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Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse

Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse

by Adam Hart-Davis, Emily Troscianko

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Adam Hart-Davis vividly recreates the story of the Eddystone Lighthouse, the character of the man who built it, and the power of the elements that finally destroyed them both.


Adam Hart-Davis vividly recreates the story of the Eddystone Lighthouse, the character of the man who built it, and the power of the elements that finally destroyed them both.

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The History Press
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Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse

By Adam Hart-Davis, Emily Troscianko

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Adam Hart-Davis and Emily Troscianko
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9511-8


The Eddystone

The troubled Ocean like a Caldron boils, And vomits up its long devoured Spoils ... Mountains of Water in the Air do glide, Waves on the back of Waves in Triumph ride ...

It is the land, not the sea, that makes a storm lethal to sailors. Out in the open sea, a good ship, well sailed, can get through most of what the skies might fling at it, but being blown on to the rocks leads always to disaster; as Daniel Defoe writes in his book, The Storm: 'The Fury of the Sea is the least thing our sailors fear: Keep them but from a Lee Shore, or touching upon a Sand, they'll venture all the rest.' Nevertheless, few sailors enjoy the fury of an Atlantic gale, and given the chance most would willingly take refuge in a safe haven – perhaps in one of the Channel ports. But the south Devon coast is as dangerous as any in the British Isles. Since records began, no fewer than 1,495 shipwrecks have been documented along its 90 miles, almost one wreck for every hundred yards of shore – and those are the ones we know about. Added to the usual dangers of a lee shore are those of rocks further out; barely sticking out of the water at high tide, they can be seen and avoided with difficulty, and can tear through a ship's hull with frightening ease.

As a ship runs from a growing gale in the Atlantic for shelter in the English Channel, the lights of a town suddenly flicker through the darkness and the spray to the north-east. Could it be Plymouth? Sighs of relief from the crew, since the headlands on either side of Plymouth Sound and the mouth of the Tamar river offer renowned and longed-for protection from the westerly winds. But 14 miles south-south-west of Plymouth lies a trap that has caught hundreds of sailors grown confident too early. Three ridges of rocky spikes spring up from the deep sea, one running approximately north–south, the other two splaying outwards from it. At low tide each ridge shows above the water for perhaps 300 yards, resembling a child's drawing of crocodile teeth, but at high tide only the two central rocks are visible; they just pierce the surface of a calmish sea, but are hidden by a heavy swell.

This cluster of rocks rises straight up from the depths, so there are rarely breakers to advertise its presence. And, as a steep mountain towering over the sea floor, it interferes with the water's normal flow and creates its own deadly maelstrom of tides and currents; hence its name, the Eddy-stone. The water is never calm round the Eddystone; as the Victorian poet Jean Ingelow puts it, '... the calmest seas that tumble there/Froth like a boiling pot'.

No one knows for sure how many ships have gone down on this 'rock of dark renown' (Ingelow). The square-riggers Half Moon in 1673, HMS Coronation and HMS Harwich in 1691 all sank before the fateful year of 1695, in which the sinking of Snowdrop and Constant spurred Winstanley to action. In the eighteenth century the sailing vessel Marseilles sank on 6 May 1746, and on 18 August 1756 the brig Pelican, en route from Spain, was lost with all hands. In August 1792 the brig Grampus from Whitehaven sank on her maiden voyage. Even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with lighthouses to warn them off, at least forty ships are known to have met their end here, but records from before the nineteenth century are scant. They often tell us no more than that a ship set sail on a given date, never to be seen again. A wreck on an inhabited shore might provide identifiable washed-up remnants – or even survivors – and the information find its way back to the owners; but a ship that sank at Eddystone could easily do just that – sink, unnoticed, to the bottom. Wreckage rarely drifted the 14 miles into Plymouth – and how many can swim so far in a stormy sea?

The countless ships lost on the rock itself are, furthermore, only a fraction of what it has to answer for; in his biography of the great eighteenth-century engineer John Smeaton, who later built his own lighthouse on Eddystone, Samuel Smiles explains the additional toll:

To avoid this terrible rock, the navigator was accustomed to give it as wide a berth as possible, and homeward-bound ships accordingly entered the Channel on a much more southerly parallel of latitude than they now do. In his solicitude to avoid the one danger, the sailor too often ran foul of another; and hence the numerous wrecks which formerly occurred along the French coast, more particularly upon the dangerous rocks which surround the Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney.

Eddystone was a perfectly placed peril. Plymouth has always been an important port. During the Hundred Years War against France, Plymouth provided 26 ships and 603 men for Edward III in the battle of Crécy in 1346 and the siege of Calais a few months later. In 1588, on the grassy clifftop above the Sound known as Plymouth Hoe, Francis Drake is supposed to have ignored the approaching Spanish Armada in favour of his game of bowls. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers set out from Plymouth in the Mayflower on a hazardous three-month crossing of the North Atlantic, and the captain noted the Eddystone in his log:

a wicked reef of twenty-three rust-red rocks lying nine and one half miles south of Rame Head on the Devon mainland, great ragged stones around which the sea constantly eddies, a great danger to all ships hereabouts, for they sit astride the entrance to this harbour and are exposed to the full force of the westerly winds and must always be dreaded by mariners. Leaving Plymouth, we managed to avoid this reef but ships making harbour must stand well to the south and this is difficult in stormy weather, for if any vessel makes too far to the south as likely as not she will be caught in the prevailing strong current and swept to her doom on those evil rocks.

