The Lighthouses on Eddystone Rocks

Posted: June 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

One of the most famous lighthouses in the world stands on Eddystone Rocks which are some distance offshore, near Plymouth, Devon, United Kingdom. These rocks form the crest of an extensive reef of rocks which rise up in deep water about fourteen miles SSW of Plymouth Harbour. At low water, several long low reefs of gneiss are visible, jagged and black but at high water they are almost completely submerged. Lying in a sloping manner towards the south-west quarter, from which the heaviest seas come, in stormy weather the waves come tumbling up the slope and break over their crest with tremendous violence. The water boils and eddies amongst the reefs, and hence the name which they have borne from the earliest times of the Eddystone Rocks. Until the first lighthouse was commissioned in 1699, many ships were lost, floundering on the rocks with all hands lost at sea.

map of Eddystone rocks

The first lighthouse on Eddystone was built by Mr Henry Winstanley; for the full story of this lighthouse see: Winstanley’s Lighthouse.

A storm had destroyed this lighthouse in November 1703, sweeping away the entire structure along with Mr Winstanley and his work crew (who had been making necessary repairs).

The second lighthouse was designed by John Rudyerd, who was a silk merchant and gifted mechanical engineer. Rudyerd designed a cone shaped tower instead of Winstanley’s octagonal shape. His final wooden tower was lit in 1709 and proved much more serviceable than Winstanley’s Lighthouse. This lighthouse stood for 47 years until the night of 2nd December 1755, when the top of the lantern caught fire. The lighthouse continued to burn for 5 days and was completely destroyed.

historical tale

In 1756 a third lighthouse was built by John Smeaton. He constructed a tower based on the shape of an English oak tree for strength but made of stone rather than wood. John Smeaton needed a strong rock which he found in the local granite, but further he needed the ingenuity to devise new forms of quick setting cement, a way to make dovetail joints in stone, (this method is still used today), and to lift huge stones from ships at sea to considerable heights. He surmounted all these obstacles and succeeded in building his new Eddystone Lighthouse which as lit by 24 candles on 16th October 1759. Smeaton had become the owner of the formula for quick drying cement.

In the 1870’s cracks appeared in the rock on which the lighthouse stood and it was dismantled, (120 years after it was built), and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder. Smeaton’s Tower was moved stone by stone from the Eddystone rocks to its present site on Plymouth Hoe and has been Plymouth’s most famous landmark ever since.  The stump of Smeaton’s tower still stands on the original rock to this day.

In 1877 James Douglass announced the decision to rebuild the lighthouse on a more solid foundation to the south east.

Lighthouse construction was a much more refined business largely due to the efforts of Robert Stevenson, who developed Smeaton’s idea and contributed many of his own and the French scientist Fresnel who made enormous progress in the field of lighthouse illumination.

In 1882 the current Eddystone Lighthouse was completed.

A feature of the stones in the Douglass tower was that they were dovetailed not only to each other on all sides, but each course was dovetailed to the next, calling for great accuracy from the masons.

Its original oil powered lamps were replaced in 1956 by electrics. A helicopter deck was later constructed above the lantern in 1980 as the first part of a modernisation scheme and the station became automated and unmanned in 1982 and was commissioned in a ceremony by the Duke of Edinburgh.


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