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Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.

Likely the deadliest rock in the entire Channel, even in calm weather the Eddystone Reef is a sailor’s nightmare, a jagged blade of rock surrounded by ever-churning wild waters. With four tides a day crashing up its ragged edges and a permanent turbulent swirl of waves around it, it forms the final obstacle for all ships approaching Plymouth. No-one knows just how many ships it eviscerated in the golden age of sail, be they foreign-owned vessels overladen with goods or weary native ships returning home. Nor is it known how many sailors drowned there in the brine, but at some stages it was reported to claim an average of a victim a week. What is known is that by the end of the 17th century, the sailors and shipowners of Plymouth had had enough, and petitioned for the building of a lighthouse on the Eddystone, despite general agreement that the task was impossible.

Henry Winstanley was not exactly the obvious ideal choice for building a lighthouse, particularly one likely to be the most vital lighthouse in English history. In fact he was almost ludicrously unqualified. Though deeply interested in architecture, his involvement stemmed from his work as an engraver, particularly his ten-years-in-the-making architectural study of Audley End House. His most successful work as an engraver was a best-selling pack of cards. Mostly, though, like other men of his generation he was fascinated by advances in engineering and the gadgets they produced. His home in Essex became a visitors’ landmark as he accumulated a huge collection of home-made doohickeys, thingamajigs and contraptions. A showman at heart, he soon opened a museum in London, “Winstanley’s Water-Works”, a perpetual show of fountains, fireworks, automata and other gimmicks that became wildly popular and remained so for decades. A later commentator hyperbolised that putting this man in charge of constructing the Eddystone lighthouse was like getting P. T. Barnum to build the Golden Gate Bridge.

Henry Winstanley's self portrait
Henry Winstanley's self portrait

But like Barnum, Winstanley was no fool, and his desire to build the lighthouse was not exactly disinterested. He had invested his earnings wisely, becoming a merchant as well as a showman, but of the five ships he owned two had been wrecked on the Eddystone. Incensed, he designed a lighthouse, marched to the Admiralty, and persuaded them to let him build it.

It was a forbidding challenge, and it says much for Winstanley’s persuasive abilities, not to mention his self-confidence, that the Admiralty agreed to fund him. No lighthouse had ever been built out to sea on an isolated rock before. The Eddystone is hard enough to avoid, but landing on it is a separate challenge entirely. It took eight hours of solid rowing to reach. Its small size would make construction a challenge. Work could only be done at low tide, which was interrupted four times a day by an incoming rush of rising water. And the weather can be terrible.

All this was duly taken into consideration, and Winstanley began his work. What was not taken into consideration was the fact that England and France were having one of their occasional spats, in this case the Nine Years’ War. A French privateer arrived just after the foundations were completed. Likely thinking that the English were building a fort, they destroyed all the work that had been done and carted Winstanley off to France.

Remarkably enough, he was not kept there long. On hearing of his capture and of the nature of his work, Louis XIV⁠—hardly remembered as the most tolerant or humanitarian of kings⁠—ordered Winstanley’s release. The King’s reasoning was simple and easily expressed: “France is at war with England, not humanity”. Possibly no words spoken by Louis ever saved so many lives. Winstanley returned to his task.

Progress was slow on the 20 metre-high wooden structure, but on the 14th of November 1698, Henry Winstanley climbed the steps of his lighthouse to its lantern, where he lit fifty tallow candles that for the first time marked the location of the Eddystone. In Plymouth there was pandemonium: the excitement the news generated was like a mixture of the end of World War II and the moon landing. Hundreds of people rushed to the cliffs, straining their eyes and aiming telescopes to witness the seemingly miraculous sight. Safety seemed promised at last – and it was: while the lighthouse stood, not a single ship was lost to the Eddystone.

Winstanley, however, missed the excitement. Rather than joining in the party, he and his crew almost starved to death as the weather left them marooned in the lighthouse for a full five weeks.

Artist's sketch of the original Eddystone Lighthouse
Artist's sketch of the original Eddystone Lighthouse

But a wooden lighthouse soon proved not to be resistant enough, and twenty metres were revealed to be too few: in storms the waves would crash over the very top of Winstanley’s building. However impressed they may have been by the feat of building it, sceptics doubted that the lighthouse could last. Winstanley had no intention of letting his masterpiece collapse, and when the wear-and-tear grew too great he set about repairing it, though it was more like rebuilding it from scratch. Historians are divided on whether to consider Winstanley the builder of one lighthouse on the rock or two.

