There is one great snag that occurs in the sailing of ships – they always come off second-best where striking rocks is concerned! One can only imagine the horror at the crashing, grinding, tearing sound of planking or plating being torn asunder by the momentum of the ship against the rock (or for those unlucky souls aboard the Titanic it was the iceberg).
Hazards to navigation need to be marked in some way, and with seas as crowded as those around the British Isles this was a particular problem from the 1600's onwards.
Trinity House had been created twenty years before Winstanley was to begin his Eddystone lighthouse, to oversee lights and marks placed around the shoreline – but here a light and mark was needed in a seemingly impossible place - on the Eddystone Reef, some 14 miles South of Plymouth in the English Channel.
This is an unusual spot; three rocky pinnacles rise up , surrounded by a ring of jagged 'teeth'; at higher tides these do not show – and the steep nature of the pinnacles means very little 'break' of waves to show a white warning to approaching ships. The currents are strange as they flow around the points, creating vicious eddies – hence the name.
The Captain of the Mayflower described them in his log as "…a wicked reef of 23 rust-red rock".
Also, the reef took a heavy toll of lives; you cannot swim ashore or be rescued by small boats or thrown lines from 14 miles out…
Today it is probably the world's busiest shipping channel, especially as traffic is compressed into separation lanes at the Eastern end. How safely we go to sea today compared to centuries ago!
The Western end had it's own particular problem at the Eddystone. As the prevailing winds are Westerly, ships heading for Plymouth Sound and rounding the Brittany coast were directly on course for the rocks! Coastal sailing vessels would always want to stay well away from a lee shore (i.e wanted lots of sea room against the prevailing winds which could push them Northwards towards the shore of Southern Cornwall and Devon) – again the reef lay in their path.
During the World Wars – especially WW1 – this created a happy hunting ground for U Boats as the reef made ships steer inshore of the reef, meaning that on a fairly narrow channel a German submarine could find easy prey. Many good ships ended up as popular dive locations today because of this! Since records began, an astounding 1495 wrecks have been recorded along the 90 miles of South Devon's coastline – that's one for every hundred yards!
But the Eddystone was also a problem for the increasingly strategic Naval port of Plymouth; one simply could not afford to regularly lose ships as they headed to or from the Sound.
A way had to be found to mark the hazard – but how on earth (or rather, on sea) does one place a lantern on such an exposed site, high enough to be seen, and strong enough to be protected from the regular storms? It needed a visionary architect/engineer with a bold plan – and along came Henry Winstanley.
Others would follow him, but here was something incredibly bold, given the standards of his day.
Every timber, nail, fitting and candle would have to be carried by small boat out to a slippery, sloping rock. The structure would have to be somehow fixed to the base. It could only be done when weather and tide were favourable. This was adventurous in the extreme!
After the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, William of Orange was welcomed by a Protestant population to the throne, and he brought his large fleet into Plymouth. He also saw the need for a lighthouse, and decreed that one should be built. But who to do it, and how?!
In 1695 one of Henry Winstanley's own ships, the Constant, was lost upon the Eddystone. He looked into the issue, and was gripped by the challenge. As a wealthy shipowner, inventor, scientist and favourite of the Crown, how could Winstanley resist the opportunity to conquer the notorious reef?
Little did he know that the project would lead to his doom in the greatest storm that England had ever seen.
Winstanley was born in 1644 in Essex, and was 'talent spotted' by King Charles while working on one of his estates. He was clever – and also a showman – both of which qualities appealed to the King, who made him his Clerk of Works in 1669.
He was encouraged to travel in Europe, and became skilled in making machinery which was both clever and attractively ornamental. He was a talented engraver and artist, and became adept (and connected) at selling prints of large houses to the wealthy. He also enjoyed making his 'toys' educational, with Latin mottoes and geographical references.
When we eventually see his lighthouse design, we can see these influences in abundance!
He was also something of a joker, and when his wealth allowed, he built himself a fine house – with a great lantern on the top! He did not have a front gate, but instead installed a turnstile; this was no ordinary home – it was (as he called it) Winstanley's House of Wonders. Visitors were welcome to visit – and paid an entrance fee! One jolly jape saw a magical chair which, when sat in, rapidly whizzed the unsuspecting soul along a rail and suspended them out of a window over an artificially created stream!
He also built a spire on the village church – unusually, it had a large lantern fitted at it's top…
As he approached the age of 50, he invested in five modest ships to further his wealth-building, but he was not satisfied; he had tasted fame, and was perhaps envious of members of the Royal Society such as Sir Christopher Wren.
They were busy working on 'the longitude' – to improve the safety of navigation by allowing ships to fix their position at sea. Perhaps he could turn his talents toward something...impossible...something epic...something truly illuminating.
Maritime trade was beginning to boom; England set about creating itself as a glorified warehouse, sitting between the wealth of the Americas and the East, and the consumer-destination of Europe. The English were viewed by foreigners as wealthy, with even the poor able to but luxuries – such as shoes!
Devon and Plymouth were massively focussed on the sea, with almost a fifth of the population of the County in the early 1600s being mariners, and a third of England's ship-tonnage being base in Plymouth.
It was into this feverish and risky world that Winstanley was gambling his money by investing in shipping.
So now we can see that – well in advance of the 'Great Storm' – there was a 'perfect storm' of circumstance that would gather Henry Winstanley to it's unforgiving bosom!
Lighthouses themselves were nothing new. Alexander the Great in 332 BC had ordered the enclosure of a harbour and erection of a lighted tower at Alexandria – the Pharos. It stood taller than any lighthouse since built at 450 feet, a glorious white limestone tower, jointed with melted lead as cement. Incredibly it functioned until AD1302 – that is over one and a half millennia! – and only met it's end in an earthquake. It's light could be seen from 40 miles away.
