Old Higher Lighthouse

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The Old Higher Lighthouse in 2007.

The Old Higher Lighthouse is a disused lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The lighthouse is situated on the west side of Portland, and at the higher part of Portland Bill - known as Branscombe Hill. The lighthouse, its four cottages and boundary walls have been Grade II Listed since September 1978.[1][2] Close to the lighthouse is the NCI Portland Bill Lookout Station.

The Old Higher Lighthouse was opened on 29 September 1716 and was rebuilt in 1869. It worked in tandem with the nearby Old Lower Lighthouse, which was built at the same time. The Old Higher Lighthouse was the first lighthouse in Britain to be fitted with Argand Lens, and was the first in the world to have a true reflector. The remaining rebuilt version of the lighthouse seen today was built in 1869.

Both Portland Bill and Chesil Beach are the locations of many wrecks of vessels that failed to reach Weymouth or Portland Roads. The two lighthouses guided vessels heading for Portland and Weymouth through these hazardous waters as well as acting as a waymark for ships navigating the English Channel.


Appeal for, and construction of, a lighthouse at Portland Bill[edit]

For centuries Portland Bill, the promontory at Portland's southern-most point, has been considered one of the English Channel's most dangerous hazards. Aside from the promontory jutting out into the channel, the Portland Race and Shambles sandbank make the conditions around the Bill even more hazardous. The Portland race can run up to 10 knots in spring tidal streams, and are created when the tide and current clash round the Bill Point. The Shambles is a sandbank situated south-east of the Bill, which extends across two miles. The depth of the sandbank has been recorded as reaching as little as 11 feet in two places during low tide. Due to the danger's, beacons were often lit around Portland Bill, and the original pair of lighthouses were built in the early 18th century. Today Portland Bill still remains an important way-point for vessels, though the combination of the present lighthouse, and modern navigational technology, has significantly reduced shipping incidents.

The first proposal for the construction of a lighthouse at Portland Bill was made by Sir John Clayton, in 1669. At the time Portland Roads was becoming increasingly popular for ships to shelter from gales, while the value of commercial shipping had risen since the Civil War. It was widely agreed that the number of ships being wrecked around Portland was too high. Clayton soon applied for a Crown Patent, to build a lighthouse designed to shine two lights vertically on the same tower. However due to the high financial costs attached to building and maintaining a lighthouse, the idea did not materialise.[3]

In 1702 Charles Langrishe and Captain William Holman began to petition to William III for a lighthouse to be built at Portland Bill. A number of shipowners and the Weymouth Corporation supported the attempt. On 8 March 1702 the king died, and so no patent was granted. Despite Trinity House discarding the idea that Portland needed a lighthouse, Langrishe, Holman and their supporters continued to fight for one for over a decade. The pair finally managed to get Trinity House to concede that Portland Bill was a hazard to shipping, and in 1716 a 61-year lease was agreed upon for the pair to construct "one or more lighthouses with good lights to be kept continually there in the night season". The construction work began immediately, even before a patent had been granted in May 1716. With the twin lighthouses completed, the first lights shone on 29 September 1716.[4] It had been decided to build two lighthouses, as this would give clear bearing at all times of day and night.[5]

Initial operation and takeover by Trinity House[edit]

One of the first lighthouse keepers was a local man Christopher Comben, who began this line of work in 1721. The Comben family continued to be involved with the lighthouses until 1906. One of the most difficult task faced by the early operators was the transportation of coal from Easton village to the Bill. The coal had to be taken along the eastern side of the island, and across fields as there was no road link to the Bill, where it was piled into a field which became known as Coal Lands.[6] Soon after being built the lighthouse was visited on one occasion by King George III who, during one of various frequent trips to Weymouth, requested to see "this new lighthouse at Portland Bill".

The benefit to vessels with the aid of the lighthouses was seen immediately. However in general the lights were poorly maintained, and frequently unlit. Trinity House received reports of this, and an inspection was carried out in 1752. The two Board of Trinity House members approached the Bill by sea, and found "it was nigh two hours after sunset before any light appeared in either of the lighthouses". It was decided to terminate the original lease, and with this Trinity House were given total control of the two lighthouses.[7]

Lighthouse fitting of oil lamps, and later rebuild[edit]

In 1788, having operated the lights themselves for 36 years, Trinity House found both lighthouses were no longer sufficient enough. The Weymouth builder William Johns was tasked with rebuilding the Lower Lighthouse in 1789, though it was decided that the Higher Lighthouse was not in need of being rebuilt. Instead the lighthouse ceased using coal and was fitted with oil lamps invented by the Frenchman Aimé Argand. As a result the lighthouse became the first in Britain to be fitted with Argand Lens, and these would soon become a standard for lighthouses across the world. It was also the first lighthouse in the world to have a true reflector. The lighthouse's lamps were enclosed in a glass tube, and with the use of a polished reflector placed behind each lamp, the light was transformed into a powerful beam out to see. There were fourteen lamps placed in two rows.[5]

During the early 19th century the lighthouse was the location for a group of 18-pounder guns, as a precaution over feared French invasions. In addition two mounted cannons were also placed at the Lower Lighthouse. In 1836 the Higher Lighthouse was fitted with a new light. An enclosed harbour of refuge had initially been suggested for Portland in 1794, however parliamentary approval was not granted until 1844. Once the stupendous task of constructing the breakwaters was completed in 1872, the number of vessels passing the Bill naturally increased. As a result lighthouse dues from passing ships tripled from the 1830 level of £3043.

