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Eddystone Lighthouse A Wonder of Engineering

Updated on August 7, 2019
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The author is a pharologist. He has a BA from QUB, teaching qualifications from Belfast Met and an accredited Journalism course from BIFHE.

The Eddystone Light

The Eddystone Lighthouse today. The rounded stump is from Smeaton's famous, groundbreaking tower
The Eddystone Lighthouse today. The rounded stump is from Smeaton's famous, groundbreaking tower

A Herculean Feat

The Eddystone is arguably the most famous lighthouse in the world, not least because it was the first-ever granite lighthouse built on offshore rocks. The prospect of building a structure on small coastal rocks that are regularly covered by the rising tide and completely inaccessible for much of the year because of the North Atlantic's ravages would be a daunting feat of engineering, even in today's high-tech age but it must have been a Herculean feat in centuries past.

In reality, there have been four separate Eddystone Lighthouses (some say five which will be explained below), two of which resulted in tragedy but the last two structures have survived as triumphs of engineering ingenuity carried out in the most adverse conditions. The partially submerged Eddystone rocks are situated 14 miles south-west of Plymouth and they proved a significant hazard to shipping prior to the erection of the first Eddystone light in 1698. Like the development of all lighthouses, Eddystone met a shipping need in times when onboard navigational aids were at best minimal.

Sketches of the five Eddystone Lighthouses. Two are still standing
Sketches of the five Eddystone Lighthouses. Two are still standing

A Chronology of the Eddystone Lighthouses

  • 1696 Henry Winstanley begins work on the first ever Eddystone Lighthouse, a wooden structure
  • 1697 Winstanley is captured by a French sailing vessel but subsequently returned on the orders of King Louis 14th
  • 1698 Winstanley's Tower is completed and the first Eddystone Lighthouse is operational
  • 1699 Winstanley's Tower survives it's first Winter but is in urgent need of repair. Winstanley begins work removing most of the upper part of the tower and adding stone cladding to the timber frame
  • 1703 during the worst storm in recorded history Winstanley and his lighthouse are carried away by the sea
  • 1706 Captain Lovett is engaged to build a lighthouse on the Eddystone which becomes known as Rudyerd's Tower
  • 1709 Rudyerd's Tower is lit for the first time, it is a wooden structure built around a core of brick and concrete
  • 1755 Rudyerd's Tower is detroyed by fire which began in the lamp room. The keepers are rescued but one, 94 year-old Henry Hall, dies 12 days later from lead poisoning after he ingested molten lead which dripped into his mouth during the fire
  • 1756 John Smeaton begins constructing the first granite lighthouse on the Eddystone using pioneering methods
  • 1759 Smeaton's Tower, 59ft (18m) is finished and exhibits light for the first time
  • 1810 the Eddystone Lighthouse changes from candle power to oil-powered reflector
  • 1870 cracks appear in the rock Smeaton's Tower is built on, it remains in use to 1877 and is eventually removed brick by brick and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe
  • 1882 Douglass' Tower, 49 meters (161ft) is completed in three and a half years
  • 1959 the Eddystone light is converted to electric power
  • 1980 a helicopter pad is installed to aid automation-related maintenance work
  • 1982 Eddystone Lighthouse becomes the first automated lighthouse in the UK
  • 1999 the electric light in Eddystone lantern is converted to solar power

A sketch of Winstanley's Tower at the Eddystone Rocks
A sketch of Winstanley's Tower at the Eddystone Rocks

Winstanley's Tower(s) 1698-1703

Henry Winstanley was a seventeenth-century shipping magnate and by all accounts an eccentric who lost two of his trading ships to the treacherous Eddystone reefs and publicly vowed to make the considerable shipping hazard off the Devon coast safe once and for all. Winstanley was, of course, an amateur with a background in commerce rather than engineering but he began building his first highly ornate wooden lighthouse amidst much fanfare on the Eddystone rocks in 1696.

Incredibly, in 1697 while Winstanley was in the process of building his first lighthouse, he was captured on the Eddystone rocks by a French privateer ship and taken back to France as a prisoner, which was then a nation very much in a condition of total war with England. It is well documented that when Louis XIV, the king of France, heard of Winstanley's capture and the altruistic project that he was engaged in, he ordered his immediate release, famously declaring:

"France is at war with England, not humanity!"

Winstanley's Tower, an elaborate wooden structure and the first-ever Eddystone Lighthouse was finally completed in 1698. Winstanley's lighthouse survived the first winter but was gravely in need of repair when inspected at the first opportunity in Spring. Winstanley added substantial improvements to the lighthouse and replaced most of the upper part of the structure, which was in effect a new tower (and adds weight to the argument that there have been five Eddystone Lighthouses rather than four.)

By 1699 Winstanley had completed his improvements but the lighthouse remained a totally wooden structure. In 1703 Winstanley expressed publicly his desire to experience a storm on the Eddystone Lighthouse, such was his faith in his own structure. While carrying out repairs to the tower in November of that year Winstanley eventually got his wish just as the most savage storm ever recorded in Britain, which claimed a reported 8000 lives nationally, occurred off the south coast of England, on the 27th November 1703. When the 'perfect storm' of 1703 finally abated and a ship traveled to Eddystone to inspect the damage, there was not a trace of Winstanley or the occupants of the lighthouse and most of the tower itself had been carried away by the sea during the fantastic storm.

