Eddystone Lighthouse has been guiding mariners since 1698. Since that time significant pioneering developments have been made to their design.
From the top of Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe, around 12 miles, the current operational Eddystone Lighthouse is visible.
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.
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 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.
Henry Winstanley was born in Saffron Walden, Essex in 1644. He became well-known for inventing elaborate mechanical and hydraulic instruments. Winstanley 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 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.
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 southwest coast of England.
The next morning, there was no sign of the lighthouse. Sadly, neither Winstanley nor his lighthouse nor its keepers survived the ordeal.
Despite the loss of the lighthouse and men, no other ships had been wrecked during the lighthouse’s short operation. This proved a great testament to Winstanley’s tenacity.
Following the destruction of Winstanley’s lighthouse, 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 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. They 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, a plaque is set into the pavement as a replica of the molten lead removed from Henry Hall’s body.
The third Eddystone Lighthouse, built by engineer John Smeaton, was built in 1759. Smeaton’s Tower now stands proudly on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to its designer and is open to the public. It was moved to the Hoe following the installation of the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse.
James Douglass designed the fourth and present Eddystone Lighthouse. He based the design on 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.
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.
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 stone in Wadebridge in Eddystone Road.
The lighthouse was first lit on 18th May 1882. A first-order biform optic was installed, consisting of two lenses, one mounted above the other. The optic manufactured by Chance Brothers of Smethwick housed 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. 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. Some of the lower rooms were used for stores and oil, and above these were the kitchen/living room, bedrooms and 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 northwest. 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 a 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 automated in 1982. This marked 100 years since the Douglass tower’s construction. In October 1980, before automation, a helipad was constructed above the lantern. An electric nautophone fog signal was also installed. On automation, the former service room below the lantern was converted into an engine room.
During the automation programme, from July 1981 a temporary lightvessel, Eddystone, was positioned a mile off the tower. It remained there until May of 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. This brought 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.
Before the installation of the helipad, reliefs would take place by boat. The following video shows relief at Eddystone taking place. However, often in bad weather reliefs would be overdue. 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 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. The tower on Plymouth Hoe stands as a proud memorial, and the current tower keeps on sending its relentless signal across the waves.