Lighthouses of England

The Eddystone lighthouse due to Smeaton (1759) The World's first stone tower on a rock in the ocean.

John Smeaton was born at Austhorpe Lodge, near Leeds on the eighth of June, 1724, he was the only son of a successful lawyer. Apart from being brilliant at mathematics, he was interested in very little other than to work with his hands. Before he was fifteen he had constructed a lathe on which he could turn materials with considerable skill. For a brief period he had studied law in a vain effort to comply with the wishes of his father, but he soon gave it up in favour of an apprenticeship with an instrument maker. At the same time, his father's influence enabled him to gain access to the exclusive Royal Society. He was thus able to supplement the practical experience of his working hours with a grounding in scientific and engineering theory at the regular meetings he attended. At the age of twenty-six he was in business on his own as an instrument maker, besides reading papers to the Royal Society. These covered such matters as the marine compass, an air pump and a system of pulleys which would enable a man to lift a ton weight.

Smeaton's big chance had come quite by accident. A friend in London had contacted him on behalf of a gentleman called Robert Weston of Plymouth. Weston, he said, was looking for someone to rebuild the Eddystone lighthouse, which had recently been burnt down. There was, it seemed, an urgent need for another and it was desired to start work on a new Eddystone lighthouse at the earliest opportunity. Despite a complete lack of experience in the field of building construction, Smeaton was offered the job, to his complete amazement. After some hard deliberation, he had accepted the challenge, since when, the task had completely absorbed the agile mind of the Yorkshireman. He had devoted almost every hour of his day to the design of the new tower and to preparation for the commencement of the building.
There were many problems. The first of these was to decide on the best material to use. The previous tower, built by John Rudyerd, had been destroyed by fire because of its wooden construction. Nevertheless, it had been very successful in the execution of its duty for forty-seven years. Not surprisingly, there was a considerable feeling on the part of the owners that Smeaton should rebuild the tower in wood to a design similar to that of Rudyerd. Consequently, in the early days of his discussions he had experienced strong pressure to do just that. To Smeaton, however, a wooden tower could never be regarded as a permanent structure. It would certainly weather extremely well if properly maintained - this had already been successfully demonstrated - but Smeaton was looking for something that would endure the ravages of hundreds of years. Wood could never fulfil this criterion. At some time in the future, another designer would be faced with the same task as he himself now had if wood were to be used again. No, he must use a material which would never need replacing. There was only one such material - stone.

Construction of a stone lighthouse had never yet been attempted in such an isolated position. The tower must be built in the most perfect manner yet devised so that it would be an extension of the rock on which it stood. After all, the reef had been there since time immemorial, so why should not the lighthouse? In order to accomplish this facet of the design, Smeaton would not be able to rely on cement alone to hold the blocks together. He had decided to dovetail together the huge stone blocks in the same way as a carpenter joints wood. He knew that a properly fashioned wooden dovetail joint would hold two pieces together far better than nails or glue. The same would undoubtedly be true of stone. Smeaton, however, was taking no chances. He would also be using cement and special steel nails which he termed 'trenails' to provide the ultimate in strength that he was looking for.

His plan to dovetail stone had been met with great surprise and even disbelief when he had presented it to the owners' committee. However, he was a man of meticulous nature and had prepared his plans and his arguments in such detail as to completely over-ride the mood of the meeting. By the end of a lively debate in which the eloquent scientist had removed any doubts in the mind of the committee, it was agreed that he should be allowed complete freedom to carry out his plans.

Smeaton's next problem was to find the most suitable type of stone. He had already spent considerable time visiting numerous quarries in the south-west of England. The most obvious place for him to look first had been Portland, a small island near Weymouth of about half-a-dozen square miles. The island was almost entirely devoted to quarrying and Portland stone was nationally famous having been used, in part, for Westminster bridge.
It had taken the engineer very little time to assess the value of Portland stone. It could be quarried by fast-working expert quarrymen in unlimited quantities and there was even a convenient sheltered pier from which it could be shipped.

Having decided that he could most certainly use Portland stone on the inside of the tower, he was still left with the problem of finding the most weather-resistant stone for the main body of the lighthouse. The Portland stone would be most unsuitable for resisting the might of the Atlantic. He had already seen several types of granite, a stone more commonly called 'moorstone' because it is found on the moors of Devon and Cornwall. His enquiries had shown that granite has varying degrees of hardness and, although the harder varieties split more regularly and would weather better, they were more difficult to fashion into special shapes. Thus he had decided to find a softer stone which would be more suitable for the intricate dovetail shaping he had designed.

