William Hutchinson, Privateer and Liverpool Dockmaster


The only image thought to be of William Hutchinson. The original portrait is now lost but a copy survives at Liverpool Local Record Office. This image is copied with the permission of Liverpool LRO.

William Hutchinson was born in September 1716, the son of a Smith in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who went to sea as a boy, probably when his father died in January 1727. Working as a cabin boy on a collier in the coal trade from Newcastle to London, he eventually switched into being a forecastle man on an East Indiaman, and then again into boats working the West Indian and Leghorn Trades. Probably about this time, around 1740, when England was at War with France and Spain, he moved to Liverpool. No-one in the merchant trade in war time could ignore the privateers. It was largely a case of take or be taken so that merchant men were armed of necessity. By the 1740s Hutchinson was a very experienced seaman and, making a virtue of necessity, he joined forces with Fortunatus Wright, a famous Liverpool privateer. Between them they captured many foreign merchant ships, which they sold, or ransomed the cargos in friendly ports. [5] By 1752 Hutchinson could afford to order his own boat with a 90 foot keel to be built for the Jamaica Trade. He was still active as a Privateer as late as July 1758 during the Seven Years War with France.

At he end of the 1750s, the Liverpool City Council looked for a seaman, rather than a sinecure holder, to be master of the Old Dock at Liverpool. They turned to William Hutchinson in February 1759. Liverpool's Old Dock was only accessible at certain states of the tide. Given Liverpool's powerful tides and currents, boisterous winds, treacherous approaches through the bar, and with totally inadequate tidal predictions, it is little wonder that Hutchinson put his mind to improving navigation at Liverpool. In addition, he improved Lighthouses, started a Lifeboat service [6], and a Pilot service, and founded a society for mariners’ widows. Most importantly he started to keep a meticulous tidal record, encouraged at least in part by the astronomer James Ferguson, FRS. [9] In time it was required of Masters and Pilots that they carry the tidal predictions calculated by the Holden family, whose new and secret method was originally checked against Hutchinson's data. [7] In 1777, he published the first of four editions of a book: "Treatise on Practical Seamanship" and whose last edition added "Naval Architecture"; all replete with anecdotes from his vast personal experience. [3,4]


An image of liverpool in May 1754.

Liverpool was an expanding, bustling, and vigorous port in the second half of the eighteenth century. Yet through it all Hutchinson maintained his remarkable journal. Day in, and day out, and sometimes in appalling weather conditions he measured the time and height of every high tide. He wrote notes on the weather, noted the wind direction, and its speed (perhaps the only record in the century noted in miles per hour), and noon temperatures and air pressures. In later years he added the 8 am temperature and the rainfall. It is a terse but remarkable document providing tidal data that has now been used as a control to show the degree to which sea level has risen since his time. [2] The weather data too are able to act as a document against which to measure present-day weather. [8] Eventually Hutchinson resigned in frustration in 1793 "for want of someone to take the night tide" at the age of 77. He died in February 1801, never having married, and greatly respected by the community. He started with little or nothing, and died worth over £7000. His legacy as a self-made man was to have put the practical side of seamanship at Liverpool on a firm footing for the nineteenth century. His legacy to science is to have provided data sets which have proved to be important sources of tidal and meteorological information ever since.

All of Hutchinson’s tidal and meteorological information from his Journals have been compiled into computer form as part of the Liverpool’08 European Capital of Culture celebrations. [1] Copies of a CD containing this information can be obtained from Brock University in Canada or the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in the UK.

References and Links

[2] Woodworth, P.L. 1999. High waters at Liverpool since 1768: the UK's longest sea level record. Geophysical Research Letters, 26 (11), 1589-1592.

[1] The tide and weather journal of William Hutchinson Dockmaster at Liverpool 1759-1793.
Edited and compiled by Keith Tinkler and Philip Woodworth. CD provided by Brock University, Canada and Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, UK (first issued 2008)

[9] Millburn, J.R. 1988. Wheelwright of the Heavens. The Life and Work of James Ferguson, F.R.S. London, Vade-Mecum Press.

[3] Hutchinson, W. 1777. A treatise on practical seamanship. Reprinted 1787 and available at British Library. Reprinted 1979 by Scolar Press: London. pp. viii, xiv, 213, pl.10, map. 27 cm.

[4] Hutchinson, W. 1791. A treatise on naval architecture founded upon philosophical and rational principles. Reprinted 1794. Reprinted 1969 by the Conway Press.

[5] Williams, G. 1897. History of the Liverpool privateers and letters of marque with an account of the Liverpool slave trade. London: Heinemann.

[6] Yorke, B. and Yorke, R. 1982. Britain's first lifeboat station at Formby, Merseyside, 1776-1918. Alt Press, Liverpool. 72pp.

[7] Woodworth, P.L. 2002. Three Georges and one Richard Holden: the Liverpool tide table makers. Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 151, 19-51.

[8] Woodworth, P.L. 2006. The meteorological data of William Hutchinson and a Liverpool air pressure time series spanning 1768-1999. International Journal of Climatology, 26(12), 1713-1726.

Click here to see more publications that are based on William Hutchinson's data.

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