Local heroes – William Hutchinson, 1715–1801
William Hutchinson recorded the water heights at the twice-daily run of the tide for almost thirty years from 1764.
He was dock master of the Old Dock at Liverpool from 1759, and began to carry out these measurements at the suggestion of the eminent astronomer James Ferguson, who had an elegant tidal clock made for Hutchinson. This detailed record had benefits at the time, but also afterwards, throughout subsequent research on meteorology, tides, and tidal prediction. Over two hundred years later, scientists at the nearby Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory compiled one of the world’s longest near-continuous records of tidal height during investigations into sea level risk linked to global warming. The record opens with 25 years, 7 months and 10 days recorded by Hutchinson.
Hutchinson started out as a cabin boy on coal ships. By the late 1730s he was working for the East India Company and travelling to China. He then went on to join the Royal Navy and fight the French and Spanish in the Mediterranean. By 1747 he had his own ship, and served as an able and bold privateer – finding merchant ships belonging to enemy nations, attacking them, and seizing cargo. In time, he settled at Liverpool, the world’s first commercial dock, and oversaw the arrival and departure of ships during every high water period. He understood that better tidal predictions would help prevent disasters with ships running aground, and would also help him run his dock at greater efficiency, since Liverpool has a large and very variable tidal regime. He noted the time and height of every tide against markings cut into the stone dock structure, the wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and general weather conditions. His first 3000 records were used to check the accuracy of tide tables for Liverpool produced by local mathematicians the Holden Brothers in 1770 using new methods. These were so accurate that a £5 penalty was introduced for any Liverpool pilot who did not use them.
Hutchinson demonstrated a very inventive nature throughout his life and activities. He found an ingenious way to make tea on board ship, supping this after meal combinations designed to prevent scurvy – a practice that he had noted Chinese sailors following. He also invented a device for scraping barnacles and weed from a ships bottom while it was afloat, designed new types of rudder, some important improvements to lighthouses, and better methods of artificial respiration for drowning victims. He helped establish a lifeboat station at Formby, and helped found the Liverpool Marine Society for indigent seamen, widows of seamen, and their families.