The Isle of Wight, located halfway along the world's busiest shipping lane, the English Channel, close to two of the world's busiest ports, Portsmouth and Southampton, has been the cause of many shipwrecks over the last centuries. Since 1328 the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight have been guarded by a number of lighthouses, six built on the Island1 in three different locations. Of these lighthouses, two are still in operation today.
- 1328 - St Catherine's Oratory constructed
- 1547 – St Catherine's Oratory dissolved
- 1785 – St Catherine's 'Salt Cellar' begun and abandoned
- 1785 – Needles Headland (Freshwater) Lighthouse constructed
- 1838 – St Catherine's Lighthouse constructed
- 1859 – Needles Headland (Freshwater) Lighthouse closed
- 1859 – Needles Lighthouse completed
- 1875 – St Catherine's Lighthouse lowered
- 1897 – Egypt Point Lighthouse constructed
- 1920 – Nab Tower emplaced
- 1989 – Egypt Point Lighthouse deactivated
In England and Wales today there are two different types of lighthouse – large, powerful lighthouses looked after by Trinity House, and smaller navigational aids and harbour lights. The earliest lighthouses in England were ecclesiastical foundations in the care of the church; however these were closed during the reign of Henry VIII. Modern lighthouses began with local trade guilds representing seamen, merchants, masters and pilots, one of which, the Deptford Trinity House, was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1514 to maintain a monopoly of pilots on the Thames. Their responsibility increased in the 17th Century to build lighthouses around the mouth of the Thames and East Anglian coast, gradually spreading to include all lighthouses in England and Wales in an Act of Parliament in 1836.
Smaller harbour lights to guide ships into port at night have also been constructed, normally in the control of their local harbour authorities. Advances in radar, searchlights, satellite navigation, radio and propulsion have meant that ships are not so completely at the weather's mercy have made many of these smaller lights redundant. They have also meant that by the end of the 1990s, all lighthouses in Britain have been electrified and automated, and no longer require lighthouse keepers to keep the lights lit.
Each lighthouse has its own unique light pattern consisting of length and colour of flashes and gap between the number of flashes. This helps ships identify which lighthouse's light it is they are seeing. Similarly, lighthouses have their own pattern of colour and band width of stripes, if any, painted on their sides, different to all other lighthouses in the nearby vicinity to avoid confusion during the day.
- Exhibited light – The period when the lighthouse light is visible.
- Eclipsed light – The period when the lighthouse light is not visible.
- Flashing light – A light where the period of light is less than the period of darkness.
- Occulting light – A light where the period of light is more than the period of darkness.
- Isophase light – A light where the period of light is the same as the period of darkness.
- Elevation – Lighthouses's light above sea level – the greater the elevation, normally the further the light is visible, although the greater likelihood of the light being obscured by fog.
- Lantern – The glass-enclosed space at the top of the lighthouse housing the lens and optic.
- Gallery – Walkway surrounding the lantern.
St Catherine's Oratory
The oldest lighthouse on the Isle of Wight, and the second oldest lighthouse in the British Isles after the Roman Pharos in Dover Castle, is St Catherine's Oratory. This structure, in the care of English Heritage, is a Scheduled ancient monument and Grade II Listed building.
Looking like a medieval attempt to build a rocket, St Catherine's Oratory, locally known as the 'Pepper Pot', is an eight-sided tower with a cone roof and four buttresses that look like a rocket's fins. Britain's oldest mediæval lighthouse rests on the top of St Catherine's Down, close to the southernmost point of the Isle of Wight. The tower is 35.5ft tall, containing four storeys. At the top floor, each of the eight sides has a window through which the tower's coal fire could be seen. The down the lighthouse is built on is over 750ft above sea level and is often surrounded by sea mist and fog, making the effectiveness of the lighthouse when it was in operation quite questionable.
