The Penlee Point site was established in 1902 as a fog signal station for three keepers and their families. Its role was later extended to provide support to both Eddystone and Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouses.
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Penlee Point is located on Rame Head, a headland marking the western approaches to Plymouth Sound near Millbrook and Cawsand. The station is within the private estate of Mount Edgcumbe Country Park.
A small cave on the site was used as a watchhouse in the 18th century. This cave had an arched stone building, which was added to following a visit to the area by Queen Adelaide in 1827; the Queen had strong links with the Edgcumbe family, the owners of the estate.
A battery was established at Penlee Point around 1890 to protect Plymouth and its naval dockyard, although it never came under enemy attack. Initially armed with three guns, the largest, weighing 67 tons, was landed at the base of a set of steps below the Battery.
The barrel remained at the base of the steps for a year before it was finally hauled up with over 200 men and 40 horses’ assistance. The gun was mounted at the Battery in 1894. On its first firing, the foundation cracked. Six smaller guns then replaced it in 1914.
During the Second World War, anti-aircraft installations were built, but these were later demolished.
A terrace of three substantial cottages was built. Two larger cottages were built on either side and a smaller one between them for a Supernumerary (probationary) keeper or maintenance staff.
The keepers’ gardens were behind the accommodation.
A separate fog signal building was built around 150 yards from the accommodation block, officially established on 1st September 1902. It housed a twin reed fog signal powered by air pressure generated from a Gardner diesel compressor, sounding a 3½ second blast every 10 seconds. Two vertical horns mounted on the roof of the engine room faced south and southeast.
Although both Eddystone and Plymouth Breakwater lighthouses had fog signals, they were sometimes difficult to hear in certain weather conditions. Eddystone Lighthouse was originally fitted with two fog bells on its gallery. Later an explosive gun cotton fog signal, known as the fog gun, was installed using tonite charges, and a Supertyfon compressed air fog signal later replaced the explosive signal.
In 1929 the Great Western Railway Company, which owned the docks at Plymouth, petitioned for a new directional wireless beacon at Penlee. This campaign came about following Eddystone Lighthouse’s incident in April 1928, when the liner Paris had been passing the Eddystone reef in dense fog. Despite the fog bell’s sounding and the firing of the fog gun from the keepers as a final warning, the ship ran aground on the reef.
The GWRC was prepared to pay for the building and supplying of equipment to the station at Penlee. However, they wanted Trinity House to fund its maintenance. Trinity House refused, stating that there was already adequate coverage at Lizard and Start Point Lighthouses.
Eddystone Lighthouse, 12 miles south of Plymouth, was fitted with a VHF telephone system. A base station was installed at Penlee so that should the equipment fail at Eddystone, the Penlee keepers could keep in contact with the lighthouse and provide assistance if required.
Penlee Point was the monitoring station for Eddystone Lighthouse via telemetry up until its automation in 1982. The keepers at Penlee were also responsible for ensuring that the Eddystone fog signal was operating correctly.
In October 1980 a helicopter pad was built atop the lantern of Eddystone Lighthouse to relieve the keepers and for maintenance visits. The helicopters would use Penlee as their base as it was the closest distance to the lighthouse.
On the road behind the station at Penlee, a fuel store was connected to the fog signal building. This building also stored fuel for the helicopters. The helicopters would transport fuel and water by under-slung bags to Eddystone lighthouse.
Eddystone had provided a radio beacon service, but its range often fell short. As part of the scheme to automate Eddystone, two radio masts were erected at Penlee, for a more efficient system to be installed. Two large lattice towers were positioned in front of the accommodation.
Prior to satellite technology, radio direction finding (RDF) was used for navigation. A hand-held, or built-in radio could be tuned to a specific wavelength. Up to six RDF stations would transmit their identifying signals in turn. Penlee transmitted the letters PE every 7 minutes along with a tuning signal. From the weakest signal, a bearing could be taken; then further readings could be taken from a second and third signal which would ascertain a more accurate position.
The office room in the dwellings was converted to house the base control equipment, and the old fuel store became the battery room. Telemetry and radio equipment was installed at both Penlee and Eddystone and tested to check that there would be no interference from signals bouncing off the hillside behind the station at Penlee.
In addition to Eddystone, Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse was also monitored from Penlee Point. A beam of light projected from the northeastern corner of the accommodation block towards the lighthouse. If this beam were interrupted, the fog bell at the Breakwater would automatically come into operation.
Penlee Point must have been a relatively comfortable station for the keepers since there was no light to maintain. Essentially less work needed to be carried out, and it was undoubtedly less isolated than some stations.
There were usually three keepers on duty, working on a rota basis. Penlee was classed as a shore station, which meant that the rota would be similar to a lighthouse station watch system, with keepers working three days on, and one day off.
Whilst on watch, the keepers would be stationed in the fog signal building, keeping a visual watch. Eddystone Lighthouse, Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse and the Draystone Buoy, located off the southeastern end of Penlee Point, would be used as reference marks to determine visibility and when to sound the foghorn.
The two end cottages housed the permanent keepers, and the central cottage a single relief keeper. Often a resident was the Local Assistant Keeper (LAK) covering sickness and holidays.
The keepers’ children would attend the local schools. Those children who lived less than three miles away walked to school. Those attending schools further than three miles away would be picked up by taxi each day.
As with other lighthouses, the Trinity House Elder Brethren, or other dignitaries would visit for official inspection. A ceremonial flagstaff displayed the Trinity House flag on such occasions. However, unusually, a red flag would also be flown during firing practice at Wembury. Strictly speaking, the red flag took precedence over the Trinity House flag, since it was a maritime navigation warning, so could potentially have been flown during an inspection visit.
In 1982 the station was converted to mains electricity. A nautophone fog signal with eight emitters and a standby Lister generator was installed in case of mains failure. This brought to an end the last reed fog station in service.
In 1986 Trinity House acquired a small parcel of land from the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park for additional property. The old fog signal was demolished to make way for the provision of a new helipad for maintenance and stores flights to Eddystone. An old MOD garage and fuel store were converted to store the helicopter fuel, and diesel was already stored for the standby generator. This provided fuel and water provision for Eddystone, which was piped directly down to the helipad. Up to that point, water and fuel had been transported to Eddystone by Trinity House tender.
The nautophone stack was moved to a new building which also provided mains electricity supply and standby batteries.
Following a review In 1987, it was considered that Penlee should be discontinued as a fog signal station. It became a monitoring station for Plymouth Breakwater, Eddystone and Hartland Point Lighthouses, the latter on the north Devon coast.
The two families were relocated, and crews of three keepers stayed at the station for a month on, a month off, the same as for lighthouse rock stations.
In 1991 the monitoring equipment was transferred to Nash Point Lighthouse in South Wales, and Penlee was finally demanned on 1st April 1991. Following its decommission, the keepers’ cottages were sold off in 1994, although Trinity House retained the control room and fog signal.
Following Nash Point’s automation in 1998, all the lighthouses were monitored from the Trinity House operations depot in Harwich.
The former signal station is located on Rame Head overlooking Plymouth Sound and is part of the South West Coast Path.