Lighthouses of England

South Foreland High lighthouse (ca1990s)

South Foreland Low lighthouse (ca1990s)



South Foreland

For many years men have been steadfastly keeping lights on the heights of the South Foreland, the closest point of approach of mainland England to France, from where, on a clear night, a distinct view of the lights at Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne is obtained.

The white chalk cliffs of South Foreland rise to an elevation of 100 metres above the sea and overlook a particularly dangerous stretch of water around our coasts. It is not reefs of rock or isolated inlets that form the enemy to shipping, but vast stretches of sand in almost continuous shoals and banks which stretch from the estuaries of the Thames to the Humber. The most notorious of these sandbanks are the Goodwins, extending for ten miles north to south and three miles east to west. The deep waters between these and the mainland are the famous Downs where vessels lie at anchor protected from easterly and westerly gales. The Goodwin sands have been called the "ship swallower" sands and have claimed untold tons of shipping and the lives of many crewmen. One storm of 1836 saw the loss of thirty vessels alone.

Ever since Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered, countless vessels of peace and of war have used the narrow stretch of water and made it one of the world's busiest seaways. In the early ADs, the Roman emperor, Caligula, built a tower, probably containing a beacon, on each side of the Channel. On the English side, the tower was located at a spot now within the walls of Dover castle. The tower fell into disuse during the 'dark' ages.

The date at which a light was first shown on the South Foreland is uncertain. In his authoratitative book, David Alan Stevenson states that in 1387 a hermit was recorded as dwelling on this headland, but there was no mention of lights. Hague, on the other hand, records that "The hermitage of St. Margaret's Strait, Kent, is near the site of the present South Foreland (lighthouse) and was probably associated with the showing of a light." Unfortunately, he does not give a date. Cavenagh reports that Archbishop Langham's records mention Nicholas de Legh, a poor hermit, established a light in a cave in the cliff to guide passing ships in 1367. The bishop granted indulgences to those who contributed to the hermit's support. Cavenagh's source is unknown.

In medieval times coastal lighting was considered a Christian duty and monks frequently kept lights and said masses for the souls of shipwrecked sailors. The showing of lights sometimes posed a risk to local inhabitants because they attracted pirates and vandals, but by 1400 this threat had greatly diminished.

It was because of an increasing number of shipwrecks on the Goodwin Sands that shipmasters in 1634 finally called for the erection of a lighthouse on the South Foreland. Trinity House, who at that time were newcomers to the management of lighthouses and were really little more than a seamen's charity, rejected the idea out of hand, claiming, amongst other things, that the light would be more likely to guide England's enemies to her shores. The urgency of the matter must have been recognised by the Privy Council however, for in the same year it gave authority to Sir John Meldrum to construct the lighthouses at South Foreland.

In these pioneering days, it was necessary to obtain a patent from the King - a process which essentially amounted to asking his permission - before a lighthouse could be built. Once obtained, the patent allowed the lighthouse owner, in return for a nominal rent to the Crown, to charge a toll from every vessel passing the light. The rate of charge depended upon the tonnage of the cargo carried. This enabled the speculator to recoup his capital expenditure remarkably quickly and thence to make a healthy profit.

Since one light could be confused with another just along the coast it became necessary to make one lighthouse distinguishable from another, wherever possible. This was achieved by having two lights at South Foreland, whilst only one was shown at North Foreland to the north, and Dungeness to the west. Thus all three stations could be unambiguous to the navigator who was at least aware of his approximate position.

The two lighthouses on the white cliffs of Dover were at first merely huts constructed of timber and plaster. On top of these was an open platform where a coal fire was kept burning in a cast iron grate. In return for the relatively small outlay and a £20 per annum rental, Sir John was entitled to charge a halfpenny per ton of cargo carried past the light. Soon he was making no less than £1,900 per annum and Trinity House, smarting with the knowledge that it might have been they who were making the profits, sourly complained to the King about profiteering.

Sir John employed an agent in Deal whose job was to manage the North and South Foreland lights, and to whom the light dues were finally paid after collection in Dover and other ports by the respective harbourmaster. The light dues were not always easy to collect. It appears in some cases that the harbourmasters were sending the toll money to a rival lighthouse owner, William Bullock at Dungeness.

