Smeaton and Lighthouses - A Popular Biography, with an Historical Introduction and Sequel
by John Smeaton
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One of the most useful and pleasing forms under which knowledge can be presented to the general reader, is that of the biography of distinguished men who have contributed to the progress of that knowledge in some one or other of its various departments. But it too frequently happens that the biographical notices of great men consist rather of personal, trivial, and unimportant details, than of a clear and broad outline of the influence which they exerted upon the pursuit and upon the age in which they were distinguished. The true object of biography is, in tracing the progress of an individual, to show clearly what result his active life has produced on the well-being of his fellow-men, and also what is the position which he occupies as one of the 'great landmarks in the map of human nature[1].'

Yet we are not satisfied with a biography which regards its subject in his public capacity alone: we are naturally curious to ascertain whether the same qualities which rendered him celebrated in public followed him likewise into private life, and distinguished him there. We regard with interest in his private capacity the man who has been the originator of much public good; we look with an attentive eye on his behaviour when he stands alone, when his native impulses are under no external excitement, when he is, in fact, 'in the undress of one who has retired from the stage on which he felt he had a part to sustain[2].'

But a detail of the public and private events in the life of a distinguished man do not alone suffice to form a just estimate of his character. The reader requires to be made acquainted with the state of a particular branch of knowledge at the time when the individual appeared whose efforts so greatly extended its boundaries;—without this it is quite impossible to estimate the worth of the man whose life is being perused, or the blessings and advantages conferred upon society by his means.

On the other hand, in tracing the history of any particular branch of knowledge, unless connected with biography, we lose sight of individual efforts;—they are mingled with the labours of others, or are absorbed into the history of the whole, and are consequently no longer individualized:—hence we are likely to fail in recognizing the obligations due to our distinguished countrymen, or to deprive of their just merit those of our foreign brethren whose useful lives have influenced distant lands, as well as their own.

With these views we propose to connect the name of SMEATON with the interesting subject of LIGHTHOUSES. In the first place, we propose to present a brief history of Lighthouses, up to the time when Smeaton gave a type for this peculiar class of buildings upon dangerous and difficult points of coast; secondly, a general sketch of the life of Smeaton, so far as his very brief biographers will allow; and thirdly, a history of the improvements in Lighthouses which have been effected since the erection of the Eddystone.

In this compilation, the writer desires to express his obligations to the following works: A Narrative of the Building, and a Description of the Construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse with Stone, by JOHN SMEATON, fol. London, 1791;—Mr. HOLMES's short Memoir of SMEATON;—The Communication of Mrs. DIXON, Smeaton's daughter, to the Institution of Civil Engineers;—An Account of the Bell-Rock Lighthouse, including the Details of the Erection, and peculiar Structure of that Edifice, by ROBERT STEVENSON, 4to. Edin. 1824;—The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica;—An article on Lighthouses, by M. ARAGO, in the Annuaire;—The Civil Engineer's and Architect's Journal;—The Nautical Magazine;—and the Annual Reports of the Trinity House presented to the House of Commons.


[Footnote 1: Coleridge.]

[Footnote 2: Coleridge.]





Origin of Lighthouses—Beacon Fires—Character of the Early Watch-towers—Cressets—Colossus of Rhodes—The Pharos of Alexandria—Epitome of Ancient Lighthouses—The Tour de Corduan 9



Management of English Lighthouses—The Trinity House—Early History of this Corporation—Management of Lighthouses vested in—The Power of the Crown to grant Patents for Lighthouses— Recent Law for the Regulation of Lighthouses—Revenue of Corporation—Rates of Dues—How collected and disbursed— Constitution of the Corporation—The Public Lights of England 15



The Eddystone Rocks—Their Situation and dangerous Character—The first Lighthouse by Winstanley—Its Progress and Completion—Its awful Fate—Rudyerd's Lighthouse—Description of—Its Destruction by Fire—Smeaton appointed to construct a New Edifice 21



Birth of Smeaton—His early Character and Employments—Educated for an attorney—His dislike of that profession—Becomes Philosophical Instrument Maker—His Scientific Inquiries—Is appointed to build the Eddystone Lighthouse—His subsequent Employments—Public Works designed and completed by him—His Literary Works—His last Illness and Death—His Character— Illustrative Anecdotes 40



A Stone Lighthouse proposed—Smeaton's first Visit to the Rock—Operations of the First Season—Second Season—Structure of the Foundation—Ingenious Mode of securing the Stones—Third Season—State of the Work—Progress and Description of the Work—Accidents to the Engineer—Proposal to exhibit a Light before the completion of the Building refused—Fourth Season— Completion of the Work—Appearance of the Lighthouse during a Storm—Situation of the Light-keepers 50



Importance of Lighting the Scottish Coast—Formation of Board of Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses—Early Proceedings of the Board—Principal Northern Lighthouses—The Isle of May Lighthouse—Loss of two Frigates—Application of the Admiralty to the Lighthouse Board, by whom the Duties and the Island of May are purchased—Numerous Shipwrecks on the Island of Sanday—Foundation-stone of Start-Point Lighthouse laid—Rev. W. Traill's Address upon the occasion— Subsequent Proceedings on Sanday Island—North Ronaldsay Lighthouse—Melancholy Accident—Importance of the Northern Lighthouses 64



History of the Inch-Cape or Bell-Rock Lighthouse as a Type of the Northern Lighthouses—Position and Dangerous Character of the Bell Rock—Ballad of Sir Ralph the Rover— Proposal to erect a Lighthouse—Mr. Robert Stevenson selected as Engineer—Survey of the Rock—Exhibition of a Floating Light—Preparations for the Lighthouse—First Season on the Rock—Alarming Situation of the Engineer and Men—Effects of the Stormy Sea on the Rock—Erection of Beacon—Winter Employment—The Second Season—A new Tender employed—Praam-boats and Stone-lighters—Progress of the Work—Remarkable appearance of the Rock—Foundation Stone laid—First continuous Course of Masonry—Its Contents—Third Season—Progress of the Work—Winter Operations—Fourth Season—The Beacon used as a Dwelling—Its Interior described—The Engineer's Cabin—The Lighthouse nearly finished—Mr. Smeaton's Daughter visits the Works—Last Stone laid—Light advertized—Lighthouse described—Action of the Sea and of Stormy Weather upon the Lighthouse—Internal Economy of the Lighthouse—Arrangements on Shore—Signals—Curious Accident—The Carr Rock Beacon 74



Floating Lights—Objections to—Mitchell's Screw-moorings— Experiments on the Maplin Sand—Foundation—Erection of Screw-pile Lighthouse—Details of the Wyre Lighthouse—Proposed Lighthouse on the Goodwin Sands—Metallic Lighthouses—Advantages of Metal over Stone—Details of Cast-iron Lighthouse at Morant Point, Jamaica 101



Imperfect Illumination of the old Lighthouses—First Improvements—The Argand Lamp and Reflecting Mirrors—Revolving Lights—The Catoptric System—Varieties of Lights—The Dioptric System—Its Details—Introduction of this Method into Great Britain—Comparison of the two Methods—The Drummond and Voltaic Lights—Gurney's Lamp—Captain Basil Hall's Experiments—Ventilation of Lighthouses 110




Origin of Lighthouses—Beacon Fires—Character of the Early Watch-towers—Cressets—Colossus of Rhodes—The Pharos of Alexandria—Epitome of Ancient Lighthouses—The Tour de Corduan.

There is perhaps nothing better calculated to impress us with the skill and ingenuity of man, and the power which scientific knowledge imparts, than the sight of one of the beautiful Lighthouses of modern times. Rising, it may be, from the point of a jutting rock amidst the dashing and roaring of the breakers, it is exposed to the utmost fury of the storm: graceful in its proportions, and uniting the elements of security and beauty, it resists the terrific assaults of the winds and waves, and bears aloft to the help of the tempest-tossed mariner, the warning light that bids him shun the rocky shore. The skill now attained in the construction of Lighthouses has been of slow and difficult acquirement, the fruit of much patient and persevering toil, and of many painful experiences: it will, therefore, be interesting to trace the steps by which a result so important in the history of commerce has been successfully achieved.

At a very early period it was customary to light up beacon-fires along the most frequented coasts. These fires were kindled on the summits of lofty towers, which served the double purpose of lighthouses, and temples dedicated to the gods. Here sacrifices were offered to appease the storm, and prayers were made for the safety of the mariner. Thus these lighthouse-towers were invested with a sacred character: their beacon-fires were said to be inextinguishable; their priests performed the rites and practised the arts of divination, inquiring into the success of a proposed voyage, and making votive offerings for past deliverances.

