Set in the western approaches to the Isle of Wight, the Needles form a narrow chalky peninsula which rises from jagged rocks to 120 metre high cliffs; these rocks have always been a hazard to ships making their way up the Solent to Portsmouth and Southampton Water.
In 1781 merchants and shipowners petitioned Trinity House for a lighthouse. They obtained a patent in January 1782 which directed that lights should be:
“kept burning in the night season whereby seafaring men and mariners might take notice and avoid danger… and ships and other vessels of war might safely cruise during the night season in the British Channel.”
Negotiations must have failed because it was not until 1785 that Trinity House erected to the designs of R Jupp, for 30 years surveyor to the East India Company, three lighthouses at the Needles, St. Catherine's Point and Hurst Point. The Needles tower was lighted on 29 September 1786. As the tower was situated atop a cliff overhanging Scratchell's Bay, the light—144m above sea level—was often obscured by sea mists and fogs and so of limited use to mariners.
In 1859 Trinity House planned a new lighthouse to be built on the outermost of the chalk rocks near sea level. It was designed by James Walker and cost £20,000. The circular granite tower has perpendicular sides and is 33.25m high, of uniform diameter with an unevenly stepped base to break the waves and discourage seas sweeping up the tower. The wall varies from 1.07m in thickness at the entrance to 0.61m at the top. Much of the base rock was cut away to form the foundation, and cellars and storehouses were excavated in the chalk.
The light at the Needles has two white, two red and one green sector, with one of the red sectors intensified:
Red intensified sector (shore to 300) marks the St. Anthony Rocks
White sector (300 to 083) marks the approach to the Needles Channel from the west
Red sector (083 to 212) marks the Shingles Bank
White sector (212 to 217) marks the course through the Needles Channel
Green sector (217 to 224) marks a safe channel past the Hatherwood Rocks and the Warden Ledge.
A helipad was built on top of the lighthouse in 1987. The Needles Lighthouse was automated in 1994 and the keepers left the lighthouse for the last time on 8 December. Needles was the last Trinity House lighthouse powered by 100V DC electricity from its own generators; to enable the automation to be carried out mains power has been supplied via a subsea cable from the Needles Battery, which provides 240V AC power for the new equipment.
The original optic—with arrangements of coloured glass giving the green and red sectors—remained after automation but a new three position lampchanger was installed with two 1500W 240V main lamps and a 24V battery-powered emergency lamp.
The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.