The Eddystone Lighthouse – The first modern English Lighthouse

There have been lighthouses of sorts for thousands of years, most notably the ancient wonder of the world at Alexandria in Egypt.  Even Dover Castle is home to some tall ruins of the Roman equivalent of a lighthouse.

The first modern and purpose built lighthouse was the Eddystone Lighthouse which opened for business this week in 1799.  It was constructed on the notorious Eddystone Rocks which are around 14 miles outside of Plymouth harbour and submerged at high tide.  Throughout history they had claimed countless vessels and were so feared ships actually sailed along the French coast just to be safe which wasn’t very convenient for such an important naval city as Plymouth with its fantastic natural harbour.

The Eddystone Lighthouse

The wooden structure was developed by the wealthy English merchant, inventor and engineer​ Henry Winstanley.  He hoped it would be able to withstan busy and yet we have nothing to do but I get that also.twhthgttgtthtd the “greatest storm that ever blew” and provide safe passage for boats passing by the treacherous Eddystone reef, which had caused numerous shipwrecks. Construction began in July 1696 but suffered an early setback when a French privateer ship kidnapped Mr Winstanley, took him hostage and destroyed the foundations of the lighthouse.   It must have been considered an incredibly worthy and significant thing to do as France’s King Louis XIV promptly ordered his release, noting that his country was “at war with England, not with humanity”.

The current Victorian era Eddystone Rocks Lighthouse next to the remains of an earlier one.
The original Lighthouse shortly after completion.

  And so Mr Winstanley returned to work to rebuild the tower which rose 80 feet above the reef, the octagonal lighthouse was illuminated by 60 candles and a “great hanging lamp”. It also featured a large, ornate weather vane.   It underwent major repairs after being battered by heavy winds and storms in its first winter, before being officially completed in 1699, at the cost of around £5,000.

Sadly and perhaps with unfortunate timing, the lighthouse was destroyed four years later, during 1703’s historic Great Storm which killed an estimated 8,000 people and caused major damage to vast swathes of the UK. To this date, it is the only hurricane to reach Britain at full speed.

Mr Winstanley was inside the lighthouse when the storm hit, along with two lighthouse keepers. Their bodies were never found.

Subsequently the tower has been rebuilt three times since, with the second version falling victim to a fire in 1755 after the roof of the lantern caught ablaze. The most recent incarnation was completed in 1882 by the engineer Sir James Douglass, ensuring that centuries later, the original vision of ensuring safe travel off the treacherous southern shores of Cornwall goes on.

The lighthouse was immortalised in Herman Meville’s iconic seafaring novel Moby-Dick – “How it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse” – and a well-known sea shanty “My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light/And he slept with a mermaid one fine night”.

The current Victorian era Eddystone Rocks Lighthouse next to the remains of an earlier one.
The current Victorian era Eddystone Rocks Lighthouse next to the remains of an earlier one.

For another and incredibly horrific lighthouse post you should read The tragedy of Smalls Lighthouse

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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