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'.

Robert Stevenson
Robert Stevenson
Bell Rock Lighthouse, Inchcape Rock
Bell Rock Lighthouse, Inchcape Rock | Source

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.

Model of the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse. Photo: © The Trustees of the National Museum of Scotland
Model of the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse. Photo: © The Trustees of the National Museum of Scotland | Source

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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The Lighthouse Stevensons Comments 33 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Sweetie1, many thanks for your comment. Yes hard work was certainly needed.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rajan, many thanks for your comment and the share - I appreciate it :o)


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 4 years ago from India

What a lovely story of the engineers in a family. May be help from his dad got Stevenson interested in light house but it is his hard work which ultimately made him do all these things. Very nice tribute


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Wow, What an awesome story about such a talented generations in a family. Surely the Stevensons need all our tributes for making the seas around the lighthouses safe.

Voted up and awesome and sharing this amazing story.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Eddie, many thanks for your comment. Lovely to see you back :o)


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

A brilliant article and thanks for sharing.

Eddy.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Yvonne, thanks for your comment. You had lighthouse keepers in the family, how fascinating! I bet they had some tales to tell.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK

I missed Lighthouse Day. With 2 great-uncles who were lighthouse keepers I do find them interesting, but didn't know all that much about the history (other than that Robert Stevenson was involved.) So I learned a lot here, thanks!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

More of a tribute to his grandfather than him Michelle. Thanks for reading.


midget38 profile image

midget38 4 years ago from Singapore

A great tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson, Jools!! Stellar facts..and I love lighthouses!! Sharing!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Duchess, many thanks for your kind comment - yes, I live right beside the coast and something always draws me back when I go away - I love the ocean.


Duchess OBlunt 4 years ago

For some reason the oceans have always held a fascination for me. Reading about these lighthouses, the time frame they were built in and how well they have lasted for centuries was really interesting. Your hub was very well done. Rated up.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mary, many thanks for your visit and comment - I am off to look at the Jupiter Lighthouse now on Google Earth!...or is it Google Ocean? :o)


mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

Lighthouses have always fascinated me. We have some beauties here in Florida off our coasts. The one in Jupiter is well known.

Interesting Hub. I voted it UP.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

teaches12345, many thanks for your comment. Yes Northern Scotland is very wild, especially the ocean. I'm sure you would like it.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

Very interesting history and information on this lighthouse. I have always wanted to visit the northern area to experience these first hand. Great post!


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Ain't dat da truf, toots! ;) Get yersel' down here ...


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Angie, hiya Kidda :0), I love lighthouses and it is because of their 'otherness' as buildings - you cannot even begin to imagine working in one in the Victorian era when a life on the ocean wave was a treacherous way to make your pennies. I have always wanted to visit Cornwall and when I see it on TV, I like the wilder parts of it best of all -what a gorgeous place to live.


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Those Victorians knew a thing or two about building, didn't they, pet?

We lived in Penwith in Cornwall (the last bit) and were surrounded by lighthouses - Wolf Rock (which has a helipad on the top of it) and Longships off Lands End and Godrevy off St Ives. Then there were at least three shore based ones without counting the little ones on the ends of the harbour piers. They are needed as the sea is such a killer round the Cornish coast and literally thousands of ships have been lost here.

There is something so evocative about such structures ... they make you imagine.

Super hub ... very impressed.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Deb, thansk for your comment - it sounds like it would be an interesting experience - just imagine staying at Bell Rock though...Erm,no thanks!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Fascinating history. I've always been intrigued by lighthouses. I know there are places where you can actually stay in a lighthouse for a vacation to experience the type of solitude the lighthouse keepers felt.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

rfmoran, Many thanks for your comment -glad you liked it.


rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

What a great story. I love lighthouses, and your description of the Bell Rock Lighthouse was absolutely fascinating.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mhatter, Oh how I love San Francisco - I have been there 3 times and I never get tired of it. Would love to get back there sometime! Many thanks for your comment:o)


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

What a fascinating article. I miss the sounds of the fog horns and lighthouse lights in SF.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Linda, I cheated a bit cos it's not a National Day over here, it's a stateside thing but I was intrigued that the U.S. has such a holiday that I thought I'd write about some of our lighthouses. I live about 2 miles away from an on-shore one but its a titchy little thing - they do nice scones in their cafe though :o)


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

Hi Jools, This is a fantastic hub for National Lighthouse Day. I actually didn't know there was one until Stephanie Henkel told us this morning. How cool is that!? Well done!:)


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Josh, many thanks for commenting and viewing, I appreciate it :o) The 100 score won't last long so I am enjoying it while it lasts!


josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Julie,

Very interesting and fascinating hub! I had no idea about this family! My landlord has pictures of lighthouses all over the house, maybe I should do some gazing around! :)

BTW, congrats on your 100 hub score!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Terrye - glad you enjoyed it and many thanks for your comment.


TToombs08 profile image

TToombs08 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

Extremely interesting and astounding! I can't even imagine how difficult it was to build such impressive structures at that time in history! Great hub, Jools! Loved it as much as I love lighthouses!!!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Many thanks, YourGlobalGirl - glad you liked it :o)


Yourglobalgirl profile image

Yourglobalgirl 4 years ago from UK

A really interesting hub.

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