The lighthouses of Eddystone have been guiding mariners since 1698. Since that time significant pioneering developments have been made to their design.
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The Eddystone Lighthouses
From the top of Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe, beyond the impressive Plymouth Breakwater, a small mark on the horizon 12 miles away indicates the current operational Eddystone Lighthouse.
These two towers represent an engineering timeline between 1759 to the present, but the story of the Eddystone Lighthouses and the men who built them goes back much further.
In fact, the current lighthouse standing on the reef is the fourth of the Eddystone Lighthouses. The stump of the third lighthouse remains on the reef in its original location. The rest of the tower stands proudly on Plymouth Hoe.
Eddystone Lighthouse has always held a fascination for me. On a sailing trip with friends, we headed back at night from Falmouth to Plymouth under the most incredible starry sky, with phosphorescence sparkling in the water below.
For a great deal of time, the reassuring beam of Eddystone Lighthouse both welcomed and warned us on our homeward course. Even with GPS on board, it was reassuring to have that guiding light telling us where we were.
We will find out why there have been four lighthouses built on this reef. We discover the men who built them and overcame the difficulties of building a lighthouse on a wave-washed rock that is submerged twice a day by tides and hammered continuously by the waves.
The Eddystone reef is approximately 12 miles south of Plymouth. At high water, it is entirely underwater. Its location also means that it is a significant shipping hazard. The number of shipwrecks found around this area confirms this.
The location, geology and the fact that it is submerged at every tide also meant that it would be challenging to build a lighthouse on the rock. But action had to be taken, and it took the loss of two of the first builder’s own vessels to finally get something done.
The Lighthouses of Eddystone
Eddystone Lighthouse #1 – 1698
The first Eddystone Lighthouse was an ornate construction, built by Henry Winstanley. Winstanley was a painter and engineer, who lost two of his own ships on the reef.
Born in Saffron Walden, Essex in 1644, Henry Winstanley became well known for inventing elaborate mechanical and hydraulic instruments. He displayed many of these in his “Essex House of Wonders” at Littlebury.
Winstanley invested some of his profits into a fleet of five ships. However, two of his ships were wrecked on the Eddystone reef. He demanded to know why the rock had not been lit and was informed that it was too dangerous. So he decided he would build a lighthouse himself, with support and resources from the Admiralty.
Construction of Winstanley’s Eddystone Lighthouse
Construction began in 1696, and during the building of the tower, a French privateer captured Winstanley. He was later released when Louis XIV learned of the important work he was carrying out. “France is at war with England, and not with humanity”, he declared.
In typical Winstanley style, the lighthouse was a very ornate structure. It was anchored into the rock using twelve iron stanchions.
The elaborate lighthouse was first lit on 14th November 1698. The tower survived the first winter but was soon in need of repair. The lighthouse was often entirely obscured by waves washing over it.
The following year the octagonal tower was enlarged to a 12 sided structure and became even more ornate.
The Great Storm
Winstanley vowed to be in the lighthouse during the worst storm there ever was. On 27th November 1703, he got his wish. The Great Storm is still regarded as one of the worst to have hit the south-west coast of England.
The next morning, there was no sign of the lighthouse. Sadly, neither Winstanley nor his lighthouse or its keepers survived the ordeal.
Despite the men and lighthouse’s loss, no other ships had been wrecked during the lighthouse’s short operation, proving great testament to Winstanley’s tenacity.
Eddystone Lighthouse #2 – 1708
Following the destruction of Winstanley’s lighthouse, Captain John Lovett was permitted to charge shipping tolls, and John Rudyerd was commissioned to erect a new lighthouse.
Like Winstanley, John Rudyerd was not a professional engineer. Born in Leek, Staffordshire, Rudyerd was a silk merchant and property developer. Although generally referred to as Rudyerd, his family name is actually Rudyard.
Rudyerd’s Eddystone Lighthouse
Rudyerd’s tower used wooden planks, tapered vertically around a brick and concrete base. It was first lit on 28th July 1708, displaying 24 candles. Completion of the tower occurred the following year.
On 2nd December 1755 disaster struck when the lighthouse lantern caught fire. The three lighthouse keepers tried to contain the inferno but were quickly overcome and were forced out onto the rock to take shelter for the night.
