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Eddystone Lighthouse

Eddystone Lighthouse
An aerial view of the fourth lighthouse. (The stub of the third lighthouse can be seen in the background.)
Eddystone Lighthouse is located in Devon
Location Devon, England, United Kingdom (offshore)
Year first lit 1698 / 1705 / 1759 / 1882
Automated 1982
Deactivated 1703 / 1755 / 1877 / –
Construction Wood / wood / masonry / masonry
Tower shape Octagonal / dodecagonal / conical / conical / conical
Height 60 ft (18 m) / 70 ft (21 m) / 72 ft (22 m) / 49 m (161 ft)
Focal height 41 m (135 ft)
Current lens 4th Order 250 MM Rotating
Intensity 26,200 cd
Range 17 nautical miles (31 km)
Characteristic White group flashing twice every 10 seconds
Fog signal One blast every 30 seconds
ARLHS number ENG 039

The Eddystone Lighthouse is on the dangerous Eddystone Rocks, 9 statute miles (14 km) south of Rame Head, England, United Kingdom. While Rame Head is in Cornwall, the rocks are in Devon and composed of Precambrian gneiss.[1]

The current structure is the fourth to be built on the site. The first and second were destroyed by storm and fire. The third, also known as Smeaton's Tower, is the best known because of its influence on lighthouse design and its importance in the development of concrete for building. Its upper portions have been re-erected in Plymouth as a monument.[2]


  • The need for a light 1
  • Winstanley's lighthouse 2
  • Rudyard's lighthouse 3
  • Smeaton's lighthouse 4
  • Douglass's lighthouse 5
  • References in literature and popular song 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

The need for a light

The Eddystone Rocks are an extensive reef approximately 12 miles (19 km) SSW of Plymouth Sound, one of the most important naval harbours of England, and midway between Lizard Point, Cornwall and Start Point. They are submerged at high spring tides and were so feared by mariners entering the English Channel that they often hugged the coast of France to avoid the danger, which thus resulted not only in shipwrecks locally, but on the rocks of the north coast of France and the Channel Islands.[3] Given the difficulty of gaining a foothold on the rocks particularly in the predominant swell it was a long time before anyone attempted to place any warning on them.

Winstanley's lighthouse

Winstanley's lighthouse, as modified in 1699

The first lighthouse on Eddystone Rocks was an octagonal wooden structure built by Henry Winstanley.The lighthouse was also the first offshore lighthouse ever. Construction started in 1696 and the light was lit on 14 November 1698. During construction, a French privateer took Winstanley prisoner and destroyed the work done so far on the foundations, causing Louis XIV to order Winstanley's release with the words "France is at war with England, not with humanity".[2]

The lighthouse survived its first winter but was in need of repair, and was subsequently changed to a dodecagonal (12 sided) stone clad exterior on a timber framed construction with an octagonal top section as can be seen in the later drawings or paintings, one of which is reproduced here. This gives rise to the claims that there have been five lighthouses on Eddystone Rock. Winstanley's tower lasted until the Great Storm of 1703 erased almost all trace on 27 November. Winstanley was on the lighthouse, completing additions to the structure. No trace was found of him, or of the other five men in the lighthouse.[4][5]

The cost of construction and five years' maintenance totalled £7,814 7s.6d, during which time dues totalling £4,721 19s.3d had been collected at one penny per ton from passing vessels.

Rudyard's lighthouse

Elevation of Rudyard's lighthouse finished in 1709

Following the destruction of the first lighthouse, Captain John Lovett[6][note 1] acquired the lease of the rock, and by Act of Parliament was allowed to charge passing ships a toll of one penny per ton. He commissioned John Rudyard (or Rudyerd) to design the new lighthouse, built as a conical wooden structure around a core of brick and concrete. A temporary light was first shone from it in 1708[7] and the work was completed in 1709. This proved more durable, surviving nearly fifty years.[2]

On the night of 2 December 1755, the top of the lantern caught fire, probably through a spark from one of the candles used to illuminate the light. The three keepers threw water upwards from a bucket but were driven onto the rock and were rescued by boat as the tower burnt down. Henry Hall, who was 94 at the time, died from ingesting molten lead from the lantern roof.[2] A report on this case was submitted to the Royal Society[8] by the physician Dr. Edward Spry, and the piece of lead is now in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland.[9]

Smeaton's lighthouse

The third lighthouse marked a major step forward in the design of such structures.

Recommended by the Royal Society, civil engineer John Smeaton modelled the shape on an oak tree, built of granite blocks. He pioneered 'hydraulic lime', a concrete that will set under water, and developed a technique of securing the granite blocks using dovetail joints and marble dowels. Construction started in 1756 at Millbay[10] and the light was first lit on 16 October 1759.[2]

Smeaton's lighthouse was 59 feet (18 m) high and had a diameter at the base of 26 feet (8 m) and at the top of 17 feet (5 m).

In 1841 major renovations were made,[11] under the direction of engineer Henry Norris of Messrs. Walker & Burges, including complete repointing, replacement water tanks and filling of a large cavity in the rock close to the foundations. It remained in use until 1877 when erosion to the rocks under the lighthouse caused it to shake from side to side whenever large waves hit.[12] Smeaton's lighthouse was rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe, in Plymouth, as a memorial. William Tregarthen Douglass supervised the dismantling and removal of Smeaton's Tower. The re-erected tower on the Hoe is now a tourist attraction.

