Bishop Rock, Isles of Scilly

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The Bishop Rock (Cornish: Men Epskop)[1] is a skerry off the British coast in the northern Atlantic Ocean known for its lighthouse. It is in the westernmost part of the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago 45 km (28 mi) off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the world's smallest island with a building on it.[2]

The original iron lighthouse was begun in 1847 but was washed away before it could be completed. The present building was completed in 1858 and was first lit on 1 September that year. Before the installation of the helipad, visitors to the lighthouse would rappel from the top (with winches installed at the lamp level and at the base below) to boats waiting away from the lighthouse.[3]

Bishop Rock is also at the eastern end of the North Atlantic shipping route used by ocean liners in the first half of the 20th century; the western end being the entrance to Lower New York Bay. This was the route that ocean liners took when competing for the Transatlantic speed record, known as the Blue Riband.


In the late 13th century, when the Isles of Scilly were under the jurisdiction of John de Allet and his wife Isabella, anyone convicted of felony "ought to be taken to a certain rock in the sea, with two barley loaves and a pitcher of water and left until the sea swallowed him up".[4] The rock was originally recorded as Maen Escop in 1284 and Maenenescop in 1302. In Cornish, Men Eskop means "Bishop's Stone", whilst Men an Eskop means "the Stone of the Bishop". The outer rocks to the west of St Agnes also used to be known as the Bishop and Clerk, but exactly how they acquired these similar names is not known for certain.[4] A possible explanation is that the shape of the rock is similar to a bishop's mitre.[5]

East of Bishop Rock are the Western Rocks and the Gilstone Reef,[6] where Admiral Shovell's flagship HMS Association was wrecked in the great naval disaster of 1707. Shovell's remains were repatriated to England by order of Queen Anne shortly after their initial burial in the Isles of Scilly.

The earliest recorded wreck on the rock itself was in 1839, when the brig Theodorick struck in rough misty weather on 4 September. She was out of Mogodore for London carrying a general cargo. In the early hours of 12 October 1842, the 600-tonne paddle steamer Brigand, a packet boat, which was en route from Liverpool to St Petersburg, struck the rock with such force that it stove in two large bow plates. The rocks then acted as a pivot, and she swung round and heeled into the rock port side, crushing the paddle-wheel and box to such an extent that it penetrated the engine room. She drifted over seven miles in two hours, before sinking in 90 m. All the crew were saved.[5] In 1901 a barque named Falkland struck the rock, her main yard hitting the lighthouse itself.[7]


Bishop Rock Lighthouse
Bishop Rock Lighthouse - Isles of Scilly.jpg
Bishop Rock Lighthouse in 2005
LocationBishop Rock, Isles of Scilly, Bishop Rock, United Kingdom Edit this at Wikidata
OS gridSV8070706442
Coordinates49°52′18″N 6°26′42″W / 49.8717°N 6.445°W / 49.8717; -6.445
Constructed1858 Edit this on Wikidata
Constructiongranite (tower) Edit this on Wikidata
Tower height49 m (161 ft) Edit this on Wikidata
Tower shapetapered cylindrical tower with lantern and helipad on the top[8]
Markingsunpainted tower, white lantern
OperatorTrinity House Edit this on Wikidata
HeritageGrade II listed building Edit this on Wikidata
First lit1887 (rebuilt)
Automated1992 Edit this on Wikidata
Focal height44 m (144 ft) Edit this on Wikidata
LensHyperradiant Fresnel 1330 mm Rotating
Intensity60,000 candela Edit this on Wikidata
Range20 nmi (37 km; 23 mi) Edit this on Wikidata
CharacteristicFl(2) W 15s Edit this on Wikidata
Admiralty no.A0002 Edit this on Wikidata
NGA no.114-4
RaconEdit this on Wikidata
ARLHS no.ENG010 Edit this on Wikidata
Bishop Rock screw-pile first lighthouse according to a drawing by José Eugenio Ribera.[9]

An 1818 report by the Surveyor–General of the Duchy of Cornwall on the dangers to shipping in Cornwall proposed that a lighthouse be built, similar to the Eddystone Lighthouse, upon Bishop Rock, given its location as the westernmost rock of the Isles of Scilly. The plan was considered by the government and building was expected soon, as the engineer John Rennie the Elder made an offer to build it.[10] The government did not take up the offer, but Trinity House surveyed Bishop Rock in 1843, with a view to building a lighthouse, and work began in 1847.[11] The engineer in chief, James Walker, decided on a 120-foot-tall (37 m) design consisting of accommodation and a light on top of iron legs.[11] The light was never lit, since on 5 February 1850 (before the lantern and lighting equipment had been fitted) a storm washed the tower away.[11] (A few years later, the lantern that had been intended for this tower was installed instead on another Walker-designed tower: Godrevy Lighthouse.)[12]