One of the keepers, Henry Hall, aged 94, died several days later. He is thought to have swallowed a large lump of lead from the molten lantern. A piece of lead removed from his body is now on display in the National Museums of Scotland. At the northern end of Millbay Park in Plymouth, near the Duke of Cornwall Hotel, a plaque is set into the pavement as a replica of the molten lead removed from Henry Hall’s body.
Eddystone Lighthouse #3 – 1759
Engineer John Smeaton designed the third of the Eddystone Lighthouses. His design was based on an oak tree’s shape and built out of Cornish granite and Portland stone. His design inspired the blueprint of many lighthouses, including those produced by the Scottish dynasty of lighthouse engineers, the Stevenson family.
Unlike his predecessors, John Smeaton had a civil and mechanical engineering background and was a physicist.
Born in Leeds, Smeaton became a mathematical instrument maker. Numerous engineering projects were undertaken by Smeaton, including Smeaton’s Pier’s construction in St Ives, Cornwall.
John Smeaton died in 1792. He and was buried at Whitkirk Church in West Yorkshire, where a memorial is dedicated to him.
Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse
Smeaton developed a special form of mortar designed to set underwater, and the design of the tower used interlocking blocks joined with dovetail joints and marble dowels. It was the first in the world to be constructed with such a design.
An actual size commemorative pavement at the northern end of Millbay Park shows the lowest complete course of Smeaton’s lighthouse and demonstrates how the blocks dovetailed together.
Construction began on the lighthouse in 1756 at Millbay. Smeaton built a jetty and work yard in the harbour’s southwest corner to work and load the stone. The workboat was named the Eddystone and was based here, ferrying the stones out to the reef once prepared.
The 59 feet high lighthouse was first lit on 16th October 1759, displaying 24 candles arranged in a candelabra. When the 100-year lease to the lighthouse expired in 1807 (issued when Rudyerd’s tower was under construction), ownership reverted to Trinity House.
In 1810 parabolic reflectors and oil lamps were installed to replace the candle chandelier.
In 1841 and 1845 significant renovations were made. A new second-order fixed dioptric optic replaced the lamps and reflectors, using lenses, prisms and refractors above and below the central lens belt. Smeaton’s Tower became the first lighthouse to use such a system.
The lighthouse stood solid for over a hundred years. However, in 1877 a survey found that the rock it stood on was starting to be undermined by erosion, causing it to shudder violently during storms.
Work began constructing a new, fourth lighthouse on a lower section of reef alongside Smeaton’s tower. Two-thirds of Smeaton’s Tower was later dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe, where it stands today, the work overseen by William Tregarthen Douglass. The remaining part of the stump remains on the reef.
In 1913 a small bomb was placed in Smeaton’s Tower’s doorway by suffragettes campaigning for votes for women. Fortunately, the bomb did not go off.
Smeaton’s Tower is open to the public and provides spectacular views across the city and the Sound to the current Eddystone Lighthouse, visible on a clear day.
Eddystone Lighthouse #4 – 1882
James Douglass designed the fourth and present Eddystone Lighthouse. He based the design on that of Robert Stevenson’s developments and John Smeaton’s techniques.
Born in London in 1826, James Nicholas Douglass was the eldest son of civil engineer Nicholas Douglass. His brother William worked with his father on the construction of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse.
In addition to Eddystone Lighthouse, Douglass was also responsible for designing several other significant lighthouses including Southwold, Smalls, Hartland Point and Souter Lighthouse.
Following the construction of the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse, Douglass was knighted. He died in 1898 at his home on the Isle of Wight. A memorial can be found at St Boniface Church, Bonchurch. His grave was later relocated to the family plot in St Petrox Church, Dartmouth.
Douglass’s Eddystone Lighthouse
Work started in July 1878, and by 19th August the following year. By the next year, the foundation stone had been laid. The stone blocks were prepared at the Oreston yard, on Plymouth’s outskirts. The supply ship Hercules was based here. Messrs Shearer, Smith and Co of Wadebridge supplied the stone. You can find a memorial block in Wadebridge in Eddystone Road.