Hence it may naturally be supposed, that within these watch-towers was to be found most of the nautical knowledge of the time; that here were deposited such observations on the heavenly bodies as were attainable at that early period; also rude charts of the coast, originally perhaps traced upon the walls, and afterwards formed into primitive maps by being transferred and extended upon papyrus leaves. Here too the young seaman might come for instruction in the art of navigation, simple and imperfect as it must have been. Here too the aged seaman buffetted by the storm might seek refuge from its fury, obtain rest and refreshment, and instructions for the continuance of his voyage.

These ancient lighthouses appear to have consisted of a tower of masonry of large dimensions; circular or square in form; containing numerous apartments and a battlemented top, within which was raised a kind of altarpiece covered with a plate of brass. Upon this brazen hearth a chauffer of curious workmanship was placed: it was in some cases supported upon dolphins; and the grating was decorated with foliage and emblematical devices.

The materials employed for maintaining a light in this chauffer were, doubtless, similar to those in the ancient cressets, or lights of the watch, which were in use not only as beacons, but as common street-lights, before either oil or gas-lights were known. Some of these cressets were formed of a wreathed rope, smeared over with pitch, and placed in an elevated cage of iron, others contained combustible materials in a hollow pan. Occasionally these primitive street-lights were placed at the summit of a pole, from either side of which, projecting pieces of wood formed a ready mode of ascent to trim the light, and obviated the need of a ladder for that purpose.

Before the discovery of the magnetic needle or its application at sea, the towers above referred to were very numerous; so much so that nearly every promontory is said to have been decorated with its lighthouse or temple, and this was the more necessary, since the mariner dared not venture out of sight of the coast, but followed with attention all its little windings and bendings.

There is every reason to believe, that the gigantic figure known as the Colossus of Rhodes formed one of the most celebrated beacon-fires of antiquity. About three hundred years before the Christian era, Charles the disciple of Lysippus constructed this brazen statue, the dimensions of which were so vast that a vessel could sail into the harbour between its legs, which spanned the entrance. It was partly demolished by an earthquake about eighty years after its completion; and so late as the year 672 of the Christian era, the brass of which it was composed was sold by the Saracens to a Jewish merchant of Edessa, for a sum, it is said, equal to thirty-six thousand pounds.

But the most celebrated lighthouse of antiquity was that erected about the year 283 B. C. by order of Ptolemy Philadelphus, on the island of Pharos, opposite to Alexandria. It is from the name of this island that lighthouses have received their generic name of Pharos. Strabo records, that the architect Sostratus, having first secretly carved his own name on the solid walls of the building, covered the words with plaster, and in obedience to Ptolemy's command inscribed thereon, 'King Ptolemy to the gods the preservers, for the benefit of sailors.' The height of this building is stated at four hundred feet; but this, as well as many other accounts relating to it, must be an exaggeration. A more modest account, given by the historian Josephus, is likely to be accurate; but even he states that the fire which was kept constantly burning at the top was visible by seamen at a distance equal to about forty miles.

The most remarkable lighthouses of ancient times were situated in and about the Mediterranean sea; they were generally placed upon extensive moles, or near the entrance of harbours: some of them still remain. The Pharos of Alexandria, and that of Messina, still display their fires, but it is stated that they have shared in none of the improvements of modern science; that even in Spain and Portugal the lighthouse of Corunna, or famous tower of Hercules, exhibits merely a coal-fire with so faint a light that ships can scarcely perceive it until they are in danger of striking against the shores. Of these ancient lights there yet remain those on either side of the Dardanelles; one in the archipelago on the island of Milo, two in the gulf of Salonica, and one near Lagos in Romania; Malta, Leghorn, Civita Vecchia, Genoa, Malaga, Cape Tarifa, and other places, still preserve the fires which guided the prow and the galley of the masters of the old world.

The sum of our knowledge of the ancient history of lighthouses is neither accurate nor extensive: we proceed, therefore, to notice those of modern times. Passing by the many rude contrivances for lighting up a coast, consisting as they did chiefly of pots of fire mounted on poles or rocks, the first lighthouse which merits attention is the Tour de Corduan, which, on account of its architectural magnificence was long regarded as one of the wonders of the world, in the same way as the Pharos of Alexandria had been in ancient times.

The Tour de Corduan is situated on an extensive reef about three miles from land, at the mouth of the river Garonne, and from its position serves as an important guide to the shipping of Bordeaux, the Languedoc Canal, and all that part of the Bay of Biscay. It was founded in the year 1584, but was not completed until 1610, in the time of Henry IV. Its style of architecture is a mixture of classic and gothic, and so very elaborate, that a just idea cannot be formed of it without reference to drawings in detail. The building is one hundred and ninety-seven feet in height, and consists of a number of galleries rising above each other, and gradually diminishing in diameter. The base consists of an immense platform of solid masonry, surrounded by a wall one hundred and thirty-four feet in diameter, so placed as to act as an outwork of defence to receive the chief shock of the waves. The light-keeper's houses and the store-rooms form a detached range of buildings on the great platform, from which a private staircase conducts to the light-room. At the entrance door of the main tower, the busts of Henry II. and Henry IV. are placed in niches, over these are the arms of France, and an emblematical figure of St. Mary, to whom the building is dedicated; there is also another female figure, holding a branch of palm in one hand and a crown in the other.

In the solid masonry of the platform is the fuel-store; over this is the great hall, twenty-two feet square with an arched roof twenty feet high. On this floor are also two wardrobes and other conveniences. Over the hall is the king's apartment, twenty-one feet square, with an elliptical roof twenty feet in height. This floor has also a vestibule, two wardrobes, &c. The third floor contains the chapel, in which a priest occasionally performs mass. Its diameter is twenty-one feet, and from the floor to the centre of the dome-roof the height is forty feet. It is highly adorned with mosaic, and is lighted by eight lantern windows. In the crown of the dome-roof is a circular opening surrounded by a balustrade, through which is seen the ornamental roof of the room above. This room is fourteen feet in diameter and twenty-seven feet high; it is used as a watch-room by the light-keepers, and was probably intended as a place to which they could be admitted to hear prayers or mass on the occasion of a royal visit. Over this room is an apartment capable of containing a stock of fuel sufficient for one night's consumption, and is so constructed as to be convertible into a room for the exhibition of a light, in case of accident or repairs being required in the main light-room. This is situated over the store-room just referred to, and is surrounded by a balcony and a circular stone parapet. The original lantern, or light-room, was constructed for the combustion of oak wood, exposed in a kind of chauffer raised six feet above the floor. The room was not glazed, so that the smoke was carried out sideways in the direction of the wind. The roof was furnished with a sort of chimney in the shape of a spire, which terminated the building with a ball. The whole light-room was of stone, and its height to the top of the spire-funnel was thirty-one feet.

From the rude mode by which light was obtained, the stone mullions which supported the cupola-roof became so much damaged, that in 1717 it was necessary to remove the light to the apartment below, till the light-room and upper works were restored. But the new light being so defective that it could not be seen at sea at a greater distance than six miles, many accidents and complaints arose, when it was determined to construct the light-room of iron instead of stone. By this means the light passed with less obstruction, and in 1727, after a lapse of ten years, it was again exhibited at its accustomed height and with increased brilliancy. The light was further improved in consequence of pit-coal being used instead of timber; and the interior of the roof was converted into a kind of inverted conical reflector, the point of which projected downwards, and its base extended nearly to the full size of the roof. Still, however, the light being exposed in an open chauffer, was little to be depended on at any great distance from the shore, so that about the year 1780 reflectors and lamps were introduced, and in 1822 the light received its last improvement by the introduction of Fresnel's beautiful apparatus.



Management of English Lighthouses—The Trinity House—Early History of this Corporation—Management of Lighthouses vested in—The Power of the Crown to grant Patents for Lighthouses—Recent Law for the Regulation of Lighthouses—Revenue of Corporation—Rates of Dues—How collected and disbursed—Constitution of the Corporation—The Public Lights of England.

It will now be necessary to give some account of the important institution to whose members is entrusted the management of Lighthouses, and of various interests connected with the Seamen and Shipping of this country. This is the Corporation of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond, whose full title is as follows:—'The Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St. Clement, in the parish of Deptford Strond, in the county of Kent.'

The early records of this corporation were destroyed by fire in 1714, so that the origin of the institution cannot be precisely stated. But it appears that the purpose for which it was first established was, for the increase of correct information of the intricacies of navigation connected with the channels leading into the Thames, and with the river itself, and that the society was originally an association of seamen formed for the purpose of forwarding and assisting the attainment of the object.