An engraving of Rudyerd's Tower on the Eddystone Rock
An engraving of Rudyerd's Tower on the Eddystone Rock

Rudyerd's Tower 1709-1755

The second Eddystone Lighthouse (or third if Winstanley's twin structures are counted separately) was built by a silk merchant, Captain Lovett. Lovett was granted a 99-year lease on the Eddystone rocks, by virtue of an Act of Parliament and permission to collect revenue from passing shipping to finance his lighthouse. Like Winstanley before him, Lovett was a gifted amateur engineer and although his tower proved much more resilient than the former structure, the second Eddystone Lighthouse was also a wooden structure which was eventually destroyed by the elements, not by the sea on this occasion, but by fire in 1755.

The fire which destroyed Rudyerd's Tower in December 1755, began in the glass turret at the top of the structure and was fiercely battled by the two lighthouse keepers, including keeper Henry Hall, who was 94 years of age and reportedly of sturdy stature. In a freak accident while vainly battling the fire from below, Hall the lighthouse keeper ingested molten lead dripping from the roof of the tower which eventually proved fatal.

However, after the fire had raged for eight hours a rescue boat launched by a Mr. Edwards, who was reported to have been 'a man of courage and much humanity', arrived to rescue the lighthouse keepers. The seas were much too rough to approach the Eddystone rocks, much less anchor close to them, so the two lighthouse keepers were dragged through the waves by the crew of the rescue boat by ropes to the relative safety of the boat. The fire on Rudyerd's Tower burned for five days completely destroying Rudyerd's Tower. Henry Hall, the sprightly 94-year-old lighthouse keeper, died some 12 days later from lead poisoning and it is documented that a substantial slither of, by now very un-molten lead, was discovered in the contents of his stomach at his subsequent post-mortem.

Smeaton's Tower was brought back, block by block from Eddystone Rock and placed in Plymouth Hoe.
Smeaton's Tower was brought back, block by block from Eddystone Rock and placed in Plymouth Hoe.

Smeaton's Tower 1759-1882

The Eddystone Lighthouse built by Yorkshire engineer, John Smeaton, was 59 feet (18 m) high, had a diameter at the base of 26 feet (8 m) and at the top of 17 feet (5 m). The third Eddystone Lighthouse was a true wonder of the industrial revolution and used ground breaking building methods, many of which are still in use to this very day. Smeaton's Tower was crafted using massive, intricately cut interlocking and internally dovetailing blocks of hard Cornish granite which were then carefully assembled like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

The Yorkshire engineer based his design on the tensile strength of the Oaktree which Smeaton observed would bend to the rigors of the elements rather than break. Smeaton's design became the model for offshore lighthouses such as the famous Bell Rock off the coast of Scotland and Ireland's Fastnet Lighthouse. The pioneering engineer also developed quick-drying hydraulic cement that would set underwater and the means to heave the huge granite blocks weighing up to three tons each to offshore lighthouse sites.

By 1870 cracks were observed to have appeared in Eddystone, not in the lighthouse but in the rocks themselves which is ample testimony to Smeaton's hardy, groundbreaking engineering. A decision was made by Trinity House, who own and upkeep all lighthouses off the English and Welsh coasts to this day, to build a new lighthouse on the second of the larger Eddystone rocks. Smeaton's Tower was removed block by block and transported to Plymouth Hoe for posterity, where it is now stands as a major tourist attraction and testament to the Yorkshireman's innovative legacy to the field of offshore lighthouse building.

Douglass' Lighthouse 1882 - Present Day

The present Eddystone Lighthouse is 49 meters (161 ft) high and it's distinctive white light flashes twice every 10 seconds. The Eddystone light is visible for at least 22 nautical miles (41 km), and the light station includes a fog signal of 3 blasts every 60 seconds. The fourth Eddystone Lighthouse was built by Trinity House's Engineer-in-Chief, James Douglass, using improved engineering practices which improved on Smeaton's innovative methods. Larger granite blocks were used in Douglass' tower and much of the newer engineering methodology involved was developed by the Scottish lighthouse building family, the Stephensons, who famously were instrumental in building the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

The Eddystone Lighthouse was the first of Trinity House's lights to be fully automated and the distinctive helipad that now adorns the top of the lantern was constructed to assist contemporary engineers complete that task. On 18th May 1982, a century to the day since Douglass' tower became operational, Eddystone became fully automated and is now monitored from Trinity House headquarters in Harwich, Essex.

Sadly, the blanket automation of Trinity House's lighthouse in 1982 marked the end of the era of lighthouse keepers on the Eddystone and at present, the lighthouse is attended only for regular maintenance work. It has been argued that due to vast improvements in modern shipping's navigational capabilities, lighthouses, in general, are steadily becoming redundant as both daymarks and night time shipping hazard warning systems. However, Eddystone and indeed other lighthouses, still provide an essential service for smaller craft and larger vessels alike and although modernity's navigation aids are groundbreaking in their own way, they can never eclipse the Eddystone Lighthouse's position as one of the most spectacular maritime marvels of the industrial age.

New Technology Meets Old

Beautiful drone footage of Eddystone by Cornwall Drone Aerial Images

© 2019 Liam A Ryan

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