Eddystone lighthouse document

3998/15/2 © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

With thanks to a very generous individual, a wonderful collection of documents relating to the Rudyerd and Smeaton lighthouses on the Eddystone Rock was donated to the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office recently.

Dating from 1713 to 1759, the documents give information on the various shareholders who leased the light, as well as the accounts for the building of Smeaton’s Lighthouse.

These include the names of tradesmen supplying goods and undertaking various works.

The documents also show the shaky financial position of the backers and the need for further shareholders. This is due to the spiralling building costs and also the loss of income from shipping dues.

By 1706 the responsibility for providing lighthouses was given to the Master and Wardens of Trinity House.

They made an agreement with a man called Captain Lovet for a replacement for the first Eddystone Lighthouse [Winstanley’s], which had been destroyed in storms in November 1705.

A London silk merchant called John Rudyerd designed the new one and supervised its construction. It was built within two years but burned down on 2 December 1755.

John Smeaton was then engaged in 1756 to construct a new lighthouse.

He noticed that an oak tree could withstand high winds due to its shape and strength and designed his lighthouse along similar lines.

He also decided to prepare the stonework on shore, rather than on the rock. Work started on the stones at a yard at Mill Bay on 13 December 1756.

The work was supervised by William Tyrrell. He was a former mason from Portland, Dorset, where the stones for Westminster Bridge had also been worked.

The lighthouse was removed from the reef to Plymouth Hoe in 1877. The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office also hold the Hoe Committee minutes which detail this. There are some interesting facts contained within the papers in the collection.

Many of the men employed in the construction were Cornish tin miners.

Trinity House, the organisation that acts as the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, arranged for each man to be issued with a medal.

This confirmed they were working on the new lighthouse and meant they could avoid the possibility of press ganging, which was rife at the time.

The collection also contains a notice about fundraising methods for the rebuilding of the Eddystone Lighthouse, at a cost of £10,000, and the mortgaging of parts of the lighthouse to secure the funds.

The collection has been fully catalogued and is available to view in our archives catalogue. Use the search term ‘eddystone lighthouses’ and click on the results that start ‘3998’.

To look at the original documents you can make an appointment to visit the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.

Debbie Watson, Senior Archives Assistant. This article was first published on 10 June 2014.