Happy birthday, Tuskar Light!

200 years ago today, on 4 June 1815, Tuskar Rock Lighthouse was first lit. Lighthouse Inspector George Halpin’s plans for a lighthouse on the rock, off Wexford Harbour on the south-east coast of Ireland, were approved in 1811 and, despite some objections, building commenced in 1812. Ten men lost their lives in a storm and a stone-cutter died after falling 22m but construction continued until the work was finished. Now maintained by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the white-painted granite tower is 34m tall and the light has a range of 24 nautical miles. The light was automated and the keepers withdrawn on 31 March 1993. Both the light sequence and the fog signal have changed over the years; today there is no foghorn and there are two white flashes every 7.5 seconds.

Tuskar RockAlmost as soon as fire was discovered, beacons on high points of land began to be used as markers or warnings. As civilization progressed, these were replaced with towers bearing lights, the vast majority of which are now automated. The strength of the light, however, is still measured in ‘candles’. The first successful electric lighthouse was the South Foreland light, in southeastern England, in 1885; today most use solar-charged batteries. Each lighthouse has a unique ‘character’ (the sequence and colour of flashes and the time between each sequence) which allows sailors to identify their location even in thick fog or pitch darkness. The lighthouse at Hook Point, not far along the coast from Tuskar, was established by St. Dubhan in the fifth century and is the oldest continuously operational lighthouse in the world. The first lightvessel in Irish waters was the Dublin L.V., moored at the entrance to the River Liffey in the 1730s. The last lightship off the Irish coast, at South Rock in Co. Down, was withdrawn in 2009.

The Lighthouse (or Pharos) of Alexandria in Egypt was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built between 280 and 247 BC, it was for centuries one of the tallest structures made by man but suffered damage in earthquakes in 956, 1303 and 1523. In 1480 the Sultan used some of the fallen stones to build a fort on the remaining platform. In 48BC, the Pharos played a significant part in Julius Caesar’s civil war campaign, as shown in this translation and commentary by Clement Edwards of Caesar’s own history.

“The commentaries of C. Julius Caesar” Translated by Clement Edmonds ([London], 1677) Shelfmark: OLS X-2-377
Alexander George Findlay, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, was awarded the Society of Arts medal for his dissertation ‘The English lighthouse system’ and later produced A description and list of the lighthouses of the world. This is no mere list but begins with a ‘Pharology; or, A description of lighthouses, and their illumination’ which consists of chapters entitled ‘Early history of lighthouses’; Lighthouses and lightvessels’; ‘Lighthouse illumination’ and ‘General remarks’. The list itself is arranged by country, subdivided into East coast, South coast, etc. where appropriate (interestingly, Canada is described as ‘British America’) and contains a wealth of detail. The height quoted is the height in feet of the light above high water level rather than the whole tower. The black dot in the ‘Description of apparatus’ column for Tuskar and many others indicates a catoptric (from the Greek for mirror) or reflector light. There is a nice note at the foot of the page covering Nova Scotia which explains the need for stripes to distinguish the white towers from piles of snow! Before the title page is a sheet with three detachable coupons enabling the purchaser to receive, free of charge (although on payment of postage costs), a supplement containing additions and changes to the list for each of the following three years.

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Chance Brothers and Co., Limited was a glass-making firm situated near Birmingham – about as far from the sea in England as it is possible to be! Amongst others, the company provided the glass for the Houses of Parliament and the original Crystal Palace in London and the White House in Washington DC. The company, under James Timmins Chance and then John Hopkinson, was innovative in lighthouse engineering, introducing rotating optics, exhibiting at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and producing most of the optical equipment for British lighthouses for many years. The company received many questions about lighthouse apparatus and, in 1910, published illustrated notes for ‘those practically engaged in [lighthouse] work, who have not the time or opportunity to read or study the more technical books dealing with the subject’.

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During an an 1876 exhibition of scientific instruments and equipment in the loan collection of the South Kensington Museum in London, lectures on the exhibits were given to science teachers and subsequently published. A review in The Spectator on 11 October 1879 said ‘The book is in no way tedious or difficult to read, and yet it has the merit, so unusual as a characteristic of popular expositions, of being quite satisfactory from the scientific point of view.’ (The South Kensington Museum is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the Science Museum having become a separate entity in 1893.) Thomas Francis Pigot, Professor of Descriptive Geometry, Mechanical Drawing and Surveying (and later also Engineering) at the Royal College of Science for Ireland (now part of University College Dublin), gave two lectures in the series. ‘Lighthouse illumination’ was his second; his choice of topic was based on the models in the exhibition as he explained in the introduction to his first lecture, ‘Geometrical and engineering drawing’.

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William Henry Davenport Adams (1828-1891) was a journalist and writer on such diverse subjects as popular science, travel guides, military and naval battles, biographies, translations from French and an annotated edition of Shakespeare. His book on lighthouses and lightships, like most of his writings, was aimed at the general public and includes a section on the workings, interior and administration of lighthouses and one on the lives of lighthouse keepers as well as chapters on history and on particular lights. The two appendices are a list of the lights on the British and Irish coasts and extracts from an account by R. M. Ballantyne of a night spent in the Gull Lightship off the Kent coast. There are a number of engravings by several different illustrators; the beautiful images at the start of each chapter are signed Morison.

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William John Hardy (1857-1919) was an archivist, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an authority on a variety of subjects. He even trained his brother-in-law, an engineer, to work with him as a historian and thanks him in the preface to this book as he has ‘always brought to my knowledge any fact connected with Lighthouse history that he came upon in his researches’.

Perhaps to justify publication by The Religious Tract Society, the first chapter of Hardy’s Lighthouses: their history and romance opens with an excerpt from a ballad by Robert Southey and recognition that ‘Marking dangerous reefs, and leading the mariner safely into port, were, formerly, the work of Christian charity; they were two of the many useful offices which the Church performed when there was no one else to carry them out’.

The first three chapters cover the history of lighthouses, their workings and administration; Chapter IV recounts the story of brave Grace Darling, the daughter of the keeper of the Longstone light off north-east England; the other fourteen chapters discuss individual English lighthouses.

Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-1894) was a prolific writer of adventure stories for children. Aged 16, he went to Canada, where he spent five years working for the Hudson’s Bay Company before returning home to Scotland. In one of his earliest books, The Coral Island, he gave the incorrect thickness of coconut shells, after which he based his stories, as far as possible, on personal experience. To achieve authenticity, he lived with the keepers at the Bell Rock, off the east coast of Scotland, before writing The Lighthouse and spent a week on the Gull-stream light vessel in preparation for The floating light of the Goodwin Sands. Trinity’s copy of the latter contains wood engravings based on the author’s own drawings and is from the Pollard Collection of over 10,000 children’s books.