Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: April 22, 2021
Webpage updated: May 27, 2021




A popular local quiz question is to ask in which order the lighthouses were built on the Eddystone or Edystone reef, 14 miles off Plymouth.

From a postcard.

The first was designed and erected by Mr Henry Winstanley of Littlebury in Essex.  It looked like a Chinese Pagoda and not very strong.   It was started in 1696 and finished in 1699.

Winstanley's lighthouse.
From a ppostcard.

When some urgent repairs were required in November 1703, Mr Winstanley went personally to supervise the work and while there, on the night of 26th,  a violent storm blew up.  Having every confidence in the strength of his structure, Mr Winstanley decided to spend the night in the lighthouse.   The following morning the storm reached hurricane force and the lighthouse and all its occupants were swept to their deaths.

When the rock was reached on the 29th, all that was left was part of an iron chain, so firmly wedged into the rock that it was not until 1756 that it was cut out.  During the storm some thirteen men-of-war were sunk and 1,519 seamen perished.  Soon after this event a Virginian ship laden with tobacco was wrecked on the Eddystone and all aboard were lost.

Rudyerd's lighthouse

Rudyerd's lighthouse.
From a postcard.

By 1706 the responsibility for providing lighthouses had been placed in the hands of the Master and Wardens of Trinity House, who made an agreement with a Captain Lovet for the erection of a replacement for Winstanley' s failed attempt.   He engaged a London silk merchant by the name of Mr John Rudyerd to design the new one and supervise its construction.  With the assistance of two experienced shipwrights, Messrs Smith and Norcutt, he had a new lighthouse erected within two years.   It survived for forty-six years.

On the morning of December 2nd 1755 the light-keeper on duty found the lantern house on fire.  All attempts to douse the flames failed and the three keepers retreated to the safety of a cave on the east side of the rock, where they  were found the following morning by men from Cawsand who had sailed out to investigate the flames.  The men were in such a mental state by the time they were rescued that immediately upon reaching the shore, one them ran off and was never seen again.  The fire burned for five days until the combination of wind and water put it out.

The light-keeper who had discovered the fire was 94-years-old Mr Henry Hall (there was no retirement at 65 in those days!) and he was immediately taken to his home in East Stonehouse, where he was attended by Doctor Spry.   Mr Hall was suffering great pain and he told the Doctor that before he could cure the pain he should remove the lead from his stomach.  Doctor Spry rejected this suggestion on the simple basis that he felt Mr Hall could not have survived if he had indeed swallowed any lead.  Twelve days later Mr Hall died.  When Doctor Spry opened the body he found d a lump of lead weighing some seven ounces, which Mr Hall had accidentally swallowed while attending to the fire.

Smeaton's lighthouse

Mr John Smeaton was then engaged to construct a new lighthouse.  He took it very seriously and firstly examined the plans of the previous lighthouses and consider the causes of failure of the other buildings.  Having noticed that the oak tree, with its root structure, was able to withstand high winds by virtue of its shape and strength, he conceived the idea of designing a lighthouse to be like an oak tree.  Furthermore he decided to prepare the stonework on shore, rather than try to do it on the rock.  This would speed the work, he felt.

Work started on the stones at a yard at Mill Bay on Monday December 13th 1756, under the direct supervision of Mr William Tyrrell, who had previously been the mason working at Portland in Dorset on the stones for the Westminster Bridge in London.

On June 12th 1757 the foundation was laid and on August 24th 1759 the last stone was put in place over the eastern door of the lantern.     The lantern was first lit on the evening of October 16th that year, which just happened to coincide with a storm.  There was some movement of the building but none such to cause alarm to the occupants.  Mr Tyrrell died on November 15th 1759 at the age of 63 years and was buried at Saint George's Church, East Stonehouse, Plymouth.

An artist's impression of the old Smeaton lighthouse standing alongside the new Douglass one.
From a postcard.

Although this photograph is from when Smeaton's Tower was on Plymouth Hoe,
it is included here as a close-up of the Lighthouse in the previous picture.
From  a postcard.

The Douglass lighthouse

Smeaton's lighthouse would be still on the Eddystone rocks today but for the fact that the rock on which it stood was becoming undermined by the sea.   Mr James Douglass, son of the builder of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse off the Isles of Scilly, Mr Nicholas Douglass, was chosen to construct a replacement on an adjoining rock.

The Douglass lighthouse alongside the stump of the Smeaton one.
From a postcard.

He designed one that was twice as tall and four and a half times larger than Smeaton's.  But he also had the benefit of some advantages that were not around in Smeaton's day.  He could use pneumatic rock drills, mechanical cranes, winches and pumps, had quick-setting cement and the use of a twin-screw steamer, the "Hercules", which could carry 120 tons of stone and was built as a floating workshop as well transporter.

Work began in July 1878 on constructing a coffer dam around the rock, which took until June 1879 to complete.  The men were also working on drilling the rock at the same time.  With the excavations finished, the foundation stone was formally laid by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Master of Trinity House, on August 19th 1879.  Also present was his brother, HRH the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.  By the end of that second season of work, in December, the workmen had completed the first eight courses of the base.

Thanks to the modern technological benefits already described, work progressed faster and faster and on June 1st 1881 the Duke was once again invited to visit the lighthouse and this time perform the topping-out ceremony.  The lighthouse had cost 59,250, well under Douglass' original estimate of 78,000.

But the work was not quite finished.  On Saturday December 10th 1881 the working season ended and the large force of workmen were brought ashore for the last time that year.  The last relief of the keepers before Christmas was made on Tuesday December 13th 1881 and the moorings by which the steamer "Hercules" had been berthed during the summer were brought ashore to the Trinity House Yard at Oreston.  "Hercules" then left Plymouth on Thursday December 15th 1881 for the Trinity House head-quarters at Blackwall, London, where it was to be overhauled.

In a short report about the 1881 season, the press pointed out that back in March 1881, when the season commenced, the new lighthouse was only a little over 30 feet in height and that by June 2nd it had increased by a further 85 feet.  The lantern, which took the height upwards by another 31 feet 6 inches, was completed in October 1881 and had the rapid progress been anticipated then it was possible that Messrs Chance, of Birmingham, could have had the light in place and operating on January 1st 1882.

As it was, Trinity House published a notice stating that: 'the fixed light at present shewn from the old tower will be temporarily exhibited from the new tower at or soon after the end of January 1882, and thenceforward until the month of March following, by which time the new light will be ready'.

Apparently there had been one accident -- but only one -- during the construction, which was rather light heartedly described as 'Mr Edmonds's hasty descent on the outside of the tower from a height of 57 feet'.  The fall was not fatal.

The new light was first lit on May 18th 1882, after which James Douglass was awarded a knighthood by Queen Victoria.

But the people of Plymouth had a nostalgic feel for their old lighthouse and asked the Trinity House if they would dismantle it and transport the stones to Plymouth, where they would arrange for it to be re-erected.  Thus Smeaton's Tower still stands prominently on Plymouth Hoe, a well-known landmark and a fitting tribute to all the engineers and workmen who had laboured to mark the notorious Eddystone Reef and save the lives of countless hundreds of seamen, of all nationalities.