floating lights were used to warn shipping of the reef.

The lower ten metres of the lighthouse are made from solid granite, dovetailed and dowelled with iron bars. There are three levels for accommodation and storage beneath the red and white revolving light. It had an elevation of sixty-three feet and was visible for thirteen miles. The outside covering of the granite is “Pozzalano”, a form of volcanic rendering said to be harder than the stone itself.

The lighthouse was completed on 1st March 1830, and two keepers took up residence, but by June that year the need for another keeper was fulfilled. The light was powered by Sperm Whale oil throughout it’s life although, in 1838, experiments with Acetylene gas were unsuccessful.

Originally named the Rock Light, the lighthouse has been called Black Rock Light, Rock Perch Light, and it wasn’t until 1870 that the name Perch Rock Light became commonly used. By 1925 the keepers were made redundant when the operation of the light was made fully automatic.

The light shone for the last time in 1973 and the lighthouse was sold to Norman Kingham, owner of the fort. He installed mains electricity and converted the building into a honeymoon retreat. The lighthouse was sold again, along with the fort to Douglas Darroch in January 1997 who has since died.

As to what the future holds for both these historic and fascinating buildings... only time will tell.

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Updated - 24-09-09