Although the foundations were laid, work did not progress until 1819 when, after persistent application to Trinity House by Bideford traders, supported by Liverpool and Cardiff merchants, Trinity House acquired a 999 year lease of the site for the yearly rent of a peppercorn.
The Corporation of Trinity House is a chartered body, whose objective is the safety of shipping and the welfare of sailors. It is the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands; the Principal Pilotage Authority in the UK and it is also a charitable organisation for the relief of mariners and their dependants.
The architect of the Old Light was Daniel Asher Alexander. He was surveyor to the Elder Brethren of Trinity House, having succeeded Samuel Wyatt in this post in 1807. Alexander was a close friend of the sculptors John Flaxman and Francis Chantry and specialised in large utilitarian buildings such as ware- houses and bridges. He designed the prisons at Dartmoor (1806-9) and Maidstone (1811-19) and in a lighter vein made alterations to Lord Radnor's houses at Longford Castle, Wiltshire and Coleshill, Berkshire (burnt down 1952).
The Lighthouse on Lundy was one of the last that he designed. It is an exceptional building set in an uncompromising position at 122 metres (470 ft.) above sea level. Alexander and his builder, Joseph Nelson, got it up in only a year. It is of island granite and the tower is unusual in having a granite cavity wall. The cavity wall was a brick technique whereby the regular thickness of the bricks made it possible to separate the outer and inner skin with a uniform cavity. Alexander adapted this technique for masonry on the Heligoland lighthouse tower in 1811 but Lundy was exceptional in having two skins of granite.
The maximum thickness of the wall is 3ft 6in at the base tapering to 2ft at the lantern, with a consistent cavity of 3in. The tower stands 96ft high, containing a spiral stone staircase of 147 steps. This ends in a balcony with decorated wrought iron balusters in the lantern gallery. The late Douglas Hague, an authority on lighthouses, suggests that this balcony, with its railings, is an addition, perhaps of 1857 when the light apparatus was also changed. The tower was non-residential containing only water-tanks in the basement, a workroom on the ground floor, with a landing above which was used for storing the oil. The lighthouse was first brought into use on 21st February, 1820, being the highest light in Britain, and having cost £36,000. It showed an upper beam which revolved by clockwork every 16 minutes, and a flash every two minutes. It was visible from a point 18 foot above sea level from some 32 miles.
Nine metres below on the exterior of the tower a rather curious canopy faces the sea on the west. From here a row of red lamps was hung, visible over an arc of 90 degrees. The angle of the canopy was arranged so that the light was visible only to ships 4 miles or less from the shore. If the vessel did not alter its course away from the island the lights disappeared - a warning that a collision with rocks was imminent.
Unfortunately, the red light often merged with the upper light at certain distances. To counter this, in 1839, the lamps were moved to a chamber 11ft 6in by 6ft 6in at the foot of the tower. Behind a glass window were set two rows of hemispherical reflectors, four above five, made of copper with a lamp placed in the focal centre of each, while the smoke was led off by a tube passing through each reflector to a common chimney behind.
Even this elaborate arrangement with its 25-mile range was frequently obscured by fog. In April 1858, Mr Heaven wrote that the light was not only useless 'in thick and blowing weather, but also in many dark nights, because when the island itself is free from it, the lighthouse stands so high that it is capped by fog'. Consequently he suggested that low lights should be built at the north and south points of the island. Possibly with their budget in mind, the Elder Brethren instead proposed a gun battery on the west side of the island.
The Lighthouse was therefore supplemented by the Battery site, chosen in 1863, when the two 18-pounder guns from the base of the light were installed. During fog one gun was fired every ten minutes. In 1878 the guns were replaced by guncotton rockets. Incredibly, two families lived on this isolated escarpment in their tiny cottages (now roofless) with the Atlantic waves crashing below and a brave seal occasionally showing his head.
Myrtle Langham writes in A Lundy Album that at one time there were 13 people living in the two cottages and when the Elder Brethren called on an inspection, some of the children were sent away to hide! Eventually the battery was abandoned when the North and South Lights were built in 1897 of granite drawn from the neglected quarries. Both these Lights have now gone automatic, the South Light as from 1995. Until then, the Trinity House helicopter, based near Cambridge, would land provisions and equipment every two weeks. Each keeper's shift lasted a month.
