Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse stands on the western end of the Breakwater. It 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.
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 it 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.
The 78 feet high tower was first lit in June 1844. A fixed red light with a white sector marked an anchorage to the northeast. These colours were later reversed. A second white light later 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 it would not be cost-effective to build a lighthouse. 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.
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.
From 1920 acetylene gas was installed, bringing automation to the lighthouse. The keepers were removed, and the light and fog signal was monitored from Penlee Point Fog Signal Station.
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 Cattewater Harbour Authority.