Eddystone Lighthouse

IALA Heritage Lighthouse of the Year 2023 Nominee

Location: ENGLAND - Devon. Plymouth.

Lighthouse Operator: Trinity House

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Source: (photos as submitted to accompany nomination form by Trinity House 2023)

Lighthouse Description and History

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Trinity House 2023)

The current Eddystone Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1882, the fourth lighthouse to mark the small but dangerous Eddystone Rocks 13 miles south west of Plymouth.

The original tower, completed in 1698, was the first lighthouse to be built on a small rock in the open sea.

Winstanley’s Tower (1698-1703)

The original tower, completed in 1698, was the first lighthouse to be built on a small rock in the open sea. The first attempt to render the Eddystone safe to shipping was by an eccentric named Henry Winstanley. As a showman he had established Winstanley’s Waterworks near Hyde Park which remained one of London’s foremost popular attractions for decades. In 1696 he commenced work on a steel structure and finding conditions considerably harder than he had envisaged doubtless began to wonder what he had let himself in for however the work progressed steadily.

England was at war with France at this time and such was the importance of the Eddystone project that the Admiralty provided Winstanley with a warship for protection on the days when work was taking place. One morning at the end of June in 1697 the protective vessel did not arrive; in its stead a French privateer arrived, and subsequently carried Winstanley against his will to France. When Louis XIV heard of the incident he ordered that Winstanley be immediately released saying that “France was at war with England, not with humanity”. The universal benefit of the Eddystone—and of lighthouses everywhere—was understood by all.


Rudyerd’s Tower (1709-55)

The next man to get a patent charter for the Eddystone was a Captain Lovett who acquired the lease of the rock for 99 years, and by an Act of Parliament he was allowed to charge all ships passing a toll of 1d per ton, both inward and outward. His architect was John Rudyerd, a silk mercer on Ludgate Hill; the profession of scientist or engineer did not really exist then and issues of those nature were approached by people as hobbies rather than professions. Taking a shipbuilder’s rather than a house builder’s approach he came up with a design based on a cone instead of Winstanley’s octagonal shape. His final wooden tower, lit in 1709, proved much more serviceable than its predecessor; the lighthouse stood for 47 years.

On the night of 2 December 1755, the roof of the lantern caught fire, possibly through a spark from one of the candles. The keeper on watch was Henry Hall—94 years old but said to be ‘of good constitution and active for his years’—did his best to put out the fire by throwing water upwards from a bucket. While looking up, some of the roof’s molten lead fell into his throat. He and another keeper battled continuously against the fire but they could do nothing as the fire was above them all the time – as it burnt downwards it gradually drove them out on to the rock. The fire was observed from the shore by a Mr. Edwards, ‘a man of some fortune and more humanity’. The old account says, he sent off a boat which arrived at the lighthouse at 10 am after the fire had been burning for eight hours. The sea was too rough for the boat to approach the rock so they threw ropes and dragged the keepers through the waves to the boat. The lighthouse continued to burn for five days and was completely destroyed.

Henry Hall died 12 days after the incident; a Dr. Spry of Plymouth made a postmortem and found a flat oval piece of lead in his stomach which weighed 7 ozs. 5drs. Dr. Spry wrote an account of this case to the Royal Society, but the Fellows were sceptical as to whether a man could live in this condition for 12 days. This so incensed him that, for the sake of his reputation, he performed many experiments on dogs and fowls pouring molten lead down their throats to prove that they could live.


Smeaton’s Tower (1759-1882)

After experiencing the benefit of a light for 52 years, mariners were anxious to have it replaced as soon as possible. Trinity House placed a lightvessel to guard the position until a permanent light could be built. In 1756 Yorkshireman John Smeaton, recommended by the Royal Society, travelled to Plymouth on an assignment which was to capture the imagination of the world. He had decided to construct a tower based on the shape of an English Oak tree for strength but made of stone rather than wood. For such a task he needed the toughest labourers; many of the men employed had been Cornish tin miners. Press ganging had become a problem for the workforce, so to ensure that the men would be exempt from being kidnapped into naval service, Trinity House arranged with the Admiralty at Plymouth to have a medal struck for each labourer to prove that they were working on the lighthouse.

Local granite was used for the foundations and facing, and Smeaton invented a quick drying cement, essential in the wet conditions on the rock, the formula for which is still used today. An ingenious method of securing each block of stone to its neighbour, using dovetail joints and marble dowels was employed, together with a device for lifting large blocks of stone from ships at sea to considerable heights which has never been improved upon. Using these innovations, Smeaton’s tower was completed and lit by 24 candles on 16 October 1759. In the 1870s cracks appeared in the rock upon which Smeaton’s lighthouse had stood for 120 years, necessitating a new tower; the top half of Smeaton’s tower was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder. The remaining stump still stands on the Eddystone Rock.


