Smeaton’s Tower stands on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to its creator John Smeaton. The lighthouse originally stood on the Eddystone reef and replaced two earlier lighthouses.
The first Eddystone Lighthouse was built in 1698 by Henry Winstanley, and this was superseded by John Rudyerd’s Lighthouse of 1708.
Engineer John Smeaton designed the third of the Eddystone Lighthouses. His design was based on the shape of an oak tree and built out of Cornish granite and Portland stone. Smeaton’s design inspired the blueprint of many lighthouses.
Unlike his predecessors, John Smeaton had a civil and mechanical engineering background and was a physicist.
Born in Leeds, Smeaton became a mathematical instrument maker. He undertook many engineering projects, including the construction of Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.
John Smeaton died in 1792. He was buried at Whitkirk Church in West Yorkshire, where a memorial is dedicated to him.
Smeaton developed a special form of mortar designed to set underwater. His design used interlocking blocks joined with dovetail joints and marble dowels. It was the first in the world to be constructed with such a design.
An actual size commemorative pavement can be found at the northern end of Millbay Park in Plymouth. It shows the lowest complete course of Smeaton’s lighthouse and demonstrates how the blocks dovetailed together.
Construction began on the lighthouse in 1756 at Millbay. Smeaton built a jetty and work yard in the harbour’s southwest corner to work and load the stone. The workboat was named the Eddystone and was based here, ferrying the stones out to the reef once prepared.
The 59 feet high lighthouse was first lit on 16th October 1759, displaying 24 candles arranged in a candelabra. In 1810 parabolic reflectors and oil lamps were installed to replace the candle chandelier.
In 1841 and 1845 significant renovations were made. A new second-order fixed dioptric optic replaced the lamps and reflectors. It used lenses, prisms and refractors above and below the central lens belt. Smeaton’s Tower became the first lighthouse to use such a system.
The lighthouse stood solid for over a hundred years. However, in 1877 a survey found that the rock it stood on was starting to be undermined by erosion, causing it to shudder violently during storms.
Work began constructing a new, fourth lighthouse on a lower section of the reef alongside Smeaton’s tower. Two-thirds of Smeaton’s Tower was later dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe, where it stands today. The work was overseen by William Tregarthen Douglass, and the remaining part of the stump remains on the reef.
The current Eddystone Lighthouse, built by James Douglass came into operation in 1882.
In 1913 a small bomb was placed in Smeaton’s Tower’s doorway by suffragettes campaigning for votes for women. Fortunately, the bomb did not go off.
Smeaton’s Tower is open to the public. From the lantern, there are spectacular views across the city and the Sound. Plymouth Breakwater and the current Eddystone Lighthouse are visible on a clear day.
The lighthouse can also be hired for weddings.