Although octagonal outside, the interior of the Pepper Pot is square. There are two doorways, one above the other, which would have been entered from the attached Oratory's priest's dwelling on the ground floor and chapel on the first floor, which was closed and destroyed on the dissolution of the monasteries in 1547.
The Pepper Pot's Construction
In April 1313 the merchant ship St Marie of Bayonne, carrying the finest quality wine from Tonnay in the Aquitaine region of France, ran aground on Atherfield Ledge in Chale Bay. All the sailors survived and the local Islanders salvaged the wine. However all 174 casks of wine soon disappeared, with Lord Walter de Godeton2 of nearby Chale Manor caught plundering it. Walter de Godeton was charged with illegally receiving the casks and was fined 227.5 marks. There the matter might have ended, had the wine not belonged to the monastery of Livers in Picardy, who appealed to the Pope.
The Pope declared that taking Church wine was sacrilege and summoned Walter to the ecclesiastical court in Rome. The Pope told Walter that he would be excommunicated from the church and his soul would be damned to burn in Hell for all eternity. The only way to avoid such a fate would be by atoning for his sin by building a lighthouse on top of Chale Down to prevent any more shipwrecks, near the oratory to St Catherine of Alexandria3. As well as construct the lighthouse, de Godeton would bequeath money to finance a priest to pray for the souls of those at sea. This Walter de Godeton did, finishing the lighthouse by 13284.
The surrounding area contains Bronze Age barrows as well as the second oldest 'lighthouse' on the Island, nicknamed the 'Salt Cellar'. After the lighthouse was closed in 1547, ships continued to be wrecked in the area. In 1785 Trinity House decided to begin constructing a new lighthouse on the top of St Catherine's Down. The position for this was 70 yards closer to the sea than the Pepper Pot, however the new lighthouse was only constructed to the bottom of the first floor when work was abandoned. It was realised that the lighthouse was too high and top of the down was too often surrounded by impenetrable sea mist and fog for the lighthouse to actually be visible. The unfinished remains of the lighthouse from 1785 are a Grade II listed building.
On Wednesday 11 August, 1999 the South of England experienced a total eclipse of the sun. Although only parts Cornwall and Devon achieved totality, St Catherine's Down, being located at the southernmost corner of the Isle of Wight, managed to get over 99%.
One researcher described being there at the site of the mediæval lighthouse during the eclipse with the words,
'I took the day off work, and drove down to Blackgang Chine around 9am. At the Theme Park we bought eclipse glasses, and we could already see the moon and the sun not too far from each other in the sky. We climbed the hill to the Pepper Pot on the top of St Catherine's Down, 290 metres above sea-level, and it was quite a climb - fewer than 75 people made it to the Pepper Pot at the top by the time of the eclipse. From the top we could see the sea curve round to the west, south and east. Looking west, we could see a line of darkness steadily approaching along the shore.
It was quite sunny on the Island, but looking out to sea, we could see the darkness approaching. A few people had telescopes etc. with devices to monitor the eclipse while the moon gradually crept over the sun. When the sun was completely eclipsed, we could see that the sun was no-longer visible, we could see the line of darkness and light out to sea, and we could see that where the sun was, there was only the black darkness of the moon. But no-one, though, told us to expect the cold.
When the eclipse came over us, the whole area just froze. It became freezing cold - numbing cold, the cold where you cannot feel any part of your body. My arm froze, and I wasn't able to move it again until about 45 minutes after. The people around were freezing, and on a sunny summer's day. What I remember other than staring into the black and the sun being swallowed, pacman-like, by the moon is the eternal feeling of cold.'
