Portland Old High Lighthouse

Portland Old High Lighthouse

Portland Old High Lighthouse is located at the top of Branscombe Hill at Portland Bill.  There are three lighthouses at Portland; the Old Higher Lighthouse on the west, the Old Lower Lighthouse on the east, and the current Portland Bill Lighthouse at the tip. The two old lights are often confused since the Old Higher Light is shorter than the Old Lower Light—though the former has the greater elevation.

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The first application for a lighthouse was made in 1668 by Sir John Clayton, but this fell through. Over the years, many more proposals were made but rejected by Trinity House.

Trinity House finally obtained a patent in 1716, and it was leased for 61 years to a private consortium. Two lighthouses were constructed with enclosed lanterns and coal fires.  Mariners were guided between the shore and the Shambles Bank by keeping the lights in line.

Portland Old High Lighthouse

However, an inspection in 1752 by Trinity House officials found them to be poorly maintained. In some cases, the lights had not exhibited until several hours after sunset. Although improvements were made, ship owners still complained for many years afterwards. When the lease expired in 1777, it returned to Trinity House, who took over maintenance of the lights.

In 1788 Samuel Wyatt, Consultant Engineer to Trinity House supervised a rebuilding programme at the High Light. The existing coal-fired lantern was removed.  Portland High Light became the first lighthouse in England to use Argand oil lamps. The lantern housed two rows of seven lamps containing a circular cotton wick, and highly polished square reflectors were used in conjunction with the lamps.

In 1789 local builder William Johns was contracted by Trinity House to erect a new tower, and Samuel Wyatt designed this new tower. The Low Light was then demolished. The new 62ft high building was constructed further to the east of the tower it replaced and housed six glass reflectors.

Old High Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Trinity House carried out experiments on lenses at their depot in Blackwall. A glass cutter by trade, Thomas Rogers, submitted a lens design to Trinity House following requests for new designs. His apparatus was trialled at Portland. Rogers installed silvered glass reflectors and large plano-convex lenses, which refracted the light rays to a horizontal plane. The lenses were glazed into the lantern, and it became the first lighthouse in the world to use magnifying optical lenses. The lenses were made of solid glass, 21 inches in diameter and 5 inches thick at the focus. However, the thickness of the glass was deemed to have a negative effect, and they were removed

In 1836 a new optical apparatus was installed into the High Light, making it significantly more powerful. This was supervised by the new Consultant Engineer to Trinity House, James Walker. The Low Light was modernised again in 1856 when the dwellings were demolished and new quarters built for the keepers. Both Low and High lights were fitted with new optics and more efficient oil lamps. The High Light was also raised by 15 feet to increase its range.

Trinity House decided to rebuild both towers in 1866. Designed by James Douglass, on the recommendations of James Walker, the High Light was built as a two-storey building 50 feet in height.  The Low Light was five storeys and around 85 feet high. Both lighthouses had first-order fixed dioptric lenses manufactured by Chance Brothers in Birmingham. The light source in each came from a Wilkins five wicked oil lamp.

Portland High 1954
Portland Old High Lighthouse circa 1954
Photo: John Frost Collection

The High Light was re-established in March 1867, and the Low Light in October of the same year. Both towers exhibited a fixed white light with ranges of 21 and 18 miles, respectively.

In 1901 fifteen ships were wrecked, and Trinity House decided that the two lights, 1,509ft apart, were no longer suitable. The High and Low Lights were discontinued when replaced by the present Portland Bill Lighthouse in 1906.

The two redundant lights were put up for auction in 1907.  The High Light was purchased for £405 and was known as Branscombe Lodge, housing its own stables. The Lower Light, or Bay View as it became known, was later converted into a bird observatory.

Branscombe Lodge
Photo: Patrick Tubby

The Old Higher Lighthouse had many famous connections over the years. King George III and HG Wells both visited. More recently, birth control pioneer Marie Stopes owned the lighthouse as a holiday home. It was derelict when purchased by the current owner in 1980. The single-storey buildings alongside the tower now form part of the accommodation, and guests have access to the tower and lantern of the old lighthouse.

From the car park at the Bill, a coastal path leads along the cliff tops to the island’s western side. From here, the Old Higher Light can be found.

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Established: 1716, Current tower: 1867
Discontinued: 1906