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The Development of Lighthouses

No one knows when the first lighthouse was developed or where, we do know that they existed just about as far back as recorded history, with early references in Greek texts. The first we know for sure was built 280BC the Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Egypt, accounts vary putting it from 383-440ft high.

Before the Romans arrived in Britain there are reports of beacons on the south coast, and trading had been going on since stone age times between the people of Britain and Europe. Britain's oldest known shipwreck, a Bronze Age ship is from around 31 centuries ago, and was carrying axe-heads.

Two lighthouses, each called the Pharos, were built at Dover soon after the Romans arrived in Britain to stay for a few centuries, one each on the eastern and western heights. One still exists, and is largely intact, it forms a tower attached to an old church at the highest point within Dover Castle.

Another roman lighthouse exists in Somerset, although its now used as an observation platform.

Once the Romans left, we have no knowledge of lighthouse structures, and many other things, for some time, but we do know of beacons on hill tops, including in Ireland where the Monks of St. Dubhan established a fire beacon in the 5th century, and on this same site later, the Norman lighthouse at Youghal was in the hands of local sisters attached to St Anne's Convent. The tower fell out of use around Cromwell's time and was replaced by the present tower in 1852.

The oldest operational lighthouse in the British Isles is also said to be in Ireland, at Hook Head, in County Wexford, dating from the 12th century, with additions and modifications since.

A light to warn shipping was first established on the Southerly tip of the Isle of Wight in 1323 and St Catherine's Oratory is the remains of this.

Photo by Derek Harper

St Catherine's Oratory  Isle of Wight

I still have to put together a full time line to establish what came first, but I want to research and create many more location guides first, as well as looking at the histories of some of the lighthouses that no longer exists.

A little later we have lighthouses being built by individuals, with voluntary contributions paid sometimes by ship owners.

In order to be able to build a lighthouse you had to get a letter patent from the King or Queen, this is because the coast between high and low water and out to the territorial limit is owned by the Crown. It still is today and if you want to build a wind farm or something else, or you wanted to go and construct something on a rock that is washed by the tide, then you still need to get a lease, but now its from The Crown Estate.

In concept when these people planned the lighthouse, it could be a profitable venture, and it all depended on if you could get paid or not, many were not, could not afford the fuel for the fires and it didn't then really work. Some went bankrupt, others done very well indeed and were later bought out for what was at that time huge sums.

In many of the location guides we have told the story of the history of the site, including in many cases early enterprises on the same site as later lighthouses. From the Lighthouses Topic Indexes you can get to a list of featured lighthouses and maps that also link you to these.

One name that came up again and again, with early English lighthouses was that of Sir John Clayton, who had a project to light the east coast of England with a number of lighthouses and started the process, starting with the Cromer Lighthouse in Norfolk, he also started the process to of putting lights on to Portland Bill Lighthouse, in Dorset and perhaps others I have yet to discover. His locations were later used by others, and ideas sound, but getting those he was trying to help to contribute proved impossible, and he ended up bankrupt.

Another early character was Henry Winstanley, a showman, who built the first lighthouses on Eddystone Rock, off the coast of Plymouth in Devon. He was there three years later undertaking repairs when in a storm, his tower with him in it was washed away, neither to be seen again. Later we get at the same location Smeatons Tower, built by John Smeaton, the design that changed building on impossible rocks for ever, and was the basis of so many more spectacular structures on bits of rock in impossible sea conditions. Smeaton's Tower  in Devon, had to be later replaced, but the contribution it made was so great that it was taken down and put up on a new base ay Plymouth, for everyone to visit.

In Scotland you had a whole family tree of Stevenson's starting with Robert, and between them they built the majority of Scotland's fine lighthouses.

The Old Beacon     Photo by John Tustin

North Ronaldsay Lighthouse,   Orkneys

One of the first 4 built by the Stevenson family

The are many parts of a lighthouse or light station, and we explore what these parts are in Lighthouse Structure, and continue the exploration of the lighting systems used looking at the light sources, the code they give out and the lens systems in Lighthouse Lights

Perhaps later than some might have expected we come to the lighthouse authorities. These have been responsible for the building, maintaining and running of our lighthouses. There are three, Trinity House looking after England, Wales, the Channel Isles and Gibraltar,  The Northern Lighthouse Board  looking after Scotland and Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights looking after the whole of Ireland. In each of the articles on these we have explained their function, how they are funded from light fees charged to ships coming into British and Irish ports and with the first two their histories as well. With Ireland we have another article  looking at the History of Lighthouses in Ireland.

Having looked at many of our articles, and location guides, and looked at how they came about, how they function and more, you may decide you would like to visit some of the lighthouses featured and there are a lot open for you to visit, on the feature lists (which you can access from the links at the top of this page), we have highlighted these with the yellow bands. Many of the others can be visited and viewed from the outside, and quite a few of the light keepers cottages are available as holiday properties as well see - Staying in or by a Lighthouse.

Finally, these will not all be with us forever, particularly some of the smaller ones will disappear completely when decommissioned, while some others that you could visit now will be used for other uses that may not allow access.

The next generation of electric navigation is with us and eventually many of these fine structures will no longer be maintained as lighthouses. This is not a new process, many over time have become surplus and been decommissioned, and the process will now be speeded up, some more will become tourism places but there are too many for them all to be preserved. In past times they may have just been left for a while but with property prices now far higher, its likely many will be sold off, and converted to a home with a view.

Photo by Derek Robertson

Bell Rock Lighthouse  Oldest existing rock lighthouse in the UK
built 200 years ago by Robert Stevenson


By: Keith Park   Section: Lighthouses section Key:
Page Ref: Lighthouse_developments Topic: Lighthouses Last Updated: 06/2010

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