Photo with kind permission of Trinity House.
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POSITION 50° 04'.0 N 05° 44'.8 W
Location: One mile off shore from Land's End, Cornwall
No. On Admiralty List of Lights: 0028
Present Tower Built: 1873
Tower Composition: granite
Height of Tower: 104 ft 3 ins ( 31.77 m) (from foundation rock to gallery)
Designer: William Douglass
Focal Height of Light: 110 ft (33.53 m) above mean high water
First Lit: 3rd December 1873
Light Characteristic: occulting sequence, 5 seconds bright, 5 seconds eclipsed
Visible Range on clear night: nominal 20 nautical miles
Automated: 14th October 1988
Monarch at time of construction: Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
Around the cliffs of Land's End, at the extreme south-west point of British mainland, there is displayed during storms a wild panorama described by John Ruskin as 'an entire disorder of the surges... the whole surface of the sea becomes one dizzy whirl or rushing, writhing, tortured undirected rage bounding and crashing and coiling in an anarchy of enormous power'. The headland is encircled by rocks on which countless ships have been lost in heavy seas or during poor visibility. Such disasters are rare nowadays, greater safety being afforded by modern aids to navigation. Among these is the Longships Lighthouse situated one mile to the west of Land's End.
In 1790 the area was completely devoid of any such aids and the coast dwellers gained an ample livelihood from plundering the ships driven on the rocks, of which each winter brought a full harvest. Ultimately, however, the needs of the navigators had to be met and seamarks planned in this dark region.
On 30th June, 1791, Trinity House obtained a patent in the usual way after lodging a petition from seafarers, and gave a lease to Lieutenant Henry Smith by which he would erect lighthouses or beacons on the Longships and Wolf Rock reefs, with a fixed rental set at £100 per annum for a term of 50 years.
This very colourful former Naval Officer came up with various schemes especially with regards to the Longships and Wolf Rock. He made numerous proposals to Trinity House to establish lighthouses near Land's End in Cornwall during the 1790's.
His attempts at erecting beacons on the Wolf Rock proved disasterous, with each costly project washed away by the first winter storms. At the end of 1791 and three attempts later, this project was abandoned.
In 1791 he secured another lease from Trinity House for the sole purpose of erecting a lighthouse on the Longships Reef, with the structure being designed by Samuel Wyatt. A tower was soon established on Carn Bras, the largest of the Longships Rocks which rose 39 ft (12 m) above high tides. The circular tower had three storeys. The lowest contained water tanks and stores, the next formed a living room and the lightkeepers used the top storey under the wood and copper lantern as a bedroom. The lantern was elevated 24m above the sea, and held 18 parabolic metal reflectors and Argand lamps arranged in two tiers. None shone towards the land, as metal sheets blocked the windows in that direction.
The lightkeepers on the Longships led a primitive existence, cooking their meals in the lantern by the Argand lamps. The lighthouse was manned by four men, two of whom were on duty at any one time, working one month at a stretch. They received £30 per annum and free food at the lighthouse, but when ashore they provided for themselves and had to take what additional employment they might find.
However the cost of building the Longships lighthouse far exceeded the budget allowed.Also the expected profits from shipping which was suppose to contribute towards the upkeep of the light did not materialise. Soon after lighting the tower on 29th September, 1795, he was declared "incapable of managing the concern". Now bankrupt he was sent to the notorious Fleet Prison in London until his debts were cleared. The life span for anyone in this prison was about six months because of the atrocious conditions. Trinity House took over the management of the Longships light and remitted the profits to his family through the Court of Chancery.
Later Trinity House bought back the lease for the Longships for quite a considerable sum, especially after the Corporation realised that vast profits were now within easy reach. However, the generosity of Trinity House to Smith's family (apparently under the pretext that he had first proposed the light ) proved much more costly than had been intended. The free profit of the lighthouse rose to £3,017 in 1831 after meeting the maintenance cost of the light of £1,183. In 1836 the profit was £8,293 and with 9½ years lease unexpired, the Corporation bought out the lessees for £40,676 inclusive of life rents. But there is no record that shows whether the luckless Lieutenant Henry Smith was ever released alive from Fleet Prison.
From the terrific seas which swept over the rock during storms, the lantern was so often under water that the character of a fixed light could not be determined with certainty. This eclipse by the waves was the reason given for the replacement of Wyatt's tower by the present grey granite circular tower, designed by William Douglass, in 1873. The original Smith and Wyatt lighthouse was not demolished. In fact the rock on which it stood had been undermined by the tremendous force of the sea. Within two months of the new lighthouse coming into service, it gracefully slid into the sea.
Longships Lighthouse was automated in 1988 and is now monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Operational Control Centre at Harwich.
1901043088 Longships by Martin Boyle