Trade with the New World swelled year after year, but the city's status as a major port was compromised by the famous danger, which those wanting a share of the spoils had to avoid. On her travels in 1698 the diarist Celia Fiennes sketched the town as a picturesque port menaced by the seas:

Plymouth is 2 Parishes called the old town and the new, the houses built of this marble and the slatt at the top lookes like lead and glisters in the sun; there are noe great houses in the town; the streetes are good and clean, there is a great many tho' some are but narrow ... up to the town there is a depth of water for shipps of the first rate to ride; its great sea and dangerous, by reason of the severall poynts of land between which the sea runs up a great way, and there are severall little islands alsoe, all which bears the severall tydes hard one against the other ... The mouth of the river just at the town is a very good harbour for shipps; the Dock yards are about 2 mile from the town, by boate you goe to it the nearest way; its one of the best in England, a great many good shipps built there, and the great depth of water which comes up to it, tho' it runs up for 2 mile between the land, which also shelters the ships ...

The end of the seventeenth century was a turbulent time for the British monarchy. In February 1685 the fun-loving Charles II died, and his brother became king, but James II was immensely unpopular, especially for trying to reinstate Roman Catholicism. When his wife Mary produced a son who was widely (though wrongly) believed to be someone else's baby, smuggled into her bedchamber in a warming pan, the country turned against him, and he fled for his life. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Prince William of Orange, married to James's daughter Mary, restored the Protestant supremacy. William brought his fleet of 400 ships into Plymouth, for a safe haven in what is now Devonport Dockyard.

Increasing American trade was making the port ever more prosperous. Prince William wanted this financial growth to continue unchecked by natural obstacles, and recognizing Eddystone's dangers he decreed that a lighthouse should be built on it as a warning to approaching ships. However, recognizing and decreeing were only the start of the solution.

In response to this royal incitement, the accomplishments (or lack of them) of one Walter Whitfield were destined to echo those of a pair of similarly ineffectual gentlemen, Sir John Coryton and Henry Brouncker. Thirty years earlier, in 1665, Coryton and Brouncker had made a petition to the Admiralty at Trinity House for leave to erect 'certain lighthouses' on the southern and southwestern coasts of England, at that time entirely unlit. They suggested placing 'coal-fire lights' in a number of prime positions, including on the Scilly Isles, the Lizard, Portland Bill and the Eddystone. But Trinity House, the authority in charge of lighthouses then as now, while simultaneously acknowledging the necessity of a lighthouse, dismissed the Eddystone as a rock upon which any building work 'could hardly be accomplished'. Whether they were discouraged by this dampening response, or perhaps simply decided that they would rather avoid danger and stay rich, Coryton and Brouncker allowed their plans to sink out of sight, as the ships continued to do.

Whitfield's application to build a light on Eddystone, made in 1692, was likewise withdrawn when he realized how unattractive the terms would be. Trinity House decreed that the architect was to design and build the lighthouse at his own expense, and then recover the costs by collecting dues from ships sailing up the Channel which would benefit from its existence. But the rates stipulated were such that the outlay would not be recouped for decades: Trinity House considered that two pence per ton of ship would be quite enough, and, moreover, that 'the natives of his majesty's kingdoms' should be exempt from payment altogether. And on top of these discouraging terms was the high risk of failure. Eddystone was a protrusion of sloping slimy wave-dashed rock, hard enough to land upon, let alone build upon.

Then, in the last days of 1695, the enterprising shipowner Henry Winstanley was sitting having a quiet drink in a London pub when two bedraggled sailors staggered in and announced that one of his ships had sunk. On her way into Plymouth on Christmas Eve the Constant had gone down on the Eddystone Reef.

Then stepped two mariners down the street, With looks of grief and fear: 'Now if Winstanley be your name, We bring you evil cheer.'

Earlier that year the Snowdrop had gone down with her entire crew of sixty; now another vessel and more men had been destroyed by the Eddystone, spurring Winstanley to make the week-long journey, on horseback along rutted tracks, through the wilds of Devonshire to investigate:

'I will take horse,' Winstanley said, 'And see this deadly rock.'