In the second attempt, James Walker began building a stone structure in 1851.[11] The site presented a number of difficulties: the paucity of available land area and the slope of the rock meant that the lowest stone had to be laid below the low water level of the lowest spring tides.[13] The resident engineer was Nicholas Douglass assisted by first James and then William, his son. Despite multiple problems over the seven year period of construction, the tower was completed without loss of life. It was fitted with a large (first order) fixed catadioptric optic by Henry Lépaute,[14] and shone its light for the first time on 1 September 1858.[13] The total cost of the lighthouse was £34,559.[13]

Faced with the full force of the Atlantic, however, the building proved vulnerable: in heavy weather the tower regularly shook, the vibrations being powerful enough to cause objects to fall from shelves, and even causing the optical apparatus to fracture.[15] The lighthouse had initially been provided with a 3 cwt fog bell; however this was washed away during a storm in January 1860. (It was replaced with a larger bell, but not until 1864;[16] the bell was sounded once every ten seconds).[17]

Two pairs of lighthouse keepers' cottages on the Scilly Isles
Trinity Cottages, The Garrison, St Mary's (dating from 1858).

As the lighthouse was nearing completion, a set of dwellings were constructed on St Mary's to accommodate the keepers' families (and the keepers themselves when they were not on station). The light at the time was manned by a team of four: at any one time, three would be on station in the lighthouse, and the fourth on leave on St Mary's.[18]


In 1881, various other expediencies having been tried in the meantime, Sir James N. Douglass inspected the tower and designed a renovation to reinforce the structure by laying massive granite blocks into the rock and dove-tailing them onto the lighthouse.[19] The renovations increased its height by 40 feet (12 m). The work began in 1882 and completed in 1887, under the supervision of Douglass's eldest surviving son, William Tregarthen Douglass.

The new improved light had a range of 1814 nautical miles.[20] The optic was designed and built by Chance Brothers and was 'biform' (having two identical lamps and lens arrays, one mounted above the other).[21] Each tier consisted of an eight-wick paraffin burner set within a revolving array of extra large hyperradiant Fresnel lenses (consisting, on each level, of five pairs of lens panels, displaying two white flashes every minute). In clear weather the lower tier alone was used, with its lamp on half power; in limited visibility (as judged by the clarity of the light visible from St Agnes's Lighthouse, 5 nmi (9.3 km; 5.8 mi) away) both tiers were used with the lamps at full power.[15]

The heavy optic was turned by a small air engine placed in the pedestal; compressed air was provided from a set of tanks, located in the room below along with a pair of Davey 'Safety' Engines, which drove the compressors.[15] The compressed air could also be used, by day, to drive a small gallery-mounted winch for landing stores.

As part of the renovation, the lighthouse was equipped with an explosive fog signal: in foggy weather the keepers regularly had to attach a guncotton charge together with a detonator to a jib-type apparatus on the lantern gallery; from inside the lantern they would then raise the jib and fire the charge electrically.[16] The explosive signal remained in use until 1976.

Current era[edit]

Top tier of the 1881 optic on display at the National Maritime Museum; the identical lower tier remains in use.

The paraffin lamps remained in service until 1973, when the light was converted to electricity. Difficulty reaching the lighthouse by boat led Trinity House to build a helipad on top of the lighthouse in 1976.[22] That same year a supertyfon fog horn was installed with sounders arranged around the gallery.[16]

On 15 December 1992 the tower became fully automated;[23] the lower half of the biform optic remains in use but following automation the top half was removed and put on display (it is currently in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall).[24] An electric fog signal replaced the supertyfon at this time, sounding a long followed by a short tone every 90 seconds;[25] its use was discontinued in 2007.[26]

On the 144th anniversary of the destruction of James Walker's original iron tower (5 February 1994), a storm caused severe damage to the gunmetal entry doors, which had to be replaced;[27] they too became an exhibit at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.[28]


Bishop Rock lighthouse in 1966

Bishop Lighthouse is often referred to as "King of the lighthouses" and it is indeed a very impressive structure. With a height of 49 metres (161 ft) the lighthouse is the equal tallest in England, together with Eddystone Lighthouse.[26]

Expenditure on the lighthouses at Bishop Rock, include: The first iron lighthouse: £12,500[26] The second granite lighthouse: £34,559 [26] (equivalent to £3,504,000 in 2019) [29] The third improved lighthouse: £64,889[26] (equivalent to £7,269,000 in 2019) [29] Total cost: £111,948 [26]

The interior of the light house consists of the following:[30] Below and inside the lighthouse are 10 floors[31] with spiral staircase to the 2nd floor with a door (made from gun metal (likely bronze) and installed in 1887[32]) that leads down an external metal (likely bronze) ladder to climb down to the large exterior base. From the base another metal ladder provides access to a stone staircase to the waterline.