In the reign of Henry VIII. the arsenals of Woolwich and Deptford were founded, the latter being afterwards put under the direction of the Trinity House. It is in this reign that we meet with the first official document relating to the establishment at Deptford Strond. A royal charter of incorporation was granted in the sixth year of the reign, wherein Henry grants license to his beloved people and subjects, the shipmen and mariners of England, to new begin, erect, create, ordain, found, unite, and establish a certain guild or perpetual fraternity of themselves and other persons, as well men as women, in the parish-church of Deptford Strond, in the county of Kent. This charter permits the brethren to elect one master, four wardens, and eight assistants, to govern and oversee the guild, and have the custody of the lands and possessions thereof, &c. Queen Elizabeth, in the first year of her reign, recognised all the rights and immunities of the corporation, and in the eighth of her reign an act was passed enabling them to preserve ancient sea-marks, to erect beacons, marks, and signs for the sea, and to grant licenses to mariners during the intervals of their engagements to ply for hire as watermen on the river Thames. This act recites the destruction of steeples, woods, and other marks on the coasts, whereby divers ships had been lost, to the great detriment and hurt of the common weal, and the perishing of no small number of people, and forbids the destruction of any existing marks after notice under a penalty of one hundred pounds.

In the reign of James I. a question arose as to whether the privileges granted to the Trinity House by the act of 8th of Elizabeth included lighthouses, which, it would appear, were not introduced in England at the time it was passed. The opinion of Sir Francis Bacon was sought in the matter, and on it an order in council was founded, 26th March, 1617. The opinion was,—'That lighthouses are marks and signs within the meaning of the statute and charter. That there is an authority, mixed with a trust settled in that corporation, for the erection of such lighthouses, and other marks and signs as may serve from time to time, as the accidents and moveable nature of the sands and channels doth require, grounded upon the skill and experience which they have in marine service, and this authority and trust cannot be transferred from them by law, but as they only are answerable for the defaults, so they only are trusted with the performance, it being a matter of a high and precious nature, in respect of the salvation of ships and lives, and a kind of starlight in that element.'

There is reason to believe that this sensible decision of the attorney-general was not altogether pleasing to the king, whose habit of selling monopolies and patents was thereby checked. That this was the case appears from the fact, that, on Sir Francis Bacon becoming lord-keeper, the same point of law was revived before his successor in the office of attorney-general, Sir Henry Yelverton. The result of this was a report that suited the king's purposes better at the time, but was subsequently the cause of much evil, loss, and expense, because the management of several lighthouses was thenceforth entrusted to individuals. Without interfering with the authority already possessed by the Trinity House, this report states that the crown had also a power and right by the common-law to erect such houses. 'And therefore,' says the report, 'howsoever the ordinary authority and trust for the performance of this service is committed to the said corporation alone, as persons of skill and trust to that purpose, yet if they be not vigilant to perform it in all places necessary, his majesty is not restrained to provide them according to his regal power and justice, for the safety of his subjects' lives, goods, and shipping, in all places needful.'

Thus patents for and leases of lighthouses were granted to private individuals, and were no longer the exclusive right of the Trinity House. This state of things continued from that period nearly to the present time. But the inconvenience and disadvantage resulting from the measure had long been felt, and it was found that the lighthouse system was, in too many instances, conducted with a view to private interest rather than public good. An act was therefore passed, in the sixth and seventh years of the reign of his late majesty William IV., in order to the attainment of uniformity of system in the management of lighthouses, and the reduction and equalization of tolls payable in respect thereof. By this act provision was made for vesting all the lighthouses on the coast of England in the corporation of the Trinity House, and placing those of Scotland and Ireland also under their supervision. All the interest of the crown in lighthouses possessed by his majesty was vested in the corporation, in consideration of three hundred thousand pounds allowed to the Commissioners of Crown Land Revenue for the same, and the corporation were permitted to buy up the interests of the various lessees of the crown and of the corporation, as well as to purchase the other lighthouses from the proprietors of them, subject in case of dispute to the assessment of a jury. Under this act purchases have been made by the corporation of nearly the whole of the lighthouses not before in their possession, the sum expended for that purpose amounting to nearly a million of money.

The revenues of the corporation, which are very considerable, are derived from tolls paid by the shipping deriving benefit from the lights, beacons, and buoys, and from the ballast supplied. Also from lands, stock, &c. held by the corporation, partly by purchase, partly from legacies, &c. and donations of private individuals. The whole of these revenues are employed in necessary expenses, such as constructing and maintaining their lighthouses, and lights, beacons, and buoys, and the buildings and vessels belonging to the corporation, in the salaries of the officers of their different establishments, and in relieving decayed seamen and ballastmen and their widows. Many almshouses have been erected and are maintained from the same funds.

The present house of the corporation is on Tower Hill. It was built by Wyatt in 1793. It is of Portland stone, with a rustic basement, over which is one story adorned with Ionic columns and pilasters. The Trinity House was formerly in Water Lane, where it was twice destroyed by fire. The members of the corporation are chosen from among the highest ranks: of the thirty-one elder brethren, eleven are noblemen and heads of the government departments, admirals, &c. These are styled honorary members, and have no pecuniary advantage from their connection with the institution. The present master is the Duke of Wellington. Mr. Pitt filled that office for seventeen years, and William IV. was master at the time of his accession to the throne. Different committees are appointed for attending to the various duties of the corporation. The deputy master and elder brethren are from time to time employed in making voyages of inspection of their lighthouses and lights, beacons and buoys, and in making surveys &c. on the coast, and reports on maritime matters. The salary of the deputy master is six hundred pounds per annum, and of the elder brethren three hundred pounds each per annum. The duties of the corporation also extend to the examination of such boys of Christ's Hospital as shall be willing to become seamen, and to apprentice them to commanders of ships. Also, the appointment of all pilots into and out of the Thames, prohibiting under penalties all other persons from exercising the office; the punishment of seamen deserting, &c. All masters of the Navy, as well as the pilots, also undergo examination before this corporation.

The rate of dues chargeable by the Trinity House before the passing of the Act of 1836, varied from one sixth of a penny to one penny per ton, on each light passed; and it appears from the Parliamentary Report, that in 1832 the net amount of revenue was seventy-seven thousand three hundred and seventy-one pounds, and the expense of maintaining the lights thirty-six thousand nine hundred and four pounds, leaving a surplus of forty thousand four hundred and sixty-seven pounds, to be expended in charity to the amount of thirty-five thousand, and the rest in the erection of new lighthouses, and the maintenance of the general establishment. By the new Act the duties levied under former Acts were repealed, and it was enacted that every British vessel, and every private foreign vessel should pay the toll of one half-penny per ton for every time of passing, or deriving advantage from any light, with the exception of the Bell-Rock, for which one penny per ton is the toll. Every foreign vessel not privileged must pay double toll. Exemptions were made in favour of the King's vessels, those of Trinity House, and all vessels going in ballast or engaged in the herring fishery. Power was given to the commissioners of northern lighthouses to erect beacons, and moor buoys, and the harbour-lights on the Scotch coast were placed under their controul. This Act also confers on the Trinity House the power of entering any lighthouse under the charge of other boards, to inspect their condition, and it gives them a controul as to the erection of new lighthouses, or the alteration of those already existing, both in Scotland and Ireland. In the event of any differences of opinion between the three boards, appeal is to be made to the Privy Council. It is also enacted, that accounts of the receipt of all monies, and a report of all alterations made during the preceding year, be annually laid before each House of Parliament.

The public lights of England, including Heligoland (a small island belonging to England situate about twenty-five miles from the mouth of the Elbe), amount to seventy-one in number, and have been arranged in the following classes.

1. Those belonging to and under the management of the Corporation of the Trinity House 55 lights

2. Those in the charge of individuals under lease from the Trinity House, and having different periods to run 3 "

3. Those let by the Crown to individuals for a period of years on leases renewed since the year 1822 7 "

4. Lights originally held under patents subsequently sanctioned by Acts of Parliament, and now in the hands of proprietors 4 "

5. At Heligoland 1 light

6. One floating light at Benbridge Lodge 1 " ————- Total number of public general lights in England 71 lights ————-

A list of the lighthouses of the British Islands, corrected to July, 1836, is published at the Hydrographic Office, Admiralty.



The Eddystone Rocks—Their situation and dangerous Character—The first Lighthouse by Winstanley—Its progress and Completion—Its awful Fate—Rudyerd's Lighthouse—Description of—Its Destruction by Fire—Smeaton appointed to construct a New edifice.

The Eddystone Rocks are situated nearly S. S. W. from the middle of Plymouth Sound, and at a distance from the port of Plymouth of nearly fourteen miles. They are remarkable for the great variety of contrary sets of the tide or current among them, and hence it is supposed they derived their appellation. From various causes the currents in the district of the channel where these rocks lie are so exceedingly irregular, that it requires much knowledge of the local situation to shun the dangers connected with them. Supposing a line to be drawn between the Lizard and the Start points, the Eddystone rocks would be found nearly on, or a little within that line. The nearest point of land to these rocks is the promontory called Ram-head.