Smeaton employed Josias Jessop as his foreman and right-hand-man. The Rudyerd lighthouse had been his total responsibility for a great number of years. Then in March 1756 he was contacted by John Smeaton who asked him to be his assistant in the building of the new lighthouse. Jessop had heard rumours that the Eddystone lighthouse was to be rebuilt and he was delighted to be offered the job which he accepted at once.
The first task was to find a shore-based worksite. It had to be at the water's edge with good access for a variety of shipping. A sheltered position was also desirable so that the weather would not influence the ship movements more than was necessary. Smeaton and Jessop visited many sites and finally selected one in Millbay, a distance of two miles from the town of Plymouth.

With the shore site chosen, Jessop reviewed the craft which would be necessary to carry the materials and the workforce back and forth. The most obvious choice was the 'Eddystone Boat,' a ten ton sloop which could be rowed or sailed, and which was big enough to take a sizeable number of men in a modicum of comfort.

It was early April in 1756 when Smeaton and Jessop first attempted to make a landing on the rocks. By the end of May they had made ten attempts, only four of which had been successful. On several occasions they had rowed the twelve miles from Millbay and got to within a few hundred yards, only to be turned back by a sudden change in the wind, tide or weather. Occasionally, they had been unable to return to Millbay, and were forced to sail to Fowey. Journeys to the reef were taking two or three days at a time, only to be unsuccessful. On the few occasions when a landing was possible, a matter of two hours at most could be spent in useful work before it was time to return.

It was during the interminable hours spent plying fruitlessly between Millbay and the rocks that Smeaton decided to use a floating 'inn' moored close to the Eddystone to accommodate his workforce. They would then be on site and instantly available for work whenever the weather and tide permitted.

When he had finally completed his survey, Smeaton returned to London for most of June and July to finalise his drawings. During his absence, Jessop acquired an eighty ton herring boat which was to become the floating accommodation. Its name was the 'Neptune Buss.' This vessel, which everyone was to grow to hate on account of its devilish handling problems, was taken to within a quarter of a mile of the reef and anchored firmly. By the time Smeaton returned to Plymouth, all was ready to begin.

Jessop had signed on the workforce which consisted of two teams of twelve men. A foreman was in charge of each team, which, in turn, was made up of six stonemasons and six Cornish tin miners. The stonemasons would be required to have the highest degree of skill in order to cut the intricate stone shapes in the exact sizes required. The tinners, renowned for their stamina and strength, were to carry out the labouring tasks.

On 6 August work began. The first company of men had arrived on board the Buss and it was their task to begin to cut six steps into the immensely hard red granite which had given Winstanley, builder of the original lighthouse, so much trouble. Day or night became irrelevant, only the state of the tide mattered and work continued throughout the night by torchlight whenever the tide was favourable. It took until 22 November to complete the steps, by which time it was necessary to cast off from the buoy and bring the Neptune Buss back to Millbay for the winter.

The twelve mile journey home took rather longer than expected. The weather deteriorated quite quickly and before long they were in the grip of a nasty storm. The handling of the Buss was appalling, and with the wind at gale force from the east-south-east, there was no chance of getting into Plymouth Sound. Although they tried to make for Fowey, they became hopelessly lost, and throughout that Monday night they rode out the storm as best they could. The storm continued in full flight for two further days, during which time the storm-tossed but unsinkable Buss was blown steadily farther and farther west. Smeaton and Jessop, in company with sixteen other soaked and shivering men, feared that they must be into the Bay of Biscay and resolved to try to cross it, thus making landfall in Spain. Mercifully, on Thursday morning, the wind changed direction. A gentle north-westerly enabled them to make blissful contact with the Cornish coastline and, at long last, to sail back to Plymouth where they arrived on Friday morning. The end of the first summer season of work on Smeaton's new tower had almost ended in disaster.

With the arrival of winter, work continued at a breathtaking pace - not upon the reef, but in Millbay. The consignments of moorstone began to arrive on the quay and the masons worked hard to shape them into interlocking building blocks. The aim was to produce horizontal circles of stones which fitted together in a complicated jig-saw arrangement and which were known as courses. Not only would the dovetails hold them together, but Smeaton planned to use oak wedges between the blocks and oak trenails which passed through one course and into the one below. Furthermore, Smeaton had formulated his own quick-setting cement to be laid between the courses. Each stone was uniquely numbered and had its own position and identity within the three-dimensional jig-saw.

