Longstone Lighthouse is probably best known for an incident that took place eight years after the light came into service. It was from Longstone Lighthouse on 7th September 1838 that 22-year-old Grace Darling and her father William rescued survivors from the SS Forfarshire, which had run aground on nearby Harcar Rock in thick fog.
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The Longstone, or Outer Farne as initially known, is the outermost of the Farne Islands, lying six miles off the Northumberland coast.
Sir John Clayton proposed a chain of lighthouses along England’s east coast in the seventeenth century. Although several towers were planned, some built influential Newcastle merchants opposed his plans. A further call for a warning light in the Farnes was made in 1727, but this again came to nothing.
The Farne Islands were lit for the first time in 1778 when Captain John Blackett established lights on Inner Farne and Staple Island. The light on Inner Farne, the nearest island to the mainland, was rebuilt in 1809 and shows a light today.
Staple Island in the centre of the Farnes archipelago was seriously damaged in 1784. The light was re-established. In 1791 a coal brazier on top of the old thirty-foot-high Pele tower was displayed on neighbouring Brownsman Island.
From 1795 the light on Brownsman was tended by Robert Darling, who lived on the island with his wife, Elizabeth. The couple had eight children in total, some of whom lived at the lighthouse; the youngest, William, was born in 1786 and attended school in Bamburgh. William later grew up to become his father’s Assistant Keeper. William married Thomasin Horsley at the age of 19 in 1805. Thomasin joined William and her in-laws at the lighthouse on Brownsman.
By 1809 the coal-fired lights on Inner Farne and Brownsman were in poor repair. Trinity House made arrangements to take over the lights, with the lease retained by the Blackett family. Although Trinity House now managed the lights, the profits were still passed on to the Blacketts.
The light on Brownsman was improved when a purpose-built lighthouse designed by Daniel Alexander was built in 1810. This new lighthouse was lit by oil lamps.
Whilst living on Brownsman Island, William and Thomasin brought up a large family. In total, they had nine children between 1806 and 1819, and Robert extended the cottage. Following the death of Robert Darling in 1814, William took on the responsibility for the light.
In 1825 Trinity House bought out the lease on the Farne lights for £36,484. A number of shipwrecks in the early 1820s confirmed that the light on Brownsman was not wholly adequate. Plans were put in place for the erection of a new lighthouse on the Longstone. Although being only a few feet above sea level, the central part of the reef provided a suitable area on which to construct the new lighthouse.
Joseph Nelson designed and oversaw the building of the lighthouse. Nelson first arrived at the Longstone aboard the Trinity House Yacht in 1825 to survey the reef. Work moved quickly, with construction taking place in the latter half of 1825. On 15th February 1826, the light was lit for the first time.
Alongside the 85ft high lighthouse, a small store was built to hold oil and coal stocks. The light came from twelve Argand oil lamps placed in front of parabolic reflectors. The lighthouse was one of the earliest revolving lights in Britain, exhibiting one flash every 30 seconds with a range of 14 miles.
Once Longstone Lighthouse was built, the light on Brownsman Island was then discontinued. The Darling family moved into the new lighthouse to continue their light-keeping duties. Because of the complete lack of vegetation on the reef, the Darlings maintained a large plot on Brownsman for fresh vegetables. This was reached by rowing an open boat across the one mile sound that separated them.
On 7th September 1838, 22-year-old Grace Darling and her father William rescued survivors from the SS Forfarshire. The Ship had run aground on nearby Harcar Rock in thick fog.
In 1876 improvements were made to the lighthouse when a thick wall was built around the complex, preventing flooding from high tides.
The original store was replaced by a new dwelling and fog signal station. The enclosure was designed as two circular walls (one around the tower and the other around the dwelling) linked together. Two stout gateways through the link walls on either side gave access to the lighthouse.
Around this time the lighthouse was converted to ‘rock’ status. This means that the keepers’ families would live ashore, while the keepers themselves worked two months duty followed by a month’s leave. As a rock station, three keepers would be at the lighthouse at any one time.
The fog signal was a siren giving two blasts in quick succession every two minutes. The fog signal equipment was housed in part of the new dwelling. From the roof of this structure, a single trumpet protruded, and later improvements saw two taller trumpets installed.
By 1884, the old reflectors and Argand lamps had been replaced by a first-order revolving optic. The new optic was turned by a clockwork mechanism, and retained the original character of one flash every 30 seconds, with a 14-mile range.
Sailing directions from the mid-1870s list it as a red tower, but it is not until 1897 that the light is listed as a red tower with a central white band.
On 1st August 1941, Longstone Lighthouse was attacked by three aircraft. Two made direct hits on the engine room and fog signal turret—both of which were badly damaged. The tower suffered only minor damage. One plane dipped its wings when passing over (normally a signal of friendly acknowledgement). The lighthouse keepers survived, and were brought ashore to Seahouses by the Holy Island Lifeboat.
In 1952 the lighthouse underwent major modernisation. Electricity was installed and the paraffin vapour lamp was replaced with a 1000 Watt incandescent lamp. The first order optic was replaced by a smaller third order unit of unusual ‘spectacle’ design. Two optics were mounted side by side on a turntable, each with a 1,000 Watt lamp inside. From a distance, both lights merged to give an extra high intensity flash. This flash, at 3,200,000 candle power was at the time one of the most powerful in the Trinity House Service. The character was altered to one flash every 20 seconds, and had a range of over 25 miles.
New spacious accommodation for the keepers was built on the site of the bomb-damaged engine room. This had an additional storey to the dwelling and engine room. All the keepers’ living quarters were now contained within the new building. The lighthouse tower contained navigation equipment for the light, fog signal, and radio beacon.
Alongside the main lighthouse tower, a smaller tower was erected, containing its lower section the engines and compressors for the new fog signal. A turret had the fog trumpets projecting from it. The new siren gave two blasts every 60 seconds.
Shortly after the lighthouse was modernised, Longstone experienced one of the worst storms in its history. The Principal Keeper at the time was W.J. Lewis, and recorded the storm in his memoirs (Ceaseless Vigil, 1970).
Longstone Lighthouse was automated in 1990. It is monitored from the Trinity House Operations and Planning Centre at Harwich in Essex.
The lighthouse featured in an episode of the TV drama Vera, as the fictitious Turnstone Lighthouse.
It is possible to visit Longstone Lighthouse. Boat trips head out to the Farne Islands regularly over the summer months, often combined with a tour of the lighthouse.