The lighthouse was first lit on 18th May 1882. A first-order biform optic, which consisted of two lenses, one mounted above the other, was manufactured by Chance Brothers of Smethwick and installed with a six wick concentric oil burner. If the Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse was visible, only the lower optic was used, but in low visibility, both were illuminated.
The optic was one of the largest ever made for a lighthouse in England, known as a hyper-radial. The lens was manufactured by Chance Brothers, the renowned lighthouse engineers at their factory in Smethwick, near Birmingham. It is believed the biform weighed around 7 tonnes and used a mercury trough to give it an almost friction-free bearing.
The tower had nine floors excluding the lantern, with some of the lower rooms for stores and oil, and above these the kitchen/living room, bedrooms and the service room.
A fixed white light exhibited from a room on the 8th storey indicated the offshore reef of Hand Deeps, a shoal around 3½ miles to the north-west. Today a fixed red light is exhibited over this point.
Two large bells, each weighing two tons were added to either side of the gallery, acting as a fog signal. Around ten years later an explosive fog signal was installed.
By 1904 the lamps had been replaced by incandescent oil vapour burners.
In 1959 the lighthouse was electrified, and the current fourth-order bi-valve optic installed. A supertyphon fog signal with compressors powered from the diesel generators was installed at the same time. Penlee station monitored the fog signal to ensure it operated correctly.
The old 1882 optic was removed and donated to Southampton Maritime Museum and was exhibited in the 1970s on the Royal Pier. It was later moved to a council yard and was sadly destroyed by vandals.
Eddystone lighthouse became the first offshore (tower) lighthouse to be converted to automatic operation in 1982, marking 100 years since the Douglass tower’s construction. In October 1980, before automation, a helipad was constructed above the lantern, and an electric nautophone fog signal installed. On automation, the former service room below the lantern was converted to an engine room.
During the automation programme, from July 1981 a temporary lightvessel, Eddystone, was positioned a mile off the tower and remained there until May the following year. The lightvessel provided a light, fog signal, racon and radio beacon service. A temporary buoy marking the Hand Deeps was also deployed.
The keepers were removed whilst the engineers carried out the programme, bringing to an end 284 years of keepers on the Eddystone lighthouses. Before complete automation, Penlee Point Fog Signal Station maintained control via telemetry.
The automated lighthouse came into operation on 18th May 1982. Subsequently, the lightvessel and buoy were removed.
The Penlee Point radio beacon began transmitting the morse PE every six minutes on the same day.
On 28th July 1982 the Master of Trinity House, HRH Prince Philip visited Eddystone with THV Patricia and other dignitaries on board. A plaque was mounted at the top of the lighthouse stairway to commemorate the occasion. A plaque was also placed at Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe.
Further modernisation took place in August 1999 when solar panels were installed.
The Eddystone Lighthouse Keepers
Before installation of the helipad, reliefs would take place by boat. The following video shows a relief at Eddystone taking place. However, often in bad weather reliefs would be overdue, so with the introduction of helicopter reliefs, the changeover process became more reliable.
Sometimes the keepers would fly their kites from a fishing line and catch fresh fish; it was quite a skill!
The Eddystone Lighthouse and its role today
The Eddystone Lighthouses have guided mariners for over 400 years, warning of dangers off Plymouth’s shores. Along the way, they have shaped the design of lighthouse engineering, and as the tower on Plymouth Hoe stands as a proud memorial, the current tower keeps on sending its relentless signal across the waves.
The engineers and those who built these lights’ remarkable tenacity means that even today, our mariners are warned of the dangers.
The pioneering design of Smeaton’s tower has been used in many other lighthouses, lighting the way.
Cornwall’s Lighthouse Heritage – Michael Tarrant
Lighthouses of England – South West – Denton and Leach
Eddystone – the finger of light – Mike Palmer
Smeaton’s Tower – Christopher Severn
Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse – Adam Hart-Davis
Red Rocks of Eddystone – Fred Majdalany
It was Fun while it Lasted – Arthur Lane
The Douglas Lighthouse Engineers – Timothy Douglass
Lighthouses of Cornwall and Devon – Ken Trethewey
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Penlee Point, Cornwall
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