Caught by the River

Lighthouses of the UK #1: Smeaton’s Tower

Ben Langworthy | 30th March 2018

The British coastline is littered with well over 300 lighthouses, each with its own unique story. Illustrator Ben Langworthy has recently embarked on a project in which he researches and draws each one, starting with Smeaton’s Tower, Plymouth:

I grew up in Devon and I lived in Plymouth for a while, so I’ve known the lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe for most of my life. It was, perhaps, the very first lighthouse I ever saw up close. I have halcyon memories of climbing the tower on a warm summer’s day at the age of about 8. Back then I didn’t know much about this oversized barber’s pole but the story and importance of this strange, moving tower is a fascinating one.

Smeaton’s Tower was built in 1759, but it was actually Plymouth’s third lighthouse. The two that preceded it were both built on the very same spot: The Eddystone Rocks. This lonely outcrop lies some nine miles out to sea and has been a treacherous hazard to mariners for centuries.

The first lighthouse, Winstanley’s Tower, was first lit in 1698. This somewhat peculiar structure was wooden and seemed to have more in common with a park bandstand than a beacon. Sporting odd appendages and ornate ornamental ironwork, it was criticised for not being suited to the harsh environment. In an attempt prove its hardiness, its architect decided to stay in the lighthouse during a storm in 1703. His boast was perhaps an unwise one however, as the following day all that could be found of the lighthouse, its crew and the architect was a few stray pieces of twisted wood and metal.

The second lighthouse was far more hardy. Built of stone, Rudyard’s Tower was lit in 1709 and survived for several years. However, on the 2nd of December 1755, it too was tragically destroyed when its lamp caught fire. Try as they might to control the blaze by throwing water at it, the two keepers were eventually forced out onto the rocks, where they could only watch the tower burn. While trying to put out the flames a lump of molten lead from the roof fell down the throat of one of the keepers. The 94-year-old somehow survived for a week afterwards. Stranger still, when he died, the lump of lead was retrieved and now sits as a rather macabre exhibit in a museum in Scotland.

A month after Rudyard’s tower was destroyed, a ship ran aground on the rocks, claiming several lives. The tragedy confirmed the desperate need for a replacement.

Smeaton’s Tower was the answer.

Completed in 1759, it was a huge step forward in design. Built of huge interlocking sections, its architect is said to have based its elegant, sweeping silhouette on that of an oak tree. Both the lighthouse’s shape and its ability to sway slightly allowed it to withstand and dissipate the force of the waves. 

This groundbreaking design was the first of its kind and would become the blueprint for hundreds of lighthouses across the world. Its light shone for nearly 120 years before the rock below it began to crack, and it was decided that a replacement was needed.

By this time, though, it was so beloved by the people of Plymouth that a campaign was started to save the lighthouse. The public paid by subscription for it to be painstakingly taken down, brick by brick. Such was the quality of its construction that they could not remove its base, which can still be seen adjacent to the current lighthouse. The rest of the Tower was rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe, where it stands to this day.