It was not until June that the weather was sufficiently settled for work to begin again on the reef and early in the month the Buss was once more sailed to its mooring. Smeaton erected on the rocks his own design of lifting gear for use with the blocks, some of which weighed over two tons. He decided to test it by lifting onto the rocks a longboat, together with its ten sailors, much to their dismay. The act was accomplished flawlessly, but all aboard the longboat were most relieved when the boat was back in the water once more.

The topography of the rock on which the tower was to be built and the steps that had been cut the previous year meant that there were only four stones in the first course, but thirteen in the second. Part way through the laying of the second, five of the unique stones were washed away before they could be properly fixed and a valuable week was wasted while Smeaton's overworked masons hastily made duplicates. By the end of June the second course was finished. As the third course of twenty-five stones progressed, other problems occurred. Just as two boats were about to bring stones out to the rocks, both crews were captured by Press gangs. Smeaton had already anticipated this event. He had made an arrangement with the naval authorities that men working on the project were exempt from the Press. To that end, he had minted a special medallion in silver for the men to carry as proof, but on this occasion their exemption was ignored. Smeaton himself was forced to petition the Port Admiral for their release and more of his valuable time was wasted.

By 11 August the sixth course was complete and this brought the base of the tower to the top of the rock. From this point, the courses would be laid on a flat, circular base. Furthermore, progress would be faster because they were getting farther above the level of the tides and thus less affected by them. By mid-October, nine courses were finished and everything was back in Millbay for the winter. A substantial portion of the base had been completed.
The winter of 1757-8 saw the completion of all the stonework in the yard, under Jessop's supervision. Smeaton, meanwhile, had returned to London. The work on the reef in 1758 did not commence until 2 July and by 8 August the next five courses up to level fourteen were finished. This was the top of the solid base of the lighthouse. The next ten courses would allow an entrance door and a central staircase five feet in diameter and, by 28 August, this too was finished. The next levels would comprise the accommodation, which was to be a storeroom, and fixing a temporary light above its ceiling. He found two volunteers prepared to spend the winter in the single room for twice their normal wages and the plan to light the Eddystone a year ahead of schedule looked set to go ahead. He applied to Trinity House for permission to exhibit the light and in the meantime pressed on to complete the storeroom. Quite unpredictably, the Corporation refused to allow him to show the light until the tower was completely finished, a remarkably short-sighted decision under the circumstances.
And so, in the spring of 1759, the partly built lighthouse had survived the winter with only the uppermost levels to be assembled. By the sixteenth day of August and after only forty-four days of the working season of 1759, which had begun on July the fifth, the stone part of the tower had been completed. Only the lantern and balcony rails were yet to be erected and it was now a race against the weather to complete the lighthouse before the season deteriorated. Smeaton was hoping to exhibit a light for the first time during October, but much still had to be done before he would be able to confirm his plan with Trinity House.

After twenty years of living with the Eddystone and its lighthouse, Jessop had been very suspicious about the appointment of an instrument-making Yorkshireman to build a new tower. How could such a man have any idea of the sort of problem he would face? Certainly, he could have no notion of the fickleness of the sea in the region of the reef and Jessop was quite convinced that Smeaton was going to fail. He'd had no experience of any type of building construction, let alone the very specialised field of lighthouses, and the fellow had never even been to Devon before. Smeaton was a young thirty-year-old with a persuasive yet polite manner and was openly meticulous in his methods. Gradually he had drawn on Jessop's wealth of knowledge and experience without his knowing it and it was only in retrospect that Jessop had realised just how much he had been talking and how precisely Smeaton had been taking notes. When Smeaton had first told him that the tower was to be of stone, he had been most surprised, for the previous tower had been so successful that he'd naturally assumed the same material would be used. Now, having finished the tower, it was patently obvious how much better was a stone tower than a wooden one.