As the Eddystone rocks lie nearly in the direction of ships coasting up and down the channel, they were, previous to the erection of the lighthouse, extremely dangerous, and often fatal to ships, particularly to such as were homeward bound from foreign parts; so that many rich vessels were actually lost on these rocks, it being not unusual for the most careful mariner to run his vessel upon them during the night, or in foggy weather at high water, when the whole ranges of the rocks are entirely covered.

If the situation of the Eddystone rocks be considered with reference to the ocean and the Bay of Biscay, it will be seen that they lie exposed to the great and heavy swells which come in from all the south-western points of the compass. Indeed, it is a fact well known to mariners, that all the heavy seas from those quarters come uncontrolled upon these rocks, and break on them with the utmost fury. The particular conformation of the rocks also tends to augment the force and height of the seas, for they not only stretch across the channel in a north and south direction to the length of above one hundred fathoms, but they lie in a sloping manner toward the south-west quarter. The effect of this slope in stormy weather is to increase the swell of the seas to a frightful extent; and even in calm weather, when the sea is to all appearance smooth and unruffled, the ground-swell from the ocean continues, and meeting the slope of these rocks, the waves often break upon them with great violence.

The largest and highest of the Eddystone rocks is now called the House-rock, because every building which has been attempted has had its foundation there; but even on this the most favourable spot for such efforts, there is a peculiar difficulty, arising out of its shape and position. There is a sudden drop in the surface of the rock, forming a step of about four and a half or five feet high, the upper part somewhat over-hanging the perpendicular, so that the seas, which in moderate weather come swelling towards that step, meet so sudden a check thereby that they frequently fly to the height of thirty or forty feet. This proved a great interruption to the works during the building of the lighthouse, for the water coming down from this height on the area of the building completely wetted the work-people, and either suspended their employment or caused them to execute it in a very uncomfortable situation. This is not the case at all times, but only when the ground-swell comes in from the bay, which, however, is constant during south-westerly winds, and for some time after they have subsided.

It would appear that the many fatal accidents which occurred to homeward-bound ships had long made it much desired, as it was highly necessary, that some beacon should be erected on the Eddystone rocks. The formidable nature of the undertaking, and the almost insuperable difficulties connected with it, may be supposed to have long repressed the ardour of the zealous and the humane; but at length, in the year 1696, a person was found hardy enough to undertake the task, and he was soon invested with the necessary powers to put it in execution.

This person was Mr. Henry Winstanley, of Littlebury, Essex, whose mechanical abilities had previously been known rather by a series of eccentric contrivances than by any remarkable proof of skill. For instance:—in his house at Littlebury, if a visitor entered an apartment and saw an old slipper lying on the floor, and very naturally proceeded to kick it aside with his foot, a ghost-like figure would immediately start up before him, and if he retreated from it and took his seat in a chair, a couple of arms would immediately clasp him in, so that it would be impossible to disengage himself without the assistance of an attendant.

These unpleasant jokes were not confined to the house; for if the unfortunate guest took refuge in the garden, and unwittingly entered the summer-house by the side of the canal, immediately he was sent out afloat to the middle of the water, and could not possibly make his escape without the intervention of the manager. These tricks were apparently played for mere amusement; but Mr. Winstanley at one time turned his mechanical contrivances to account, by establishing an exhibition at Hyde-Park Corner, called 'Winstanley's Water-Works,' the price of admission being one shilling each person.

Unimportant as these particulars may appear, they serve to mark the turn of mind of the first engineer of the Eddystone, and to account in some degree for the whimsical nature of the buildings erected by him.

From Winstanley's own narrative, we find that he began his lighthouse in 1696, and that it took more than four years in building, both on account of the greatness of the work, and the difficulty and danger of getting backwards and forwards to the place. Though nothing was attempted except in the summer season, yet even then, the weather at times would prove so unfavourable that for ten or fourteen days together, owing to the ground-swell from the main ocean, the sea would be raging about these rocks, while calm elsewhere, and fly up more than two hundred feet, burying all the works, and making it impossible for the engineer to approach.

The first summer was spent in making twelve holes in the rock, and fastening twelve large irons to hold the work that was to be done afterwards. It appears that Winstanley and his party made single journies every time from Plymouth, and had not any store-ship lying at moorings as a place of constant retreat. This was a great oversight, and unnecessarily retarded his work. Many journies were taken in vain, when no landing could be effected, and during the work the hours of labour were needlessly curtailed by preparations for the safety of the materials during their absence, and also for their own departure.

The second summer was employed in making a solid round pillar, twelve feet high and fourteen in diameter. This was an important step: the workmen had now some small shelter, and something to hold by. The season also proved rather more favourable than the preceding; but the labour of conveying materials, and making them secure, or returning them to the boats every night when they left work, was very great.

During the third year, this pillar was made good at the foundation from the rock to sixteen feet in diameter, and the edifice was raised to the height of eighty feet. 'Being all finished,' says the engineer, 'with the lantern, and all the rooms that were in it, we ventured to lodge there soon after Midsummer, for the greater dispatch of the work. But the first night the weather came bad, and so continued, that it was eleven days before any boats could come near us again; and not being acquainted with the height of the sea's rising, we were almost drowned with wet, and our provisions in as bad a condition, though we worked night and day as much as possible to make shelter for ourselves. In this storm we lost some of our materials, although we did what we could to save them; but the boat then returning, we all left the house to be refreshed on shore: and as soon as the weather did permit we returned and finished all, and put up the light on the 14th November 1698; which being so late in the year, it was three days before Christmas before we had relief to go on shore again, and were almost at the last extremity for want of provisions; but by good Providence, then two boats came with provisions and the family that was to take care of the light, and so ended this year's work.'

The fourth year was spent in strengthening and enlarging the structure. The sea had considerably damaged the building during the winter, and at times the lantern was so completely buried beneath the waves, that it was thought expedient to raise the height of the edifice. Early in the spring the building was encompassed with a new work of four feet thickness from the foundation, and all was made solid nearly twenty feet high. The upper part of the building was taken down, and every part was enlarged in its proportion. The height was increased forty feet; and yet the sea, in stormy weather, flew, to all appearance, one hundred feet above the vane. Mr. Winstanley has left no description of this structure; but a print, from a drawing said to have been made on the spot, was extant in Smeaton's time, so that he describes it as consisting of a store-room, with a projecting cabin to the south-east, a kitchen, a state-room, a lodging-room, an open gallery or platform, an attending or look-out room, and a lantern for the lights surrounded by a gallery or balcony[3].

Thus Mr. Winstanley's lighthouse was completed in 1700, and though destined to remain but a short time, it was a most important and heroic step accomplished. Mankind were now convinced that the erection of a building upon the Eddystone rocks was not an impracticable thing, though long deemed so; and if experience now proved that the shock of the surges was augmented, by the interposition of the building, to a furious extent, it also led the way to further trials and expedients to counteract that shock.

In November 1703 Mr. Winstanley went down to Plymouth to superintend some repairs that had become necessary to the lighthouse; and when he was about to proceed with his workmen to the spot, some of his friends, convinced from the structure of the lighthouse that it could not last long, ventured to intimate their suspicions to him, and to warn him of danger. His reply was, that he felt so convinced of the strength of his building, that he only wished he might be there in the greatest storm that ever blew under the face of heaven, that he might see what effect it would have upon the structure. It is painful to record this presumptuous wish, and still more so to relate its fulfilment.

Mr. Winstanley with his work-people and light-keepers had taken up their abode at the lighthouse, when a dreadful storm began, and in the night of the 26th of November reached a terrific height. Indeed of all the accounts which history furnishes of storms in Great Britain, none is to be found of a more awful and devastating nature than this. Plymouth itself suffered severely; and when morning came, and the height of the tempest was past, there was an eager look out in the direction of the lighthouse, to see what injury it might have sustained. But the waters rushed on over the Eddystone rocks, no longer impeded by the lofty structure that had been reared with such pains and cost. Winstanley, his work-people, his light-keepers, his boasted structure—all had been swept away by the resistless fury of the winds and waves; and not only this, but a homeward-bound vessel, the 'Winchelsea,' deprived of the warning light that might have averted her fate, struck upon these rocks, and lost nearly her whole crew. This lamentable event is detailed in most of the public papers of the day; and the loss to the nation, as it respected Winstanley himself, who was deemed the only person able to reconstruct the edifice, deeply deplored.