Sir John sold part of his share in the lighthouses after two years. The original lease granted to Sir John was for fifty years from 1640 onwards, but in 1642 it was taken over by Robert Osbolston. When that ran out in 1690 he obtained a renewal for a further thirty years.

About 1690, the keepers experienced some difficulty with the Press gangs and came close to being conscripted on several occasions. They wrote to their employer to seek his help but Osbolston replied that if they attended to their duties at the lighthouse instead of going fishing during the day, they would have no cause to fear the Press gangs. He was genuinely worried by the matter, however, and wondered how it was possible for the men to keep good lights throughout the night if they had spent the previous day out in a fishing boat. The men were consequently forbidden to engage in any other activity other than that for which they were paid and accommodated. Osbolston even wrote to the parish priest and asked him to look out sometimes as he went to bed and if he saw that the lights were dim, to reproach the men on his behalf.

In 1698, the annual consumption of coal was recorded as 100 tons at each of the Forelands lights. The lights burned 32 chaldrons, or small cart loads, of coal a year at an average of 30 shillings a chaldron. Osbolston asked Mr. Chittie the Parish Assessor of rates and the Vicar, William Barney, to let him know if the light wasn't kept properly. For this he gave them each an odd chaldron of coal as a sweetener. Even so, Sir John Byng in 1707 complained to the Ad­miralty that he could scarcely see the light all night long.

In 1705 Osbolston's son took over for a further 17 years. The Osbolstons were far more conscientious in their stewardship of the lights than Meldrum had been, and did their best to ensure that their keepers always performed their duty to the full.

On the death of Osbolston junior in 1719 and just as the lease was about to run out, the ownership of the North and South Forelands lighthouses passed into the hands of the Trustees of the Greenwich Hospital who, to save coal, almost immediately enclosed the open fires behind glass. This move was not without its difficulties for the keepers found it necessary to use bellows in order to create sufficient draught for a good fire.

When coal fires were enclosed completely in glazed lanterns they gave a smaller yet steadier glow: these made less demand upon the attention of the lightkeepers and consumed less coal than open fires and thus alleviated somewhat the problems of transport of large quantities of fuel, always an important consideration, particularly when it had to be carried across the sea to remote and isolated sites like the Scilly Isles, the Casquets and the Skerries.

The total number of coal fires enclosed completely in glazed lanterns was small and they were found notably in England before 1780, and in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Holland after 1800. Of the coal fires at 21 sites in Britain in 1760, the grates at nine were enclosed in accordance with the preference of Trinity House.

With the concurrence of the Trinity Houses of London and Dover, both North and South Forelands coal fires were enclosed in 1719 but complaints from seamen forced a return to open fires in 1730. Perhaps the lanterns had been designed badly or the grates were too small or, maybe, sailors remembered the maximum blaze of the open fires as being more conspicuous than the steadier but lesser blaze from the enclosed grates.

In 1729 George II authorised the Governors to demand of all ships trading from port to port and having the benefit of the said lighthouses a stipulated due of one penny a ton each voyage. The cost to be shared between the ship master and the owner of the cargo.

In 1752 it is recorded that special large convex lenses intended to bend the light rays into horizontal beams were glazed into the glass of the lantern at South Foreland. Perhaps because of the difficulties with the light described earlier, this move was not successful and they were dispensed with.

In 1793 the Greenwich Hospital authorities decided to rebuild the structures, and in that year a new upper lighthouse was built costing £1804 two shillings and threepence halfpenny. The building was three stories high and terminated in a copper lantern in which, for the first time, an oil light was used. Two years later the lower lighthouse was erected. This was similar to the upper one but only two stories high, illuminated by sperm oil lamps in conjunction with two paraboloidal reflectors. Not until 1810 were magnifying lenses used again.

In 1813, on a visit to the Forelands and as part of one of his famous tours, the great Scottish lighthouse engineer, Robert Stevenson, wrote, "Find the South and North Foreland lights to be fitted up in the modern style with from 12 to 14 plated reflectors in each lightroom which were not thoroughly cleaned and some reflectors were in rather a dirty state. The lightkeepers are comfortably lodged and seem to be well pleased with their situations. The dwelling houses partake of that cleanliness which is general in the cottages of the English."