What he found was a challenge that he could not resist. Engraver, engineer and entrepreneur, Henry Winstanley had enjoyed the patronage of King Charles II. He had built himself a house of wonders in Essex, and a fabulous amusement centre in London. He had become a nationally famous showman and a shipowner, but he believed himself destined for greater things; his ambition was insatiable. The new king had said there should be a lighthouse on the reef, but no one was prepared to build it. Here, at last, was a chance for Winstanley to show his calibre to the world. His bravery fuelled by ignorance and inexperience, he declared his intention of achieving the unachievable and building a lighthouse on Eddystone. As Smeaton later put it:

It would appear to those then best acquainted with them, that the difficulties necessarily attending such an undertaking, were likely to prove insuperable: and perhaps in reality it may have been a peculiar advantage to every undertaker, and to the undertaking itself, that no one could, previous to the actual commencement of the work, be fully sensible of the difficulties which would inevitably attend it; and which he must surmount or fail of success.

Had Winstanley known anything at all, in practical terms, about lighthouses, about rocks or about storms at sea, he would surely never have tried to satisfy his craving for fame by dabbling in such dangerous difficulties.


Audley End

Too large for a King, though it might do for a Lord Treasurer.

The seeds of Winstanley's rise to notoriety, sown by royal appreciation of his talents, sprouted within the elegance of Audley End, a manor house lying a mile west of Saffron Walden, spread beside the River Cam and the main London–Cambridge road (see plate section). Originally an abbey, it had been given by Henry VIII to Sir Thomas Audley on 27 March 1538 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the early 1600s Thomas Howard, the 1st Earl of Suffolk, aspiring to create the most impressive private house in England, commissioned a wooden model from Italy at the very stylish price of £500, and began in 1603 a renovation process that took a dozen years. James I, who visited the house in 1610 and again in 1614, when it was still unfinished, remarked astutely that the house was too large for a king, though it might do for a Lord Treasurer.

Fifty years later the 3rd Earl could no longer afford to live in his vast sprawling mansion, and was on the lookout for a wealthy tenant. When the Great Plague swept through London in 1665 the charms of the countryside suddenly appeared more seductive, and Audley End seemed the perfect place for Charles II to hold court.

Charles had had a rough childhood, an unhappy mixture of illness and exile. Born in St James's Palace on 29 May 1630, the boy was somewhat weakly despite his wilful vivacity; he became very ill after breaking his arm at the age of nine, and when he caught measles in Reading he was left behind and was most disappointed to miss the king's march to London. When he was only twelve he and his younger brother James were almost captured at the Battle of Edgehill. He could hardly overlook his father's growing unpopularity with both Parliament and people: just before his sixteenth birthday, his life under threat and a price of £1,000 on his head, he obeyed his anxious father's orders and sailed away to safety.

Charles I was executed in 1649, and Charles II was proclaimed king in Edinburgh and Dublin, but in only one or two places in England. Eleven years passed before he was able to make a triumphant landing at Dover. 'Infinite the crowd of people and the horsemen, citizens, and noblemen of all sorts', writes Samuel Pepys in his diary. 'The shouting and the joy expressed by all is past imagination ...'. After a splendid procession via Canterbury to London – 'So glorious was the show with gold and silver, that we were not able to look at it, our eyes at last being so much overcome' – Charles found both houses of Parliament waiting to greet him. Once officially king, Charles summoned his new Parliament and after leaving public curiosity to grow for a while – 'The talk of the town now is, who the King is like to have for his Queen' – at its first meeting took the opportunity to announce his engagement to Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of the King of Portugal.

This news, added to the recent overthrow of the Puritan influence, and the restoration of a tall and striking king, inspired much-needed confidence after the defeat of his diminutive father by Cromwell's armies, and the seven unsettled years of the Commonwealth. What better excuse for over-indulgence. Charles was exuberant and showy in mind and body. He liked to crown his swarthy 'fierce countenance' with a flowing dark periwig, a habit that quickly became a London trend; he liked flashy French fashions (except when war was declared against the French, when he had to resort to a pseudo-Persian style); he liked walking, dancing, tennis, hunting and going to the races; but he loved only women.

The royal wedding, in 1662, was celebrated at Winchester with suitable ostentation, but Charles unfortunately took an instant dislike to his bride, who had probably been chosen less for her personal attributes and more for her attractive dowry – £300,000 cash and the naval bases of Bombay and Tangier. The union allied the powers of England and Portugal, and brought England new territories and trading privileges, as well as two million Portuguese Crowns – but it gave Charles little sexual satisfaction. Not only did he keep his current mistress, Mrs Palmer, and make her Lady Castlemaine, but he arranged for her to become one of the ladies of the queen's bedchamber. Understandably indignant, Catherine dismissed most of her staff, but was in the end persuaded to retain the services of her low-born rival.

The diarist John Evelyn disapproved of all the king's affairs with characteristic prudishness, denouncing Lady Castlemaine with special bluntness as another 'Lady of Pleasure and the curse of our Nation'. However, Lady Castlemaine was far from being the only rival the queen had to contend with. When Charles went to Oxford in 1681, to fortify himself for the tedium of a parliamentary session with a day at the races, he stayed at Christ Church while the queen was banished to Merton, 100 yards from the back gate. His two mistresses, the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell Gwyn, lodged in the town – quite near enough ...


Excerpted from Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse by Adam Hart-Davis, Emily Troscianko. Copyright © 2013 Adam Hart-Davis and Emily Troscianko. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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