Eddystone Lighthouse

Eddystone Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1882, the fourth lighthouse to mark the small but dangerous Eddystone Rocks 13 miles south west of Plymouth

Winstanley’s Tower 1698-1703

The original tower, completed in 1698, was the first lighthouse to be built on a small rock in the open sea. The first attempt to render the Eddystone safe to shipping was by an eccentric named Henry Winstanley. As a showman he had established Winstanley's Waterworks near Hyde Park which remained one of London's foremost popular attractions for decades. In 1696 he commenced work on a steel structure and finding conditions considerably harder than he had envisaged doubtless began to wonder what he had let himself in for however the work progressed steadily.

England was at war with France at this time and such was the importance of the Eddystone project that the Admiralty provided Winstanley with a warship for protection on the days when work was taking place. One morning at the end of June in 1697 the protective vessel did not arrive; in its stead a French privateer arrived, and subsequently carried Winstanley against his will to France. When Louis XIV heard of the incident he ordered that Winstanley be immediately released saying that "France was at war with England, not with humanity". The universal benefit of the Eddystone—and of lighthouses everywhere—was understood by all.

Rudyerd’s Tower 1709-55

The next man to get a patent charter for the Eddystone was a Captain Lovett who acquired the lease of the rock for 99 years, and by an Act of Parliament he was allowed to charge all ships passing a toll of 1d per ton, both inward and outward. His architect was John Rudyerd, a silk mercer on Ludgate Hill; the profession of scientist or engineer did not really exist then and issues of those nature were approached by people as hobbies rather than professions. Taking a shipbuilder's rather than a house builder's approach he came up with a design based on a cone instead of Winstanley's octagonal shape. His final wooden tower, lit in 1709, proved much more serviceable than its predecessor; the lighthouse stood for 47 years.

On the night of 2 December 1755, the roof of the lantern caught fire, possibly through a spark from one of the candles. The keeper on watch was Henry Hall—94 years old but said to be ‘of good constitution and active for his years’—did his best to put out the fire by throwing water upwards from a bucket. While looking up, some of the roof’s molten lead fell into his throat. He and another keeper battled continuously against the fire but they could do nothing as the fire was above them all the time - as it burnt downwards it gradually drove them out on to the rock. The fire was observed from the shore by a Mr. Edwards, ‘a man of some fortune and more humanity'. The old account says, he sent off a boat which arrived at the lighthouse at 10 am after the fire had been burning for eight hours. The sea was too rough for the boat to approach the rock so they threw ropes and dragged the keepers through the waves to the boat. The lighthouse continued to burn for five days and was completely destroyed.

Henry Hall died 12 days after the incident; a Dr. Spry of Plymouth made a postmortem and found a flat oval piece of lead in his stomach which weighed 7 ozs. 5drs. Dr. Spry wrote an account of this case to the Royal Society, but the Fellows were sceptical as to whether a man could live in this condition for 12 days. This so incensed him that, for the sake of his reputation, he performed many experiments on dogs and fowls pouring molten lead down their throats to prove that they could live.

Smeaton’s Tower 1759-1882

After experiencing the benefit of a light for 52 years, mariners were anxious to have it replaced as soon as possible. Trinity House placed a lightvessel to guard the position until a permanent light could be built. In 1756 Yorkshireman John Smeaton, recommended by the Royal Society, travelled to Plymouth on an assignment which was to capture the imagination of the world. He had decided to construct a tower based on the shape of an English Oak tree for strength but made of stone rather than wood. For such a task he needed the toughest labourers; many of the men employed had been Cornish tin miners. Press ganging had become a problem for the workforce, so to ensure that the men would be exempt from being kidnapped into naval service, Trinity House arranged with the Admiralty at Plymouth to have a medal struck for each labourer to prove that they were working on the lighthouse.

Local granite was used for the foundations and facing, and Smeaton invented a quick drying cement, essential in the wet conditions on the rock, the formula for which is still used today. An ingenious method of securing each block of stone to its neighbour, using dovetail joints and marble dowels was employed, together with a device for lifting large blocks of stone from ships at sea to considerable heights which has never been improved upon. Using these innovations, Smeaton's tower was completed and lit by 24 candles on 16 October 1759. In the 1870s cracks appeared in the rock upon which Smeaton's lighthouse had stood for 120 years, necessitating a new tower; the top half of Smeaton’s tower was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder. The remaining stump still stands on the Eddystone Rock.

Douglass’ Tower 1882

No time was lost in building another lighthouse on the rocks; the task of building a new tower gave ample opportunity to incorporate many of the latest ideas in lighthouse construction, which by 1877 had become a much more scientific business, largely due to the efforts of Robert Stevenson, who developed Smeaton's idea and contributed many of his own. Douglass used larger stones, dovetailed not only to each other on all sides but also to the courses above and below, and in 1882 the present Eddystone Lighthouse was completed and opened by the Duke of Edinburgh, who laid the final stone of the tower.

This was the first Trinity House rock lighthouse to be converted to automatic operation. To enable the work to be carried out a helipad was built above the lantern. The automation was completed and the light reintroduced on 18 May 1982, 100 years to the day since the opening of Douglass's tower by the Duke of Edinburgh.

The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.