An Essex Born Legend who Perished with his Greatest Construction
When Henry Winstanley’s merchant ship was wrecked on the Eddystone Reef in 1695, he vowed to build a lighthouse to save more ships from the same fate. This ambitious construction was set to make Winstanley a living legend, but it collapsed in a storm with him inside.
There is, however, so much more to Winstanley than his famous lighthouse. He is a local legend in Saffron Walden and since moving here, I hear his name a lot. So, I have done a bit of research and am very happy to share it with you. This is the journey of a local Essex boy who became one of the most eccentric inventors of his time.
Henry was born in Saffron Walden, Essex in 1644. His father, also called Henry, was land steward at Audley End House and probably helped Henry get his first job. Henry became secretary to the Earl of Suffolk, Thomas Howard – the proud owner of Audley End Estate, which now belongs to English Heritage. Earl Howard made a payment of 5 shillings to Henry in 1666 to deliver a message to the council. Henry impressed the Earl with his intuition and he remained employed there for a number of years.
Henry married Jane Taylor (although other sources name her Elizabeth and Margaret) in 1683. They had no children.
While positioned at Audley End House Winstanley quickly gained popularity. Earl Howard commissioned him to produce 24 engravings of Audley End house in 1676. The house is much smaller today and these engravings form the most comprehensive record of its earlier state. Charles II bought Audley End in 1677 and promoted Winstanley, aged only 25, to Clerk of Works. He would have designed features for the garden and repaired areas of the house, among other things.
Henry also took on commissions outside of his role at Audley End. In 1679 the accounts for St Mary’s church, Saffron Walden record the following entry:
“to my son Henry Winstanley for paynting and contryving the Dyall and motion in the church – £8-0-0.”Churchwarden Accounts, St Mary’s Church archives.
Henry’s father along, with the other churchwardens at St Mary’s, commissioned him to create a new clock and mechanism. Ever the ostentatious man Winstanley’s design was elaborate. The clock had hammers which played chimes on 8 bells and spheres representing the sun and moon which rose and set each day. Sadly no images of it survive.
Later in the 1680s Winstanley created a lantern spire for the top of the tower at the same church. In some ways it resembles a lighthouse with a lantern-like, wooden frame. Winstanley may have thought about this design when he came to create his famous lighthouse, over a decade later. The church spire and the clock mechanism were replaced in the nineteenth century.
Winstanley’s Wonders and Waterworks
In 1679 Winstanley and Jane moved to their new house in Littlebury. Littlebury is just outside Saffron Walden, in walking distance of Audley End. The house was sited across the road from Holy Trinity church on the south and fondly known as The Essex House of Wonders. It was a marvel of tricks and delights for the visiting public which Winstanley built and invented himself. Sadly, it no longer exists, but we do have descriptive accounts from contemporary diarists.
“One chair, as my cousin Tresillian, sat in it descended perpendicularly about ten feet in a dark and dismal place. Another as he sat in it ran the length of a small orchard and over a moat, jumped in a tree, then descended and in a very little time stopped. A seat in ye garden was changed into several shapes. We gave a shelling to see ye house.”A Diary entry by William Usticke
Other visitors describe similar events. Richard Lawson of Urmston witnessed a “particularly comfortable looking chair” that, when sat upon, closed it’s arms around the sitter. A tea trolley of treats hovered magically from the ceiling to tempt diners and a magnificent weathervane topped the house. Later, Winstanley added a miniature version of his Eddystone Lighthouse as a tribute to its construction. Those who visited describe the house with utter delight. It was so popular that a turnstile was added, in place of the gate, which helped manage the queues and the takings supported Henry’s wife financially for years.
Winstanley built another elaborate, theme-park style house in Paddington, London. This one apparently had a large fountain that served whatever drinks the diner could have desired. He called it his Waterworks and it was still a sell-out destination through to 1713.
The Wrecking of Some Ships
Henry was still a young, fearless man when he discovered the dangers of the sea and the world of lighthouses. He had bought two boats both of which floundered on the Eddystone Rock near Plymouth. The boats, their cargo and the sailors were all, sadly, lost. According to legend, Henry heard this news while in a London pub with some friends. Apparently he leapt up and departed immediately to see the wreckage and the treacherous rock that claimed his boats. The Eddystone is actually fourteen miles out to sea, so when Winstanley arrived not much could be done to help. But in that moment he vowed to put a light on the rock to save lives, ships and cargo in the future.
“Had Winstanley known anything at all, in practical terms, about lighthouses, about rocks or about storms at sea, he would surely never have tried to satisfy his craving for fame by dabbling in such dangerous difficulties.”Hart Davies and Troscianko Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse
Why had there been no off-shore lighthouses before?
Up until this point there had never been a lighthouse built on a rock in the middle of the sea. Residents in coastal towns gathered the debris and cargo washed up from shipwrecks. They became known as ‘wreckers’. Wreckers believed that storms and the actions of the sea were acts of God. So, it was their God given right to benefit from the spoils of the wreckage.
For this reason, Winstanley had little support when he set out to build the lighthouse. Charles II and Trinity House had recognised the need for a lighthouse to be built on this spot years earlier, but nothing had been done about it. Most other builders thought it was impossible. Who would try to build anything on a treacherous, slippy rock with crashing waves all around? Even Trinity House seemed to think the venture was doomed and refused to put any funds toward it.
