Many stories are told of the activities of wreckers around our coasts, most of which are grossly exaggerated, but small communities occasionally and sometimes officially benefited from the spoils of shipwrecks, and petitions for lighthouses were, in certain cases, rejected on the strength of local opinion; this was particularly true in the South West of England.
The distinctive twin towers of the Lizard Lighthouse mark the most southerly point of mainland Britain, the lighthouse is a landfall and coastal mark giving a guide to vessels in passage along the English Channel and warning of the hazardous waters off Lizard Point. The coastline is particularly hazardous, and from early times the need for a beacon was obvious. Sir John Killigrew, a philanthropic Cornishman, applied for a patent. Apparently, because it was thought that a light on Lizard Point would guide enemy vessels and pirates to a safe landing, the patent was granted with the proviso that the light should be extinguished at the approach of the enemy. Killigrew agreed to erect the lighthouse at his own expense, for a rent of "twenty nobles by the year", for a term of thirty years. Although he was willing to build the tower, he was too poor to bear the cost of maintenance, and intended to fund the project by collecting from ships that passed the point any voluntary contributions that the owners might offer him. In spite of the difficulty of recruiting local labour, the tower was finished by Christmas 1619, and proved a great benefit to mariners. However, the shipowners offered nothing for its upkeep, and the mounting costs of maintenance were bankrupting Killigrew. Thus, in the face of more opposition from Trinity House, James I set a fee of one halfpenny a ton on all vessels passing the light. This caused such an uproar from the shipowners that the patent was withdrawn, the light extinguished and the tower demolished.
Applications were made in ensuing years, but it was not until 1748 that Trinity House supported an attempt by Thomas Fonnereau to erect a lighthouse. The building was completed in 1751 and first lit on 22 August, consisting of two towers with a cottage built between them, in which an overlooker lay on a sort of couch, with a window on either side commanding a view of the lanterns. When the bellows-blowers relaxed their efforts and the fires dimmed, he would remind them of their duties by a blast from a cow horn.
Trinity House assumed responsibility for the lights in 1771, and commenced their wholesale improvement by replacing the coal lights with two oil lights in 1811. In 1845, three new cottages were added. But the most notable change to the site was the construction of the engine room in 1874, which made it possible to have a new fog signal and electric power for the main navigational light, powered by caloric engines and dynamos. More cottages were also added for the extra staff needed to run the now expansive site.
In 1903, a rotating First Order optic with a high-powered carbon arc light source was established in the eastern tower, and the western tower’s lantern was removed; the carbon arc light was replaced with an electric filament lamp in 1936.
The Lizard Lighthouse was automated and the keepers departed in 1998.
On 13 July 2009 HRH The Princess Royal officially opened the Lizard Lighthouse Heritage Centre—made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund—after Trinity House renovated the Engine Room to create a flagship visitor centre. Alongside the historical engine sets, graphical, audio-visual and interactive exhibits describe the history of aids to navigation and the functions of Trinity House.
The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.