By the mid-19th century Trinity House felt that both lighthouses had once again become inadequate. In 1856 the Higher Lighthouse was raised by 15 feet to increase its range, while the Lower Lighthouse was given new equipment and keepers' accommodation. However Trinity House remained unhappy about both lighthouses, and in 1866 the decision was made to demolish both, and completely rebuild them. This was achieved in 1869.[8]

Decommissioning and aftermath[edit]

By the beginning of the 20th century both lighthouses had again become obsolete, and were not able to accommodate the latest equipment necessary. As such Trinity House decided to build a new, single lighthouse at Bill Point. A local committee was formed to work alongside Trinity House for the construction of the new lighthouse.[9] In 1903 the members of the committee met with Trinity House members in the George Inn to discuss the plans. By mid-1905 the high tower had been completed. Costing £13,000, the new lighthouse shone out for the first time on 11 January 1906. The two keepers Taylor and Comben moved from the old Lower Lighthouse to the new lighthouse at this time. From that point the Old Lower and Old Higher Lighthouses became disused.

In 1907 both lighthouses were auctioned at the George Inn. They were advertised as "Wonderfully suited for consumptives in winter, and convalescents in other seasons. In the fertile garden of the Lower Lighthouse potatoes are dug when people elsewhere are thinking of planting." In the end the Higher Light sold for £405, and the Lower Light was withdrawn at £400.[10]

Since becoming disused the lighthouse has had six private owners since to date. In 1923 the lighthouse was purchased by the doctor, pioneer of birth control and Portland Museum founder Marie Stopes. She had chosen the building as a summer residence, and would stay in the lighthouse until her death thirty-five years later in 1958. During that time she settled permanently at the lighthouse to escape London, when she was in the middle of a court case against H.G. Sutherland. Over her time at the lighthouse, some of Stope's guest visitors included George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Thomas Hardy. The island's range of Jurassic fossil forests provided her with endless interest.[11] A proper road, as opposed to a simple track, to Portland Bill, was laid in 1922, and this opened the formerly isolated part of Portland to flocks of visitors. The Bill quickly became a popular tourist destination. From her lighthouse Stopes was upset by the gradual destruction of the orchid-strewn grass and the solitude of Portland Bill as the area became increasingly popular.[12]

During the Second World War, the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) would identify approaching aircraft across the UK. The original Portland lookout was at New Ground, but the monitoring post soon moved into the tower of the Old Higher Lighthouse. The site was part of an extensive network of posts designed to confirm and report hostile aircraft.[13][14] Stopes also decided to rent the lighthouse during the war to naval officers, who in turn were visited by friends and family, including Margot Fonteyn and her mother.[15]

The Old Lower Lighthouse became a bird observatory in 1961, and around this same time that the Higher Lighthouse was turned into a restaurant,[6] before the property became derelict from the mid-1960s onwards. The property's latest owners bought the lighthouse in 1981 and refurbished the entire property. The lighthouse's paraffin store was converted into a cottage available for holiday lets, whilst access to the tower was made open to guests. With a total of four cottages within its grounds, both the Branscombe Lodge Cottage and Stopes Cottage remain available as holiday lets.[15]


  1. ^ "Old Higher Lighthouse Stopes Cottage | Portland Bill | | Dorset And Somerset | Self Catering Holiday Cottage". Sykescottages.co.uk. 2012-11-01. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  2. ^ "The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  3. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  4. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  5. ^ a b Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  6. ^ a b "The Higher Lighthouse, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  7. ^ "Lighthouse: Portland Bill Lighthouse". Photographers-resource.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  8. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  9. ^ Paul Benyon (1903-12-01). "Portland Year Book". Freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  10. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  11. ^ Falcon-Lang, H.J., "Marie Stopes: passionate about palaeobotany" in Geology Today 24.4 (July–August 2008) p.136.
  12. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  13. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1413281&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=93626&place=&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  14. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  15. ^ a b "History of the Old Higher Lighthouse - Old Higher Lighthouse, Portland Bill, Dorset". Oldhigherlighthouse.com. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°31′20″N 2°27′23″W / 50.5223°N 2.4564°W / 50.5223; -2.4564