In 1832 the Government authorised the purchase by Trinity House of the North and South Forelands from the Greenwich Hospital for £8,366 with the stipulation that the light dues were to be reduced by three-quarters.

In 1846, the lighthouse was radically altered. A square tower of stone sixty feet high was constructed. A few years later the lower, three hundred and eighty-five yards distant, an octagonal structure of stone, forty-nine feet high, Both were designed by the late James Walker and cost £4,409 4s. 3d. A four-wick burner with dioptric apparatus for diffusing the light was installed.



Experiments in illumination

It is rarely realised today how much the lighthouse and its development contributed to the development of modern science and engineering. Surprisingly, South Foreland lighthouse was at the forefront of many new developments and was visited by many of the great scientists and engineers of the times. Many important experiments in the illumination of lighthouses were carried out.

In the early 1800s, gas made from coal was being used as an illuminant in homes, offices and factories. Naturally enough, gas was thought suitable for lighthouses too. Coal (or town) gas was not without problems because often, when the demands of the town were great, the consequent drop in gas pressure caused the lighthouse to dim and even go out. In 1823, it is recorded that Pintsche's oil gas was tried out at South Foreland, the plant being operated by one man, in marked contrast to the labour demands made by a coal gas works. How long gas was used is not known.

In the mid 1800s, the strongest artificial light known was obtained from Professor Holmes's magneto-electric apparatus. It was first used at South Foreland on December 8th, 1858. The carbons were operated by hand as they were consumed. In 1861 the illuminating properties of the Drummond or limelight were tested, albeit unsuccessfully.

Michael Faraday wrote in 1860, "Many compressed intense lights have been submitted to the Trinity House; and that Corporation has shown its great desire to advance all such objects and improve the lighting of the coast, by spending much money...It is manifest that the use of a lighthouse must be never failing, its service ever sure...The electric spark which has been placed in the South Foreland High Light, by Professor Holmes, to do duty for the six winter months, had to go through all this preparatory education before it could be allowed this practical trial...There are two magneto-electric machines at the South Foreland, each being put in motion by a two horse power steam engine; and, excepting wear and tear, the whole consumption of material to produce the light is the coke and water required to raise steam for the engines, and carbon points for the lantern in the lanthorn.

The lamp is a delicate arrangement of machinery, holding the two carbons between which the electric light exists, and regulating their adjustment... The machines and lamp have done their duty during the past six months in a real and practical manner. The light has never gone out, through any deficiency or cause in the engine and machine house: and when it has become extinguished in the lanthorn, a single touch of the keepers hand has set it shining as bright as ever. The light shone up and down the Channel, and across into France, with a power far surpassing that of any other fixed light within sight, or anywhere existent.

Professor Tyndall wrote on Jan 17 1879, "... though we have possessed the electric light (in the voltaic battery) for more than seventy years, it has been too costly to come into general use. But within these walls (the Royal Institution) in the autumn of 1831, Faraday discovered a new source of electricity...For more than twenty years magneto-electricity subserved its first and noblest purpose of augmenting our knowledge of the powers of nature. It had been discovered and applied to intellectual ends, its application to practical ends still to be realised.

The Drummond light had raised thoughts and hopes of vast improvements in public illumination. Many inventors tried to obtain it cheaply; and in 1853 an attempt was made to organise a company in Paris for the purpose of procuring , through the decomposition of water by a powerful magneto-electric machine constructed by M. Nollet, the hydrogen and oxygen necessary for the limelight. The experiment failed, but the apparatus by which it was attempted suggested to Mr. Holmes other and more hopeful applications.

Abandoning the attempt to produce the limelight, with persevering skill Holmes continued to improve the apparatus and to augment its power, until it was finally able to yield a magneto-electric light comparable to that of the voltaic battery.

Faraday was profoundly interested in the growth of his own discovery. The Elder Brethren of the Trinity House had had the wisdom to make him their 'Scientific Adviser'...With reference to an experiment made at the South Foreland on 20th of April, 1859, he thus expresses himself:-'The beauty of the light was wonderful. At a mile off, the apparent streams of light issuing from the lantern were twice as long as those from the lower lighthouse, and apparently three or four times as bright...In my opinion, Professor Holmes has practically established the fitness and sufficiency of the magneto-electric light for lighthouse purposes...The light produced is powerful beyond any other that I have yet seen so applied and in principle may be accumulated to any degree; its regularity in the lantern is great; its management easy, and its care there may be confided to attentive keepers of ordinary intellect and knowledge.'

