Dungeness Lighthouses

Dungeness lighthouses
Left – right: Dungeness Old Lighthouse, the Round House and operational tower

Dungeness Peninsula

There have been five lighthouses in Dungeness, in addition to two Low Lighthouses.

Dungeness is a bleak shingle peninsula that juts out of the Kent coastline. Formed by longshore drift, the headland has built up over the years. For this reason, the Dungeness lighthouses protecting this stretch of coast have had to move on many occasions. The siting of a new nuclear power station has also played its part in the lighthouse story.

Need for a lighthouse

Perhaps because of its remoteness, Dungeness has been the ideal location for experimentation. As a result, fog signals, radar, radio and lighting tests have taken place here, shaping the future of lighthouse technology.

The church tower at Lydd, in the middle of the Dungeness headland, often disorientated mariners from a distance. It was sometimes confused with a ship’s sail, luring vessels unknowingly into danger. 

First Dungeness Lighthouse – 1615 

In Rye, John Allen, a jeweller, is reputed to have been the first to propose a lighthouse at Dungeness. However, Allen could not afford to build the light, so he persuaded William Lamplough to take on the project involving Sir Edward Howard.

The first lighthouse was a wooden tower, located at what is known today as Denge Marsh. Now some distance inland, at the time, it was close to the shoreline.  

The tower was around 35 feet high, with a coal brazier at the top. An internal wooden ladder led up to the brazier, and the coal was hauled up in a bucket. During its twenty years of service, the tower was reconstructed several times.

In 1615 Sir Edward Howard obtained a patent to charge tolls from passing ships for 50 years. Trinity House opposed the scheme, but Howard was licenced for private ownership by King James VI of Scotland.

However, the collection of light dues proved difficult, and unsurprisingly ship owners were reluctant to pay their fees. Trinity House tried to withdraw the patent with support from the shipowners without success.

By 1621 the tower was displaying a light using candles rather than coal. The low-quality light caused more complaints from shipowners. The building was partially destroyed by fire but was again restored.

Second Dungeness Lighthouse – 1635

Second Dungeness Lighthouse
The second Dungeness Lighthouse
Image in Public Domain

The shingle at Dungeness continued to migrate southeastward. Following complaints that the lighthouse now was too far inland, a new brick tower was built. The new building, 110 feet high, was built in 1635 and once again used a coal fire as its primary light source. The new lighthouse was 540 yards to the north of where the 1904 lighthouse stands.

The lease passed from William Lamplough to Elizabeth Shipman, then later to Richard Tufton, the future Earl of Thanet. On his death, his son in law, Thomas Coke of Holkham in Norfolk, acquired the lease. On his death, his widow Margaret took over control.

The coal-fired tower had living accommodation built at its base for two lighthouse keepers. In 1736 John Harden and John Lanes were the lighthouse keepers, under the supervision of Charles Coxsell.

All the coal had to be carried upstairs by hand. It must have been a challenging exercise to keep the tower lit!

Initially, bells and whistles warned ships of danger during fog. A large bell mounted on a wooden stand was erected alongside the 1635 lighthouse, used with a whistle.

Once again, shipowners complained about the poor visibility of the lighthouse. The shape of Dungeness had further altered, and it was now some distance from the shore. Trinity House demanded a new lighthouse.

Third Dungeness Lighthouse – 1792

Dungeness Lighthouse Wyatt
Samuel Wyatt’s Dungeness Lighthouse

The third of the Dungeness lighthouses built in 1792 was designed by Samuel Wyatt, Architect to Trinity House. The tapering tower was inspired by the design of Eddystone Lighthouse, located south of Plymouth.

The lighthouse, 116 feet tall, was lit by 17 Argand oil lamps with concave reflectors. Although the tower was stone, the floors and most of the stairs were made of wood.  

Nine hundred gallons of oil were used annually for the light, plus coal from the stove. As with the previous two lighthouses, all the fuel had to be carried up the staircase to the lantern.