Whichever it was, the new lighthouse added 12 metres to the original height and was far stronger, twelve-sided and girded in steel and stone. Not merely functional but decorative as well, the lighthouse is revealed in contemporary drawings to have been an ornate and colourful sight, with a large weather-vane on top of the lantern. Inside, Winstanley even built a large stateroom for guests. With the repairs or rebuilding finished in spring 1699, Winstanley was satisfied. Ships approaching Plymouth were safe at last.

There were still sceptics, though, who insisted it was impossible that the lighthouse should endure. Winstanley was so secure that he let out his celebrated sally that he wished “to be in the lighthouse during the greatest storm that ever was”. Perhaps it was a silly sally. Still, his creation stood tall despite all that the waves could throw at it. How many storms broke on its walls is unknown, but though wear and tear had to be expected the structure was sound. Ships no longer fell into the Eddystone’s trap. But while the lighthouse weathered water and waves, there came a day to test whether it could withstand the wind. And Winstanley found himself at the epicentre, his boast called.

On 25 November 1703, despite a severe gale warning, Winstanley insisted on going out to the lighthouse again along with five men to carry out some necessary repairs. On the 26th, England was hit by an event still known as “The Great Storm”, even today the benchmark by which all storms in England are measured.

It was the worst tempest ever recorded on English soil, a hurricane that caused damage more extensive than had ever been faced. Over 4000 oak trees were uprooted in the New Forest; Queen Anne stood at a window of her palace watching the trees of St. James Park be torn up before she was forced to shelter in a cellar as her chimneys collapsed and the roof fell in. The roof of Westminster Abbey was torn off by the wind, cathedrals and churches across the southern coast were ruined. 2000 chimney-stacks were blown down in London alone; the damage to that city was half again as much as that caused by the great fire of 1666. Roofs had all their tiles ripped off. Humans and animals were lifted into the air by the force of the gale. Windmills were blown about at such speed that the friction set them on fire. Livestock drowned by the thousands.

An artist's impression of the Great Storm of 1703
An artist's impression of the Great Storm of 1703

The storm wreaked havoc on ships, forcing 700 ships together in the Thames. Wrecks pressed against London Bridge, damming it and causing the waters to rise. Along the coast, one vessel was later found fifteen miles inland. The Royal Navy suffered especially: a fleet returning from action in the War of Spanish Succession arrived in the storm’s path, and a full 13 ships were lost. Over 40 merchantmen went down, and between 500 and 700 ships suffered severe damage.

The human cost was horrendous. Despite the fact that there was little rain reported, hundreds drowned in wind-carried waters and the North Sea surge, or died in the wreckage as the gale had an earthquake-like effect on the masonry and architecture of the isle. The Bishop of Wells and his wife were asleep in bed when the chimney fell on them. Over 1500 seamen of the Royal Navy died, not counting those in the merchant fleet. Tallies of the dead range between 8000 and 15000 lost.

Unprecedented and unrepeated, the storm was widely seen as an expression of the wrath of God, who was assumed to be infuriated at continued toleration of those evil, evil Catholics. The government agreed, declaring a national day of fasting and prayer on the 19th January following. Daniel Defoe was another who shared this popular view. Well before Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders, he took the storm as the subject of his first book, in which he opined that the Royal Navy’s losses were a just reward for its poor performance in the war. Though he found this particular act of God justified, though, he still thought the tempest indescribable, something beyond comprehension for those who had not experienced it.

When the world had calmed down and ships were again able to safely sail, those passing by the Eddystone found themselves again in danger. The reef held no crew, no Winstanley – and no lighthouse. The entire structure had been washed away. Only a few twisted pieces of metal remained to show that anything had ever been there. Winstanley’s wish to test his lighthouse had come true, and the building had failed.

The current Eddystone lighthouse alongside the stub of its progenitor.
The current Eddystone lighthouse alongside the stub of its progenitor.

But it had taken the greatest storm in history to wash away the lighthouse; Winstanley had proven that it was possible to save the ships approaching Plymouth⁠—though luckily, in the immediate aftermath of the storm there weren’t many of those to be at risk. The economical benefits of the beacon were so clear that in spite of the skeptics a new lighthouse was soon built, designed by John Rudyard and completed by 1709. It stood for almost fifty years before it caught fire and burnt down. It was replaced by a tower designed by John Smeaton that was a major advance in lighthouse technology, though it was merely functional and lacked all of Winstanley’s flair. It lasted until 1877, where the erosion of the rock endangered it. It was dismantled and rebuilt in Plymouth as a tribute to Smeaton’s genius, while a new lighthouse was built on an adjoining rock, where it still stands, a 51-metre high tower whose light can be seen for 24 miles. On the rock by its side is the remaining base of Smeaton’s tower. But of Winstanley’s masterpiece there is not a sign.