Soon afterwards the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House had the intelligent courage to establish the machines of Holmes permanently at Dungeness, where the magneto-electric light continued to shine for many years.

The magneto-electric machine of the Alliance Company soon succeeded to that of Holmes, being in various ways a very marked improvement on the latter. Its currents were stronger and its lights brighter than those of its predecessor...The Alliance machines were introduced with success at Cape la Heve, near Havre; and the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House, determined to have the best available apparatus, decided in 1868, on the introduction of machines into the lighthouses at Souter Point and the South Foreland. These machines were constructed by Professor Holmes and they still continue in operation.

As their present scientific adviser, the Elder Brethren did me the honour of asking my opinion as to the course which they proposed to pursue with regard to the introduction of these new machines. [Tyndall reported]...There is no doubt that electricity places at the disposal of the Elder Brethren a source of light next to the sun itself in power, and far transcending any light obtainable from the combustion of oil. With regard to the practical application of the magneto-electric light, the question, in my opinion, has been solved by the performance of the machine at Dungeness. That machine was one of the first, if not the very first, constructed with a view to lighthouse illumination. Defects inherent in first constructions were associated with the machine. If, notwithstanding these defects, some of which were very grave, the interruptions have been so few, it may be safely inferred that with our augmented experience, and with the improved apparatus now within our reach, the performance of the magneto-electric machine may be rendered practically perfect. It is with profound conviction that the decision is a wise one that I learn the intention of the Elder Brethren to introduce this powerful source of illumination with all its recent improvements at certain prominent points on the coast of England... The course of events was this: The Dungeness light was introduced on January 31, 1862; the light at La Heve on December 26, 1863, or nearly two years later. But Faraday's experimental trial at the South Foreland preceded the lighting of Dungeness by more than two years. The electric light was afterwards established at Cape Grisnez. It was started at Souter Point on January 11, 1871; and at South Foreland on January 1, 1872. At the Lizard, which probably enjoys the newest and most powerful development of the electric light, it began to shine on January 1, 1878.

In 1869 the land between the lighthouses was acquired for the erection of extensive buildings: engine houses, workshops and living quarters for three keepers. In 1872 the South Foreland upper light was the first lighthouse in which electric light was permanently installed with a 150,000 candle power light, Holmes's machines being used. However, the discovery by Dr. Siemens and Sir Charles Wheatstone that induced electricity could actively be generated without the use of permanent magnets, led to the construction of dynamo-electric machines. These were tested at the South Forelands, in 1876-7 and it was conclusively proved that they furnished a much superior illumination to that of any magneto-electric machine. In 1884-5, exhaustive experiments were conducted to decide whether gas or electricity was, for lighthouse purposes, the better illuminant.

Experiments were also carried out on the value of the siren and the utility of the gun-discharges as signals in foggy weather.

South Foreland played a part in the development of some of the most powerful lights in the world. Thanks to the Stevensons in Scotland, a new design called the "hyperradiant" was constructed. The Stevensons had found in 1869 that when large gas burners were used in large revolving optics, much of the light was out of focus and not condensed correctly by the optic. A large apparatus with a focal length of 1330 mm (52.3 in) was constructed and tested at South Foreland alongside the powerful lenses that had just been constructed for the new Eddystone lighthouse. It was found that with a ten ring gas burner the hyperradiant apparatus threw a light nearly twice as powerful as that given by the rival lenses with the same burner.

Marconi's wireless tests

The great successes gained from the years of experimentation obviously made some impact. After months of testing his new wireless telegraphy between Bournemouth and Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight, Marconi chose the South Foreland for further experiments. In 1899, Marconi wrote, "The officials of Trinity House offered us the opportunity of demonstrating to them the utility of the system between the South Foreland lighthouse and one of the following lightvessels, viz., the Gull, the South Goodwin, and the East Goodwin. We naturally chose the one furthest away - the East Goodwin - which is just 12 miles from the South Foreland lighthouse." He reported that "the installation started working from the very first without the slightest difficulty." In 1900, Marconi reported that, "...the system (wireless telegraphy) has been in practical daily operation between the East Goodwin Lightship and the South Foreland lighthouse since December 24, 1898, and I have good reason for believing that the officials of Trinity House are convinced of its great utility in connection with lightships and lighthouses."