The foundations and stub of the tower remain, close to the new and more solid foundations of the current lighthouse[2] – the foundations proved too strong to be dismantled so the Victorians left them where they stood.

An 1850 replica of Smeaton's lighthouse, Hoad Monument, stands above the town of Ulverston, Cumbria as a memorial to naval administrator Sir John Barrow.

Douglass's lighthouse

The current lighthouse and the stub of Smeaton's Tower.
Original drawing of 4th Eddystone Lighthouse

The current, fourth, lighthouse was designed by James Douglass, using Robert Stevenson's developments of Smeaton's techniques. The light was lit in 1882 and is still in use. It is operated by Trinity House. It was automated in 1982, the first Trinity House 'Rock' (or offshore) lighthouse to be converted. The tower has been changed by construction of a helipad above the lantern, to allow maintenance crews access.[13]

The tower is 49 metres (161 ft) high, and its white light flashes twice every 10 seconds. The light is visible to 22 nautical miles (41 km), and is supplemented by a foghorn of 3 blasts every 62 seconds.[2]

References in literature and popular song

  • The lighthouse inspired a [14] Another version, sung by this correspondent's late ex-father-in-law has the fourth line as "Two of them were fishes and the other was me." There are several verses.
  • The lighthouse has been used as a metaphor for stability.[15]
  • The lighthouse is celebrated in the opening and closing movements of Ron Goodwin's Drake 400 Suite. The movement's main theme was directly inspired by the lighthouse's unique light characteristic.[16]
  • A novel based on the building of Smeaton's lighthouse, containing many details of the construction, was published in 2005.[17]
  • The lighthouse is referenced twice in Herman Melville's epic novel Moby-Dick; at the beginning of Chapter 14, "Nantucket": "How it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse.", and in Chapter 133, "The Chase - First Day": "So, in a gale, the but half baffled Channel billows only recoil from the base of the Eddystone, triumphantly to overleap its summit with their scud."
  • The lighthouse is referred to in "Daddy was a Ballplayer" by the Canadian band Stringband, and follows a similar line to the sea shanty.
  • "The Most Famous of All Lighthouses," the third chapter of The Story of Lighthouses (Norton 1965) by Mary Ellen Chase, is devoted to the Eddystone Lighthouse.


  1. ^ Later Colonel John Lovett (c. 1660–1710) of Liscombe Park Buckinghamshire and Corfe, (son and heir of former merchant in Turkey, Christopher Lovett, lord mayor of Dublin 1676–1677) and uncle of noted architect Edward Lovett Pearce 1699–1733.


  1. ^ "Get A Map".   View at 1:50000 scale
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Eddystone history".  
  3. ^ Smiles, Samuel (1861). The Lives of the Engineers. Vol 2. p. 16. 
  4. ^ "Eddystone Lighthouse History". Eddystone Tatler Ltd. Archived from the original on 2 May 2006. Retrieved 7 September 2006. 
  5. ^ "The Great Storm of 1703".  
  6. ^ Whyman, Susan E. (1999). Sociability and Power in Late-Stuart England: The Cultural Worlds of the ... Oxford University Press. p. 130.  
  7. ^ Majdalany, Fred (1959). The Red Rocks of Eddystone. London: Longmans. p. 86. 
  8. ^ Spry, Edward; John Huxham (1755–56). "An Account of the Case of a Man Who Died of the Effects of the Fire at Eddy-Stone Light-House. By Mr. Edward Spry, Surgeon at Plymouth". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 49: 477–484.  
  9. ^ Palmer, Mike (2005). Eddystone: the Finger of Light (2nd ed.). Woodbridge, Suffolk: Seafarer Books.  
  10. ^ Langley, Martin (1987). Millbay Docks (Port of Plymouth series). Exeter: Devon Books. p. 2.  
  11. ^ Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 May 1841
  12. ^ Douglass, James Nicholas (1878). "Note on the Eddystone Lighthouse". Minutes of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. vol. 53, part 3. London: Institution of Civil Engineers. pp. 247–248. 
  13. ^ "Eddystone Lighthouse". Trinity House. Retrieved 6 September 2006. 
  14. ^ "The Eddystone Light". Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  15. ^ Thomas D'Arcy McGee commented that Canada's foundations were as "strong as the foundations of Eddystone" in The Globe, 31 October 1864, 4.
  16. ^ CD insert, "British Light Music: Ron Goodwin. 633 Squadron, Drake 400 Suite, and others. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Ron Goodwin, conductor." Marco Polo CD 8.223518
  17. ^ Severn, Christopher (2005). Smeaton's Tower. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Seafarer Books.  

Further reading


John Smeaton - A Narrative of the Building and Description of the Eddystone Lighthouse with Stone - London 1793

External links

  • Charles Harrison-Wallace webpage
  • Captain L Edye – The Eddystone Lighthouse, 1887
  • A local's view of Smeaton's Tower, on the Hoe, 2005
  • Eddystone Lighthouse at Structurae
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