New Light on Eddystone

Alison Barnes reveals a new discovery about the Eddystone lighthouse: the first of its kind to be built on rocks in the sea.

Fourteen miles south-west of Plymouth lies the treacherous Eddystone reef, a collection of shark-tooth rocks upon which, over the centuries, numerous men have lost their lives. However calm it may be near Plymouth, the sea at the Eddystone is usually a maelstrom of churning waves and leaping spray, as the complex currents around the reef meet the westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic.

With the great increase in maritime trade that Plymouth enjoyed in the latter part of the seventeenth century, the Eddystone reef, straddling the entrance to Plymouth Sound, became an increasingly serious menace to shipping, about fifty vessels being wrecked on it every year. When in 1690 William III established a new naval base at Dock (later Devonport), to the west of Plymouth, he decided a lighthouse would have to be erected on these ‘infamous Rocks’.

The Surveyor-General of Works, Sir Christopher Wren, was occupied in rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral and the City churches after the Great Fire of 1666, so could not construct the pharos. But Henry Winstanley, a close friend of both William and Wren, would, the King  considered, be the ideal man to tackle the project and could be granted time off from acting as the monarch’s Clerk of the Works at Audley End and Newmarket Palaces.

Not only was Winstanley an accomplished architect who had designed a dozen important English country houses, but, next to Wren, he was probably the most ingenious inventor of his day. He also possessed a will of iron and a powerful charisma that inspired total loyalty in his friends and subordinates alike.

Born at Saffron Walden, Essex, in 1644, Winstanley attended Walden Grammar School, then went to work in the estate office at nearby Audley End House, owned by the Winstanleys’ friend James Howard, third Earl of Suffolk. In 1669 the mansion was bought by Charles II.

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