Lighthouses of England

The first Eddystone lighthouse, due to Henry Winstanley (1698)

On 26th. November, 1703, Henry Winstanley sat at a small bureau in the State Room of the Eddystone lighthouse and made notes in his diary.

"Since my arrival yesterday the weather has progressively worsened. It would seem that this has so far been a thoroughly bad winter with a far greater number and degree of inclement seas than one might normally expect to pertain in the West Country at this time of year. Upon my arrival I set about a detailed examination of the structure in order to determine what damage, if any, had been caused since my last visit on 8th. August inst. It was reported to me from the outset by the keepers that severe vibrations of the tower were being felt from time to time and that they were very concerned about their safety. Notwithstanding these vibrations which I myself have experienced, I am convinced that no serious weakening of the structure has occurred and that no major modifications will be necessary. Minor repairs of storm damage are inevitable in a structure such as this and of these there were but seven in number, all to outside fittings. I am concerned that the keepers may not be able to tolerate such disturbing vibrations without becoming much afraid as to their safety."

Henry Winstanley had recently celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday and during his lifetime had managed to acquire a dazzling array of abilities and interests, most of which he somehow converted into profitable occupations. His home at Littlebury in Essex had been constructed more in the fashion of a fun-fair than a house. It was filled with tricks and unusual effects to amuse the many visitors who paid a shilling each to pass through the turnstile that Winstanley had placed at the front gate. As a draughtsman he made a great deal of money producing engravings of the Stately homes of England, whilst a pack of ornate playing cards which he designed achieved considerable popularity and nationwide distribution.

Perhaps the most famous of his creations other than the Eddystone lighthouse was a spectacular and novel entertainment centre which he opened near Hyde Park and which was called 'Winstanley's Waterworkes'. For more than thirty years people from all over England paid anything up to half a crown to view a dazzling display of fountains and other aquatic effects. Some of the creations achieved a combination of fire and water in wholly original concepts and the fame of the Waterworkes spread throughout the country.

The wealth he acquired over the years of success as a showman was invested in many areas, one of which was the purchase of five ships. To lose one of them on the notorious Eddystone rocks in August 1695 was a severe enough blow to the jovial, sincere and talented Winstanley, but when news came that a second had met an identical fate, he hurried to Plymouth to investigate. There he uncovered a problem which had beset mariners and merchants alike for centuries past, but which he himself had only just begun to appreciate. In a typical surge of optimism and inventiveness he immediately resolved to eradicate the problem by the construction of a lighthouse, the like of which had never been seen before. Its design would be such as to compare with the seven wonders of the world and would be an everlasting memorial to the outstanding genius of its creator. To his credit, he delivered what he promised and the citizens of Plymouth were most grateful for it. An evil trap, lurking silently amid the busy seaway of the English Channel had finally been beaten.

Winstanley walked to one of the two sash windows. From this west-facing position some forty feet above the menacing waves he could see just how much farther the weather had deteriorated since he had last looked. The panes of glass were opaque as torrents of wind-swept rain beat against them. The skies which could barely be discerned were nevertheless conspicuous by their ominous hue. The naked Atlantic rollers sweeping in from the west towards Winstanley's position were expending their incalculable energy mostly upon the exposed rocks. Winstanley knew that before long the waves would be literally knocking at his front door.

Even as he watched, the opposing rhythms of swell and breakers would now and then become coincident, and for a few tense seconds be magnified into a gigantic mass of snarling power to beat the base of the tower with its awesome might. A shudder sufficient to jingle the crystal sherry glasses in the walnut drinks cabinet was gone again in a moment, but, along with its predecessors, had instilled a terrible uneasiness in the hearts of those present. Winstanley knew that the real test of his lighthouse was only just beginning. During the course of the three months which he had spent on his designs he had, of course, made every contingency for the weather. Winstanley was prepared. He could not surely have failed? His lighthouse was the greatest engineering feat since the mighty pyramids. It could never fall victim to the sea. He recalled a memorable conversation he had once had with a particularly sceptical acquaintance who was convinced that the lighthouse would not withstand another winter. At the time Winstanley had proclaimed that he wished to be present in his tower during the greatest storm ever. His friend had been impressed by Winstanley's courage (but little else).