Current policy sadly decrees otherwise, but in the past no lighthouse could function without its lighthouse keeper. Connected to the Old Light by a passage, therefore, and designed and built at the same time, were quarters for two Keepers. These too were of granite with the gable end facing squarely into the prevailing westerly winds. Like the tower, the quarters were unashamedly monumental in detail, showing the influence of neo-classical architects such as Sir John Soane and the Frenchman Claude Ledoux, and their ideas on the imposing scale proper for public and industrial buildings. They also reveal Alexander's admiration for G.B. Piranesi's prints of Ancient Rome, which show gigantic buildings, made of cyclopean stones.
The Keepers' quarters were built to withstand the full onslaught of Atlantic weather and so their sash windows are set back deeply, with continuous overhanging granite dripmoulds of considerable projection. The copings used on the gable are so large and the kneelers at its base so heavy that these are supported on six attached square columns. Under the gable is a recessed relieving arch, a popular embellishment at that time.
The Lighthouse after closure
After the Lighthouse became obsolete in 1897, it was handed over to Rev. Hudson Heaven, as landowner. He leased it to Mr Napier Miles of King's Weston, Bristol, who used it for holidays until 1907. Thereafter it was available for rent until the Second World War.
In 1930 Mr Harman had agreed with the Marine Division of the Board of Trade and Trinity House to install radio telephone communication with Hartland Point Coastguard Station at his own expense. The Board of Trade selected the Old Light because the tower could provide admirable support for the aerial. The instrument was a Marconi XMB 1A short-wave combined transmitter and receiver with a call device which enabled the coastguards to ring Lundy at times other than the agreed signalling times of 9am and 4pm.
During World War II the Old Light was requisitioned by the Admiralty and housed a naval detachment. The Admiralty had asked Mr Harman if he could establish a watching station on Lundy and as the radio telephone was already installed at the Old Lighthouse, that is where it went. When the navy left at the end of the War, they donated their transmitter to the island, which was very welcome as the original one was becoming difficult to repair. Mr Harman resumed responsibility for it at the end of 1947. The agreement with the Board of Trade expired in 1960 and was not renewed, although the twice-daily calls to the Hartland Point coastguard continued as Lundy's only link with the mainland.
In 1947, Mr Harman gave the Old Light rent-free to the Lundy Field Society, which used it for many years as their HQ, with a hostel in the care of a resident warden. The Society also used the outbuildings in the compound and one was converted into a laboratory as a memorial to Mr Harman after his death.
For a short history of Lundy please click here.
To read the full history album for Lundy please click here.
A major restoration programme
Landmark carried out a major restoration programme at the Old Light. The first priority was to renew the windows in the tower which had disappeared, so that water was getting in. In 1976, Mike Haycraft fitted new windows of iroko, an African hardwood, which had been ready made by Rendells of Devizes. It was a complicated procedure since first of all a platform had to be constructed beneath the window openings to correspond with the steps beneath.
As there was no handrail, Mike had to wear a safety harness attached to the wall. The new windows were then screwed into the granite using a hand-drill, as there was no power. A steel handrail was then fitted up the staircase.
In 1979 a scaffold was erected around the lantern which was then repaired and reglazed and the windvane regilded. The door into the lower light chamber was blocked to prevent damp entering the tower. The two Keepers' quarters had remained as a hostel since 1969, being gradually improved and modernised. In 1982-3, they were returned to the original arrangement of an upper and a lower flat. The building was re-roofed at the same time, reusing all existing sound slates, with new slate from Cumbria to make up, supplied by Yeo & Co. from North Devon. The heaviest workable gauge of lead was used for the flashings - and even this has since been ripped off like tissue paper in hurricane force winds. These works were carried out as part of a large programme undertaken over two years by the contractor Ernest Ireland Construction Ltd of Bath, when all outstanding major restoration works on the island, halted by rising costs in the 1970s, were finished off in one go.