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Pharology - History of Lighthouses in the British Isles - Builders

BR19: Lighthouse Builders

Many of the pre-Victorian lighthouses were not designed or constructed by people who would today be called civil engineers. The Eddystone Rock, for example, has a marvellous history which tells of an eccentric inventor, Henry Winstanley, who was the first person to tackle this formidable task. Yet he was already famous for the construction of a fully operational piped-water system and a water-closet which he built in London's Hyde Park during the summer of 1695. He enclosed his exhibition with a large tent and hundreds of inquisitive members of the public were charged sixpence for the privilege of seeing it in operation. Another of his inventions in his home was a special guest chair. This seat had spring loaded arms that trapped the unsuspecting visitors as soon as they sat down. With this in mind it seems strange that anyone took Henry Winstanley seriously when he insisted he could construct a lighthouse on a reef in the English Channel, 14 miles offshore from Plymouth. The third tower to be built there was due to a silk merchant called John Rudyerd [Majdaleny, 1959]. Other lighthouses, such as the original towers erected on Hurst Point in Hampshire, were built on top of elm sleepers laid on a shingle bed. Surprisingly, neither fell down.

Another project at the Smalls lighthouse, 21 miles off St. David's Head in Wales, was designed and built by Henry Whiteside, a violin maker. The entrepreneur for the project was John Philips, a man whose business ventures had made him almost bankrupt yet who convinced his creditors to back the venture. The original Smalls lighthouse was an octagon of wooden poles, topped by a cast iron hut, but it stayed in service for 85 years [Hague, 1975].

During the 18th century the building of harbours, breakwaters and lighthouses was looked upon as the domain of the Civil Engineer. This referred to any work carried out below ground or associated with bridges or contracts by the sea, but the roots of this important aspect of construction and design have a history which is relatively short [Z, 1999]. In 1662, Charles II founded the Royal Society and located its headquarters in London. This prestigious group consisted of eminent people such as those who had made discoveries of a scientific nature, Doctors of Medicine, Physics and Mathematics. To be a Fellow of the Royal Society, FRS, was considered to be (and still is) a scientist's highest accolade. Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Robert Boyle were just two of its founder members. Sir Christopher Wren became the first person in architectural design to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, following the re-building of London after the ravages of the Great Fire in 1666.

Civil engineering as a profession did not really exist during the early part of the 17th century. Many historians have argued about who should be regarded as the 'Father of the Engineers'. Such names as Henry Winstanley, Henry Whiteside, John Rudyerd and John Rennie have been suggested, but current consensus awards the title to John Smeaton, best known for his work in the design and construction the Eddystone lighthouse, as well as for many harbours and breakwaters [Skempton, 1981]. Following the destruction of John Rudyerd's Eddystone tower on the 2nd December 1755 when it was completely engulfed by fire, Robert Weston, the owner of the Eddystone lighthouse lease, contacted Lord Macclesfield, President of the Royal Society, for help in finding someone suitably qualified to build a new one. Smeaton was then finishing a scholarship sponsored by the Christopher Wren Foundation in the new and specialist aspect of construction, Civil Engineering. Smeaton was appointed to the Eddystone, a task he completed with excellence. Following his revolutionary approach the formal recognition by Society of the profession of Civil Engineer had begun [Skempton, 1981].

Amongst the most difficult problems to overcome were the remote and inaccessible locations for the lights. Choices for the building sites were always made to provide the maximum navigational benefit for the mariner. Of the lighthouse authorities in the British Isles, the task of the Commissioners of the Northern Lights to build these structures around the coastline of Scotland must have seemed the most difficult. In November 1787, construction of the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse was complete except for installation of the light. The accessibility of the site combined with weather conditions were so bad that the light remained unlit through the harsh winter because Thomas Smith was unable to ship the small parts for assembly on site. Even in the summer of 1788 when the optic had been installed, and with the Commissioners keen start earning revenue, Smith still refused to light the lamp until all the work on the keepers accommodation was finished. Though finished, the lighthouse had been unlit for eleven months. As with the other lighthouse engineers, Smith was a man of perfection. [Mair, 1978].

The erection of the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Angus coast in Scotland was a magnificent feat of engineering, especially considering that its base rock was barely visible at low tide and covered to a depth of 16 ft (4.87 m) during high water. What is more exceptional is the fact that this building work was started in 1807. Today, technology has assisted in overcoming the problems of offshore engineering projects, but it is hard to imagine the conditions at the beginning of the 19th century. It is also noteworthy that the engineer for the Bell Rock lighthouse, Robert Stevenson, lived on board a floating lightvessel, along with his workforce, throughout the entire project. During this period of lighthouse construction, many of the exceptional designers and engineers who built these towers around the British Isles would never expect their workforce to be employed in conditions which they were not prepared to endure themselves [Stevenson, 1931].

Similar conditions to those encountered by the Scottish lighthouse builders had to be overcome by the workforce of William Douglass when they erected the present Fastnet tower on the most southerly reef off the coast of Ireland. Although the rock base for this lighthouse was above high water, it faced the full onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean. At times, the force of the sea wave-washed the rock and, after completion of this difficult project, the keepers were often stranded for weeks at a time in their living quarters [Williams, 1920].

Not all the projects attempted had a successful ending. The original Bishop Rock lighthouse, built on the most westerly reef of the Isles of Scilly, had been designed by James Walker and constructed by Nicholas Douglass and his son James. Its construction consisted of heavy cast iron stanchions anchored to the rock. After four years of back-breaking work, the project had been completed, apart from installing the lantern and lights. On the night before the last stage of the contract was due to start, the Isles of Scilly were struck by one of the worst storms in history. It was nearly two days before the Douglass workforce returned to the Bishop Rock, only to find the tower had been washed away by the power of the sea. All that remained were the stumps of the cast iron stanchions [Douglass, 1892].