Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse

Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse

Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse stands on the western end of the Breakwater and marks the southwestern entrance to Plymouth Harbour.

Plymouth Sound has been a busy shipping area for centuries and is marked with various aids to navigation.  The city has had connections with the Royal Navy since the sixteenth century and is still a naval port.

View of Plymouth Breakwater
Photo: Ruth Drinkwater

Engineer John Rennie and Joseph Whidbey designed the mile-long breakwater. It was designed to protect fleet movements in and out of Devonport and to safeguard vessels waiting to enter the port. Construction started in 1812, and a lightvessel was stationed at the western end in 1813. The breakwater suffered storm damage and technical problems and was not finally completed until 1841. Unfortunately, Rennie died 20 years before its completion.

Messrs Walker and Burgess designed the lighthouse built on the western end of the breakwater. Work commenced in February 1841 and was completed in November 1843.

View from the lantern
Photo: Ruth Drinkwater

The 78-foot-high tower was first lit in June 1844. A fixed red light with a white sector marked an anchorage to the northeast, but these colours were later reversed. A second white light shone lower down the tower from 1854, highlighting the Draystone, off Penlee Point and the Knap.

At the eastern end of the breakwater, it was decided that building a lighthouse would not be cost-effective.  Instead, a round cage mounted on a pole was built as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors.  It was completed in 1845 and had a six-foot diameter cage to accommodate up to six stranded sailors.

Plymouth Breakwater Refuge
The refuge beacon at the western end

By 1867, a 7cwt bell was installed. In 1879, the fog bell previously used at Start Point Lighthouse was moved to Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse.  This bell used clockwork machinery. The original bell was removed and installed at Gunfleet Lighthouse.

Acetylene gas was installed in 1920, bringing automation to the lighthouse. The keepers were removed, and the light and fog signal were monitored from Penlee Point Fog Signal Station.

Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse

Later, a beam of light projected from the northeast corner of the keepers’ dwelling at Penlee fired a detector at the lighthouse. If there were any interruptions, the bell would automatically be operated.

In 1993, Trinity House passed over ownership of the lighthouse to the Royal Naval Dockyard. The bell continued in use until 1994, when an electric emitter replaced it. It is now looked after by the Cattewater Harbour Authority.

Established: 1844
Tower Height: 23 metres
Light Character: Fl W R 10 s
Light Range: W 12 miles, R 9 miles
Elevation: 19 metres