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Mathematical Water Magic

An exotic London theatre funded the building of the first Eddystone lighthouse. Alison Barnes has discovered what kind of shows it staged.

Between 1696 and 1720, London’s most exciting shows were to be seen at the Mathematical Water Theatre in Piccadilly, where the owner, Henry Winstanley, and his wife Elizabeth put on spectacular water- and fire-work displays. On the day that it opened, however, Saturday June 6th, 1696, Mr Winstanley was not in London but off the coast of Devon, starting work on a lighthouse.

The eccentric architect had left on June 2nd to travel down to Plymouth, because King William had asked him to build the first-ever lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks. Down the centuries numerous ships had come to grief on these unmarked dangers in the English Channel, some fourteen miles from Plymouth. He became a national hero because by 1698 he had managed to put up a structure on a rock that was often awash and to shine from it a navigational warning light. In 1697 he was taken prisoner from the rock by a French privateer, but released on orders from Louis XIV, who is reported to have said: ‘France is at war with England, but not with humanity.’ Winstanley undertook this very risky lighthouse project at his own expense, hoping to recover his money from a share of the shipping dues. He was not a rich man and seldom got paid by the Royal Office of Works for acting as Clerk of the Works at Audley End and Newmarket Palaces. However, in addition to being an architect, etcher and inventor, he knew about fountains and pyrotechnics. So he decided to put these to use in his London Water Theatre in order to finance the lighthouse. In the event, he (with his lighthouse) was washed away by the Great Storm of November 1703.

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