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Bishop Rock Lighthouse

Western rock of Isles of Scilly, Cornwall

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Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the second tallest after the Eddystone Lighthouse,  is often referred to as "King of the Lighthouses" and it is an impressive structure. It stands on a rock ledge 46m long by 16m wide, 4 miles west of the Scilly Isles. The rocks rise sheer from the seabed 45m below.

This is a very exposed location, the junction in the Atlantic and seas are difficult with up to 30 gales a year experienced here.

Bishop Rock (Cornish for Men an Eskob) is a small rock at the westernmost tip of the Isles of Scilly, known for its lighthouse, and listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest island with a building on it in the world.

Bishop Rock is also the eastern end of the North Atlantic shipping route used by ocean liners in the first half of the 20th century, the western end being the entrance to Lower New York Bay. The ship with the fastest time (in either direction) between a line of longitude running through Bishop Rock and the end point at the approach to New York Harbour (first Sandy Hook, New Jersey and later Ambrose Light) claimed the "Blue Riband" for the fastest crossing.

These rocks caused many shipwrecks including in 1707 when 2,000 men died. Trinity House decided to light the Scilly Isles to overcome this and chose the most westward rock, Bishops Rock for the lighthouse.

James Walker, Engineer in Chief to Trinity House, was against building a solid granite tower arguing that the rock ledge was too small and the elements too powerful, being exposed as it was to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean.

Picture taken 16th January 2012 by David Wilkinson

James Walker demonstrated that the wind pressures at times exceeded 7,000 lb per sq.ft. Instead he decided on a screw-pile lighthouse, 120ft tall (37m), design consisting of accommodation, and a light on top of iron legs. The first task was to sink cast iron legs into the solid granite, braced and stayed with wrought iron rods. The designer maintained that the waves would be able to roll freely among the piles instead of being obstructed by the solid mass of masonry tower. The tower was completed but the light was never lit, since on 5 February 1850 a storm washed the tower away. It cost 12,000.

In the second attempt, James Walker decided on a 35m tall design based on the successful Eddyston Smeaton's Tower, and he decided on a solid rock able to withstand a base with a 10m diameter. Even at the lowest tides this was over a foot under the water and a dam had to be constructed and water pumped out to provide a dry area for the masons to work. The workmen were housed on a small nearby uninhabited islet within the Scilly Isles, where living quarters and workshops were erected. All the granite was despatched from the mainland to the island depot, where it was shaped and numbered before being sent to the rock. Each granite block, weighing from one to two tons, was set into its pre-selected position, and each course dovetailed and keyed into position at the sides, top and the bottom, forming an immovable mass.

The men were carried to and from the site as the weather permitted. Working spells were brief, as well as being few and far between, and after seven years labour the tower was finally completed.  In all the 35m tower contained 2,500 tons of dressed granite and cost 34,560. The light was first shown on 1st September 1858. The total cost for the lighthouse was 34,559. It was completed with no loss of life.

During one particularly powerful storm, waves rolled up on the side of the lighthouse and tore away the 550lb fog bell from its fastenings on the gallery.

In 1881, Sir James Nicholas Douglass inspected the tower, and discovered damage had occurred and further weaknesses. It was decided to repair and strengthen the tower and at the same time raise the light by 12m. This involved in effect constructing a coat or second lighthouse around the existing one.

The major weakness was the foundation and Douglass proposed to strengthen

Old image thought to be of Bishops Rock Lighthouse, Date unknown.

From Camera Images GBPictures archive

This image appears to be the later encased design but has a piece of the balcony missing, suggesting perhaps that the incident with the bell being ripped off,
was later than many say.

and enlarge these with massive blocks of granite sunk into the rock and held there by heavy bolts. It was an enormous cylindrical base, providing the lighthouse with an major buffer, onto which the force of the waves could be spent before hitting the tower itself. The masonry casing, averaging a metre in thickness, was carried up as far as the new masonry required for the increased height of the light. The weight of the additional granite was 3,200 tons, making a total weight of 5,700 tons. Work was completed in October 1887 at a cost of 66,000.

The helipad was added in 1973.

Bishop Rock was converted to automatic operation during 1991 with the last keepers leaving the lighthouse on 21 December 1992. The fog signal was discontinued on 13 June 2007.

The lighthouse formerly had a giant "double" Fresnel lens, with two lights, although only the lower lens was used most of the time. Both lights were lit in the fog. Half of this unusual lens is on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth.

A view from the helipad on top of the lighthouse  Picture by David Wilkinson

Image by Peter Jordan

Picture by Richard Knites

Lighthouse information Grid


Bishop Rock Lighthouse, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall

Current status:

Currently in use

Geographic Position:

49 52.3 N 06 26.7 W

Grid Reference:


Ceremonial County:



Tall granite tower with helipad on top

Round granite tower, incorporating keeper's quarters, with lantern and a helipad built above the lantern. Tower is unpainted grey stone, lantern and helipad painted white.

Map Link:

maps       StreetMap

Aerial photo:


Other photos:

Photo   Photo.

Originally built:

1847 of iron but washed away

Current lighthouse built:

1851, first lit 1858, encased and extended after 1881

Height of Tower:

49m   167ft

Height of light above mean sea level:

44m   114ft

Character of light:

2 White Group Flashes Every 15 Seconds

Character of fog signal:

Fog signal discontinued 2007

was one long and one short blast every 90 seconds

Range of light:

24 miles

Owned / run by:

Trinity House

Getting there:






Other Useful Websites:


Other Relevant pages:

For more articles, lists and other information see the Lighthouses Section

Lighthouse Map of England and Wales

Featured List of Lighthouses - England and Wales  

List of Minor Lighthouses and Lights - England and Wales



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By: Keith Park   Section:  Lighthouses Section Key:
Page Ref: Bishop_Rock_Lighthouse Topic: Lighthouses Last Updated: 09/2012


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