St Catherine's Lighthouse
After St Catherine's Oratory was abandoned, Chale Bay witnessed shipwrecks so frequently, it had become known locally as the Bay of Death. Sixty ships sank in the area between 1746-1808. However it took the most infamous shipwreck of the Island's shore before anything more was done. The wreck was the Clarendon, a three-masted ship with a crew of 16 and 10 passengers including five young girls and two women which was driven to the shoals of Blackgang Chine during a fierce storm. Locals managed to rescue three of the sailors on board, however the broken bodies of the thirteen sailors and ten passengers (including the five young girls and two women), clothes ripped off by the force of the storm, were later swept to shore. All but one of the bodies came ashore at Chale, where they were buried. The remaining body, that of a Miss Gourley, was carried by the water and came to rest at Southsea, at the foot of her father's garden.
Trinity House, given responsibility for lighthouses by Act of Parliament in 1836, was swamped with demands for a lighthouse to be built at St Catherine's Point to help prevent further disasters. The new lighthouse was therefore built three miles from St Catherine's Oratory, in a position closer to the sea, overlooking St Catherine's Point, lower down on the Undercliff, west of the village of Niton. James Walker designed the lighthouse as a three-tiered octagonal tower, built 1838-1840. It was originally much higher than today, and 94 steps led from the ground to the lantern room. The elevation of the light proved to be too high, as the lantern frequently became mist-capped and in 1875 it was decided to lower the light 13m by taking about 6m out of the uppermost section of the tower and about 7m out of the middle. Doing this, though, destroyed its beauty and gave it a dwarfed appearance, however it meant that the tower was more effective.
In 1868 St Catherine's Lighthouse had a fog signal house constructed to help warn of the danger, with its own lighthouse keeper. By the early 20th Century this had eroded over the cliff and so in 1932 a second lighthouse tower housing the fog horn equipment was constructed adjoining the tower in the same style. This warned of the danger until 1987, when the fog horn was replaced with a radio beacon transmitter. The two towers have been nicknamed, with the lighthouse called 'The Cow' and the foghorn tower 'the Calf'.
Disaster occurred during the Second World War. On 1 June, 1943 eight Focke-Wulf 190 fighter-bombers attacked the village of Niton, presumably due to its proximity to the Ventnor radar station. This bombing raid killed three men in the village and destroyed St Catherine's Lighthouse's engine house, killing the three keepers on duty - RT Grenfell, C Tomkins and WE Jones, who are buried in nearby Niton's cemetery. This was the last bombing raid made during the Second World War to the Island.
Sadly, St Catherine's Lighthouse was automated in 1997 with the last keepers leaving on 30 July. The light is visible up to 30 nautical miles in clear weather, and is the third most powerful light in the British Isles. The light remains in use by Trinity House and is a Grade II Listed building. The lighthouse keepers' cottages too are Grade II Listed and are up for let during the summer. St Catherine's Lighthouse is also a Trinity House Visitor Centre, occasionally open to the public by prior arrangement between February and October, see the Trinity House website for details.
The Needles Lighthouses
The waters around the Needles on the Island's westernmost point are treacherous. Only a narrow navigable channel 1,830 metres wide separates the Shingles bank off the mainland and the chalk Needles rocks. At this gap the tide exiting the Solent, the water separating the mainland from the Isle of Wight, reaches speeds of five knots, while Atlantic storms up the English Channel can exceed 100mph with waves reaching 40 feet up the lighthouse.
Needles Headland (Freshwater) Lighthouse
The first lighthouse in this area was built in 1786 on the Needles headland following an appeal in 1781. Also known as the Freshwater lighthouse, Trinity House approved the construction of the Needles headland lighthouse in 1782 but work was not begun until 1785. The lighthouse, constructed by Richard Japp to Samuel Wyatt's design, similar to the lighthouse abandoned at St Catherine's Point and the completed old lighthouse across the Solent at Hurst Point. The lighthouse was circular, 22 feet in diameter and with an attached lighthouse keeper's cottage. The lighthouse had 13 lamps generating a light directed by 13 concave copper plated reflectors and was first lit on 29 September, 1796.