On 24th September 1817, it was reported that the light was not showing at Dungeness. On further investigation, the lighthouse keeper was found to be ill and unable to climb the tower. His lazy assistant was dismissed, and the keeper was retired.

The following year, in 1818, the lighthouse received several inspection visits. Mr L Fussell visited in March and expressed his concern about the structure and foundations of the lighthouse. The arch supporting the first storey of the tower had given way. Four buttresses had been added to the tower to strengthen it.

Lighthouse Keeper Mr Cobb resigned the following year, in 1819, following disagreements with the landlord. Stephen Terry of Lydd succeeded him.

On Christmas Day 1821, the tower was hit by a lightning strike, causing a large split down the tower’s side. One of the keepers is said to have been blinded by molten lead dripping into his eyes when he entered the burning lantern. 

Despite the injuries to the keeper, the damage to the tower was not too severe. Three copper bands strengthened the building, and the leaking roof was repaired.  

In 1836 Trinity House was empowered by an Act of Parliament to buy out all remaining lighthouse leases. Coke accepted the sum of £20,954 2s 5d.

Dungeness Round House
Dungeness Round House and additional lighthouse keepers’ cottages

Following the sale of the lease, in 1843, the Round House around the tower’s base was built. The drum-shaped building consisted of three dwellings. Two for the Lighthouse Keeper and one for the Supernumerary, or trainee Keeper. Two cottages were also built around the perimeter.

Red sectors were added to the light in September 1866 to indicate the bays to either side of Dungeness Point. A first-order optic was installed around the same time.

The tower was painted red to make it more visible. From 1867 it had a red broad horizontal white band. 

The first use of electricity

Electricity was trialled at South Foreland Lighthouse near Dover in 1859. Dungeness became the first lighthouse to have permanent use of electricity installed.  

Michael Faraday, Scientific Adviser to Trinity House, chose the site. Two carbon arc lamps (one as a standby) were surrounded by a sixth-order Chance Brothers optic (the smallest size optic). The oil lamps and reflectors were retained in case of failure.

Holmes magneto-electric machines previously trialled at South Foreland Lighthouse were installed at the tower’s base alongside steam engines. 

The new electric light came into use in June 1862. However, the new system was short-lived, proving too expensive to run. Shipowners complained that the new light was unreliable, sometimes dazzling. By October 1875, it had reverted to the multi-wick oil lamps.

A larger third-order optic, manufactured by Chance Brothers, later replaced the previous optic. Wyatt’s lighthouse was replaced at the beginning of the twentieth century. The optic was then moved to the Trinity House Depot at Blackwall on the River Thames and used for lighting experiments.

Reed fog signal

Various fog signal trials took place at Dungeness, including the use of explosive guns.  

In 1862 the first reed fog signal in Britain was trialled and used at Dungeness. Named after its American inventor Celadon Daboll, it became the first siren to be used in the service. A new, improved Daboll trumpet was installed in 1865, protruding from a wooden building containing a steam engine.

Dabol fog signal Dungeness
The Daboll fog trumpet at Dungeness, c1890

The horn sounded every 20 seconds. It could be rotated to blast in four different directions within the space of a minute. 

The original equipment was later transferred to the Newarp Lightvessel in 1868.  

Siren Fog Signal and Low Lighthouse

lighthouse and fog signal
The first Low Lighthouse and fog signal

In 1875 an early American siren signal replaced the Daboll trumpet. It may well have been similar to the system demonstrated at South Foreland a couple of years prior by Joseph Henry. Housed in a new corrugated iron building, it sounded one blast every minute. 

A Low Light was established at the same time when the High Lighthouse was converted back from electricity to oil.

The corrugated iron building was nearer to the shoreline. It was painted red and mounted on wood to make it moveable. The light displayed a revolving white flash every 5 seconds, visible for 10 miles. A twelve-sided fourth-order revolving optic surrounded oil lamps from an elevation of 28 feet. The high lighthouse continued to show a fixed white light (with red sectors) from a height of 107 feet.