At the end of March 1899, communication was established between the South Foreland lighthouse and Wimereux, near Boulogne, over a distance of thirty miles.

Mains electricity

When mains electricity power became available to lighthouses, South Foreland was connected in 1922 and became the first to be lit by a filament lamp. The lamps had large globes and optical difficulties were encountered as the elements presented a complex patterned light source. Later bulbs became smaller. The staff consisted of one engineer and six keepers who were paid three shillings and nine pence a day (19p).

Demise

In 1904 the lower light was dismantled and a revolving, more powerful lens was taken from St. Catherine's on the Isle of Wight and fixed in the upper South Foreland Light. The building and land around the lower lighthouse reverted to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold it to a Mr. Neale. It was converted into a private residence with the stipulation that no light was to be lit in the lantern unless curtains were used to veil it. The accommodation to the lower light was soon demolished leaving only the short tower which became the centrepiece of a private garden.

The upper lighthouse remained fully manned and functional but eventually became first, a husband and wife station and then fully automated in the 1980s. Finally, it was taken out of service in 1988, but fortunately was acquired by the National Trust a year later.

A visit today

The visitor today can find the lighthouse by passing through the village of St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe and, just prior to descending the steep hill into St. Margaret's Bay, turn right into St. Margaret's Lane. This rough road leads along the cliffs to the south-west for about a mile before the grassy banks at the front of the lighthouse come into view. The whole area has seen much change in the twentieth century, largely due to the extensive wartime fortifications which were established all around and quite close to the lighthouse. After several decades during which these constructions fell into disrepair, much of the concrete debris in the vicinity of the lighthouse has been cleared away and restored to natural beauty once more.

Entering the front door of the lighthouse, the tower is on the left, whilst an entrance to the lighthouse accommodation is to the right. A storage room at the base of the tower is found by descending some steps into a circular, cellar-like room which may have been used as a fuel tank in the days when the light was oil-powered. Today, some batteries and an old engine are all that remain. Ascending the stairs to the next level, we find the largest space, containing the central tube down which the weights for the clockwork mechanism would fall. The stairs spiral upwards from the left, into what is now a radio room, with displays of old radio equipment. Carrying on up the tower we enter the service room, largely empty but for the usual glass-fronted cabinet containing a selection of necessary lamp spares. Above this is the lantern room itself, the large optic revolving in a bath of mercury and sitting atop the clockwork machinery which once drove it. Some of the electric lamps which would have been used are mounted inside the optic. A few more steps lead out onto the castellated balcony with its wonderful panoramic views of the English Channel and a large portion of the south-east corner of England.

Summary

1367: Nicholas de Legh, hermit, established a light in a cave in the cliff to guide passing ships.
1634: Shipmasters call for the erection of a lighthouse on the South Foreland. Privy Council gave authority to Sir John Meldrum to construct two lighthouses at South Foreland.
1642: Lease taken over by Robert Osbolston.
1690: Osbolston obtains a renewal for a further thirty years.
1698: Annual consumption of coal recorded as 100 tons at each of the Forelands lights.
1707: Sir John Byng complained to the Ad­miralty that he could scarcely see the light all night long.
1705: Osbolston's son took over for a further 17 years.
1719: Death of Osbolston junior, just as the lease was about to run out. Ownership of the North and South Forelands lighthouses passed into the hands of the Trustees of the Greenwich Hospital; to save coal, they enclosed the open fires behind glass.
1730: Complaints from seamen forced a return to open fires.
1752: Convex lenses glazed into the lantern.
1793: Greenwich Hospital authorities decide to rebuild the structures; new upper lighthouse built. Whale oil used for illuminant.
1795: Lower lighthouse was erected.
1810: Magnifying lenses used again.
1813: Visit by Scottish lighthouse engineer, Robert Stevenson.
1823: Pintsche's oil gas tried out.
1832: Purchased by Trinity House from the Greenwich Hospital.
1842/3: Upper lighthouse altered to a square tower of stone, sixty feet high.
1846: Lower tower rebuilt: octagonal structure of stone, forty-nine feet high.
1858: Professor Holmes's magneto-electric apparatus first used.
1861: Drummond (limelight) tested unsuccessfully.
1872: Electricity permanently established at high and low lights.
1876/7: Dynamo electricity tested for value in illumination.
1884/5: Tests of gas compared to electricity.
1899: Marconi demonstrates wireless transmissions between the South Foreland lighthouse and the East Goodwin lightship.
1904: Lower light dismantled. A revolving lens from St. Catherine's fixed in the upper South Foreland Light.
1922: South Soreland is first to be lit by a filament lamp.
1924: South Foreland connected to mains electricity.

