Flatholm Lighthouse stands on the small, circular island of Flatholm, around half a mile in diameter. Around three miles off the south Wales coast, it is right in the centre of the busy shipping lanes where the River Severn meets the Bristol Channel. The tidal range here is 49 feet; the second largest in the world.
The island’s easterly cliffs are more sheltered, whereas the western side has a much more exposed rocky shore. Around a mile north-west of Flatholm lie two tiny islands known collectively as the Wolves, and numerous vessels have been claimed around the area.
Petitions for a light on the island had been raised by shipmasters as far back as 1733 when John Elbridge, a senior member of the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol approached Trinity House. Trinity House refused this application.
In April 1735 William Crispe of Bristol obtained a 99-year lease from John Stuart, Earl of Bute. Crispe wanted to build a lighthouse at his own expense and again approached Trinity House, but again they rejected his plan.
In 1736 a vessel was wrecked near the Wolves. Sixty soldiers were drowned, highlighting the urgent need for a lighthouse to be erected. The following year, in March 1737, Crispe put forward a new proposal, and with the support of the Merchant Venturers, submitted his plan to Trinity House. This time they accepted it and Crispe and his partner Benjamin Lund were granted permission to build the lighthouse.
The agreement was that Crispe would pay to build the tower in return for a lease at an annual rental of £5 for the first 30 years, and £10 thereafter until the remainder of the term.
The lighthouse was first lit on 1st December 1737. Located on the highest part of the island the tower used a coal-fired brazier. It proved very costly, consuming around 25 tons of coal a month.
Despite further finance being acquired through his partner Benjamin Lund and John Elbridge’s loan, they soon became bankrupt. They were forced to surrender their lease to Caleb Dickenson, who became the collector of the light dues, and took responsibility for managing the lighthouse and its accounts.
In January 1773 the British passenger vessel Tapley was stranded on Flatholm en route from Cork to Bristol, and seven passengers were lost.
On 22nd December 1790, a ferocious gale blew across England’s west coast, causing much destruction in its wake. On the morning of 23rd December, the lighthouse was struck by lightning and seriously damaged.
A temporary beacon was established on the headland in front of the lighthouse, but the Bristol ship owners complained about its effectiveness. The owners were not, it seemed, maintaining an adequate aid to shipping, despite receiving significant income for its maintenance.
On 23rd October 1817 the British sloop William and Mary, travelling from Bristol to Waterford with 72 persons on board, foundered on the Wolves, with three-quarters of those perishing.
On 17th November 1819 William Dickenson, the lighthouse’s Principal lessee, signed an agreement with Trinity House for the lessees to surrender the property to them, in return making alterations and maintaining the light for £400 for the remainder of the lease term.
Trinity House drew up new plans and the tower was increased from 69 feet to 89 feet. A larger lantern was added, and a new oil lamp replaced the previous coal fire, displaying a fixed white light on 7th September 1820.
In July 1822 a new Act empowered Trinity House to purchase the leases of any remaining coast lights. Trinity House calculated the value of the remaining 12-year lease to be £15,838.10. Trinity House paid this sum to William Dickenson and his executors and took formal possession on 21st March 1823.
Further improvements were made to the tower in 1825 with the installation of a new oil lamp. The height was raised an additional 5 feet. The light showed a fixed white light, but in 1839, red sectors were introduced to cover the Wolves and Centre Ledge’s outlying reefs.
A new lantern, 14 feet in diameter was installed in 1867, with new helically framed glazing and a new powerful optic. A new iron gallery was fitted, and the height increased to 99ft.
In 1881 an occulting light was installed using a clockwork mechanism. The new character of the light displayed a three-second eclipse twice every half minute.
A new Douglass multi-wick vapour burner was installed in 1904 and replaced in 1923 by a petroleum vapour burner.
In 1902 a shower of mud fell during the night, thought to be sand blown across from the Sahara. Mixed with the clouds’ moisture, it fell as mud and proved very difficult to remove from the lantern glazing.
In 1908 a new fog station was built, with two large trumpets on top of the building, and an additional cottage alongside providing accommodation for an extra keeper.
The siren foghorn used compressed air powered by a 15hp engine and gave two blasts in quick succession every two minutes.
Three lighthouse keepers were required to man the lighthouse, and they lived with their families in the cottages either side of the lighthouse, and alongside the fog signal.
In 1929 the lighthouse was converted to rock station status so the families were rehoused on the mainland, probably near Swansea. A fourth regular keeper was appointed, enabling the keepers to work two months on-duty followed by one month ashore.
The lighthouse had been flanked by two wing cottages and several other buildings. Following the change to rock status, these were demolished favouring more basic accommodation for up to three keepers, with further facilities available alongside the fog signal.
During the Second World War, from spring 1941 until the following year the island was fortified, and over 350 soldiers were stationed on Flat Holm. A narrow-gauge railway transported ammunition and provisions across the island.
In the centre of the island, a radar platform was installed. The old Victorian barracks and a ward of the former cholera hospital were used as facilities for the soldiers.
The island became non-operational again in 1944, and the following years most of the equipment was removed from the island by German prisoners of war.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1969, replacing the petroleum vapour burner. Its character changed to 3 white flashes every 10 seconds. The light was converted to solar power in 1997.
It is recorded that during World War 2 the foghorn signal was one long and one short blast every 1½ minutes, and in 1971 the signal was sounding three blasts every 30 seconds.
The fog signal was discontinued in 1988, and the lighthouse automated. The light was monitored for a time from Nash Point Lighthouse but is now monitored from the Trinity House Operations Centre in Harwich.
With help from the Prince’s Trust, volunteers from the Flat Holm Society later restored the foghorns and engines, which had fallen into disrepair. The station was officially reopened by the Welsh Secretary and Welsh Assembly First Secretary in 2000 when the foghorn sounded for the first time since it has been silenced in 1988.
In 2006 underground cables were installed on the island to connect the farmhouse, workshop and Fog Signal Keeper’s cottage. The following year a solar array battery bank and wind turbine were installed.
There are trips available to the island all year round, from Cardiff.