Wolf Rock Lighthouse – An Achievement of Cornish Engineering

Wolf Rock Lighthouse – An Achievement of Cornish Engineering

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Wolf Rock Lighthouse has proudly protected travelling mariners for the last 148 years. During that time, the lighthouse has battled against fierce storms, two world wars and several shipwrecks. It is, without a doubt, an extraordinary achievement of Cornish engineering. Today, Wolf Rock Lighthouse is still catching the eyes of gazing visitors from the South Coast shore…

Image by Sarah Lee

Rising along the ridgeback shelf of rocks that lead away from Land’s End, Wolf Rock has been a rock formation that has marred the Cornish coast since the Cretaceous period. Formed from phonolitic lava, an uncommon form of volcanic rock unlike any other exposed rock found on the Cornish mainland, Wolf Rock has been special from the start.

Even the name itself originated from the sound of the fierce howling the wind makes as it passes through the fissures of the rocks and of the dangers it posed (and still does) to unsuspecting ships crossing its path.

The story of Wolf Rock Lighthouse began in 1791, when Lieutenant Henry Smith received permission from Trinity House to build a navigational mark on the rocks. In the following decades, four attempts were made to build a lighthouse on the site, each one eventually succumbing to the unruly winds and savage storms. Perhaps the strangest attempt to mark the treacherous site was when a wolf statue, cast out of bronze, was commissioned to be placed on the rock and designed to howl when the wind blew through it. Of course, the hazardous seas and unpredictable weather kept the bronze wolf from ever being installed.

Finally, in March of 1862 under the watch of Trinity House engineer James Walker, a fifth lighthouse was commissioned to be built on the rock.

Everything about materials used in the build, exuded Cornish strength. The sand used in the mortar came from the mine dumps at Balleswidden in St Just, which were renowned for withstanding harsh weather conditions. This was not Walker’s first attempt to construct a navigational mark on Wolf Rock, during the 40’s, Walker spent five years building a cone shaped beacon made of iron plates and filled with concrete rubble. The beacon was completed in 1848 and can still be seen next to the lighthouse.

The design for the lighthouse came from earlier structures used to a similar purpose, and Walker turned to the works of John Smeaton, designer of Smeaton’s Tower in Plymouth, for inspiration. Smeaton was an impressive designer and engineer, at later dates in his illustrious career, Smeaton also constructed Eddystone Lighthouse in Rame Head and Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives. With Smeaton’s tower having been completed in 1759 (it originally sat beside where Eddystone now stands until it was moved from Rame Head and rebuilt in Plymouth after the rock beneath it began to suffer from erosion) Walker used these designs as a basis for Wolf Rock.

The distance from shore and the difficult location in which the navigational mark was to be constructed, made Wolf Rock a perilous build site. Powerful gales, strong currents, dangerous rocks and vicious storms made building a slow process. During five years of its seven-year production only twelve and a half days of work could be carried out on the site.

Then in October of 1862, James Walker died of a heart attack at the age of 81 (he could see no reason to retire from his fulfilling career so far). Engineer James Douglass took over as Chief and appointed his younger brother William as Resident Engineer. The brothers were known for their hands-on approach towards the build and felt it was important to lead by example instead of designation. Earlier in the year during July, James Douglass nearly drowned whilst visiting the Wolf Rock site to conduct a survey after rough seas forced him to dive into the ocean to be hauled up by rope to the longboat.

The stones used were prepared and shaped in Penzance before being shipped out and each one weight at least a ton. By 1864, just 37 blocks of the second masonry course were laid. A bought of good weather and a renewed sense of determination must have seen the build pick up speed as finally on 19th of July 1869, the Wolf Rock Lighthouse was completed.

In total, it took around 70 men to build the mark. The total cost to even build the lighthouse, considering the equipment bought to illuminate the structure, incidental expenses and the fact the location of the lighthouse was extremely difficult, was 62,726 pounds.

On the 1st of January in 1870, the Wolf Rock Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time. Standing at 41 metres high on a single rock 8 nautical miles southwest of Lands’ End and 18 nautical miles east of St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly, the lone lighthouse was to be a beacon to ocean farers travelling between to two spits of land and to protect them from the shallow reefs and rocks beneath. Standing just 17 feet above low water at its highest point, the lighthouse is made of 44,500 cubic feet of granite and weighs just over 3000 tones.

And whilst the lighthouse’s purpose was to protect mariners from its dangerous shores, it continues to be no stranger to wrecking. The site has claimed many vessels. One of the most notable wrecks was that of a German U-Boat, which hit the Wolf on the 18th of December in 1944. Whilst the vessel managed to clear the rock, the severe damage caused led to its sinking within the hour. Ten members of the crew, including the vessel’s commander, were killed. Several other occurrences have propelled the lighthouse into notoriety, including the missing case of a keeper during 1869. Despite all safety precautions on the lighthouse in place and a full search conducted by the Lifeboat and Trinity House, the keeper’s body was never found.

In 1973, the lighthouse became the first in the world to have a helipad installed above its lantern, gaining world-wide notability. The installation helped future keepers leave the lighthouse much easier than the previous boat pick-ups. With the lighthouse finally becoming automated in 1988, the lonely light still continues to cast its warning glow across the rocks to ward off mariners to this day.

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