The floors of the lighthouse are occupied as follows:

  • 1st floor – Water tank (providing fresh water for lighthouse keepers)
  • 2nd floor – Entrance room with metal door leading to exterior ladder to base below
  • 3rd floor – Store room, with window
  • 4th floor – First oil room, with oil tanks formerly used to light the lamp
  • 5th floor – Second oil room, with window
  • 6th floor – Living room for lighthouse keepers, with window
  • 7th floor – Bedroom for lighthouse keepers, with window
  • 8th floor – Store room
  • 9th floor – Service room
  • 10th floor – Lamp


The rock is the subject of a short orchestral descriptive work by the late Doreen Carwithen (Mary Alwyn), which has been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Richard Hickox.

The lighthouse was used as a filming location for one of the current BBC One Idents, and was also featured in the last segment of the documentary series Three Men in More Than One Boat. The lighthouse was also featured in the 2010 BBC documentary Islands of Britain, presented by Martin Clunes.

The lighthouse featured in BBC TV children's programme Blue Peter in 1975, when presenter Lesley Judd visited.[33] "Disaster nearly struck as she travelled by rope to the lighthouse from a boat. Her harness snapped, leaving Lesley with no support should she lose her grip on the rope."[34]

The lighthouse also features in the novel Stone In The Blood by Colin Jordan and David England, and in the short story "Keeper of the Bishop" by A E W Mason.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cornish Language Partnership: Place names in the SWF". Archived from the original on 15 May 2013. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  2. ^ "World's 7 most dangerous and remote islands". Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  3. ^ "Bishop Rock lighthouse relief, 1970". 6 September 2012. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  4. ^ a b Larn, Richard (1992). Shipwrecks of the Isles of Scilly. Nairn: Thomas & Lochar.
  5. ^ a b Maginnis, Clem. "Around the Rugged Rock". Divernet. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
  6. ^ "Photograph of Gilstone Reef". Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  7. ^ "BRITISH BARK WRECKED; Founders Off Scilly Isles - Part of Her Crew Probably Drowned". New York Times. 23 June 1901. Retrieved 24 September 2008.
  8. ^ Rowlett, Russ. "Lighthouses of Southwest England (Devon and Cornwall)". The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  9. ^ Eugenio Ribera, José (1895). Puentes de hierro económicos, muelles y faros sobre palizadas y pilotes mecánicos. Madrid: Librería Editorial de Bailly-Bailliere e Hijos. pp. 299 (Lámina XIII).
  10. ^ "The Scilly Isles". The New Monthly Mazazine. December 1818. Archived from the original on 7 May 2016. Retrieved 27 December 2012.
  11. ^ a b c d Nicholson, Christopher (1995). Rock lighthouses of Britain The end of an era?. Whittles Publishing. pp. 114–115. ISBN 1-870325-41-9.
  12. ^ Wilkinson, David; Boyle, Martin (2001). Lighthouses. Salisbury, Wilts.: Frith Book Company. p. 60.
  13. ^ a b c Nicholson, op. cit., p. 116
  14. ^ "Lighthouse management : the report of the Royal Commissioners on Lights, Buoys, and Beacons, 1861, examined and refuted Vol. 2". p. 91.
  15. ^ a b c Ashpitel, F. W. (1895). Report on Light-house Construction and Illumination. Madras: Government Press. pp. 80–83.
  16. ^ a b c Renton, Alan (2001). Lost Sounds: The Story of Coast Fog Signals. Caithness, Scotland: Whittles.
  17. ^ The English Channel Pilot. London: Charles Wilson. 1878. p. viii. Retrieved 11 February 2020.
  18. ^ Jackson, Derrick (1975). Lighthouses of England and Wales. Newton Abbott, Devon: David & Charles. p. 36.
  19. ^ "Important Additions To The Bishop Rock Lighthouse". The Cornishman (216). 31 August 1882. p. 4.
  20. ^ "Review of Life of Sir James Nicholas Douglass, F.R.S. by Thomas Williams". The Athenaeum (3802): 317–318. 8 September 1900.
  21. ^ "Hyper-Radial Lenses". United States Lighthouse Society. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  22. ^ Nicholson, op. cit., p. 126
  23. ^ Nicholson, op. cit., p. 127
  24. ^ "A celebration of lighthouses at National Maritime Museum Cornwall". Culture24. Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  25. ^ Woodman, Richard; Wilson, Jane (2002). The Lighthouses of Trinity House. Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts.: Thomas Reed. pp. 96–97.
  26. ^ a b c d e f Bishop Rock Lighthouse Trinity House. Retrieved 22 April 2016
  27. ^ "Bishop Rock Lighthouse". Worldwide Lighthouses.
  28. ^ "Photo". Alamy. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  29. ^ a b UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  30. ^ "The Project Gutenberg eBook of Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume XVI Slice VI - Lightfoot, Joseph to Liquidation". Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  31. ^ "Bishop Rock: The Smallest Island in the World". Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  32. ^ "Bishops Rock lighthouse - Bing Afbeeldingen". Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  33. ^ "Lesley Judd". BBC. 18 June 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2019.
  34. ^ "Trivia". BBC. 18 June 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2019.

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