No-one could dispute the efforts which had been made to ensure a sound, safe construction, nor the enthusiasm with which Winstanley had set about the arduous and difficult job of building a lighthouse in the most exposed position in the world. In July 1696, the first task in the construction of the tower had been to bore twelve holes in the chosen bed-rock. Not a problem, one might think, for the cream of the available labour in Devon and Cornwall. Yet this very task had proved to be the most difficult of all because, after a tiring sea journey from Plymouth of anything up to eight hours, there were rarely more than a few hours of useful work which could be completed at any one time. Then there was the rock itself - so hard that the sharpest tools and the keenest wills were quickly blunted by the unremitting granite. A mere twelve holes took nearly four months to carve with the sweat and pain of the workmen. Once the holes had been created however,it was a relatively simple job to fill each hole with molten lead and then insert a huge iron stanchion. Having finished this stage of the enterprise, the workers retreated from the reef for the remainder of the year.to prepare for the next season of work. Because of the weather conditions work could not recommence until the following May.
In the summer of 1697, construction pressed ahead. The men became adept at transferring large pre-cut stones from tiny bobbing boats onto the reef. There they were cemented in such a way as to make them fast both to the reef and the stanchions. In this manner it was intended to create a solid regular base of stone upon which to build the lighthouse.

It was whilst this work was proceeding that a remarkable incident occurred. England had embarked upon another war with her continental neighbour and it was not uncommon for marauding French men-of-war to cause havoc on the South coast of England. Winstanley, fearful of being attacked, had asked for and obtained the protection of the Royal Navy and, on the days when work was being carried out on the rock, a frigate had been detailed off to act as guardship. During the first week of July HMS Terrible failed to arrive. Winstanley was not unduly concerned at first for, in truth, the working parties had not been troubled. But, sure enough, on the one occasion that they were unguarded, their luck ran out. Whilst all were engrossed in their work there was a dull thud followed rapidly by a high pitched whistle and a huge splash as a shot plunged into the calm water not fifty feet from where the men worked. Immediately they saw a French sloop bearing down on them. Stupidly, but instinctively, the workmen scuttled for cover, though there was none to be had on such an exposed position, There was no escape. Soon they were looking down the musket barrels of a dozen French marines. Winstanley was quickly singled out as the one in charge, for, although initially he played dumb, his very appearance made it abundantly clear that he was not a workman. Fortunately Winstanley had a good working knowledge of French which allowed him to escape the violent arrest which would have otherwise followed, Nonetheless, he was removed by ship's boat back on board the enemy sloop. There he was chained and taken as a prisoner to France where his fate would have certainly been sealed if it were not for the chance remark of one of the King's minions. Lotus XIV, a man of considerable intellect, seized upon the remark and enquired further. When details of the incident were made known to him he ordered the instant release of Winstanley and for him to be brought to court. The Englishman was surprised enough to be released, but his surprise turned to astonishment when he found himself ushered into the presence of the king of a nation with which England was at war.

Louis apologised sincerely for the trouble he had caused and said that he hoped the incident had not unduly delayed work on the lighthouse, for, although he might be at war with England, he was not at war with humanity. Winstanley was relieved and delighted, especially when given the opportunity to explain the principles of his design to the king. After an audience of about an hour he departed for England in ambassadorial style with numerous compensatory gifts. A minor miracle had occurred.

Despite losing two working weeks in the height of the fine weather season, Winstanley's men worked harder than ever to make good the deficit. Thus, by the end of the second season they had completed the solid cylindrical base. A round pillar of granite some twelve feet high and fourteen feet across had been secured to the Eddystone reef.

During the third season of 1698 work on the living quarters progressed quickly. Having once established even the most basic of accommodation a permanent team was victualled on the reef, thus allowing work to be done continuously, rather than on the odd occasion when the weather permitted Hence, by the end of the year Winstanley had finished his towers and, to the delight of the nation, lit his candles for the first time on the fourteenth of November. Then, like all true gentlemen, he retreated and allowed his two keepers to guard the light throughout the winter.