Despite the lighthouse, ships kept sinking near the Needles. The lighthouse was 462 feet above sea level with the lantern 475 feet above sea level, and was frequently enshrouded in fog. Experiments in replacing the old lamps with ten extra powerful Argand lamps designed to make the lamp visible for 11 miles still did not solve the problem. The lighthouse remained in use until 1859, when the present lighthouse was built. The tower, intended to be demolished immediately, was used as a souvenir stand until 1913. The wooden lighthouse keeper's cottage structure was removed and rebuilt in Totland, until it too was demolished in 1985.
The Needles Lighthouse
Plans to replace the Needles Headland lighthouse were drawn up by Trinity House in 1853 by engineer James Walker. In 1857 the outermost Needles stack was partly dynamited to form a platform. On this the 109-foot new lighthouse was built. Work began on the tower on 26 July, 1857, although the workforce led by Thomas Ormiston spent almost the entire time of the first eight weeks of construction submerged in sea water building the solid granite foundation, as well as cellars and storehouses. In 1858 the tower was constructed of precision granite blocks that dovetailed together, designed to withstand hurricane force winds and 20 feet high waves.
Unlike other rock lighthouses, the Needles lighthouse is perpendicular, as wide at the top as at the bottom, although the wall's thickness decreases at the top. The base has an uneven stepped design intended to break up waves crashing against it. The lighthouse was originally painted with a black band, gallery and lantern, although this has been replaced and the band, lantern and gallery are now red.
The ground floor of the lighthouse was used as the oil room, the first floor for provisions, second floor contained the kitchen, the third floor contained the bedroom and the fourth floor was the service room, with access to the lantern.
The light was first lit on 22 May, 1859.
Life on the lighthouse was tough, with waves over 40 feet high reported and spray often reaching the top. Manned by three men and visible up to 17 miles, it has a unique flash of two second flashes followed by 14 seconds of darkness. Potentially separated from the Island for weeks at a time, only one lighthouse keeper has quit, after an argument with his fellow keepers over cricket. Life was made even more difficult during the Second World War, when the lighthouse was a frequent tempting target for the machine guns of German aircraft passing by.
In 1987 the lighthouse's original roof was converted into a helicopter pad above the lantern, leading to jokes that the lighthouse is the Island's smallest airport. In September 1993 an electric cable was laid from the Old Battery, along a trench, threaded through the last Needle and into the lighthouse, causing the lighthouse to be fully automated in December 1994, one of the last three manned lighthouses in the British Isles. Today the lighthouse is a Grade II listed building and still a working lighthouse run by Trinity House.
Egypt Point is the Island's northernmost point, located in the town of Cowes, traditionally home of the Island's shipbuilding and aircraft industry. The lighthouse is located on the promenade by the sea shore and was built to help ships navigate to the port of Cowes, the home of world yachting5.
The lighthouse itself is 25 feet tall and was constructed in the shape of a beacon, with a white base, a red post and the lantern surrounded by blinkers to prevent the traffic using the promenade from being blinded. Constructed in 1897, the lighthouse held an electrically powered white light that was visible for ten miles until it was deactivated in 1989. The lantern was then removed and displaced at the Trinity House Lighthouse Museum until that closed, when it was removed and taken to the Trinity House display at Hurst Castle on the mainland in Hampshire. The Egypt Point lighthouse remains today a local landmark.
Off Shore Fort Lighthouses
As well as the lighthouses built on or close to the Isle of Wight, five fortified structures in the part of the Solent known as Spithead have also been used as lighthouses. These are St Helen's Fort, Spitbank Fort, Horse Sand Fort, No Man's Land Fort and the Nab Tower. The first four were built as Solent Sea Forts under the administration of Prime Minister Palmerston. As the forts were built on sandbanks, and concrete blocks had been sunk in Spithead to ensure that all ships passed between the two larger forts, in the range of their guns, navigation lights were required on the forts to guide ships into the Solent and safely to port.
