South Foreland Lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse is located on the edge of the cliff overlooking Dover Harbour. The earliest record of a light at South Foreland dates from 1367. A hermit kept a light burning in a cave below the cliffs at Dover. 

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The first record of a request for a permanent lighthouse was in 1634 when Charles I granted Sir John Meldrum permission to erect two lighthouses at South Foreland with a lease for 50 years at £20 per year. 

The two lights originally had open fires. By 1719 the lanterns were enclosed. The lanterns were replaced in 1793 housing up to fourteen reflectors with oil lamps.

South Foreland Lighthouse

In 1832 the government authorised the purchase of the South Foreland Lighthouses.  The higher lighthouse was rebuilt by Trinity House Chief Engineer James Walker in 1843.  This is the 69ft high tower which stands today, with its castellated parapet and dwellings adjoining the building. 

The Low Light was rebuilt three years later in 1846. An octagonal white tower 49ft in height, it was very similar in design to that of the higher light.  Further land was acquired in 1869 between the two lights. This made space for engine houses, workshops and living accommodation for the three keepers.

South Foreland Low Light Postcard
South Foreland Low Lighthouse – Scan of original postcard
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lighting experiments

Between 1856 and 1885 a number of lighting experiments were carried out at South Foreland. In December 1858 a magneto-electric light was tested at the lighthouse by Professor Holmes.  It was the strongest artificial light known at that time. 

In 1872, the South Foreland Lighthouse was the first to be lit with a permanent electricity source, producing 150,000 candlepower.  However, Holmes’ machine was short-lived, as a new dynamo-electric system was tested in 1876-7 by Dr Siemens. This proved a far superior illuminant to the magneto-electric machine.

South Foreland Low Lighthouse
South Foreland Low Lighthouse

Other experiments carried out at the lighthouse between 1884 and 1885 tested out gas illumination in preference to electricity.  Three temporary lights were established on the headland to record these tests.  Further experiments were also carried out with fog signals.

1898 marked another milestone in South Foreland’s history. Guglielmo Marconi made his first ship to shore radio broadcast on 24th December from the lighthouse to the East Goodwin Lightvessel, 10 miles away.  The following spring the lightship was the first vessel to send its own distress signal. The crew were able to summon help when it was run down by the RF Matthews.

The Low Light was decommissioned in 1904. It is located on private grounds, visible from South Foreland Lighthouse, and is not accessible to the public.

South Foreland Low Lighthouse
South Foreland Lighthouse
Photo by Keith Morton

The lighthouse was automated in 1959. It was modernised in 1969 when it was finally connected to the national grid, with a generator as a standby power source. 

It was discontinued on 30th September 1988, and acquired by the National Trust the following year.

South Foreland Lighthouse is now open as a visitor centre and cafe.

The Low Lighthouse featured in the 1967 horror movie The Shuttered Room, starring Oliver Reed.

Established: 1843
Discontinued: 1988
Engineer: James Walker
Tower Height: 15 metres
South Foreland Low LighthouseEstablished: 1846 Discontinued: 1904 Engineer: Tower Height: Light Character: Range: Fog Signal: Elevation: Automated: