Saturday 8 June 2019

'Lighthouse of Wonders' by Karen Maitland

Henry Winstanley's Eddystone Lighthouse
If I could time-travel, one of the places I’d love to go back and visit would be the 'Essex House of Wonders', home of Henry Winstanley in the 17th century. Winstanley was merchant, artist, architect and engineer, born c.1644, and was the designer of the first Eddystone Lighthouse, which in many ways, was as extraordinary as his own house.

Winstanley filled his home with wonderful mechanical devices of his own design. In an accounted printed in 1823, Michael Rough gives some tantalising examples – 
"being taken into one particular room of his house, and there observing an old slipper carelessly lying in the middle of the floor, if, as was natural, you gave it a kick with your foot, up started a figure before you; if you sat down in a chair, a couple of arms would immediately clasp you in, so as to render it impossible to disentangle yourself till your attendant set you at liberty; and if you sat down within a certain arbour by the side of the canal, you were forthwith sent out afloat to the middle of the canal from whence it was impossible to escape …"
Winstanley's Geographical Playing Card
No.18/275, circa 1676
Photo: Halibutt
In the 1690’s, Winstanley devised a successful visitor attraction known as the ‘Water Theatre’ in Piccadilly, London, combining fountains, automata, mechanical surprises and fireworks. It featured The Wonderful Barrel, which sounds like an early vending machine, because it could produce both hot and cold drinks. He also designed and produced a set of Geographic Playing Cards which sold well.

He invested his money in merchant ships, two of which foundered on the treacherous Eddystone rocks, off the Plymouth coast. On learning that it was considered impossible to mark these rocks at sea to warn shipping, he announced that he would build a lighthouse there. Even though he was supported by Royal Navy ships and men, it took over three years to build because the conditions were so dangerous. Waves and wind perpetually lashed these savage rocks.

A further hazard was the French ships. England and France were at war, so a naval ship had to guard the men on the rocks at all times, but in June 1697, the guard ship was ordered to re-join the fleet and a French privateer vessel slipped in, kidnapped Henry Winstanley and destroyed all that had been built. King Louis XIV had Winstanley returned to England, declaring "France is at war with England, not with humanity." The lighthouse was finally completed in November 1698. During the five years this lighthouse was in operation not a single ship was wrecked on the Eddystone rocks.
Henry Winstanley 1644-1703
Self-portrait c.1680

But Winstanley’s fate was to be forever bound up with this lighthouse. Unlike the cramp and spartan living quarters in most lighthouses, his extraordinary Rococo lighthouse was fitted with a colourful and luxurious stateroom, of which he was so proud that he said that he would like to be in the lighthouse during ‘the greatest storm that ever blew under the face of the heavens.’

Whether this was prophetic or an amazing coincidence, Winstanley was in the lighthouse, overseeing repairs, on the night of 26th November 1703. That was night in which the worst hurricane ever to strike southern England, reached its full and deadly force. By morning, the Eddystone Lighthouse had vanished into the sea taking with it its eccentric designer, Henry Winstanley and five other men inside. They were six of an estimated 8,000 to 15,000 lives who were lost in that storm.

A few days later, a ship carrying tobacco from Virginia to Plymouth struck the Eddystone rocks and all hands perished.
'Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse
Artist: Attrib. to Vilhelm Melbye 1824-1882

Following the destruction of the first lighthouse, Captain John Lovett leased the rock, and was allowed to charge passing ships a toll of one penny per ton. He had new lighthouse built, designed by John Rudyerd, which survived almost fifty years. On the night of 2nd December 1755, the top of the lantern caught fire. The three keepers attempted to put it out with buckets, but were driven out onto the rocks and were rescued by boat as the tower burned. Sadly, the 94-year-old keeper, Henry Hall, died several days later from ingesting molten lead from the lantern roof.
John Rudyerd's Eddystone Lighthouse of 1708
Artist: Isaac Sailmaker C1633-1721

The third lighthouse was built of granite blocks by civil engineer John Smeaton who based the shape on an oak tree. The light was first lit on 16th October 1759 and it remained in use until 1877 when erosion to the rocks under the lighthouse caused it to shake whenever large waves crashed against it. Smeaton's lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe and is now open to visitors.

The fourth lighthouse was designed by James Douglass, using Robert Stevenson's developments of Smeaton's techniques. The light was lit in 1882 and it is still in use today.
Smeaton's Lighthouse rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe
Photo: Dave Skinner

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