Bibliography

Adams W. H. D., Lighthouses and Lightships, 1878.

Cavenagh E. V., "The South Foreland Lighthouses", In St. Margaret's Local History Society. Reprints of Articles of Local History Interest, July 1972.

Douglass Sir J. N., "Beacon Lights and Fog Signals," Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 12, No. 83 (1889), pp425-444.

Douglass Sir J. N., "The Electric Light Applied to Lighthouse Illumination", Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, (1879), pp77-111.

Faraday M., "On Lighthouse Illumination - the Electric Light", Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Vol. 3 (1860), pp220-223.

Hague D. B. and Christie, R., "Lighthouses, Their Architecture, History and Archaeology," Gomer Press, 1975.

Marconi G., "Wireless Telegraphy," Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Vol. 16 (1899-1901), pp247-256.

Marconi G., "Wireless Telegraphy," Proceedings of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol. 28 (1899), pp273-297.

Stevenson D. A., "The World's Lighthouses before 1820," Oxford University Press, London, 1959.

Talbot F. A., Lighthouses and Lightships, William Heinemann, London, 1913.

Tyndall, "The Electric Light Applied to Lighthouse Illumination", Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, (1879), pp1-16.

©1994 Ken Trethewey


Marconi and the South Foreland

By the last years of the 19th Century the Corporation of Trinity House had long needed some system of signalling with their off-shore establishments. Two methods had been tried and found lacking. The first was by cable connections but these were under a constant strain when the lightships were anchored in open sea and frequently came into contact with the hawsers of the vessels. The second was the Post Office inductive system and this also proved unsatisfactory. So seeing an opportunity Marconi's Company offered ship-to-shore demonstrations by wireless telegraphy. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House accepted this offer and selected to link, for a trial period, the twelve miles between the South Foreland Lighthouse and the East Goodwin Lightship.

The installations were completed in December 1898 and two-way communications established on Christmas Eve. George Kemp, Marconi's assistant, who was operating the East Goodwin Station, recalls in his diary some of the messages he sent for onward transmission by telegraph. For instance he sent compliments of the season to all the editors of the leading newspapers and to all friends and relations of the lightship screw and the Wireless Telegraph staff.


On Saturday the 11th March, 1899, the first practical use of this link between the East Goodwin Lightship and the South Foreland Lighthouse was made. The occasion was a ship going aground. The three masted sailing ship Elbe was laden with slates from Nantes and returning to its home port of Hamburg. It went ashore on the Goodwin Sands at 2 in the morning, a thick fog prevailing at the time. The South Goodwin Lightship fired signals. It often happened that when the wind was blowing off-shore the signal guns of the lightships could not be heard on land. However, in this case the signals were heard by the East Goodwin Lightship. It communicated by wireless telegraphy to the South Foreland Lighthouse and from there telegraphic messages were sent to the authorities. The lifeboats at Ramsgate, Deal, and Kingsdown were not launched but they were all standing by. As it happened the Elbe was able to re-float eight hours later with the assistance of boatmen and with the tug Shamrock in attendance. But it was the first occasion in the history of the world in which lifeboats had been alerted by the means of wireless.

By a strange coincidence the East Goodwin Lightship was itself involved in a collision at sea with a steamer, R. F. Matthews, 1964 tons, of London, sailing from the Tyne with coal for Genoa. It happened shortly after the Elbe incident on the 28th April I 899 and use of wireless helped to avert a situation that might have involved the loss of life.

