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The Eddystone Lighthouse(s)

The Eddystone lighthouse with the stump of Smeaton's tower to the left - copyright Sue Davis 2004
The Eddystone lighthouse with the stump of Smeaton's tower to the left - copyright Sue Davis 2004

If you go and stand on the cliffs around Polperro, Talland or Looe and look out to sea on a clear night, you will see a bright white light flashing twice every 10 seconds. This is the Eddystone Light marking the treacherous reef known locally as the “Stone”, which lies 13 miles south east of Polperro.

Before the building of the first lighthouse, the reef was an ever present danger to shipping, especially to those making for Plymouth, with as many as 50 ships a year being wrecked, with a high loss of lives.

In 1690 King William III established what is now Devonport Naval Dockyard and decided that a lighthouse should be built to mark this deadly reef. The King commissioned Henry Winstanley to design and build what was to be the first lighthouse in the world to be built in such an exposed position.

Work started in July 1696 and was completed in November 1698. Constructed of wood, it suffered heavy weather damage and had to be virtually re-built the following spring. This second light lasted for four years until 1703 when England was hit by a violent hurricane which swept away the lighthouse, along with the keepers and Winstanley himself, who was visiting at the time.

Profiles of the 5 lighthouses which have been built on the Eddystone Rock - copyright Trinity House

These early lighthouses were very ornate when compared to the later ones. The third tower was built by John Rudyerd during 1708-9, using shipbuilding principles. He made it narrow and tapering to offer less resistance to the sea and ballasted the base with stones to give it stability, with a ships mast through the centre for flexibility. It was then sheathed with planks which were caulked with oakum and pitch to make it all watertight.

Compared to Winstanley’s towers , this one was very functional and very much more streamlined. This light lasted for 47 years until it burned down one night when the candles in the lantern set fire to the roof. The three keepers were rescued the next morning all suffering from severe burns caused by the wood and molten lead from the roof. One keeper was hit in the face by molten lead and claimed to have swallowed some. Sadly no none believed him at the time, but after his death, 12 days later, an autopsy was performed and 7 ounce piece of lead was found in his stomach!

The fourth tower took three years to build, from 1756 to 1759, and its designer, John Smeaton, used radical new design principles. It was constructed of granite blocks, with dove tail joints held together with quick drying cement of his own invention. So effective was this method of construction it was to become the standard for lighthouse builders world wide. Like its predecessors, candles were originally used for the lantern, until in 1810 they were replaced by Argand oil lamps and reflectors, which gave the equivalent of 3,216 candles.

Smeaton's Tower - now a landmark on Plymouth Hoe
copyright Sue Davis 2004

Smeaton’s tower lasted for 127 years until the rock on which it was sited started to show signs of stress from the action of the sea and fissures started to open up in it. On completion of the current tower, the people of Plymouth raised the money to have it dismantled down to its base and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe, where it still stands today, a tribute to Smeaton’s brilliant design.

The current, and fifth tower completed in 1882, designed by James Douglas, is the largest tower to be built on the reef, standing some 95 feet above sea level. He also designed a special ship called the “Hercules” to transport and lift the three ton granite blocks into position. For his work he was later knighted by Queen Victoria.

This light has had several updates in its lifetime. In1956 it was altered from oil burning to electric power, with an intensity of 570,000 candela and a range of 24miles. In 1980 a helideck (helicopter platform) was fitted above the lantern and in 1982 the station followed Trinity House practice and converted to automatic (un-manned) operation. The fog signal has also been upgraded from a bell, to an explosive sound, to the current electric one, giving one blast every 30 seconds. As well as the main flashing white light, there is a secondary fixed red light visible for 13miles over an arc of 17 degrees displayed from a window about half way up the tower. This indicates the dangerous Hand Deep shoal which lies 3 ½ miles to the north west of the tower.

Despite the presence of the lighthouse, on the 18th April 1929, the s.s. Paris carrying some 1,500 passengers hit the reef in fog. Along with naval ships and tugs from Plymouth, the Looe lifeboat “Ryder” was launched to render assistance, but by the time they arrived the Paris had floated off on the rising tide. A contemporary newspaper report tells of the master of the “Paris” being berated by a French trawler skipper for destroying his nets! It doesn’t say whether he offered any assistance! This launching of the “Ryder” lifeboat was to be her last service call before the station closed in July 1930. (See more about the “Ryder” lifeboat on our lifeboat web page).

Despite all the modern navigational aids, a calm sea, good visibility and a 100 foot granite tower, it was reported last year (2003) that a vessel from a “well known training establishment in Devon” had managed to hit the “stone”. The excuse apparently was that their G.P.S system was a mile out! They obviously don’t teach watch keepers these days the usefulness of the “Mark 1 eyeball” !

There is also a well known nautical ditty of which the first line goes “ My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light, who slept with a mermaid one fine night ……” !

To find out more about lighthouses and the history of Trinity House, why not visit the Trinity House website, or better still, the National Lighthouse Centre, at the Trinity House depot in Penzance.

With due acknowledgement to already published sources.

Tony White, Polperro, October 2004

 Copyright, all rights reserved, Tony White & www.polperro.org © 2004

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