The fog signal was altered to two blasts every 2 minutes in 1877. In 1881 it was modified with a two-tone system using a high note followed by a low note. Powered by Ericson’s Caloric Engine, it was nicknamed the Cow and Calf due to the moaning sound it gave. Following successful experiments, an oil engine was in operation by 1895.

Fourth Dungeness Lighthouse – 1904

Dungeness Old Lighthouse
Photo: John Frost Collection

By 1901 the ever-shifting shingle made it necessary for a fourth lighthouse. Pattrick and Co of London were commissioned to carry out the work.

While construction on the tower was progressing, additional windows were added to the Round House, encircling Wyatt’s tower. The tower was subsequently demolished, although the two 1843 single storey dwellings were retained for accommodation.

Dungeness 3 and 4

Known as the High Light, The 136ft high tower was officially opened by His Majesty The Prince of Wales (later George V) in 1904. 

A light was first exhibited on 31st March 1904, giving a white flash every 10 seconds, visible from 18 miles. The illuminant used paraffin oil with an optic of ten-sided lens panels floating on a mercury trough. The optic had to be wound up by hand every hour.

Dungeness Lighthouse optic
The optic at the Old Dungeness Lighthouse

Further down the tower, a red light shone over the east bay, warning of a sandbank 2½ miles away in St Margaret’s Bay. A green sector light shone over the west bay, indicating a safe anchorage opposite Rye.

A radio beacon emitted a Morse signal for DU at 5-minute intervals, assisting position plotting.

The foghorn blasted in Morse dot dash dot every two minutes. 

The tower was painted black with a broad white band and white lantern until it decommissioning in 1961. Subsequently, the lighthouse was painted all black.

New Low Light and fog signal – 1932

Dungeness Low Lighthouse

By 1932 the low light with its siren signal needed repair. Located 440 metres east of the new 1904 High Light replacing the previous moveable one, a pair of new diaphone fog horns were set at right angles to each other. The diaphone sounded three blasts every 2 minutes, and the light retained its character of one flash every 5 seconds.

A white, brick-built cylindrical tower was built using acetylene gas. The Low Light and foghorn were later demolished in 1959 to make way for the new, present lighthouse.

Dungeness Low Lighthouse


Despite coming under attack on several occasions, the lighthouse suffered very little damage during the war. It operated with reduced intensity when Allied convoys were passing. A shade partially covered the optic so the light would be visible up the Channel from Dover but not from seaward where enemy ships would see it.

Many troops set up defences in the vicinity. A lending library was established on the ground floor of the lighthouse for those handling the coastal defences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the books were never returned!

Floodlight and migrating birds

In 1952 the lighthouse was floodlit as an experiment to see if it would prevent birds from flying into the tower on their night-time migration route. The trial was successful, and so the floodlight remained. As a result of these trials, floodlights were adopted at other lighthouses that suffered regular bird strikes.

Electricity – second time around

In January 1959, electricity was trialled at the lighthouse for the second time. The process was much more successful.

By this time, a new, fifth lighthouse was in construction. An innovative new lamp was fitted on the lantern roof of the High Lighthouse. A xenon electric arc lamp was mounted inside a lens drum. This was the first time an illuminant of this type had been used in lighthouses.

Dungeness Lighthouse Keepers

The Lighthouse keepers worked in shifts or watches of four hours. In addition to their light keeping duties, they also recorded weather conditions at regular intervals.

One of the Principal Keepers, Mr Pells, lived with his wife in a bungalow called The Retreat, located between the Lighthouse and the Brittania pub. Mrs Pells kept bees and made prize-winning honey. It was an excellent area for beekeeping due to the abundance of wildflowers for the bees.

The short-haired bumblebee went into decline around Dungeness, and by 2000 there were no sightings. However, since that time, three species have been reintroduced into the area and are now doing well.

The keepers kept gardens on the grounds and would supplement the site with soil and seaweed to improve the quality.

Fifth Dungeness Lighthouse – 1961

Dungeness Lighthouse

During the late 1950s, work began building a new nuclear power station at Dungeness. The height of the new building would mean that the lighthouse would be obscured from the sea. Therefore, a fifth lighthouse was built closer to the shoreline, where it remains in use today, on the former Low lighthouse site.