Although a lightship is moored it is still capable of some movement as its cables allow it some change of position if the rudder is used. On the day in question there was very dense fog in the Channel. The evidence is that the approach of the steamer was noticed, the helm was put down and the lightship was swung by the tide. Even so she was struck and sustained some damage. Using the wireless telegraphy from the lightship to the shore, Captain Clayson, the master of the lightship, later described the incident to a reporter:

"We number seven hands all told. Fortunately none of us were hurt, but we all had a very severe shaking. There was a very dense fog when the collision occurred and we had a very narrow escape from being cut in two, as the vessel nearly caught us broadside on. We hod just time to put our helm down, and let the tide swing the ship a bit, otherwise the steamer must have run right through us. As it was, she gave us a violent glancing blow across the bows. Our stem is completely smashed down to the water line, and the covering boards and plank-ends on each side of the stem are started (damaged). The ship hung to us, and our vessel scraped along one side of the steamer, giving us a severe grinding, and carrying away our upper works and plating above water. The ship is very badly damaged, and but for the fact that the sea was calm and has remained calm since, we could not have kept afloat. The steamer remained alongside to see if we required assistance and subsequently proceeded down the Channel, having sustained damage herself. Before the steamer left we told the captain we had telegraphed to the South Foreland, and they had promised to send aid if we required it. The cause of the vessel running into us was that she did not make sufficient allowance for the tide, which was running very strong at the time. The lightship is so badly damaged that she must be replaced, and we are waiting for the Trinity boat Warden, which is on her way up Channel from Beachy Head, with the superintendent on board. She is to bring with her another lightship to replace us. and tow us back."

Captain Clayson was asked if he had had any difficulty in getting communication with the South Foreland Lighthouse after the accident happened. He replied, "I had not the slightest trouble. The collision occurred at half-past eight. I called the South Foreland up about two minutes after the steamer got clear of us, and while she was still standing by: and I got the reply immediately from Mr Bullocke, to whom I telegraphed briefly the particulars of the collision."

Mr Bullocke, Marconi's assistant, was on the premises at South Foreland Lighthouse when he heard the alarm bell ringing. He realised it was the lightship communicating and later reported that he had received the following message, "We have just been run into by the steamer R. F. Matthews. of London. Steamship is standing by us. Our bows are very badly damaged."

The newspaper accounts reported that he immediately transmitted the message to the Trinity House authorities at Ramsgate and it was further arranged that if the lightship required immediate assistance the lighthouse people would telephone to Ramsgate, Deal, and Kingsdown for the lifeboats to be sent out.

It is strange that despite a verbatim account by the Captain, reported in many newspapers, Trinity House stated a few days later that the collision with the steamer had only caused slight damage. The truth of what actually happened can never be finally resolved as the definitive papers were destroyed in the blitz.

Although the lifeboats were not needed, the wireless link with the shore had enabled the Trinity House rescue ship to set out much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

The significance and immense importance of what happened did not escape the people involved at the time. Here was a system that enabled a vessel in distress to communicate with the shore, At that time messages could only cover a short distance but as a naval correspondent then wrote about the future of wireless in The Morning Post, "its potentialities are infinite, but in regard to long distances it still remains to translate these potentialities into definite facts." They soon would be.

While these exciting events were taking place between ship and shore, another role was being planned for the South Foreland Station. With the agreement of the French Government a wireless station was set up at Wimereux, near Boulogne. On the 27th March, 1899, messages were sent from Wimereux to the South Foreland Station, a distance of over 30 miles and replies were received.

According to a newspaper report on the 29th March, 1899, messages passed backwards and forwards with the greatest care and quickness. It was the first use of wireless, both ways, across the Channel.

Following on from this, the French Government appointed naval and military officers to make tests between the land and French warships. The officers showed great enthusiasm and the tests were carried out for several weeks. The aerial height on the ships was about 100 feet and the maximum distance obtained at that time was 42 miles.

Perhaps stimulated with the success of these trials, even more complete tests at sea were carried out in the British Naval Manoeuvres in July 1899. Three ships of the B fleet were fitted with wireless apparatus, the flagship Alexandra and the cruisers Juno and Europe. Marconi himself was on the Juno as he was a friend of the Captain (Jackson, later Admiral Sir Henry Jackson) who had some previous experience with wireless. The Juno was accompanied by a small squadron of cruisers. The flagship transmitted messages by wireless to the Juno and these were transmitted by the old methods of flags or semaphore on to the ships around her. But by so doing a revolution in naval manoeuvres had been made possible, as orders could be received from the flagship even when it was out of sight. In these experiments the messages sent, were, 60 nautical miles from the Europe to the Juno and 45 miles from the Juno to the Alexandra. Greater distances could sometimes be obtained but these were the distances established for reliable transmission, no matter what the weather conditions.

