Plymouth is one of the Royal Navy’s most important naval bases. It has a spacious natural harbour that is well protected from the elements. It has a hinterland able to supply the city with plenty of food from the agriculturally rich West Country, together with sailors from its many ports and harbours. The position of Plymouth, at the western end of the Channel, also made it the ideal place to base a fleet powered by sail. The prevailing wind is from the west, ensuring that ships starting here are upwind of any threat to Britain’s south coast. By sailing southwards across the wind, the fleet could also easily reach the main French naval base at Brest. Small wonder that it was from Plymouth that Francis Drake awaited the arrival of the Spanish Armada, or that the Mayflower left for America. There is only one drawback to the port. Twelve miles out in the waters of the Channel a long, dangerous reef lurks beneath the waves. Over the years the Eddystone Rocks had taken a steady toll of ships and men, and were rightly feared by sailors.
Towards the end of the 17th century, Henry Winstanley, an engineer and ship owner, had lost two of his five vessels to the Eddystone Rocks. Determined that ships needed to be protected from this menace, he decided to build the world’s first off-shore lighthouse. Construction started on a wooden tower in 1696, initially in bursts of activity that coincided with low tide, when the reef was exposed. In spite of gales and attacks by French privateers, the lighthouse was completed two years later, and was of instant benefit to shipping. Regrettably a flat-sided structure of wood was no match for the great storm of 1703 that swept away all trace of the tower. Winstanley was visiting it at the time, ironically to prove to sceptics how safe his lighthouse was. Neither he nor any of the five keepers based there were ever heard of again.
Although Winstanley’s structure had only lasted five years, he had proved that a lighthouse could be built out at sea, and in its brief career it had dramatically reduced the number of ships lost on the reef. Another engineer, John Rudyard started work on a new, larger tower. This time it was cylindrical in shape, to give the wind less purchase, and though it was still predominately made from wood, it had a brick and concrete core. Work was completed in 1709, and the Rudyard lighthouse was to last for fifty years. Wind had destroyed Winstanley’s structure, but it was another element, fire, that destroyed the second Eddystone light. Sparks from the candles used in the lantern set fire to the wooden part of the structure, and in spite of the best efforts of the keepers to fight the blaze, the lighthouse was destroyed. This time the men manning the tower were rescued by boat, although one died later from molten lead he had ingested when it poured down on him from the tower’s metal flashing.
The third Eddystone Lighthouse was the work of Royal Society engineer John Smeaton, and was to become the prototype for most lighthouses that followed. Smeaton looked to nature to supply him with inspiration, asking himself what shape best resists a storm. His answer was a young oak tree, and he used the trunk as the model for his tower, giving it a wide base that tapered in as it rose upwards. He built the lighthouse from huge granite blocks that were cut with dove tailed joints that fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and he sealed them into place with a special concrete he developed that cured under water. First lit in 1759, this lighthouse was to last for over a century.
Wind destroyed the first, fire the second and so it was the turn of water to be the element that ended the career of Smeaton’s building. By the middle of the 19th century its keepers were reporting that the tower rocked alarmingly when it was struck by large waves. When engineers investigated, they found that the lighthouse building was still sound, but that the sea had undermined it, eroding away the rock beneath to form a large void. They recommended the partial dismantling of the lighthouse, and the construction of a new one on a nearby rock. The work was carried out, and in 1877 the new lighthouse was turned on. This fourth tower is still in use to this day. It stands next to the stub of Smeaton’s third lighthouse which is still standing after all these years, testament to the soundness of his building methods.