By the time Winstanley returned in the spring of 1699 it was obvious, both from the reports of the keepers and the damage sustained by the structure, that the tower would have to be both strengthened and enlarged. The keepers reported that on many occasions the lantern had been completely doused by the waves and that the tower had shuddered so violently that they thought their end was nigh. Winstanley made a close inspection of the tower and decided to redesign it. The whole of the summer of 1699 was spent in a major rebuild, The size and mass of the solid base was increased so that the new diameter was twenty-four feet, and the upper half of the tower was encased in stone and increased considerably in height.

Inside the tower the accommodation was spacious. A visitor entering at rock level would first climb a staircase to elevate him above the level of the solid base. Here there was a storeroom which held stock craned into the lighthouse by means of lifting gear mounted on the gallery. From here, the stairs led up past two sumptuous rooms which Winstanley used himself but which could accommodate any visiting dignitary. First an ornate bedroom with fireplace and closets; next the State room with its exquisite carvings and artwork. Above these rooms the staircase came out through a hatch onto the open lower gallery. This was the main observation platform but was also the site of the lifting gear. Also present was a fresh water tank for collecting rain from the upper levels.

A wooden staircase led from here up to the keepers' accommodation. First came the kitchen, complete with dressers, table, cupboard and the essential range. Then there was the bedroom with fittings for use as a dining room. Here also was kept a large stock of candles for the light. Finally came the lantern itself, a splendid room with six-feet high glass panels all around. In the centre suspended from the lantern roof was a magnificent chandelier capable of taking sixty candles. These, when lit, provided the feeble light which was to save scores of lives. Surrounding the lantern room was an upper gallery.

Apart from the rooms themselves, all fittings had been given considerable thought by Winstanley. The six large ornamental candlesticks which he so oddly mounted on the outside of the lantern room above the gallery, could also be used as ladder supports when the glass was being cleaned. All manner of cranes and other lifting devices had been included to cater for every eventuality. The final touch was an engine to cast down stones upon would-be aggressors.

By the end of 1699, the new improved tower was finished and its keepers keen to exhibit its reassuring light throughout another winter, This time, surely, success had been achieved. The keepers continued to complain about the shaking of the tower in heavy seas, but Winstanley convinced them that this was inevitable and that he had taken account of it in his new design. Furthermore he could find no evidence of any weakening of the tower. Thus it was that the new Eddystone lighthouse became famous throughout the civilised world as the guardian angel of seamen, a marvel of the new engineering that was to revolutionise society. For three more years it cast its protective beams into the night.

There was a mighty thud and a shudder which seemed as if the whole tower might disintegrate. Simultaneously, above the sound of the howling wind, Winstanley heard the effects of breaking glass and men's despair. He aroused himself from his reminiscences and quickly moved to the door of the State room. As he opened it a small stream of water washed over his feet. That stream was but a fraction of what was pouring down the staircase. Soon, it was just a token gesture for the water seemed to be pouring through every joint in the lighthouse. All the timbers were in motion as they tried in vain to absorb the stresses being placed upon them. As they did so, the creaking and groaning was clearly audible above the now tremendous roar of the wind and the sea. The men retreated to the lowest possible level - ­that of the storeroom - where there seemed to be less motion of the tower. Such was the damage to the timbers, however, that cracks were appearing everywhere. The gales were screaming through every available crevice and a heavy spray of salt water permeated the atmosphere.

In their last refuge they found blankets amid the stores and wrapped themselves up as best they could in the darkness. No candle could be lit in this water-borne hovel. No man could see the terror on the face of the others. The noise was deafening, but soon, above everything, there came the most almighty splitting sound as the carefully crafted woodwork of the upper tower was finally wrenched from the body of the lighthouse. With a calamitous crash, tons of timber, masonry and gilded panels tumbled down, only to be absorbed by the elements which attacked the remains of the lighthouse with renewed vigour. From within their cell the prisoners of death cried out vainly to their Saviour. The pitiful words too were absorbed. No mercy was forthcoming. For Winstanley, and the keepers, it was only a little longer of life in the presence of death, a further few minutes of the agony of expectation, a few more precious seconds before the mutilated lighthouse finally succumbed to the unrivalled power of the ocean.

[Extract from The Keepers, a historical novel by Ken Trethewey]


The rebuilt and strengthened Eddystone lighthouse due to Henry Winstanley (1699), destroyed in the Great Storm of November 1703, with Winstanley inside it.