Douglass’ Tower (1882)

No time was lost in building another lighthouse on the rocks; the task of building a new tower gave ample opportunity to incorporate many of the latest ideas in lighthouse construction, which by 1877 had become a much more scientific business, largely due to the efforts of Robert Stevenson, who developed Smeaton’s idea and contributed many of his own. Douglass used larger stones, dovetailed not only to each other on all sides but also to the courses above and below, and in 1882 the present Eddystone Lighthouse was completed and opened by the Duke of Edinburgh, who laid the final stone of the tower.

This was the first Trinity House rock lighthouse to be converted to automatic operation. To enable the work to be carried out a helipad was built above the lantern. The automation was completed and the light reintroduced on 18 May 1982, 100 years to the day since the opening of Douglass’s tower by the Duke of Edinburgh.

The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.

Reason For Nomination

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Trinity House 2023)

Intrinsic Heritage Interest of the Lighthouse

Architecture and impact on lighthouse design

The original tower, completed in 1698, was the first lighthouse in the world to be built on a small rock in the open sea. Since 1698, there have been four Eddystone lighthouses, or five if one considers that Winstanley’s first tower of 1698 was substantially rebuilt and enlarged the following year. It was destroyed by a storm in 1703. That tower was followed by Rudyerd’s of 1709 (destroyed by fire in 1755) and then by Smeaton’s of 1759, all three being erected on a small area of rock not covered at high water.

Smeaton’s tower has become the byword for the archetypal offshore lighthouse, known for the extreme resilience afforded by its now-iconic curved elevation modelled on the shape of an oak tree. Today the upper two thirds of Smeaton’s lighthouse, from the cupola above the lantern down to the floor level of the first room, and with a reconstructed base, is to be found on Plymouth Hoe. The full story of its seminal design and construction, illustrated with Smeaton’s own drawings, is in his Narrative of the Building and a Description of the Construction of the Edystone Lighthouse with Stone (1793).

Of particular note is the pioneering use of the twin innovations of dovetailing interlocking granite stones in the courses and the curved outer wall, designed to disperse the intense waves that assailed the tower.

Trinity House built the current ‘Douglass’ tower in 1882 when the rock supporting the previous lighthouse was undermined by wave action; it made advantage of the benefits of 19th century technology, situated some twenty-five metres away from the others on a lower-lying but more stable area of reef. Engineer-in-Chief James Douglass used larger stones, dovetailed not only to each other on all sides but also to the courses above and below.

This was the first Trinity House rock tower lighthouse to be converted to automatic operation. To enable the work to be carried out a helipad was built above the lantern. The automation was completed and the light reintroduced on 18 May 1982, 100 years to the day since the opening of Douglass’s tower by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

Each of the towers represents—in their own way—significant innovation, labour and technical achievement.

Cultural impact and associations

Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the lives of the lighthouse keepers were on the minds of the shore-side population of residents, and a great source of fascination to writers, newspapers and magazines. Writers were always keen to visit the keepers and make a record of their lives on station, and passing sailors would deposit magazines, newspapers and domestic goods for the ‘stranded’ keepers living on station one month at a time.

The affection and esteem held locally for Smeaton’s Eddystone tower was such that when it came to be replaced, Trinity House arranged for it to be partially dismantled and rebuilt on a popular walkway on shore at Plymouth; it is a popular tourist and education attraction to this day. The base of the Smeaton tower remains in situ on the rock adjacent to the Douglass tower.


Eddystone Lighthouse is an active aid to navigation owned and operated by Trinity House; as such, Trinity House works hard to keep the building—and all of its aid to navigation systems—in good working order at all times. Trinity House undertook a partial modernisation in 2000, followed by a project in 2017 to upgrade the solarisation of the station. The emergency lanterns were replaced and the sector light system was updated to improve the control and monitoring. The lighthouse is controlled and monitored from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.

Public Access and Education

When Trinity House opened its flagship visitor and education site at the Lizard Lighthouse Heritage Centre to the public in 2009, the first of its annual temporary exhibitions was dedicated to the history of Eddystone Lighthouse and the series of towers built at that site. The interpretation panels focussed on the ingenuity of the architecture and the social history that sprang up around the lives of the lighthouse keepers, and the achievements of the hard-working construction teams that built the lighthouse without the powerful machinery we take for granted today.

Trinity House continues to use its various channels for corporate communication (including its website and bi-annual journal Flash, as well as social media) to help inform and educate the public (among other stakeholders and interested parties) about the history of its lighthouses and the wider importance of marine aids to navigation.

While Trinity House cannot facilitate public access to the operational offshore ‘Douglass’ tower, the ‘Smeaton’ tower has become one of England’s most well-known landmarks. The popular attraction offers fantastic views of Plymouth Sound and the famous maritime city from its lantern room which—along with the rest of the building—has been restored extensively.