24th December 1695. A Beacon of Safety.
Lighthouses were originally privately owned until being brought under Trinity House in 1816. Founded by Henry VIII in 1514 it granted a Charter to the Guild of Shipmen and Mariners ‘in honour of the most blessed Trinitie’. It now manages over a hundred ‘Lights’ including light-vessels and buoys.
At first the Charter only ensured that qualified people piloted vessels in English rivers, but during Queen Elizabeth’s reign its powers were extended to erect ‘sea marks’ (lighthouses).
Today one of Henry Winstanley’s ships, The Constance foundered on the Eddystone Rocks in 1695. It was as a result of this disaster, that he decided to build the first lighthouse at sea on the notorious Eddystone Rock off Plymouth.
It was completed in November 1698 and lit by a candelabra of 60 candles. But in the great November 1703 storm, Winstanley and his lighthouse, were swept way, with the inventor inside. He had always said that he wanted to be on the lighthouse ‘in the greatest storm that ever was’: he had his wish granted.
Another Eddystone wooden structure was built, but this burned down after valiant efforts to save it by the three keepers. It wasn’t until John Smeaton, after much experimentation with concrete that a lighthouse capable of withstanding the elements was built, using concrete not to be bettered until the advent of Portland Cement.(1)
Smeaton is so highly regarded that the Institute of Civil Engineers made his lighthouse its emblem and it was incorporated in a carpet in their Headquarters.
Smeaton’s lighthouse was replaced in 1882, having stood for 123 years and the red and white banded top half of this lighthouse was removed to Plymouth Hoe.(2)
The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island and Kidnapped might have ended up illuminating the jagged Scottish coastline rather writing. It was only his rebellious spirit that saved him from becoming a lighthouse builder, the career option down the Stevenson generations.
It was his father, uncles, cousins over two centuries who built a chain of lighthouses around the Scottish coastline. His grandfather was chief engineer of Scotland’s ‘Northern Lights’ inspecting the Lights’ oil supplies, rations, keepers’ competence and even the state of their milk cows.
Robert the author later described the fortitude of the men; masons, blacksmiths and carpenters lodged together on site, that would become their prisons for days on end, when storms struck. ‘Fear sat with them in their sea-beleaguered dwelling…It was then that the foreman Mr. Goodwillie would get his fiddle down and strike up a human minstrelsy amid the music of the storm’.
An ancestor of Stevenson built the difficult Bishop’s Rock in the North Sea, that came into use in 1811, after HMS York had foundered with the loss of 491 sailors.
Today the fourth Eddystone still stands having been converted to automation in 1982.(2b)
The Chalk Tower near Flamborough Head, on the East Coast of England, dating from 1674 is the oldest complete lighthouse in the UK, but replaced by the present Flamborough lighthouse built in 1806.
The Southwold, Suffolk lighthouse was built in 1890, but not electrified until 1938.
In 2000 a lighthouse last used in 1926, and the only one of its kind, off the coast of Britain was being offered for sale at £1. This the 130-foot, 1865 Whitford Point light off the Gower Peninsular in South Wales, was constructed from sections of cast iron after its predecessor was washed away. Hazards are said to be difficulty of access and possibility of unexploded bombs-the sight was a firing range.
(1) The cement was so named as it was intended to look like Portland stone, an ingredient of which is Magnesium Oxide or Magnesia (Mg O).
(2a) The first built was by Winstanley 1698-1703; the second was Rudyerd’s Tower 1709-1755;the third was Smeaton’s 1759-1882.
(2b) The present tower is Douglass’s, whose final stone was laid by the Queen Victoria’s son the Duke of Edinburgh in 1882. Exactly a 100 years’ later on 18th May, the lighthouse became fully automated.
Ref: googleimages/firsteddystone/science museum/picture library.