The Romans built functional lighted towers – and the one near Dover could be seen from France – so must have been quite an encouragement for wary Romans ordered to cross the Channel!
Lights were being used along the Coastline from before Tudor times; the Trinity House was established by Henry VIII to govern lights and marks. Some lights were good and worthwhile, and were paid by the collection of dues at a few pennies per ton of cargo. But this drove unscrupulous men to build unnecessary lights purely to make money from dues! And there were also the 'Wreckers' lights, placed deliberately to cause shipwrecks and looting.
Winstanley could show the King's decree for a light, and could prove it's necessity – but Trinity House would not pay to build it, viewing it as an impossible task. This of course fuelled Winstanley's desire to do the job! He could go ahead and build, but it would be at his own expense, and he would only be repaid in small increments and over a long period of time. Nevertheless – he pressed ahead.
But how? He had no precedent to follow, no proven technology. Waterproof cement was not yet invented. 'Sea-proof' shape was not understood, until John Smeaton was later to determine on the Mark2 lighthouse. So he had to make a 'best guess' and decided upon a stone base supporting an octagonal wooden tower. And, of course, it would be a creation of great style!
He made his first visit in 1696, in a rowing boat. It had to be a rowing boat as wind direction made sailing to and fro impractical. Departing from the Barbican , and if they got the tide right, it took six hours to cover the 14 miles – and there was no guarantee of being able to land once they arrived! Even in the calmest sea, the Atlantic swell made for a huge vertical movement of the boat that could smash it on the rocks. If they did manage to claw themselves onto the slimy steep rock, they only had a 2-3 hour window of opportunity to work.
But, if one quality describes Henry Winstanley, it is perseverance.
His plan was to drive a dozen iron spikes into the rock, held with molten lead; then, he would with stone and iron bands build a stone base, from which to project the wooden tower.
He had predicted a couple of weeks to make these dozen holes; in the event it took him the rest of the year, often only managing one three-hour session each week, picking at the very hard rock.
The irons came next – each as thick as a man's arm and twice a man's height.
One might wonder where these were forged – surely a mighty task in it's own right! The following summer he resumed work, placing the stone base. Presumably he got some sort of sheerlegs and tackle arranged on the rock, but hauling the heavy blocks out of the small bobbing boat must have been perilous.
The Admiralty stepped in to assist, as the value of establishing the light was clear – and HMS Terrible was assigned both as a guard-ship against any interference by the nefarious French, and as a base of operations – lengthening the working day and rate of progress.
But this was a tedious task for the Navy, and after many weeks of duty they got fed up and left... and of course the French spotted this and 'invaded' the rock! They heaved the stones into the sea, put the workmen adrift naked in their boat, and hauled Winstanley of to gaol in France!
This does read like a tale of fiction, but after protests by the Admiralty, King Louis saw that the light could be of use to French sailors as well as English; he released Winstanley, tried to get him to work for him in France (and failed), and sent the engineer back to Plymouth with many gifts and apologies! Henry Winstanley went straight back to work, but several weeks had been lost. The stonework was almost completed by the end of that season. It stood 12 feet high on the rock; this was surely enough? But how could anyone know? After all, nobody had ever witnessed a full gale on the rock... But the following summer work went well; workmen could now stay overnight on and then in the timber structure instead of having to stow and secure all materials and tools before leaving each day.
The tower topped out at some 80 feet above the rock, ready with it's 360 degree glazed 'lanthorn'.
On November 14th 1698 Winstanley himself lit the 60 tallow candles – and the glow could be seen from Plymouth.
It was a revelation, it caused a sensation!
However. Poor Winstanley and his men had another ordeal to endure – the weather had changed for the worse and they could not get off the rock! It was to be FIVE WEEKS before the seas abated enough to let them return to shore.
He also had concerns about the strength of the tower; keepers told him of the movement of the timber tower, and he already knew himself that seas would break right OVER the light. So through 1699 he drastically strengthened the tower, with more stone, timber and iron. He also added yet more ornamentation (all functional of course) to the already ornate structure!
Winstanley also did something that ensured that the design was forever captured and remembered; he had already had a silver model made (now in Plymouth Museum) but now he executed an engraving of the lighthouse – and this we see often today in souvenir prints to be found for sale in Plymouth.
And so it was that Winstanley got his fame; but he had another wish – to be in the lighthouse during the greatest storm that ever blew.
On November 25th 1703 he was on the Barbican, setting out for the Eddystone, to inspect and make repairs. Fishermen told him not to go – but he was not to be deterred. He was about to be granted his tragic final wish.
The Great Storm of 1703 was the worst ever recorded in England. There is little to parallel it, even to this day. The destruction wrought was simply immense, overwhelming. The gale drove a Spring tide before it, adding metres to the high water. (Readers may remember the flooding of the Barbican before the lock gate was installed in similar weather).
The scale of the storm was truly Biblical. The light was seen from Plymouth just before midnight on the 26th. Two days later, the Brig Winchelsea struck the Eddystone Reef and was lost with all hands. All that remained of the Winstanley light was a few bent irons in the rock. Nothing else remained, and no trace of Henry Winstanley was found.
In a way, he did survive, because of his extraordinary achievement, and his model and engraving. And of course the need for the light remained – with John Smeaton doing a more durable job in stone.
You can visit his lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, and see the interlocking design for it's stones in the pavement outside the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Millbay. When you see this, the deficiencies of Winstanley;s design are clear.
But one has to say – what an amazing man, an incredible life, and a lasting achievement! Here's to Henry Winstanley, Gent.