About Smeaton's Tower

About Smeaton's Tower

A leading example of ground breaking civil engineering, Smeaton's Tower has a rich history to match its iconic location and status.

Smeaton’s Tower (or Smeaton’s Light) was the third of four famous lighthouses that have been built to mark the dangerous Eddystone Reef, a treacherous group of rocks that lie some 14 miles south west of Plymouth.

Most of the Eddystone reef is submerged and only three feet of rock is visible at high tide – even on calm days, water can be thrown into the air in spouts. Sea merchants were once so afraid of being wrecked on the reef that they sometimes sailed around the Channel Islands or the French Coast to try and avoid it.

Two previous lighthouses had lit a safe passage through the dangerous reef before John Smeaton built his tower; Winstanley’s Light (1698 to 1703) which was swept away in the Great Storm of 1703 and Rudyerd’s Light (1708 to 1755) which was destroyed by fire in December 1755.

The upper part of the lighthouse was taken down, brought ashore and rebuilt on a new granite base. Opened on Plymouth Hoe in September 1884, it remains one of the city’s most famous landmarks to this day. The remains of the original lighthouse can still be seen on the Eddystone reef and on a clear day, the stump and the current lighthouse can be seen on the horizon, next to its successor the Douglass’ Light (1882 to present).

Winstanley’s Light 1698 to 1703

Henry Winstanley was selected to build the first Eddystone lighthouse. He had trained as an engraver and was an inventor of mechanical waterworks and other automata. With a longstanding interest in architecture, he was appointed as the Clerk of Works at the Royal properties at Audley End and Newmarket in 1679, bringing his abilities to the attention of the King and Sir Christopher Wren. With a growing reputation, he was considered the ideal person to take on a task of building a lighthouse on the Eddystone; a task considered desirable but impractical just thirty years earlier.

There is no evidence that Winstanley owned ships or that one of his ships was wrecked on the Eddystone. This appears to be a myth arising from a popular Victorian poem by Jean Ingelow. However, he did put money into the building project and joined the private consortium which funded the work, led by Walter Whitfield. To support this investment, Winstanley opened his own house in Saffron Walden to the public as the ‘Little House of Wonders’ and launched a 'Mathematical Water Theatre' at Hyde Park, London.

Winstanley began work on his polygonal tower in 1696. It was first lit in 1698 – the very first offshore light to be built in the world; located on a small chain of sea swept reefs some 14 miles from Plymouth. There was no design template and this perhaps helps to explain why Winstanley’s lighthouse appears somewhat eccentric, with external ladders, a huge decorative weather vane and ornamental scrollwork.

It was said to have been lit by sixty candles and a hanging oil lamp and, if so, it would have been brighter than many of its successors. It was also better appointed, with a ‘State Room’ with carvings by Grinling Gibbons and paintings by Louis Laguerre; the building capped with decorative ironwork by Jean Tijou. These men were among the pre-eminent craftsmen and artists of the age. The building was considered of national importance and Winstanley had expected the King to visit.

Winstanley’s first lighthouse is represented by the famous ‘Winstanley Salt’, held in the collections of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Find out more about it by visiting our object of the month page.

However, Winstanley strengthened and greatly enlarged the tower in the spring of 1699. It is this building that is most commonly pictured (as above). The larger, more robust lighthouse survived a number of years before being swept away in the ‘Great Storm’ of November 1703. Winstanley was working in the building at the time and, along with the lighthouse keepers, he lost his life.

There was no shipwreck recorded during the lifetime of Winstanley’s Lighthouse. However, two days after the tragedy, the ‘Winchelsea’, inbound from Virginia with tobacco, was wrecked on the reef. The pressure was on to design and build a new lighthouse to guard the Eddystone.

Rudyerd’s Light 1708 to 1755

John Rudyerd, a London-based silk merchant and furrier, was engaged to design and build a new lighthouse for the Eddystone reef in 1706.

Rudyerd had become close friends with Colonel John Lovatt, who headed the group of private investors wanting to build a replacement lighthouse. Taking advice from Naval shipwrights, Rudyerd decided to build a structure largely of timber and to use selected ship-building techniques in the construction.

The lower internal structure comprised alternate courses of oak timbers and granite blocks around a central oak ‘mast’. The lighthouse was anchored into the reef with 36 iron spikes. The building was clad in vertical planks, shaped to form a smooth cone. The vertical joints were caulked, filled with oakum and covered with pitch, like the hull of ship.

Not all the artists that painted or engraved pictures of Rudyerd’s Lighthouse were aware of the detail of its final construction so that sometimes the building is depicted as stone built. Standing at 21 metres high, it's 24 candles were first lit in 1708.

Rudyerd’s Lighthouse survived the harsh conditions of the Eddystone reef for nearly fifty years. It was eventually destroyed by fire in December 1755 when the lantern caught alight. The lighthouse burned for several days and was completely destroyed.

Smeaton’s Light 1759 to 1882

The designer of the third Eddystone lighthouse was a leader in the civil engineering profession of his time. John Smeaton used granite blocks for the exterior of his tower and Portland stone for the inside. The stones were dovetailed together and the lighthouse had a slightly curved profile, which strengthened the structure and gave it a low centre of gravity.

The lighthouse stood at 22 metres high and was first lit in October 1759, illuminated by 24 candles. In 1810 oil lamps with reflectors replaced the candles. These reflectors were then replaced with lenses in 1845, giving the tower a much better light intensity.

Smeaton’s robust tower set the pattern for a new era of lighthouse construction. However, by the mid-nineteenth century its days were numbered. The sea was undermining the rock that the lighthouse stood on and although technical improvements had been made in lighting methods, it was too small to contain the latest machinery.

The upper part of the lighthouse was taken down, brought ashore and rebuilt on a new granite base. Opened on Plymouth Hoe in September 1884, it remains one of the city’s most famous landmarks to this day. The remains of the original lighthouse can still be seen on the Eddystone reef and, on a clear day, the ‘stump’ and the current lighthouse can be seen on the horizon.

Douglass’ Light 1882 to present

The fourth and largest of the Eddystone lighthouses was completed in May 1882 amidst a blaze of publicity and still survives today.

It was founded on the actual body of the Eddystone reef some 40 metres to the south-east of Smeaton’s site and was completed in three and a half years. It was designed and built by Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House James Douglass, and stands at 40 metres high.

In more recent years a number of changes have been introduced to the tower. Electric power was introduced in 1959 and a helicopter landing pad was built on the top in 1980 to enable maintenance personnel to land and carry out inspections.

In 1982 the lighthouse became fully automatic, bringing an end to 284 years of Keepers of the Eddystone Light. It is now controlled from Penlee Point Signal Station, near Cawsand, Cornwall.

Most recently, in August 1999, the electric light in the lantern began to be generated by solar panels. Today, the beam can be seen up to 17 miles away.

Further reading

If you would like to find out more about the history of the Eddystone lighthouses, try one of the following:

  • Henry Winstanley – Artist, Inventor and Lighthouse-builder 1644 to 1703 by Alison Barnes
  • The Eddystone Lighthouses by Cynthia Gaskell Brown
  • A visit to the Eddystone Lighthouse by Frederic G Kitton, reprinted from ‘The Strand Magazine’, October 1892