St Agnes Lighthouse

St Agnes Lighthouse

The original St Agnes Lighthouse was built in 1860 and stands on the highest point of the island. 

Sir John Clayton applied for a patent to erect a lighthouse on one of the Scilly islands, but Trinity House rejected his application.  Shortly afterwards, Trinity House put forward their own plan for a lighthouse.  They chose St Agnes, the most southwesterly of the inhabited islands.

Captain Simon Bayly and Captain Hugh Till were tasked with the lighthouse construction. The local inhabitants opposed them, however, refusing to sell land, and preferring to profit from the ships wrecked on the island.

St Agnes Lighthouse was finally built in 1860 and stood at just over 70 feet high on the highest part of the island.  It was first lit on 30th October 1680 and at the time was the only operational lighthouse in the southwest of England.

St Agnes Lighthouse 1947
St Agnes Lighthouse circa 1947 – the lighthouse buildings are clearly visible
Photo: John Frost Collection

Within the first floor of the tower, four gun ports were installed, designed for defence against privateers if needed. 

The lantern was over 25 feet high and was lit using an enclosed coal brazier.  This was unusual with coal-fired lights, as they were normally open.  The lantern had as many as twelve chimneys to draw smoke away.

Coal was delivered once a year and stored at the base of the tower, and over one hundred tons were used annually.  The coal was hoisted up to the lantern when required.  The former original coal cresset used at the lighthouse is now on display at the Abbey Gardens in Tresco.  The circular cast iron brazier is 43 inches high and about three feet wide.

St Agnes Cresset
Former brazier from St Agnes Lighthouse and gun from HMS Association at Tresco Abbey Gardens
Photo: Andrewrabbott, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first lighthouse keeper at St Agnes came from outside the islands, as there was a history of wrecking from locals.  However, before the end of the first operational year, he was charged with wrecking!  He had let the fire burn deliberately low so that a vessel would miss the light.  As soon as the ship had hit the rocks he revived the brazier and was found later plundering the wreckage.  Much of his haul was found hidden in the coal at the base of the lighthouse.

On 22nd October 1707, the Royal Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster. Four Royal Navy warships were lost off the Isles of Scilly during a severe storm, with the loss of between 1,400 to 2,000 sailors.  One of these vessels was the HMS Association, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship. The Association was returning from the Battle of Toulon in the War of the Spanish Succession when she struck the Outer Gilstone Rock.  This disaster was to lead to the establishment of longitude to improve navigation.

A gun from the Association can be found in Tresco Abbey Gardens alongside the St Agnes cresset. There is also a memorial to the Association at Porth Hellick on St Mary’s near to where Sir Cloudesley was washed.

Association memorial
Sir Cloudesley Shovell memorial

Another vessel was carrying coal for the lighthouse when it ran aground on Burnt Island in 1764.

Trinity House received complaints about the effectiveness of the lighthouse.  So in 1790 Argand oil burners with recently developed parabolic reflectors were installed.  St Agnes became the first revolving light in Britain.  The lamp assembly was mounted on a triangular frame with seven lamps on each face. A weight mechanism turned the apparatus once every minute giving one flash every 20 seconds.

In 1806 Samuel Wyatt made further improvements when he designed and fitted a new lantern, the same lantern that exists today. At the same time, the number of lamps were increased to ten on each face and the revolution slowed to give one flash every 30 seconds.

St Agnes Island

Plans were also proposed to instal a fog signal at St Agnes but this did not materialise. 

Despite these improvements, wrecks continued and there were calls for a new lighthouse to be built on one of the exposed western rocks.  In January 1843 the schooner Douro struck the Crebawethan rocks losing all on board.

James Walker was despatched to seek a suitable site, and Bishop Rock was chosen.  Work began on the new Bishop Rock Lighthouse. As a result, Trinity House announced that St Agnes Lighthouse would be discontinued upon its completion.  However, work on the Bishop took longer than anticipated and St Agnes was given a reprieve.  Instead, in 1858 its range increased to 18 miles, warning vessels entering the island of St Mary’s.

By the 1880s, Bishop Rock Lighthouse had to be strengthened and raised. A new lighthouse was built on Round Island at north of the archipelago, and in 1911 Peninnis Lighthouse was established.  The latter brought to an end the use of St Agnes lighthouse.  As Peninnis Lighthouse was exhibited for the first time, St Agnes was discontinued.  This brought to an end 230 years of uninterrupted service.

Scilly Lighthouse

Following its decommissioning, the lighthouse and adjoining keepers’ cottages were sold off privately.  The lighthouse is still regularly painted as it is still used as a daymark.

There is no access to the tower or cottages.

The nearby Turks Head pub has lots of lighthouse-related photos inside.

Burnt Island and Tins Walbert are at the northwestern end of the island, near St Agnes Church.  This is accessible at low water, and here you will find the Tins Walbert Daymark.

Daymark at St Agnes
Daymark at Tins Walbert, off Burnt Island, St Agnes
Established: 1680
Discontinued: 1911
Engineer: Captain Hugh Till and Captain Simon Bayly
Tower Height: 21 metres