Boyd's Automatic Tide Signalling Apparatus
Boyd's Automatic Tide Signalling Apparatus was located at Irvine, Ayrshire, close to the entrance and on the souther side of the harbour mouth, which lies on the River Irvine. It provided an automatic indication of the current height of the tide, and was visible during both day and night by virtue of signals mounted high on a supporting tower, and signal lights positioned behind windows in the tower.
The building was also known as the Pilot's House, and this is how it appears on many maps, although many also show it as a Tide Signal or similar.
For brevity, this article generally refers simply to the tower since it dealt primarily with the signal, and was written before we learned it was also referred to as the Pilot's House.
At the turn of the 20th century, Irvine was losing trade to the other Ayrshire ports. Unlike the competition, it had no railway pier, and the approach to its harbour was complicated by the presence of numerous sandbanks, necessitating careful navigation, use of tide tables, and careful timing to avoid grounding a heavily laden cargo vessel on the approach. The location of the bar (an offshore ridge of sand, mud, or shingle lying near the shore and parallel to it) and the difficulty the sands caused led to a dredger being purchased to maintain access as early as 1750, with later works ordered by the Irvine Harbour Authority leading to the construction of stone breastworks facing downstream and projecting at an angle into the river, so that the harbour would be self-cleaning.
The harbour master at the time, Martin Boyd, believed there was a better way navigate the approach and made a patent application on May 08, 1903, for his design for an Automatic Tide Marker Station.
It took Boyd a further three years to finance and build his apparatus, which was officially commissioned on May 23, 1906, with the issue of a Notice to Mariners which informed them of its presence. At the same time, announcements were made in the local newspapers, and charts were issued to explain how the signals presented from the tower were to be read in order to determine the level of the tide at any given time. A ceremony was held to mark the event, attended by various worthies, who steamed to Largs after the initial ceremony, enjoyed refreshments in the nearby coastal town, then sailed back to Irvine to inspect the operation of the night-time signal at 22:00.
Despite its obvious safety benefits, some members of the Irvine Harbour Trust were more concerned with the appearance of the site, and complained about the mess, as Boyd had no plans to landscape the site until all the work had been completed, and this had been delayed by late deliveries, for which Boyd also received negative comments.
However, the work was duly completed and Boyd's Automatic Tide Signalling Apparatus entered service, and in recognition of the value of his work, the sum of £60 was refunded to Boyd by the Harbour Commissioners.
Prior to the installation of Boyd's apparatus, a manual system had been installed the 1830s. This is reported to have been operated by Tom Tennant, based at a signal station on the top of sand hills. He would hoist balls to indicate the depth of water on the bar, and also served as ferryman across the river.
During the day, the signal was displayed using a series of balls raised on a mast mounted atop a tower. The balls were not solid, but made of canvas stretched over a metal frame. At night, the same information was conveyed using a series of lights visible in aperture located in the seaward face of the tower. The lights were hidden, or eclipsed, in different patterns (and colours) to indicate the level of the tide.
The mast signal and the light signal were interconnected by cables, ensuring that both would always match, and were changed automatically by the level of the tide itself.
Their position was controlled by the movement of a float mounted in a chamber, located in the water and near the tower. Underground cables connected the float to the signals in the tower, thereby transmitting the level of the float to the signals directly, and setting them without the requiring an operator to manually read the tide and set the signals by hand.
The completed tower or Pilot's House can be seen in the photograph to the right, which is a detail taken from an original picture which hangs in the shipyard worker's flat in the Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine. The lower mast to the left of the building is unconnected to the apparatus, and is the normal (green) leading light provided to assist vessels navigating into the harbour, and is paired with a second light mounted similarly further inland. Aligning the two sets the correct course.
A number of signals were provided for mariners approaching the harbour: on a mast adjacent to the tower, two black balls were shown vertically by day, or two red lights at night, to signal when vessels were not permitted enter or leave; a white light was displayed to the south of the bar with a continuously flashing light to the north, which could be aligned to aid vessels navigating towards the harbour.
We are grateful to Brian Goodwin, who provided much of the information and pictures appearing on this page, gathered while researching the Pilot's House in advance of constructing the model featured in the photographs.
The Pilot's House story:
Boyd Patent 10,448 A.D. 1903
Boyd's system used a chamber which was open to the sea and contained a float which was free to rise and fall with the tide. A rope attached to the float ran over a pulley and through a duct into a tower, where a system of levers and pulleys was used to raise and lower a number of black balls suspended on a mast mounted on the roof, thereby providing a daytime signal to craft approaching the harbour. At night, four gas lights mounted in the seaward windows of the tower would provide the same information by an illuminated signal, as the pulley system obscured or revealed the lights in response to rise and fall of the tide. The more balls or lights visible, the deeper the water over the harbour mouth bar.
Below are extracts from the Boyd's 1903 patent:
The tide signal remained in place until the 1970s, when it was finally abandoned. The mast and ball equipment, together with its rigging, remained on the roof until it had to be removed, following the appearance of at least on significant crack in the mast, rendering it hazardous as it sat some 15 metres (50 ft) overhead in a public place. The parts were simply left on the ground at the base of the tower, within a fenced area.
Although it had been updated with electric lights replacing the original gas-lighting, and had been adjusted and re-calibrated to take account of the changes over time, the system simply fell into disuse. Once abandoned, settlement caused cracks to appear around the window lintels and sills, the float chamber became silted up with no maintenance, and the wooden wooden trough for the cables disappeared as the signal equipment within the tower gradually decayed.
The tower has been completely abandoned, and lies derelict and vandalised, adjacent to a car park built on land to the south of the harbour entrance.
The float chamber still lies in the water to the north west of the tower, but is only a shell, as all the working parts were removed many years ago.
Irvine Model Boat Club
The tower was used by the Irvine Model Boat Club, serving as its clubhouse for a number of years. However, rising electricity bills for heating the bare structure, and rent increases by the local council eventually drove the club out. It seems the mast was removed during the club's tenure, as members reported the building was an eerie place to be in at night, when the wind started whistling through the old rigging, and presumably caused other structural noises as the ageing mast creaked and moved slightly in the wind.
The club also operated a small model train on a track which circled the base of the tower, and the rusting remains of some of the track can still be seen the photographs of the discarded mast, and the wartime observer post shown on this page.
During World War II, a Royal Observer Corps aircraft observation post was built on the ground next to the tower.
The tower is a category B building and was listed on May 20, 1978.
It is also included in the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland. This includes a note from 2009 which reports that local planners have determined that the structure lies within the boundary of the Irvine Harbourside Masterplan application, and this includes for refurbishment of the coastal watch tower. A further note added in March 2012 reports that full planning permission and listed building consent for change of use to the tower (to incorporate a meeting room), were conditionally granted June 2006 ref: 06/00183/PP and 06/00184/LBC.
Watchtower option 2013
In July 2013, we learned than Coastwatch Scotland (a volunteer coastal safety and monitoring organisation) planned to lease the Pilot's House and refurbish the tower, with the advice of Historic Scotland in order to maintain its historic integrity, and use it as a watchtower overlooking the Ayrshire coast.
Coastwatch moves to take over Irvine building in 2017
Coastwatch Irvine has confirmed their status and option to take over two building on Irvine's shore and this includes not only the tower, but also the beach toilets.
Model of the Pilot's House
The photographs below show a model of the Pilot's House as constructed by Brian Goodwin.
According to the builder, the signals were not operational - but there may be another model one day, where they are functional.
When we first prepared this article, it was thought that the model described may may no longer exist. Having been donated to the Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine, it could not be found when its location was queried some years later.
Good news followed a few months after writing, as the model surfaced from storage during September 2013.
Sadly, it was reported to have fared badly from its time in storage, with the mast broken, and other damage, including the effects of damp. However, the builder has indicated that it can probably be recovered and restored, and that this will be a forthcoming project.
Model of the Pilot's House:
A site visit carried out during 2010 confirmed that the tower was still in place within the fenced area, and lay derelict, surrounded by the the abandoned mast parts removed from the roof.
The float chamber also remains at the waterside, although all the fittings related to the apparatus were confirmed to have been removed.
The brick built wartime observation post was also noted to survive nearby.
Additional photographs from 2013 show the tower continues to decay, while scaffolding has been piled into the former observers' post. They also provided a clearer view of the miniature railway track, with the discarded mast still visible on the ground behind.
Possible opening ceremony picture
Old Irvine Photos - Two tower pics appear just after 3:30
The second appears to be an event, presumably the opening of the tower
2 ⇑ Historic Scotland Data Website - Listed Buildings: HARBOUR PILOT HOUSE Retrieved July 01, 2013.
3 ⇑ Harbour Pilot House (Former), Beach Drive, Irvine | Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland Retrieved July 01, 2013.
5 ⇑ Coastwatch Irvine move a step closer to asset transfer of Pilot House - Daily Record Retrieved 29 March 2017.
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