Three years elapsed ere the necessary steps were taken fur commencing anew this most useful work. It appears from this that some obstructions to the undertaking were offered, since it was not until the 4th of Queen Anne that an Act of Parliament was obtained for the better enabling the Master, Wardens, and Assistants of Trinity House, Deptford Strand, to rebuild the Lighthouse. The act runs thus: 'And whereas there now is, and time out of mind has been, a very dangerous rock, called the Edystone lying off of Plymouth, in the county of Devon, upon which divers ships and vessels have been cast away and destroyed: and whereas upon application some time since made to the said Master, Wardens, and Assistants, by great numbers of masters and owners of shipping to have a lighthouse erected upon the said rock, offering and agreeing in consequence of the great charge, difficulty, and hazard of such an undertaking, to pay the said Master, &c. one penny per ton outwards, and the like inwards, for all ships and vessels which should pass such lighthouse, (coasters excepted, which should pay twelve pence only for each voyage,) they, the said Master, &c. having a due regard to the safety and preservation of the shipping and navigation of this kingdom, did in the year 1696 cause a lighthouse to be begun to be erected upon the said rock, and in three years a light was placed therein; and the said lighthouse in the term of five years was with much hazard and difficulty, and at a very great expense, fully built and completed, to the great satisfaction of the flag-officers and commanders of the fleet and ships of war, and of all other concerned in trade and navigation, the same being not only useful for avoiding the dangerous rock upon which it was built, but also as a guide and direction to ships passing through the channel from and to all parts of the world. And whereas the said lighthouse was preserved and kept up for several years, notwithstanding the great force and violence of the wind and sea, (to which it was exposed,) until the late dreadful storm in November 1703, when the same was blown down and destroyed: and whereas it was found by experience that the said lighthouse (during the standing thereof) was of public use and benefit to this kingdom, a means to preserve her Majesty's ships of war, and the shipping, lives, and estates of her subjects. And forasmuch as the speedy rebuilding the said lighthouse is absolutely necessary for avoiding the dangers attending the trade and navigation of this kingdom, and in regard the same work is of great charge, hazard, and expense, and all due and proper encouragement ought to be given thereto; to the end therefore that the said Master, &c. may be encouraged to new-erect and build, or cause to be new-erected and built, the said lighthouse with all convenient speed, and constantly keep and maintain the same for the benefit of the navigation and trade of this kingdom, be it enacted, &c.' It then proceeds to enact the payment of the duties above mentioned, and double on foreign vessels, 'from and after the kindling or placing a light useful for shipping in the said lighthouse.' In 1706 a lease of ninety-nine years was granted by the corporation of Trinity House to a Captain Lovet, who undertook the management of the affairs connected with the building. The choice Captain Lovet made of an engineer, or architect and surveyor, may seem a strange one. He deputed to that office John Rudyerd, a silk-mercer who kept a shop on Ludgate Hill.

It does not appear that this Rudyerd had been bred to any scientific profession. On the contrary, it is reported that his parents and family were vagrants, and notorious for the badness of their characters; but that from something promising in the aspect of this boy, a gentleman took him into his service, and gave him instruction in reading, writing, accounts, and mathematics, in all which the boy made ready progress; so that his master was enabled to gratify his benevolent intention of advancing him in life, and recommending him to some employment above the rank of a servant. Thus was laid the foundation of his future success.

No doubt Captain Lovet had become well assured of the genius of this man, ere he entrusted him with a work for which no previous experience had qualified him. At any rate, the choice was a wise one. Rudyerd's designs proved admirable, and his want of personal experience was in a great degree supplied by the help of Messrs. Smith and Norcutt, shipwrights from Woolwich, who worked with him the whole time.

Rudyerd saw the errors in Winstanley's building, and avoided them: instead of a polygon, he chose a circle for the outline of his building, and carried up the elevation in that form. He studied use and simplicity instead of ornament; therefore he dispensed with the open gallery and other unnecessary appendages of the former building. After the completion of his work, Rudyerd published a print of his lighthouse, entitled 'A Prospect and Section of the Lighthouse on the Edystone Rock off of Plymouth;' with the motto, Furit natura coercet ars, dedicated to Thomas Earl of Pembroke, then Lord High Admiral.

Rudyerd did not fail to observe that owing to the very considerable slope of the surface of the Eddystone rock, nothing would stand upon it without artificial means: he therefore concluded, that if the rock were reduced to level bearings, the heavy bodies to be placed upon it would then have no tendency to slide. He therefore intended to have reduced the inclined surface to a set of regular steps, which would have been attended with the same good effect, as if the whole could have been reduced to one level; but in consequence of the hardness of the rock, the shortness and uncertainty of the intervals in which this part of the work was performed, and the great tendency of the laminae of the rock to rise in spawls, according to the inclined surface when acted upon by tools with sufficient force to make an impression, this part of the work, i. e. the reducing of the rock to steps, was never perfectly carried out. The face of the rock was, however, divided into seven rather unequal ascents: thirty-six holes were cut in the rock, to the depth of from twenty to thirty inches. These holes were six inches square at the top, gradually narrowing to five inches, and then spreading again and flattening to nine inches by three at the bottom. They were all cut smooth within, and with great dispatch, as Rudyerd himself informs us, (though the stone was harder than any marble or stone thereabouts,) with engines for that purpose. Every cramp or bolt was forged exactly to the size of the hole it was designed to fill, weighing from two to five hundred weight, according to its different length and substance. These bolts or branches served to fasten the foundation to the rock.

The method of fixing these branches in the rock was ingenious, and proved quite effectual; so that when Smeaton took out some of these branches more than forty years afterwards, they were perfectly sound, and the iron had not even rusted. When the holes were finished and cleared of water, Rudyerd caused a considerable quantity of melted tallow to be poured into each hole: the iron branch was then heated to a blue heat, and being put down into the tallow, the key was firmly driven in. Thus all the space unfilled by the iron would become full of tallow even to overflowing. While all remained hot, a quantity of melted pewter was poured into the chinks, and drove out the remainder of the tallow, thus effectually filling up every crevice.

When all the iron branches were thus made fast in the solid rock, Rudyerd proceeded to fix a course of squared oak timbers lengthwise upon the lowest step, so as to reach to the level of the step above. Another set of timbers were then laid crosswise, so as to cover those already laid down, and also to carry the level surface to the height of the third step. The third stratum was again laid lengthwise, the fourth crosswise, &c., until a basement of solid wood was raised, two complete courses higher than the highest part of the rock; the whole being fitted together, and to the rock (by means of the branches) as closely as possible; while all the timbers, in their intersections with each other, were trenailed together.

The branches originally let into the solid rock were perforated in their upper parts, some with three and some with four holes, so that in every pair (collectively called a branch) there would be about seven holes; and as there were at least thirty-six original branches, there would be two hundred and fifty-two holes, which were about seven-eighths of an inch in diameter; and consequently were capable of receiving as many large bearded spikes or jag-bolts, which being driven through the branches into the solid timber held the mass firmly down; while a great multiplicity of trenails in the intersections confined the strata closely and compactly together.

In this way, by fixing layer upon layer of solid squared oak-timber of the best quality, Rudyerd was enabled to make a solid basement of the required height; but in addition to this he judiciously acted upon the principle that weight is most naturally and effectually resisted by weight. He considered that all the joints of these timbers were pervious to water, and that it was not possible that every portion of the ground layer should be precisely and entirely in contact with the rock; and he was well aware that where the contact was not perfect, so as to exclude the water therefrom, though the separation was only of the thickness of writing-paper, yet the action of a wave upon it edgewise would produce an equal effect towards lifting it upwards, as if it acted immediately upon so much area of the bottom as was not in close contact. To counteract therefore every tendency of the seas to move the building in any direction, he interposed strata of Cornish Granite. Thus the foundation was of oak as far as two courses above the top of the rock, then five courses of stone were added, of a foot each in thickness, and these were kept together and secured by cramps of iron. Two more courses of timber then followed, and thus was finished the entire solid portion of the basement.

Rudyerd's lighthouse was begun in July 1706, and completely finished in 1709. The entry door was full eight feet above the highest part of the rock, and therefore an iron ladder of great strength was employed as the mode of ascent. The floor of the store-room was laid at the height of twenty-seven feet above the rock. Four rooms, one above another, and the lantern, with its balcony, completed the edifice. The main column of the building consisted of one simple figure, being an elegant frustum of a cone, unbroken by any projecting ornament, or any thing whereon the violence of the storms could lay hold, being, exclusive of its sloping foundation, twenty-two feet eight inches upon its largest circular base; sixty-one feet high above that circular base; and fourteen feet three inches in diameter at the top. The whole edifice, with the exception of the courses of granite at the base, which may be regarded as ballast, was composed of timber, skilfully joined and fitted, and exhibiting an excellent specimen of shipwrights' work. All the window-shutters, doors, &c. were so formed as when shut to fall in with the general surface, without making any unevenness or projection. The only projecting parts in the whole building were a simple cornice nine inches wide, for the protection of the windows of the lantern, which could not of course be defended by shutters, and another cornice of similar width at the base, which filled up the angle between the upright timbers of the building and the sloping surface of the rock. The lantern was an octagon of ten feet six inches in diameter, externally, and above it, was a ball of two feet three inches diameter. The whole height of the lighthouse, from the lowest side to the top of the ball, was ninety-two feet.

