South of the harbours of Maryport, Workington and Whitehaven, sandy beaches and grassy foreshores give way to cliffs around St. Bees Head, a high promontory which was a danger to small coastal vessels trading between the ports of Wales and the Solway Firth.
In 1718 Trinity House obtained a patent for the building of a lighthouse on the head and in turn leased it to Thomas Lutwige, for 99 years at an annual rent of £20. Lutwige undertook to erect the tower and maintain a light at his own expense. To provide him with an income, dues were levied at a rate of three-half pence a ton on cargo carried by vessels calling at the nearby ports of Whitehaven, Maryport and Workington.
Lutwige built a strong round tower nine metres tall and five metres in diameter, probably of local sandstone on top of which was a large metal grate into which the lighthouse keepers tipped coal. Work was strenuous particularly on windy nights and the keepers were rewarded with a weekly wage of seven shillings.
The small grate led to continual complaints from shipowners because on windy nights the light was variable in intensity and often shrouded in thick smoke.
In 1822 the tower was destroyed by fire and Trinity House decided to substitute the coal light for oil; this makes St. Bees not only the highest Trinity House lighthouse but also the last coal-fired lighthouse in Britain. The old tower was replaced by a circular lighthouse built to the design of Joseph Nelson.
St. Bees Lighthouse was automated and demanned in 1987. The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.