The owners of the power station, CEGB, contributed to the cost of building the new lighthouse. Building commenced in November 1959 and incorporated some new structural and technical innovations following months of research and testing by Trinity House.

The new 130ft high tower was much slimmer in design. It was built using 21 precast concrete rings, coloured black and white, to avoid regular repainting. The rings were 1.5 metres high, 15cm thick and 3.6 metres in diameter. 

The Engineer responsible for the design was Philip Hunt, Engineer in chief to Trinity House.  

The Duke of Gloucester officially opened the lighthouse on 29th June 1960. It came into operation on 20th November the following year, when the 1904 lighthouse was decommissioned. Like its predecessor, it was floodlit to prevent bird strikes at night.

Dungeness Lighthouse
Old and new: the Old Lighthouse in the background

Following trials at the Old Lighthouse, as it became known, the new lighthouse was the first to be equipped with a flashing xenon electric arc lamp. However, the light was difficult to control and was replaced a few years later with four banks of Aga sealed beam lamps. These revolved to give a white flash every 10 seconds.  

A fog signal was built into the tower, incorporating 60 tannoy loudspeakers sounding in a triple frequency three times every 30 seconds. Fixed red and green lights shone over the sectors in the bay. 

While the lighthouse was fully staffed a fog detector indicated low visibility so that the keeper could decide when to sound the fog signal.  A searchlight and photocell looked along the beam. 

Before its construction, a tower nearby had 32 tannoys stacked into a new foghorn style, which would be used in the new tower.

A radio beacon also transmitted the morse signal for DU every six minutes.

Three lighthouse keepers operated the lighthouse, working two days on, and one day off.  This continued until the lighthouse became a Keeper and Wife station, monitored from Harwich.  The keepers were finally withdrawn in 1991.  

The light was modernised in 2001 with a fourth-order optic, transferred from Lundy South Lighthouse. The fog signal was replaced by an electronic signal at the base of the tower.

Following the new lighthouse’s construction, the Old Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960 and sold privately in 1961. It was sold again in 1983 after the previous owner died and is now open to the public. 

From around 1980 most of the dwellings were used as a base for offshore lighthouse keepers.  The East Bungalow was used by a keeper serving on Nab Tower. Around the mid-1980s the West Bungalow was occupied by a keeper serving at Longships Lighthouse and in the East Cottage a keeper at Beachy Head.

A number of Supernumerary (trainee) Keepers worked on site.

The two detached keepers cottages were sold in March 1993 and the Round House in 1994.

This video of the new Dungeness Lighthouse was taken in the early 1990s, and gives an interesting tour around the inside, which is rarely seen.

Experimental Station

Heading down to the shoreline in front of the Old Lighthouse, a cluster of buildings formed the Experimental Station. This grew into a research facility for testing lighthouse equipment.

Read more about the Experimental Station

Dungeness Old Lighthouse is open to the public

Read more about visiting Dungeness

Visitor centre
Dungeness Lighthouse 1Established: 1615 Discontinued: Engineer: Tower Height: Light Character: Range: Fog Signal: Elevation: Automated:
Dungeness Lighthouse 2Established: 1635 Discontinued: Engineer: Tower Height: Light Character: Range: Fog Signal: Elevation: Automated:
Dungeness Lighthouse 3Established: 1792 Discontinued: 1904 Engineer: Samuel Wyatt Tower Height: 35 metres Light Character: Range: Fog Signal: Elevation: Automated:
Dungeness Old Lighthouse (4)Established: 1904 Discontinued: 1960 Engineer: Tower Height: 46 metres Light Character: Range: Fog Signal: Elevation: Automated:
Dungeness Lighthouse (Current)Established: 1961 Discontinued: Engineer: Tower Height: 43 metres Light Character: Fl W 10 s Range: 21 miles Fog Signal: Elevation: 40 metres Automated: 1961