Down at South Foreland Lighthouse on the White Cliffs of Dover they are getting ready for the festive season rather early this year (1999). But they aren't planning to decorate the place with tinsel, holly and mistletoe; they are intending to use old batteries and wireless equipment. That's because on Christmas Eve the lighthouse celebrates the centenary of its important but little-known role in the history of radio. It was from this breathtaking spot high on Kent's famous White Cliffs on 24 December 1898 that the radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi achieved the very first ship-to-shore wireless communication.

Several coastal locations in Britain can claim their own Marconi connection - the first permanent wireless station at Alum Bay, Isle of Wight; the first commercial use of radio at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland - but South Foreland is remarkable as the site of more than one Marconi 'first'.

Marconi conducted his early wireless experiments at home in Bologna, Italy, in 1894. When his invention was rejected by the Italian Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, he brought his apparatus to England - the world's leading naval power and therefore the most likely to see the potential of radio signalling.

South Foreland was perfect for Marconi's ship-to-shore radio trials. The East Goodwin lightship a dozen miles our to sea, marking one of the most dangerous stretches of the Channel, needed a reliable means of communication with the lighthouse perched on top of the 300ft-high cliffs. The cables by which ships were connected until then were very expensive and liable to break in storms. Trinity House, the authority responsible for coastal 'seamarks', was interested in the young Italian's new-fangled wireless ideas.

Marconi recalled his trailblazing experiment in a paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers on 2 March 1899. He said: 'The apparatus was taken on board [the East Goodwin lightship] in an open boat and rigged up in one afternoon. The installation started working from the very first, December 24, without the slightest difficulty. Various members of the crew learned in two days how to send and receive, and in fact how to run the station; and owing to the [Marconi] assistant on board not being as good a sailor as the instruments have proved to be, nearly all the messages during very bad weather are sent and received by these men, who, previous to our visit to the ship, had probably never heard of wire-less telegraphy..: The assistant, George Kemp, recorded in his 1898 diary, "Dec 24th. Mr Marconi called me up [by wireless from South Foreland] by ringing V's code on my bell and we went on working at good speed until 9pm, sending Compliments of the Season to all... I sent "three cheers" for Mr Marconi..."

Marconi used an Soft wire aerial on board the ship fixed to a wood and iron mast. It ran down through metal stays and chains, through a skylight insulated by rubber pipe to instruments - a ten-inch coil and a battery of dry cells - in the aft-cabin. The set up was similar back at the lighthouse. Messages were sent in Morse code.

In a Smithsonian Report of 1901, Marconi revealed further details. He said, "... the system has been in practical daily operation between the East Goodwin lightship and the South Foreland Lighthouse since December 24, 1898... On five occasions assistance has been called for by the men on board ship, and help obtained in time to avoid loss of life and property." Marconi was making it very difficult for Trinity House to ignore his wireless system.

The merchant vessel Elbe ran aground on the Goodwin Sands on 17 March 1899. As a result, the world's first radio distress signal was transmitted from the East Goodwin Lightship and received by the South Foreland Lighthouse radio operator who called out the Ramsgate lifeboat. The lightship was the first vessel to send its own distress signal on 28 April 1899 when it was rammed by the SS R F Matthews.

The first international radio transmission was made across the Channel from South Foreland on 27 March 899. A report of the event from Boulogne - the first press message sent from one country to another by radio - was carried in The Times the next day, "Communication between England and the Continent was set up yesterday morning by the Marconi system of wireless telegraphy. The points between which the experiments, are being conducted are South Foreland and Wimereux, a village on the French coast two miles north of Boulogne, where a vertical standard wire, 150 ft in height, has been set up. The distance is 32 miles."

The remarkable nature of Marconi's achievement was highlighted by Professor John Fleming of University College, London, in a letter to The Times of 3 April 1899, "With the exception of the flagstaff and 150 feet of vertical wire at each end, he [Marconi] can place on a small kitchen table the appliances, costing not more than £100 in all, for communicating across thirty or even a hundred miles of channel..."