Old Lower Lighthouse

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The Old Lower Lighthouse in 2009.

The Old Lower Lighthouse is a disused lighthouse on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The lighthouse is situated close to the currently functioning Portland Bill Lighthouse, and found along the eastern side of Portland Bill. The lighthouse, including its boundary walls and coastguard house, became Grade II Listed in September 1978.[1]

The Old Lower Lighthouse was opened on 29 September 1716 and had been rebuilt two times since, once in 1789 and again in 1869. It worked in tandem with the nearby Old Higher Lighthouse, which was built at the same time. The Old Lower Lighthouse was the first lighthouse in the world to use a true lenses. 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. Since 1961 the lighthouse has been the home of the Portland Bird Observatory.


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 sankbank 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.[2]

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.[3] It had been decided to build two lighthouses, as this would give clear bearing at all times of day and night.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

First lighthouse rebuild, fitting of lens and second 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, which amounted to a cost of £2000. The Higher Lighthouse was not rebuilt, though it was fitted with oil lamps invented by the Frenchman Aimé Argand. The new design for the Lower Lighthouse consisted of a 63-foot slender tower, with Gothic style doors and windows. The inside spiral staircase was built using Portland Stone, while an inscription was mounted above the doorway. This read: "For the direction and comfort of navigators for the benefit and security of commerce: A lasting memorial of British hospitality to all nations. This lighthouse was erected by the ancient corporation Trinity House of Deptford Strond in 1789. Distance from the cliff 1608 feet." This plaque was later removed and preserved in the 1906 Portland Bill Lighthouse.[4]

During the same year of 1789, Trinity House agreed to use the Lower Lighthouse for an experiment, by adding special lens for direct glazing into lantern windows. This had been developed by Thomas Rogers. The initial group of low-light tests were successful, and so Trinity House agreed to have them permanently installed in copper frames around the lantern house, alternating with glass panels. This upgraded light, powered by 6 Argand lamps, had a powerful enough beam to each 18 miles out to sea in clear conditions. The entire project meant that the Lower Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the world to use a true lens.[7]

During the early 19th century the lighthouse was the location for two mounted cannons, as a precaution over feared French invasions. A group of 18-pounder guns were also placed at the Higher Lighthouse.[8] 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 Lower Lighthouse was given new equipment and keepers' accommodation, which cost £1000. At the same time the Higher Lighthouse was raised an additional 15 feet to increase its range. 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] After its decommission, the Lower Lighthouse's lamp was removed, and the room left as an observation point. Some of the buildings that were surrounding the lamp room were also cleared.[6] The lighthouse became a family home for a number of years after.[12]

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, and in attempt to captalise on this, the Lower Lighthouse became the Longstone Ope Tea Rooms and Gardens. It was not the only business of its type to establish itself at the Bill, as a number of wooden huts were also built as cafes close to the new lighthouse. The lighthouse eventually closed as a cafe, and reverted to private hands once again.[13] After changing hands several times, the lighthouse and its buildings lay derelict and empty after the Second World War. The lamp room disappeared, paintwork flaked away and the entire structure lapsed into ruin. At one point during this time, plans were to convert it into an amusement arcade, however others thought differently.

Establishment of bird observatory[edit]

During the 1950s, the studying of bird migration was becoming established on Portland, and for a decade the stalwarts had to endure temporary accommodation in caravans, the RN Wireless Station and even underground premises at Southwell, before the generosity of Miss Helen Brotherton allowed them to settle permanently at the lighthouse. In 1961 the lower lighthouse was officially opened by Sir Peter Scott as a bird observatory, where a year before it had been slightly modified and converted for this new use. The observatory became a registered charity and has continued ever since.[14] The independent organisation caters for naturalists of all persuasions, whilst hostel-style accommodation in the Old Lower Lighthouse was made available for up to 24 guests at a time to enjoy the natural environment of Portland.[15] The main accommodation is located in the lighthouse and annexe, whilst the adjoining self-contained lighthouse-keepers cottage holds up to four people.[16] The observatory remains a favourite haunt for Bill Oddie.[17]

The garden of the Lighthouse remains one of the few vegetated areas on the rocky part of the Portland Bill area and therefore attracts many species of birds, particularly smaller species, as the hedges provide a place for the birds to rest and feed on insects.[18]


  1. ^ http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1280466
  2. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  3. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  4. ^ a b Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  5. ^ "The Higher Lighthouse, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  6. ^ a b "Lighthouse: Portland Bill Lighthouse". Photographers-resource.co.uk. 1996-03-18. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  7. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  8. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  9. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  10. ^ Paul Benyon (1903-12-01). "Portland Year Book". Freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2014-08-03. 
  11. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  12. ^ "Lower Lighthouse, Portland, Dorset". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  13. ^ Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 9. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  14. ^ Keith Pritchard. "Portland Bird Observatory - index". Portlandbirdobs.org.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  15. ^ Keith Pritchard. "Portland Bird Observatory - introduction". Portlandbirdobs.org.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  16. ^ Keith Pritchard. "Portland Bird Observatory - accommodation". Portlandbirdobs.org.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  17. ^ Andy J Straw (2010-04-25). "Portland's 4th Lighthouse". Portland Rover. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 
  18. ^ "Nature's Calendar". BBC. Retrieved 2012-11-16. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°31′11″N 2°27′04″W / 50.5197°N 2.4511°W / 50.5197; -2.4511