Rudyerd's lighthouse stood in need of no material repairs for some years; but at length the upright timbers were considerably damaged by the attacks of a small worm, and were consequently subject to extensive reparation. For many years after the establishment of the lighthouse, it was attended by two light-keepers only, whose duty it was to keep the windows of the lantern clean, and to watch four hours alternately, for the purpose of snuffing and renewing the candles. Each at the conclusion of his watch took care to call the other, and see him on duty before he retired. The duties of the lighthouse did not actually require more than two men for this service; but a painful incident which occurred at the period we are referring to, caused a change in this respect. One of the two light-keepers was taken suddenly ill, and died; and the survivor had no means of making any one acquainted with the circumstance. The signal, when anything was wanted by the light-keepers, was to hoist a large flag upon a flag-staff from the balcony rails, so as to be fully extended in the wind, clear of the building. This flag-staff could be seen in moderate weather from the heights about Ram-head; and that it might never be hung out in vain, a reward of half a guinea was given to the first person who brought tidings of the fact to the agent at Plymouth; and this agent immediately sent out a boat, to land at the rock (if possible), and ascertain what was wanted. The remaining light-keeper, on this occasion, hoisted the accustomed signal, which was also observed on shore; but so boisterous was the weather, that, for a long time, it was impossible for a boat to approach within speaking distance of the rocks. During this period, the living man found himself in a most awful and distressing situation: he knew not how to dispose of the corpse; for if he threw it into the waves, which was his only means of getting rid of it, he feared that he might be charged with the murder of his companion; and yet each day that it remained, it was endangering his own life, by the extremely offensive condition to which it was reduced. When, at last, the people from the boat effected a landing, they found the whole building filled with the most insufferable odour, and the dead body in such a state that it was impossible to remove it to Plymouth for interment: they therefore consigned it to the sea; but it was a long time before the rooms could be purified or made healthful.

This circumstance induced the proprietors of the lighthouse to employ a third man; so that, in case of a future accident of the same nature, or the sickness of either, there might be constantly one to supply the place. This regulation afforded a seasonable relief to the light-keepers; for as soon as three were appointed to the service, a rule was made that in summer each man in his turn should be permitted to go on shore, and spend a month with his friends and acquaintance.

That a residence in the lighthouse, solitary and desolate as it must have been, was considered no hardship by those who undertook the office, the following anecdote will prove. A skipper was once carrying out in his boat a new light-keeper to the rock. The man had been a shoemaker, and the skipper said to him, 'Friend Jacob, how is it that you choose to go out to be a light-keeper, when you can earn, as I have been told, half-a-crown or three shillings a day on shore, by making leathern hose,—the light-keeper's salary is but twenty-five pounds a year, which, you know, is scarce ten shillings a week?' 'I am going to be a light-keeper,' said the shoemaker, 'because I don't like confinement.' This answer naturally excited the skipper's merriment, and the shoemaker explained his meaning to be that he did not like to be confined to work.

These dwellers on the rock were cut off from all communication with their fellow-creatures for weeks and months together during stormy weather; and it might naturally be expected that under these circumstances they should be bound to each other by ties of brotherly feeling and goodwill. But dissension and strife are not shut out from the human bosom by mere retirement from the busy scenes of life. When only two light-keepers inhabited the building, it happened that some visitors, who had repaired thither to gratify their curiosity by an examination of the lighthouse, observed to one of the men, how very comfortably they might live there in a state of retirement. 'Yes,' said the man, 'we might live comfortably enough, if we could have the use of our tongues; but it is now a full month since my partner and I have spoken to each other.'

Connected with Rudyerd's lighthouse an anecdote is told of Louis XIV. which is honourable to his feelings. During the progress of the work at the Eddystone rocks, a French privateer seized the men employed on the building, and took them, together with their tools, to France, expecting to be handsomely rewarded. While the captives lay in prison, the transaction reached the ears of the monarch. He immediately ordered them to be released, and the captors put in their place, declaring, that though he was at war with England, he was not at war with mankind. He observed that the Eddystone lighthouse was so situated as to be of equal service to all nations having occasion to navigate the channel that divides France from England, and he therefore directed the men to be sent back to their work with presents.

The value of the principles on which Rudyerd had conducted his work was abundantly proved by the fact, that his lighthouse continued to brave the force of the storms for upwards of forty-six years, and at the end of that period was destroyed, not by water, but by fire. This sad calamity happened on the 2nd of December, 1755. It has never been possible fully to investigate the cause of the building taking fire, but it appears to have commenced in the very top of the lantern or cupola. As the whole building was of wood, it is possible that the heat of the candles in the lantern, continued during the long period of between forty and fifty years, might have brought the thin boards which lined the cupola to such a state of dryness and inflammability, that, together with the soot which encrusted it, and which was formed from the smoke of the candles, it might have been as liable to take fire as a mass of tinder, and a single spark from one of the candles would be sufficient to effect the mischief. The light-keepers themselves attributed the fire to the copper funnel of the kitchen chimney which passed through the cupola. However this might be, the three light-keepers alone remained in the edifice, and when one of them, whose turn it was to watch, went into the lantern at about two o'clock in the morning to snuff the candles he found a dense smoke, and upon his opening the door of the lantern into the balcony, a flame instantly burst from the inside of the cupola. The man alarmed his companions, and they used their utmost endeavours to extinguish the fire, but on account of the difficulty of getting a sufficient supply of water to the top of the building, they soon found their efforts vain, and were obliged to retreat downwards from room to room as the fire gathered strength. Early in the morning the fire was perceived by some fishermen, and intelligence being given, a boat and men were sent out to the relief of the poor light-keepers. The boat reached the place at ten o'clock, after the fire had been burning eight hours. The light-keepers had been driven not only from all the rooms and the staircase, but to avoid the red hot timber, and the falling of the bolts upon them, they had been forced to creep into a hole or cave on the east side of the rock, where they were found almost in a state of stupefaction. There was great difficulty in getting them off the rock, for the surf was too high to enable the boat to effect a landing; but the men themselves becoming conscious of their perilous situation, and of the efforts that were being made to save them, adopted the only means of escape which now remained. By great efforts, a small boat had been got near enough to throw a coil of rope upon a projection of the rock, and the sufferers had sufficient remaining energy to lay hold of it, and one by one to fasten it round their bodies and jump into the sea. Thus they were towed into the small boat, and thence delivered to the large one, which returned with them to Plymouth. No sooner, however, were they set on shore than one of them made off, and was never afterwards heard of. This suspicious circumstance would naturally induce the idea that the man had himself originated the conflagration; but the fact of its being a lighthouse with no means of retreat for the inmates, and every reason to believe that they must perish with the building, is much opposed to this idea. In giving an account of this circumstance, Smeaton says, 'I would rather impute his sudden flight to that kind of panic which sometimes, on important occasions, seizes weak minds; making them act without reason, and in so doing commit actions whose tendency is the very reverse of what they desire.'

Of the other two light-keepers, one, named Henry Hall, had received injuries of a most serious nature; and his case is not a little extraordinary. At the time of the fire, there was, according to the usual custom, a tub of water standing in the lantern of the lighthouse; and when this man perceived the flames, he immediately exerted himself to the utmost in throwing buckets of water up into the roof of the cupola. As he was doing this, and looking upwards to see the effect of his endeavours, a quantity of lead, dissolved by the heat of the flames, suddenly rushed from the roof, and fell upon his head, face, and shoulders, burning him in a severe manner. At this moment his mouth happened to be open, and he persisted in declaring that some lead had gone down his throat, and was the cause of violent internal pain. When removed to his cottage at Stonehouse, he invariably told Dr. Spry, the medical man who attended him, and who constantly administered the proper remedies for the burns and injuries he had received, that if he would do anything effectual to his recovery, he must relieve his stomach of the lead, which he was sure it contained. This story appeared quite incredible to Dr. Spry, who did not believe that any human being could exist after receiving melted lead into the stomach; much less that he should afterwards be able to bear towing through the sea from the rock; and also the fatigue and inconvenience from the length of time employed in getting him ashore, before any remedies could be applied. The man went on without much change for the better or for the worse. He took medicines, and swallowed many things both liquid and solid, until the tenth or eleventh day, when he suddenly grew worse, and on the twelfth day, being seized with cold sweats and spasms, he soon afterwards expired. On a subsequent examination of the stomach, Dr. Spry found, to his astonishment, a solid piece of lead of a flat oval form, which weighed seven ounces and five drachms. Smeaton saw this piece of lead, and observed that part of the coat of the stomach had firmly adhered to the convex side of it. Dr. Spry transmitted an account of this very singular case to the Royal Society: but it was not received with entire belief until he had, by subsequent experiments upon animals, borne out the fact that it is possible for melted lead to be received into the stomach without the immediate death of the sufferer; though more probable that, in the great majority of cases, instant death would be the result.

