Bishop Rock Lighthouse

Bishop Rock Lighthouse

Men Epskop

Tel: (01736) 786900


Bishop Rock Lighthouse stands on a rock ledge 150 feet long by 50 feet wide, four miles west of the Isles of Scilly. The rocks rise sheer from a depth of 150 feet and are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean making this one of the most hazardous and difficult sites for the building of a lighthouse.

The rocks around the Isles of Scilly caused the wreck of many ships over the years including the loss of Sir Cloudesley Shovel's squadron of the British Fleet in 1707 in which 2,000 men died. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House decided that the lighting of the Scilly Isles, which at that time consisted of only the old lighthouse at St. Agnes, was inadequate, and resolved to build a lighthouse on the most westerly danger, the Bishop Rock.

James Walker, Engineer in Chief to Trinity House, was against building a solid granite tower arguing that the rock ledge was too small and the elements too powerful, being exposed as it was to the full force of the Atlantic ocean. Walker demonstrated that the wind pressures at times exceeded 7,000 lb per square foot, and as many as thirty gales a year were not unusual in the area.

Thus in 1847, it was decided to erect a screw-pile lighthouse at a cost of £12,500. The first task was to sink six cast iron legs into the solid granite, braced and stayed with wrought iron rods. The designer maintained that the waves would be able to roll freely among the piles instead of being obstructed by the solid mass of masonry tower. When work was suspended at the end of 1849 the building was complete all but the installation of the lighting apparatus. Before it could be completed the following season, a heavy gale swept away the whole structure on the evening of 5th February 1850. Fortunately without any loss of life.

Undismayed by the failure of the first lighthouse, James Walker once again turned to the idea of a granite tower based upon Smeaton's Eddystone. After surveying the site, he finally chose a small but solid mass giving room for a base ten yards in diameter. The surface waves constantly swept over the site, and indeed the lowest blocks had to be laid a third of a yard beneath low water mark. A heavy coffer dam was erected around the site and the water within pumped out, so that the masons might be able to work on a dry rock face. Each granite block, weighing from one to two tons, was set into its preselected position, and each course dovetailed and keyed into position at the sides, top and the bottom thus forming an immovable mass. The workmen were housed on a small nearby uninhabited islet, where living quarters and workshops were erected. The men were carried to and from the site as the weather permitted. Working spells were brief, as well as being few and far between, and after seven years labour the tower was finally completed. All the granite was despatched from the quarries at Lamorna to the island depot on St. Mary's where it was shaped and numbered before being sent to the rock. In all the 115 foot tower contained 2,500 tons of dressed granite and cost £34,560. The light was first exhibited on 1st September 1858. During one particularly powerful storm, waves rolled up on the side of the lighthouse and tore away the 550 pound fog bell from its fastenings on the gallery.

During an especially heavy storm in April 1874 the tower was severely and repeatedly shaken by a succession of 120 foot waves, which shattered the reinforced glass of the lantern and sent cascades of water down through the living quarters. Later that year James Douglass (who had succeeded Walker as Engineer-in-chief at Trinity House) returned to Bishop Rock with a team of men to reinforce the lower section of the tower using broad iron bands, which were bolted through the stonework.

In 1881 Sir James Douglass made a detailed inspection of the tower and reported extensive damage and weakness in the structure. It was decided to strengthen the tower and at the same time to increase the elevation of the light by forty feet. The plans, though quite complex in nature essentially entailed the building of a new lighthouse around the old one, completely encasing it. The real weakness was the foundation and this Douglass proposed to strengthen and enlarge with massive blocks of granite sunk into the rock and held there by heavy bolts. It was an enormous cylindrical base, providing the lighthouse with an excellent buffer onto which the force of the waves could be spent before hitting the tower itself. The masonry casing, averaging three feet in thickness, was carried up as far as the new masonry required for the increased height of the light. The weight of the additional granite was 3,220 tons, making a total weight of 5,720 tons. The height of the new tower is 167 feet. Work was completed in October 1887 at a cost of £65,000.

On the 19th December 1898 principal keeper John Ball was swept to his death from the rock. His body was never found.

In 1902 a new clockwork mechanism was installed to turn the lenses; by this time the optic had been modified to float in an annular mercury bath, which enabled it to turn much more freely. Two years later incandescent oil burners replaced the old multi-wick burners; they were upgraded with the installation of 'Hood' incandescent burners in 1922. These remained in service until 1945, when they were replaced with electric lamps (powered by Stuart Turner diesel engined generating sets). A separate small Petter-engined generator provided electricity for the keepers' domestic use from 1955; it replaced a petrol-driven machine which had been installed during the war to power a radio-telephone (enabling direct verbal communication with ships, the shore and other nearby lighthouses). The electric installation was upgraded (with the provision of Lister diesel generator sets) in 1973.

On the 16th January 1947 two BBC reporters were rescued from the Lighthouse after bad weather stranded them at the lighthouse for 29 days. The two men had planned to stay on the lighthouse for only a few days, but the same gale-force winds and heavy seas that featured in their Christmas round-up were also preventing their scheduled relief.

The original light source was an eight wick oil burner with two sets of lenses one above the other which was later altered to an oil vapour lamp using a mantle and in 1973 was altered again when electricity was installed. This was followed by the installation of a helideck above the lantern in 1976. The top set of lenses were removed and can be seen in The Lighthouse Museum in Penzance.

Bishop Rock was converted to automatic operation during 1991 with the last keepers leaving the lighthouse on 21st December 1992. The Lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Operations Control Centre at Harwich in Essex.

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