“Our mission as a General Lighthouse Authority is to deliver a reliable, efficient and cost-effective aids to navigation service for the benefit and safety of all mariners.”The modern day mission of Trinity House
Building the first Eddystone Lighthouse
In early summer of 1696 Winstanley set to work. He drew up his plans, found somewhere to stay in Plymouth and gathered a small handful capable and dedicated men.
Each day, Winstanley and his men had to row out to the Eddystone taking all of their tools and materials with them and then row back again. It was not safe enough on the rock to stay overnight and there was no way of securing their tools out there. Some days it would take up to 6 hours to make the journey, which left very little time for actual building work. The unlucky builders had to abandon the journey completely in very bad weather – a common occurrence in the winter.
In the first year Winstanley and his team managed to gouge 12 holes into the hard rock, insert iron rods and set them in place with cement. These rods were to act as an anchor for the rest of the building. It was very slow progress and meant that Winstanley remained a subject of ridicule for some time.
Slowly but surely, the builders made progress and on 14 November 1698, Winstanley himself, lit the light in the tower for the first time. The lighthouse did have some teething problems but Henry was continuously improving and tweaking it. He even rebuilt the top half of it.
An Unlikely Kidnapping
Winstanley was building the lighthouse while England was at war with France and during the later years of the project Winstanley was provided with a war ship for protection – presumably for himself and the construction. One morning in June 1697 the ship did not appear. Winstanley continued work without protection but a French boat arrived and took him prisoner! The kidnapper took him to France and presented him to Louis XIV thinking he would get a handsome reward. But Louis XIV released him immediately saying that “France is at was with England, not with humanity”.
The French king offered Winstanley jewels and a place in his court as an architect. But Henry declined stating his need to get back to the building of the Eddystone – but I think he took the jewels. It is clear that despite a rocky start on the lighthouse project, the universal benefit of the Eddystone light was recognised by all.
The Eddystone Lighthouse
The finished construction was a sight to behold. Winstanley – ostentatious as ever – was keen to make it stand out. He painted it, gilded it, added a huge wrought-iron weathervane and flags. He also emblazoned the sides of it with messages to sailors that read in Latin and English “Glory be to God”. It looked nothing like any other lighthouse before or since!
The light must have saved thousands of lives in those early years and certainly thousands of pounds worth of cargo. Henry Winstanley’s name became well-known but despite this success he never really got to enjoy the fame and was tinkering with the finishing touches of the lighthouse for years. He never even made back the money he spent on its construction through Trinity House or the tolls charged to passing ships.
The Great Storm
In 1703, after five short years, there was a massive storm that flattened buildings, uprooted trees and killed hundreds. Winstanley and some of his builders had been in his lighthouse making some last minute structural improvements in the hopes that it would survive the stormy night. Unfortunately, as the storm became more perilous, Winstanley was stranded. In the early hours of the morning on 27th November, vicious wind and waves destroyed the lighthouse and not a trace of it survived. Winstanley perished along with it.
What a devastating end for a man who had simply tried to and successfully save the lives of countless others at such little benefit to himself!
Since Winstanley’s original there have been three more lighthouses in the same spot.
John Rudyard built the second structure – conical shaped tower – in 1709. After almost 50 years a fire that started in the lantern room destroyed it.
Smeaton was the next lighthouse builder and he spent decades researching and testing the durability of hydraulic lime concrete that cured underwater. With this well-thought out background research and more thorough planning the lighthouse, finished in 1759, lasted longer. By 1877 the waves from the sea had eroded the bottom so much that the lighthouse was quite precarious and a new one replaced it. Smeaton’s tower now stands inland, having been happily taken apart and rebuilt again. The stump of the tower is still on the rock. Both structures serve as visitor destinations. Visitors can climb up the one inland or take a boat trip out to the old stump and its new replacement.
Douglass built the last, largest and surviving lighthouse on the Eddystone rocks. It is now topped with a helipad which provides easier access.I
Now there are lots more off-shore lighthouses, including Bishops Rock, Longships and Wolf Rock. Winstanley proved the impossible could be achieved through his inventiveness, imagination and determination. These lighthouses have saved thousands of lives over 350 years and are the source of romantic stories, fascination and wonder for tourists and sailors around the coast of England. But non were as impressive, fanciful and exciting as the original Eddystone Lighthouse!
If you want to find out more about this lighthouse or lighthouses in general I would recommend hunting out the following books and websites:
Adam Hart Davies and Emily Troscianko, Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2002. An entertaining and gripping read. The authors cover a lot of the social politics and history of the time as well in a very engaging way.
Shirley Murrell, Perilous Rock, Leicester: Ulverscroft, 1978. An entertaining novel based in fact but very much to be read as fiction. I think that a lot of the names, dates and references are wrong. It is very romantic and lovely nonetheless.
Tom Noncallas, Seashaken Houses: A Lighthouse History from Eddystone to Fastness, London: Particular Books, 2018. A fascinating book about the lives of the lighthouse keepers who kept the lights shining permanently in these buildings.
R.G. Grant, Lighthouse: An Illuminating History of the World’s Coastal Sentinels, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2018. Full of technical drawings and beautiful photographs. Covers lighthouses in different countries.
Jean Ingelow, Winstanley: A poem all about the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse by Winstanley.