But to return to the Eddystone rock. Notwithstanding every exertion was made to subdue the flames, the lighthouse was totally consumed, even to the massive foundations, and nothing was left upon the rock but a number of the iron cramps and branches.

The value of a lighthouse on the Eddystone rock had now been so fully proved, that no time was to be lost in endeavouring to build a new one in the place of that which had been so unfortunately destroyed. An application was made to the President of the Royal Society, requesting him to point out a person who might appear worthy to be entrusted with the work. Lord Macclesfield (the then president) replied 'that there was one of their own body whom he could venture to recommend to the work; yet that the most material part of what he knew of him was his having within the compass of the last seven years recommended himself to the society by the communication of several mechanical contrivances and improvements; and though he had at first made it his business to execute things in the instrument way (without ever having been bred to the trade), yet on account of the merit of his performances he had been chosen a member of the society; and that for about three years past, having found the business of a philosophical instrument maker not likely to afford an adequate recompence, he had wholly applied himself to various branches of mechanics.' The earl went on to say that this person was then in Scotland, or in the north of England, and he should recommend the statement of the business to him, being fully confident that he would undertake nothing which he did not feel himself competent to perform.

The person thus referred to was John Smeaton, whose history, so far as the scanty materials will allow, shall here be given to the reader.


[Footnote 3: It was commonly said at the time, that during a hard gale the sea ran so high that it was very possible for a six-oared boat to be lifted by the waves, and driven through the open gallery of the lighthouse.]



Birth of Smeaton—His early Character and Employments—Educated for an attorney—His dislike of that profession—Becomes Philosophical Instrument Maker—His Scientific Inquiries—Is appointed to build the Eddystone Lighthouse—His subsequent Employments—Public Works designed and completed by him—His Literary Works—His last Illness and Death—His Character— Illustrative Anecdotes.

John Smeaton was born the 28th of May, 1724, at Ansthorpe, near Leeds, Yorkshire. Little is recorded of his parentage or early education: but we find that his father was a respectable attorney, and that the family lived in a house built by the grandfather of the younger Smeaton.

Smeaton seems to have been born an engineer. The originality of his genius and the strength of his understanding appeared at a very early age. His playthings were not the toys of children, but the tools men work with; and his greatest amusement was to observe artificers at work, and to ask them questions. Having watched some millwrights at work, he conceived the idea of constructing a windmill, and to the alarm of his friends was one day perceived on the top of his father's barn attempting to fix his model. On another occasion he accompanied some men who went to fix a pump at a neighbouring village, and observing them cut off a piece of bored pipe, he managed to procure it, and made a working model of a pump that raised water very well. These anecdotes are related of him while he was yet a mere child in petticoats, and probably before he had attained his sixth year. At the age of fourteen or fifteen he had made for himself an engine to turn rose-work, and he made several presents to his friends of boxes in wood and ivory, as specimens of its operation.

In the year 1742, Mr. Holmes, afterwards his partner in the Deptford Water-works, visited Smeaton and could not conceal his astonishment at the mechanical skill displayed by the young engineer; he forged his iron and steel, and melted his metal; he had tools of every sort for working in wood, ivory, and metals. He had made a lathe, by which he had cut a perpetual screw in brass, a thing very little known at that day. All these resources were not furnished to him by rich and wealthy parents, nor had he the advantage of masters in his various pursuits; on the contrary, by the strength of his genius, and by indefatigable industry, he acquired at the age of eighteen an extensive set of tools, and the art of working in most of the mechanical trades, and Mr. Holmes, himself a good mechanic, says that few men could work better.

Astronomy was one of his most favourite studies, and he contrived and made several astronomical instruments for himself and friends. In later years, after fitting up an observatory at his house at Ansthorpe, he devoted much time to it when he was there, even in preference to engineering.

Smeaton's father being an attorney was desirous to educate his son for the same profession. He was therefore sent to London in 1742, where during a few terms he attended court; but finding the legal profession distasteful to him, and not to suit "the bent of his genius," he wrote a strong memorial on the subject to his father, who had the good sense to allow him from that time to pursue the path which nature pointed out to him. He continued to reside in London, and about the year 1750 he commenced the business of mathematical instrument maker. In 1751 he invented a machine to measure a ship's way at sea, and a compass of peculiar construction, touched by Dr. Knight's artificial magnet. He made two voyages in company with Dr. Knight for the purpose of ascertaining the merits of these contrivances.

In 1753 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and his admirable papers inserted in the Transactions of that body sufficiently evince how highly he deserved that distinction. In 1759 he received by an unanimous vote their gold medal, for his paper entitled 'An Experimental Inquiry concerning the natural powers of wind and water to turn mills and other machines depending on a circular motion.' This paper was the result of experiments made on working models in 1752 and 1753, but not communicated to the society till 1759, by which time he had had abundant opportunity of applying these experiments to practice in a variety of cases, and for various purposes, so as to assure the society that he had found them to answer. He discovered by these means that wind and water could be made to do one third more than was before known. In the year 1754 he made a voyage to Holland, travelling for the most part on foot, or in the trekschuiten or drag-boats, the national conveyance of the country, and thus made himself acquainted with the most remarkable works of art in the low countries.

In December 1755 the Eddystone lighthouse was burnt down. Mr. Weston the chief proprietor, and others, were desirous of rebuilding it in the most substantial manner, and through the recommendation of the Earl of Macclesfield, whose friendly conduct to Smeaton we have already noticed, they were induced to appoint Smeaton as the most proper person to rebuild it.

Smeaton undertook the work, and completed it in the summer of 1759. The history of this great undertaking belongs to another section of this notice. The completion of the work does not seem to have had the immediate effect of procuring him full employment as a civil engineer: in 1764, being in Yorkshire, he offered himself a candidate for the office of one of the receivers to the Greenwich Hospital estates[4]; and on the 31st December in that year he was appointed, at a full board at Greenwich Hospital, in a manner highly flattering to himself. In this appointment he was greatly assisted by his partner Mr. Walter, who managed the accounts, and left Smeaton leisure and opportunity to exert his abilities on public works, as well as to make many improvements in the mills, and in the estates of Greenwich Hospital. By the year 1775 he had so much business as an engineer, that he wished to resign this appointment, but was prevailed upon to continue in the office about two years longer.

Among the many valuable public services of Smeaton a few only can be mentioned in this place. He completed the erection of new lighthouses at Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber: he built the fine bridge over the Tay at Perth: he laid out the line of the great canal connecting the Forth and Clyde; and made the river Calder navigable; a work that required great skill and judgment, on account of its impetuous floods. On the opening of the great arch at London Bridge by throwing two arches into one, and the removal of a large pier, the excavation around and under the starlings was so considerable, that the bridge was thought to be in great danger of falling. Smeaton was then in Yorkshire, but was sent for by express, and arrived with the utmost dispatch: on his arrival the fear that the bridge was about to fall prevailed so generally, that few persons would pass over or under it. Smeaton applied himself immediately to examine it, and to sound about the starlings as minutely as possible: his advice to the committee was to repurchase the stones which had been taken from the middle pier, then lying in Moorfields, and to throw them into the river to guard the starlings. This advice was adopted with the utmost alacrity, by which simple means the bridge was probably saved from falling, and time afforded for securing it in a more effectual manner. 'This method of stopping the impetuous ravages of water,' says Mr. Holmes, 'he had practised before with success on the river Calder; on my calling on him in the neighbourhood of Wakefield, he shewed me the effects of a great flood, which had made a considerable passage over the land; this he stopped at the bank of the river, by throwing in a quantity of large rough stones, which with the sand, and other materials washed down by the river, filling up their interstices, had become a barrier to keep the river in its usual course.'

In 1771 Smeaton and Holmes made a joint purchase of the water-works for supplying Deptford and Greenwich with water. On examining the books of the former proprietors, it appeared to have been a losing concern during many years; but the skill of Smeaton soon brought the undertaking into such a state as to be of general use to those for whom it was intended, and moderately profitable to himself and partner. In noticing this subject Mr. Holmes makes a few general remarks on the character of Smeaton:—'His language either in speaking or writing was so strong and perspicuous, that there was no misunderstanding his meaning, and I had that confidence in his abilities as never to consider any plan of improvement which he proposed, but only to see it executed with scrupulous exactness; at the same time, he was so open to reason in all matters, that during a constant communication of our opinions for upwards of twenty years, after we had laid them fully before each other we always agreed, and never had the slightest difference.'

