Smeaton’s Tower

The Box

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Most people would probably think of Smeaton’s Tower as a tourist attraction first and foremost. If you’ve lived in Plymouth for a long time you may even take it for granted, but it’s an amazing example of civil engineering. In fact, John Smeaton, the Yorkshire-born man who designed it, was the first person to describe himself as a ‘civil engineer’.

As many people will know, Smeaton’s Tower is the third of the four lighthouses that have been situated on the dangerous Eddystone Reef. The reef is located some 14 miles south west of Plymouth. Smeaton’s Tower was in use on the reef for 123 years, from 1759 to 1877.  

Building a lighthouse out at sea is a remarkable achievement. Smeaton researched the strengths and weaknesses of the previous buildings and carefully considered and planned all aspects of his pioneering design.

It was based on an oak tree – a tall natural object that can withstand gales without breaking. He insisted on building in stone and, with the help of William Cookworthy, reinvented a cement mix for damp sea conditions known as hydraulic lime.

Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse by William Gibbons, Oil on canvas
Collection: Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery ©

His building had a low centre of gravity while a wave deflecting ledge protected the lantern. The granite outer walls were strong and watertight, with each stone cleverly dove-tail jointed to its neighbours. It was a design that would influence many other lighthouses, including James Douglass’ replacement lighthouse of 1882. 

The construction of Smeaton’s Tower started in 1756 at a site in Millbay. Work was completed on the reef in August 1759 at a cost equivalent to nearly £6 million. The construction used nearly 1,500 blocks of stone.

In 1810, the 24 candles were replaced by oil lamps and reflectors.

In November 1824, the lighthouse survived the ‘Great Gale’ – a hurricane force wind and storm surge that hit the south coast of England. This extract is taken from a letter written by James Simmons, one of the Lighthouse Keepers:

The storm was very severe from the evening of the 22nd and increased with the rising of the tide, at or about five o’clock in the morning of the 23rd. The sea was tremendous, and broke with such violence on the top and round the building, as to demolish, in an instant, five panes of the lantern glass, and sixteen cylinder glasses, the former of which is of unusual thickness.

The house shook with so much violence as to occasion considerable motion of the cylinder glasses fixed in the lamps, and at times the whole building appeared to jump as if resting on an elastic body. The water came from the top of the building in such quantities, that we were overwhelmed, and the sea made a breach from the top of the house to the bottom.

In 1845, lenses were put in place in the lantern room to increase the intensity of the light.

In 1877 it was discovered that the rocks Smeaton’s Tower stood on were being eroded by the sea. Each time a large wave hit, the lighthouse apparently shook from side to side!

Due to its importance, the top two thirds were moved to the Hoe, rebuilt on a new granite base and opened to the public by the Mayor of Plymouth in September 1884. You can read more about this in a post we’ll be sharing later today! The lighthouse is now one of our most-loved and recognisable landmarks – a fitting monument to a pioneering building and its designer.

The foundation and stub of the old tower still remain on the Eddystone Reef. Those of you who have climbed to the top of Smeaton’s Tower to enjoy the views from the Lantern Room will know that if you look out to the horizon on a clear day you can see it close to the current lighthouse.

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