St Helen's Fort Beacon
Located just under a mile off shore on the Island's north-east shore lies St Helen's Fort, the smallest of the four sea forts in the Solent, built in 1867 to guard St Helen's Roads and the shore between Bembridge and Nettlestone from a potential French attack. St Helen's Roads is a deep anchorage off the village of St Helen's frequently used by the Royal Navy as it was sheltered from all but south-east winds, and leads to the mouth of the East River Yar, the entrance to Brading Haven and Bembridge Harbour. The fort was built at the end of a sandbank's spit that projected eastward from Bembridge Point.
Although built as a fort to defend the shore from enemy ships, in 1871 a 23-foot square tower was built on the top. Although not actually a lighthouse, it houses a white navigation light that is visible for eight miles, which shows three white flashes every ten seconds.
Spitbank Fort was built between 1861-1878. This was the sea fort closest to Portsmouth Harbour, constructed on the Spit Sand outside Portsmouth Harbour. To warn ships of the danger of the Spit sandbank, a lighthouse was constructed on the top in 1866. That the lighthouse was built before the rest of the fort was completed shows how important the lighthouse was considered. This lighthouse was built on the south side of the fort, 24 feet tall with a red lantern, showing a flashing red light visible for seven miles every five seconds. Although the fort is no longer manned, the lighthouse is still in operation.
Horse Sand Fort
Horse Sand Fort 1865-1880. Instead of a lighthouse, a mast was built on which was mounted a green light, which flashed one second on, one second off. In the central building on the Upper Gun level were the lighthouse keeper's quarters.
No Man's Land Fort
The twin to Horse Sand Fort, No Man's Land Fort was built between 1867-1880. It retains its 33 foot lighthouse tower, a white, octagonal tower with a lighthouse keeper's cottage. The lighthouse's lantern flashed a red light every three seconds, but the lantern was replaced by a light on a pole on the top of the tower. In 2010 No Man's Land Fort was sold and the light deactivated.
The Nab Tower is the only offshore lighthouse in the care of Trinity House and is a unique construction. Like the other three forts, it too was intended to be a sea fort, but not for the water around the Isle of Wight, nor was it constructed in Victorian times.
By the latter half of the Great War, German U-boats were frequently attacking Britain's merchant navy in an attempt to blockade Britain and force her surrender. This campaign worried the Admiralty so much that they decided that the only solution to the problem of U-boats sinking ships was to fence off the English Channel. If the U-boats could not get through the English Channel, no more ships would be sunk.
The plan was to build between eight and twelve floating fort-towers, each costing over £1,000,0006. These would be 40 feet in diameter, constructed of steel 90 feet high, on a base of concrete 80 feet thick. The concrete would be honeycombed, enabling the towers to be floated to the Straits of Dover where they would be put in position, the honeycombed base would be opened and so the towers would sink into position in water 20 fathoms deep. Between each tower would be a network of steel nets and booms, preventing U-boats from traversing the gaps, with each tower armed to the teeth and manned by 90-100 men. The plan was flawless in every detail except one; before the second tower was completed an armistice ending the war had been signed.
This led to the problem of what to do with the one and a half towers actually constructed. The incomplete one was sold for scrap7, while the finished article was towed to the position of the Nab Rock at the eastern entrance to the Solent and Spithead in 1920, replacing the Nab Lightship. Here it would serve as a lighthouse, yet was also in a strategic position to defend the Solent should an enemy fleet attack. Indeed, it saw service during the Second World War, reportedly shooting down three and a half enemy aircraft8, although a Hurricane piloted by Pilot Officer JA Jottard fatally crashed near the tower on 27 October 1940.
The tower was towed to the Nab Rock, where the water gates were opened and the tower sank, although it settled at a 3° angle. Initially two turrets at the top held a white and red light each and three lighthouse keepers manned the tower, the top of which was later converted into a helicopter pad. In 1983 a red lantern tower was installed with an automated light. In 1995 the tower was converted to solar power and the lantern has a flashing white light visible for 16 miles.