The NEPTUNE BUSS was an eighty ton herring boats at the end of her useful life, due for scrap, but had been bought by the proprietors of the Eddystone lighthouse for conversion and use as a floating light whilst the new tower was being built, an eminently sensible idea to all concerned -except, that is, to Trinity House. At first agreeing the suggestion and allowing Mr. Weston to spend a considerable sum of money converting the Buss, the wise Brethren later reversed their decision and said that they would provide their own floating light. Much ill-feeling was generated and considerable delay in setting up the light resulted. Meanwhile, however, Smeaton had deemed the NEPTUNE BUSS to be ideal for a floating hotel and workshop for his craftsmen. By accommodating them so near to the reef, much time would be saved by avoiding the long journey from the mainland and back each day. The men would travel from the BUSS to the reef in a yawl, whilst a shuttle of smaller craft would ply night and day between Plymouth, the sloop and the rocks. By this means, blunted tools could be replaced, provisions and relief crews ferried out, besides the vital supplies of building materials and the beautifully dovetailed granite blocks themselves.

The BUSS was an appalling ship to navigate and mooring it to its two forty fathom chains, each weighing two and a half tons, had scared the experienced seamen who were to carry out the task. However, Smeaton was an expert with pulleys and had designed a block and tackle especially for the task. Everything went smoothly and at the end of the day Jessop had watched amazed as hardened sea dogs had applauded the landlubber in accomplishing a task they had deemed impossible. From that time onwards the NEPTUNE BUSS had been loved like a favourite woman as the men, exhausted after a gruelling session on the reef, sought relief within her comforting embrace. She had also been hated with the fierceness of a man who would gladly murder his worst enemy for she was regularly transformed into a pitching, sodden hell as she rode out the storms at the Eddystone.

There seemed no end to Smeaton's abilities. Intellectually, he was brilliant and his mathematics were astounding. The whole concept of the tower had been unique. No-one had thought of the possibility of constructing a tower in such a way. In the style of a true idea of genius, many had scoffed at it. Almost all Smeaton's personal tools and measuring equipment he had made himself, a direct result of his early apprenticeship as an instrument maker. The models of his new tower showed an aspect of his skill. Oak nails called trenails and marble blocks known as joggles had been used to hold the beautifully dovetailed structure together. Special cranes and lifting gear had been designed to transfer huge blocks weighing a ton and a half each from the moving seaborne platform onto the tower itself. Not least was Smeaton's own formula for cement. His building site was continually drenched in rain and sea spray. This had necessitated the creation of a cement that would stick to moist surfaces and harden without first drying completely. After an exhaustive series of tests, just the right mixture of lime and volcanic ash from the region of Vesuvius seemed to provide all the necessary properties. Another success was under Smeaton's belt.

There had been yet another vexing problem with a simple solution. From the first occasion that work had begun on the reef, all the workmen had been plagued by the attention of the Press gangs. England was at war again and it fell upon the men of the Press to conscript almost every able-bodied man they set eyes on. Each time that a group of workers had been seized or a ship crew taken captive, Smeaton became embroiled in major negotiations to secure their release. He was usually successful, but long delays were sometimes incurred. Smeaton's solution was stunningly simple again. He gained authorization from the Admiralty to mint a special medallion giving the bearer immunity from the Press. His problem was eliminated at a stroke.

Smeaton had never been concerned for his own safety above that of his men. He always personally supervised every operation, no matter how dangerous. Of course, he'd always taken the greatest care never to allow his workers to experience an unreasonable level of danger. He had earned, however, the highest level of admiration from his men by being prepared to do himself anything he asked of them. Inevitably, there'd been accidents. On one occasion, after allowing his concentration to wander, Smeaton had stepped into one of the joggle holes, stumbled and fallen down the sloping construction onto the rock below. Fortunately, he received no more than a dislocated thumb and some bruises. Then, rather than waste a great deal of time by sailing back to Plymouth to find a doctor, he'd closed his eyes and agonizingly relocated his own thumb. The hand had been badly inflamed and quite useless for a month, but not once had he complained or allowed it to interfere with his duties on the reef.

On another occasion, Smeaton had been overcome by fumes from a charcoal fire whilst heating metal bars in the upper storeroom. Workmen had found him unconscious on the floor and were convinced he was dead, but after half an hour he came around and was soon none the worse for his experience.

The last of the masonry work to Smeaton's tower, as it later became known, was the cutting of the words 'Laus Deo' (Praise be to God) over the door of the lantern room. The ironwork of the balcony and the lantern were erected next and the gilt ball on top of the cupola was screwed into place by Smeaton himself who performed this task whilst standing on four boards nailed together and resting on the cupola. The chandelier of candles was first lit on 16 October, 1759.

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