South Stack Lighthouse is located on Ynys Lawd, an island off the north-west mainland of Anglesey, accessed via 400 steps down the clifftop and over a small bridge.
South Stack is located in a busy shipping area in the Irish Sea. As well as traffic from Wales to Ireland, as the estuary in Chester silted up, increased shipping passed to the port of Liverpool.
Petitions for a lighthouse at South Stack date back to 1665. An experienced mariner, Captain Hugh Evans began his campaign to build a lighthouse in the mid 1800s. However, his initial application was rejected by Trinity House. Undeterred, he achieved additional backing from ship owners and the next time his plan was approved.
Work began on the building of the lighthouse in August 1808. Most of the stone was quarried from the island, although the internal limestone staircase came from Penmon.
Access to the island was difficult. Some of the materials were winched up from a sheltered cove below. Other materials and provisions were hauled across from the mainland using an aerial ropeway. The ropeway was later strengthened using box cradles, allowing workers, and later the keepers, to be winched across.
The system continued until the first rope suspension bridge was built five years later. It was replaced in 1827 with an iron suspension bridge.
The light was first exhibited using 21 oil lamps with polished reflectors on 9th February 1809. In 1818 revolving Argand oil lamps and reflectors were installed.
Improvements were made to the lighting in 1869, and in 1873 the lighthouse was raised in height in and a new lantern installed.
In the 1900s a new incandescent light was installed, and more modernisation took place in 1927.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1938.
The main lighthouse was often obscured by fog, so in 1831 Captain Evans came up with the idea of a moveable low light. A wooden cabin containing oil lamps was hauled up and down the north side of the cliff according to the best visibility.
In 1880 a second fixed low light was built below the lighthouse. This operated until 1907 when the main light was improved. The circular retaining wall of the low light is still in evidence.
In 1854 a two ton bell was installed, operated by clockwork. It was one of the largest in the UK, and was located on the western end of the island. However, it was unreliable and would not always work. A shed was built to protect it from the salt spray, and it was later refitted.
However, it continued to cause problems, and could not always be heard, depending on which way the wind was blowing. So a fog cannon was installed at North Stack to help.
The bell was replaced in 1895 by a fog siren, powered by two oil engines.
In 1909 an experimental underwater bell was installed on the seabed below the lighthouse, connected by an electric cable. However, this proved unreliable and was discontinued in 1926.
A new diaphone signal was established in 1938 using compressed air produced by diesel engines. This was later replaced by an electric fog signal in the 1960s, operated by an automatic fog detector.
The first Lighthouse Keepers were Hugh Griffiths and James Deans. John Jones was next appointed Assistant Keeper.
Following the death of John Jones in 1928, his widow Ann was appointed Assistant Keeper. She had lived at the lighthouse for 15 years as she already knew the system. Her son Jack took over as Keeper in the mid 1840s.
However, disaster struck on 25th October 1859 when a severe storm wrecked a number of vessels including the steamship Royal Charter, with loss of nearly 500 on board. As Jones returned to the lighthouse down the stairs, rocks fell off the cliff face, and he was killed.
In 1935 the decision was made to change the status of the lighthouse to a rock station. The keepers’ rota was changed to working a month on and a month off.
Previously the families had lived on the island, but they now found accommodation on the mainland. This would have been much easier for the children to travel to school each day.
The last Lighthouse Keepers at South Stack Lighthouse were Stanley Booth, Norman Grindle, Dermot Cronin and Peter Halil. The lighthouse was automated in September 1984 when they left for the last time.
Access to South Stack Lighthouse and its island is via 400 steep steps down and across a bridge to the island. Don’t forget you have to climb back up, but it’s worth it!
There is an exhibition, and guided tours are available. A visitor centre and cafe are located nearby on the mainland.
It is an excellent location for bird watching, and if you visit at the right time you will see lots of puffins!