It must be remembered that Smeaton lived before the time when the genius of Watt had rendered the steam-engine the useful and obedient servant of man; and consequently that much of the power now furnished by steam was then supplied by the wind. Hence the mechanics of windmills was an important study to the engineer, and Smeaton erected a vast variety of mills in which he turned to useful account the results of his experiments in 1752 and 1753. His usual habit was to confirm the conclusions of theory by direct experiment. He also erected a steam-engine at Ansthorpe, and made experiments thereon to ascertain the power of Newcomen's engine, which he improved and brought to a far greater degree of certainty both in its construction and powers.

During many years the opinion of Smeaton was held in such high esteem, that no great works were undertaken throughout the kingdom without first applying to him; he was constantly consulted in parliament, and was regarded as an ultimate reference on all difficult questions connected with his profession. It was his constant practice to make himself fully acquainted with every subject before he would engage in it, and then his known integrity and lucid powers of description secured the respect and attention of all. In the courts of law he was frequently complimented by Lord Mansfield and others for the new light he threw on difficult subjects.

About the year 1785 Smeaton's health began to decline, and he then endeavoured to retire from business in order to gain time to publish an account of his inventions and works. This was one of the wishes nearest to his heart, for, as he often said, 'he thought he could not render better service to his country than by doing that.' He had just completed his account of the Eddystone lighthouse when he was prevailed on to continue his services as engineer to the trustees for Ramsgate harbour. The works at Ramsgate were begun in 1749, but had been conducted with very indifferent success until Smeaton was called in to superintend them in 1774. He completed the magnificent pier and harbour of this place in 1791, and thus established a secure and much needed place of shelter in the Downs.

A man whose life is so beneficially devoted to the service of the public can scarcely hope to enjoy leisure and retirement during which he may look back upon the past, and leave a written record of his exertions. Smeaton was so constantly and urgently employed that he could not achieve much with his pen. On the 16th September 1792, he was seized with an attack of paralysis induced by over-exertion, and this attack carried him to the grave on the 28th of the next month, in the 69th year of his age.

During his illness he dictated several letters to his old friend Mr. Holmes. In one of them he describes minutely his health and feelings, and says, 'in consequence of the foregoing, I conclude myself nine-tenths dead, and the greatest favour the Almighty can do (as I think) will be to complete the other part, but as it is likely to be a lingering illness, it is only in His power to say when that is likely to happen.' His daughter, Mrs. Dickson, says that he always apprehended the attack which terminated his life, as it was hereditary in his family. He dreaded it only as it gave the melancholy possibility of outliving his faculties, or the power of doing good; or, to use his own words, 'lingering over the dregs after the spirit had evaporated.' Indeed, the decay of his mental faculties seems to have been that which he most dreaded. He would sometimes complain of slowness of apprehension, and would then excuse it with a smile, saying, 'it could not be otherwise, the shadow must lengthen as the sun went down.' When seized with paralysis he was resigned to the event, anxious to soften any alarm to his family, and was thankful that his intellect was spared. But his invariable wish was to be released. He expressed particular pleasure in seeing the usual occupations of his family resumed; and reading, drawing, music, and conversation excited the same interest and the same cheerful and judicious observations as ever. One evening he was requested to explain some phenomena respecting the moon, which was seen from the room shining brightly. He gave a full explanation, then fixed his eyes full upon the object in question, and after regarding it stedfastly for some time, he observed, 'How often have I looked up to it with inquiry and wonder, and to the period when I shall have the vast and privileged views of an hereafter, and all will be comprehension and pleasure.'

We learn from his daughter Mrs. Dickson, that early in life Smeaton attracted the notice of the eccentric Duke and Duchess of Queensbury, on account of the strong personal likeness which he bore to their favourite Gay the poet. Their first acquaintance was made in a singular manner: it was at Ranelagh when walking with Mrs. Smeaton, he observed an elderly lady and gentleman gaze steadily upon him, they stopped and the duchess said, 'Sir, I don't know who you are, or what you are, but so strongly do you resemble my poor dear Gay, that we must be acquainted; you shall go home and sup with us, and if the minds of the two men accord as do the countenance, you will find two cheerful old folks who can love you well, and I think, (or you are an hypocrite) you can as well deserve it.' The invitation was accepted, and as long as the duke and duchess lived the friendship was cordial and uninterrupted. During his visits cards were sometimes introduced. Smeaton detested cards, and could not confine his attention to the game. On one occasion the stakes were already high, and it fell to Smeaton to double them when, neglecting to deal the cards, he was busily occupied in making some calculations on paper which he placed upon the table. The duchess asked eagerly what it was, and Smeaton replied coolly, 'You will recollect the field in which my house stands may be about five acres three roods and seven perches, which, at thirty years' purchase, will be just my stake, and if your grace will make a duke of me, I presume the winner will not dislike my mortgage.' The joke and the lesson had their effect, for they never played again but for the merest trifle.

Smeaton procured a situation in a public office for a clerk in whom he placed the greatest confidence, and jointly with another became security for him to a considerable amount. This man committed the crime of forgery, was detected and given up to justice. Mrs. Dickson says, 'The same post brought news of the melancholy transaction, of the man's compunction and danger, of the claim of the bond forfeited, and of the refusal of the other person to pay the moiety! Being present when he read his letters, which arrived at a period of Mrs. Smeaton's declining health, so entirely did the command of himself second his anxious attention to her, that no emotion was visible on their perusal, nor, till all was put into the best train possible, did a word or look betray the exquisite distress it occasioned him. In the interim, all which could soothe the remorse of a prisoner, every means which could save (which did, at least from public execution,) were exerted for him, with a characteristic benevolence, active and unobtrusive.'

Smeaton was a man of indefatigable industry and great moral probity. With ample opportunity of amassing wealth, he rendered its acquisition but a secondary object on all occasions; his first aim always being to execute the task intrusted to him in the most skilful and perfect manner. Had his object been to amass a fortune, he might have received many lucrative appointments besides those which he actually held. The empress Catherine of Russia attempted to secure his services for her own country by most magnificent offers; but Smeaton preferred to dedicate his time and talents to the service of his country. 'The disinterested moderation of his pecuniary ambition,' says his daughter, 'every transaction in private life evinced; his public ones bore the same stamp; and after his health had withdrawn him from the labours of his profession, many instances may be given by those whose concerns induced them to press importunately for a resumption of it; and when some of them seemed disposed to enforce their entreaties by further prospects of lucrative recompense, his reply was strongly characteristic of his simple manners and moderation. He introduced the old woman who took care of his chambers in Gray's Inn, and showing her, asserted 'that her attendance sufficed for all his wants.' The inference was indisputable, for money could not tempt that man to forego his ease, leisure, or independence, whose requisites of accommodation were compressed within such limits!' Before this, the princess Daschkaw made an apt comment upon this trait of his character; when, after vainly using every persuasion to induce him to accept a carte blanche from the empress of Russia as a recompense for directing the vast projects in that kingdom—she observed 'Sir, you are a great man, and I honour you! you may have an equal in abilities, perhaps, but in character you stand single. The English minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was mistaken, and my sovereign has the misfortune to find one man who has not his price.'

In all the social duties of life Smeaton was most exemplary; and he was a lover and encourager of real merit in whatever station of life he found it. To strangers his mode of expression appeared warm and even harsh; but Mr. Holmes refers it to the intense application of his mind, which was always in the pursuit of truth, or engaged in investigating difficult subjects: hence, when anything was said that did not tally with his ideas, he would sometimes break out hastily. As a friend, he was warm, zealous, and sincere; as a companion, always entertaining and instructive, and none could spend their time in his company without improvement. In his person Smeaton was of middle stature, but broad and strong-made, and possessed of an excellent constitution. He was remarkable for the plainness and simplicity of his manners.

After his death, his papers consisting of plans, reports, and treatises, on almost every branch of engineering, were published by the Society of Civil Engineers.


[Footnote 4: This was the Derwentwater Estate which was forfeited in the year 1715, and its revenues applied by Parliament towards the funds of Greenwich Hospital. It consists of mines of lead, containing much silver, as well as lands. It required careful management, and the knowledge of mining details to make it profitable. Smeaton contrived more efficient machines and better modes of working the mines and managing the estate.]



A Stone Lighthouse proposed—Smeaton's first Visit to the Rock—Operations of the First Season—Second Season—Structure of the Foundation—Ingenious Mode of securing the Stones—Third Season—State of the Work—Progress and Description of the Work—Accidents to the Engineer—Proposal to exhibit a Light before the completion of the Building refused—Fourth Season— Completion of the Work—Appearance of the Lighthouse during a Storm—Situation of the Light-keepers.

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