The Lighthouse Stevensons
Robert Stevenson - An Amazing Engineer
August 7th is National Lighthouse Day and this article celebrates the work of that amazing family of engineers, the 'Lighthouse' Stevensons.
This article will concentrate on the most amazing of these, Robert Stevenson.
In the late eighteenth century, Bell Rock a small sandstone reef only feet below the surface claimed over 70 ships in one night in a storm to end all storms.
It was this which made Robert Stevenson propose the building of a lighthouse on this tiny, treacherous scrap of sandstone in the North Sea.
His suggestion was considered impossible by those who heard it.
And yet, Stevenson believed in himself and created what was to be known as the 'seventh wonder of the Industrial World'.
About Robert Stevenson
Robert Stevenson was born in 1772 and after the death of his father, was educated at a charity school.
His mother remarried and Robert was taken under the wing of his step-father, Thomas Smith, a man of outstanding ingenuity and entrepreneurial talent. He took Robert to work with him at the Northern Lighthouse Board. It was to change Robert Stevenson's life forever.
At the National Lighthouse Board, Robert began working in the marine engineering field and soon became fascinated with the work. It was clear he was very talented and concentrated all of his efforts on civil engineering.
This period in history sees the birth of the Industrial Revolution and in Stevenson's own field of civil engineering, he was one of the masters (along with those other Stephensons, George and Robert from the North East of England).
He was only 19 years old when Thomas Smith entrusted him with supervising the building of a lighthouse on Little Cumbrae on the River Clyde. Robert Stevenson relished the task and there began his lifelong commitment to building lighthouses which could withstand the conditions of the North Sea and provide vital safety for mariners off the Scottish shore.
Robert Stevenson's grandson, Robert Louis Stevenson was very, very proud of his grandfather, father and uncles for nowhere around Scotland's shores could you escape their fine work.
He is reported to have said "Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors."
A History of Bell Rock
Legend has it that in the fourteenth century, the Abbot of Aberbrothok convinced the townspeople that the Inchcape reef which was causing so much death and disaster at sea could be fitted with a bell.
The bell would be held to the reef and the wind and ocean swell would cause the bell to chime, alerting passing sailors to its position and warn them not to get too close to the reef.
The townspeople of Aberbrothok agreed with him and the bell was fitted at low tide. A feat in itself as the reef was known to flood quickly.
After only a year the bell was already gone. Legend has it that it was stolen by a Dutch pirate who was later shipwrecked on the reef. Others believe the bell was claimed by the sea.
Forever after, the reef was known as Bell Rock at Inchcape.
Robert Stevenson had come close to being shipwrecked himself so had first hand experience of the might of the ocean.
That experience always kept him focussed on making the seas as safe as possible for all mariners.
How Did Robert Stevenson Build Bell Rock Lighthouse
Robert Stevenson worked alongside the architect, James Haldane and visited Bell Rock in 1800.
After seeing how violent the sea was in the area, he decided that he would not be able to build a cast iron structure and that Bell Rock Lighthouse would need to be made from stone.
He admired John Smeaton's design of Eddystone Lighthouse off the coast of Plymouth and used that design to influence his own.
A bill went to parliament in 1801 for permission to build the lighthouse but was denied.
How those politicians must have regretted their decision when HMS York was shipwrecked on Bell Rock with the loss of all hands.
They passed the bill thereafter and work could begin on this 'seventh wonder of the Industrial World'.
Amazing as it may seem, Stevenson and his chief engineer, John Rennie devised a way of creating the lighthouse by using ships to store the timber needed to erect the intial frame.
Some men lived aboard the ship, Pharos (captured from the Prussian Navy) and a shipyard was also leased on shore.
Building work had to halt for the winter months because the sea was too treacherous but in the Summer a timber structure was build and scaffolded.
It was slow going with Rennie in charge but Stevenson working as a 'resident engineer' - it was his dream after all but Stevenson gathered around him the talents of men he knew were up to the feat and there were none better at the time than Rennie.
Once the timber structure was fixed, the workers were able to start bringing over stone and building what would become the permanent structure.
The foundations were a key part of the structure - imagine the lashing waves on the reef which had already cost so many sailors their lives. This structure would need to have super strong underpinning.
It is amazing to consider that there have been no structural changes made to Bell Rock for 200 years.
Bell Rock Lighthouse Statistics
- It cost £61,000 to build.
- The lightroom is 3.7metres in diameter and 4.6 metres high.
- It originally had 7 rotating oil lamps
- It was manned by 4 men , 3 on duty in the lighthouse and 1 to man the signal light at the shore. They swapped shifts regularly and their families were given houses in Arbroath, the closest town.
- It was the first lighthouse to flash lights both red and white due to Stevenson using the recently invented Argand burners and using red glass through which to shine the lights.
Lighthouse Stevensons - Sons and Grandsons
Robert Stevenson gets a lot of praise for his engineering work and especially for his amazing work on Bell Rock Lighthouse but after him, his son Alan who took over from his father as the Director of the Northern Lightboat Board. He was also an outstanding engineer.
David Stevenson build 30 lighthouses and also worked with Japanese engineers supporting the design of lighthouses which could withstand earthquakes. His son, David Alan Stevenson was also a lighthouse engineer.
Alan Stevenson went on to build 14 lighthouses, the most noteable of which is Skerryvore.
Skerryvore is Scotlands tallest lighthouse at 156 feet tall and is on the remote West coast of Scotland.
Thomas Stevenson, along with brother David built over 30 lighthouses but is also noted for a number of further engineering inventions and innovations, including the Stevenson Screen - used in meteorology. He is the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, the noted author of Shipwrecked and Treasure Island.
Britain is an island, surrounded on all sides by sometimes stormy seas. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, sailors were completely at the mercy of the ocean and its storms.
The Lighthouse Stevensons changed the fortunes of mariners forever and their lighthouses for the last two centuries have helped sailors from all over the world find their way safely back to shore.
Thanks so much for reading.
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