Situated on one of the most rugged and exposed peninsulas in the English Channel, Start Point lighthouse has shone for the benefit of seafarers for over 170 years. During that time the lighthouse has undergone electrification and automation but its prime function and purpose remains undiminished.
James Walker’s design for the tower was approved in 1834 with construction being completed two years later. Walker was Trinity House’s consultant engineer from1825 to 1862 and during that time designed 29 lighthouses including Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock and the Needles. At the time there was considerable debate as to whether the light should be situated at Prawle Point or Start Point but the Elder Brethren (equivalent to a board of Directors) of Trinity House finally ruled in favour of its present position.
The contractor for the work was Hugh McIntosh who had submitted the lowest tender at £2765. Somewhat surprisingly, McIntosh was blind but this did not prevent him having a very ‘hands-on’ approach to the monitoring and cost control of the construction. Indeed his disability did not prevent him from becoming President of the Institute of Civil Engineers and being involved in the building of both Falmouth Docks and Swansea South Docks.
In essence the tower to be constructed was to be 67 feet comprising 80 courses of dressed granite, rising in three diminishing stages. The base walls were to be 4 feet 6 inches thick reducing to 2 feet at the top. The granite facing stones were brought in by boat whilst the rubble infill was quarried locally. There were to be six levels below the light and two basement levels. Of the six above ground, two were ‘service ’floors and four were living accommodation. The two basement floors comprised a kitchen plus coal store and an oil store.
It was decided that the main optic would be the same as that used in the famous lighthouse at Cordouan near Bordeaux. It was a rotating design and the optic was invented by Augustin Fresnel. His surname is now synonymous with the marvellous way that a series of concentric prisms can refract light into an intense single compact beam. Even now I find it surprising that the light we see today only derives from a 1000 watt bulb.
Before electrification, the light sources would have been provided by Argand oil burners which were invented by the Swiss scientist Aime Argand in 1784. The oil used was dependent on cost and availability but it is thought that herring oil, sperm whale oil, seal oil and rape seed were all used.
In October 1862 a fog bell was erected. Based on the gravitational power of a 0.65 ton weight, the huge clapper could strike the bell for 4.5 hours without attention. However the bell was deemed unsatisfactory and was subsequently replaced by a powerful fog siren in 1876. This was installed in a circular fog signal house to the south of the lighthouse. Effectively two coal powered engines would force compressed air through a rotating siren, discs and trumpets. The signal could be heard from places as far away as Salcombe.
Initially there would have been a Principal Keeper and an Assistant. Shortly after the installation of the complex fog signal system this was increased to three. To accommodate the keepers and their families’ additional dwellings were subsequently built. These houses still remain adjacent to the lighthouse and are rented out as holiday accommodation.
In addition to the extra dwellings, land was purchased so that the keepers and their families could be as self sufficient as possible. A garden was divided into 3 lots with its centre having a range of outbuildings including pigsties and chicken coops. In addition, the off-duty keepers would fish, catch rabbits and ‘farm’ seagull eggs.
Established 1836. Electrified 1959. Automated 1993.
Height of Tower 28 Metres
Height of Light above Mean High Water 62 Metres
Lamp 1 Kw
Optic 3rd Order Catadioptric Lens
Character White Group Flashing 3 Times Every 10 Seconds
Intensity 200,000 Candela
Range of Light 25 nautical miles
Fog Signal Character Sounds Once Every 60 Seconds
FURTHER INFORMATION and LIGHTHOUSE VISITS
In my opinion a visit to Start Point Lighthouse is a must. The remoteness (and indeed wildness) of the location is tangible and the views are breathtaking. The guides are friendly, extremely knowledgeable and bring the interesting history back to life. You can also purchase for less than £5 a magnificent book written by Roger Barrett which has proven to be such a valuable source of information for this brief synopsis of the lighthouse’s history.