St Catherine's Lighthouse

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St Catherine's Lighthouse
The lighthouse, with fog-signal tower attached
St Catherine's Lighthouse is located in Isle of Wight
St Catherine's Lighthouse
Isle of Wight
LocationSt Catherine's Point
Isle of Wight
Coordinates50°34′32.4″N 1°17′51.9″W / 50.575667°N 1.297750°W / 50.575667; -1.297750Coordinates: 50°34′32.4″N 1°17′51.9″W / 50.575667°N 1.297750°W / 50.575667; -1.297750
Year first constructedc. 1323 (first)
Year first lit1838 (current)
Tower shapehexagonal tower
Markings / patternwhite tower and lantern
Tower height27 m (89 ft)
Focal height41 m (135 ft)
Current lens2nd order four panel catadioptric
Intensity821,000 candela
Range25 nmi (46 km; 29 mi)
CharacteristicFl W 5s.
Admiralty numberA0774
NGA number1064
ARLHS numberENG-143
Managing agentTrinity House[1]
HeritageGrade II listed building Edit this on Wikidata

St Catherine's Lighthouse is a lighthouse located at St Catherine's Point at the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. It is one of the oldest lighthouse locations in Great Britain.


The first lighthouse was established on St Catherine's Down in 1323 on the orders of the Pope, after a ship ran aground nearby and its cargo was either lost or plundered. Once part of St Catherine's Oratory, its octagonal stone tower can still be seen today on the hill to the west of Niton. It is known locally as the "Pepperpot".[2] Nearby there are the footings of a replacement lighthouse begun in 1785, but this was never completed because the hill is prone to dense fog.[3] It is sometimes called the "salt pot".[4]


The lighthouse c.1910

The new lighthouse, built by Trinity House in 1838, was constructed as a 40-metre (130 ft) stone tower. When first built the light was oil-fuelled; its lamp, with four concentric wicks, was set within a large (first-order) fixed dioptric lens, built by Cookson & co. and surmounted by 250 mirrors (which were later replaced with prisms).[5] It was first lit on 1 March 1840;[6] however, the light was often obscured by fog, which led in due course to the height of the tower being reduced by 13-metre (43 ft) in 1875. At the same time the lamp was increased from four wicks to six and a system of 'dioptric mirrors' (prisms) was installed to redirect light from the landward side of the lamp out to sea.[7]

In 1866 a Daboll trumpet fog signal was installed in a building on the cliff edge; it used a caloric engine to sound a reed attached to an acoustic horn.

In the 1880s the decision was taken to convert the St Catherine's light to electric power. In 1888 a carbon arc lamp was installed, linked to a powerful set of De Méritens magneto-electric machines, powered by three Robey non-condensing compound steam engines. (St Catherine's was the last English lighthouse to be provided with an arc lamp).[8] A new optic was also provided (a second-order 16-sided revolving lens) along with a subsidiary apparatus which redirected light from the rear above the main lens to form a red sector light directed towards the Needles.[7] As well as a new Engine House, more cottages were built, to accommodate the additional staff required to operate the generating plant.[9]

A new fog signal house was also built in 1888; in it a pair of double-noted 5-inch sirens were installed, sounding through a pair of upright horns, which emerged through the roof and were angled out to sea. Compressed air for the sirens was piped underground from the engine house, where the three engines were linked to an air compressor by way of a common drive shaft;[10] compressed air was also used to power the mechanism that turned the lens. The sirens sounded two blasts every minute: a higher note followed by a low note.[9]

In 1901 a series of trials of different sirens and reeds attached to trumpets of different sizes and designs took place at St Catherine's (which had sufficient engine power to produce the required volume of compressed air). The tests were overseen by Lord Rayleigh, scientific adviser to Trinity House, whose distinctive and eponymous design of fog signal trumpet was installed at several different fog signal stations (though not at St Catherine's itself) in the wake of the trials.[10]

In 1904 the 16-sided optic was removed from St Catherine's (and installed instead in South Foreland Lighthouse); the current 4-sided optic was installed in its place.[11] At the same time the red sector light was reconfigured, to shine from a window lower down in the tower, marking Atherfield Ledge.[12] The arc lamp was decommissioned in the 1920s; by this time it was the last operational arc lamp in a lighthouse in the UK (it is now displayed as an exhibit in Southsea Castle.)[13]

By 1932 the fog horn house was being undermined by erosion; it was demolished and a second (smaller) tower was then built alongside the lighthouse to house a new more powerful 12-inch siren. On 1 June 1943 a bombing raid destroyed the engine house, killing the three duty keepers.[14] As part of the post-war repairs, a diaphone was installed in place of the siren. This was itself replaced by a 'supertyfon' air horn in 1962, when new engines and compressors were also installed; the fog signal was discontinued in 1987.[10]

Present day[edit]

View of the lighthouse, looking south-west out to the English Channel

Today, the lighthouse has a range of 25 nautical miles (46 km; 29 mi) and is the third-most powerful of all the lights maintained by Trinity House.[12] Trinity House provides tours of the lighthouse year round. Furthermore, cottages around the lighthouse can be rented out as holiday accommodation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ St Catherine's Archived 15 March 2018 at the Wayback Machine The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 26 April 2016
  2. ^ Woodman and Wilson (2002). The Lighthouses of Trinity House. Bradford on Avon: Reed. ISBN 1-904050-00-X.
  3. ^ "History of the lighthouse at St Catherine's Point". National Trust. Archived from the original on 10 December 2017. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  4. ^ "A colourful history behind St Catherine's Oratory". National Trust. Archived from the original on 1 May 2019. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  5. ^ Davenport Adams, W. H. (1891). The Story of our Lighthouses and Lightships: Descriptive and Historical (PDF). London, Edinburgh & New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons. p. 122. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 May 2017. Retrieved 27 February 2019.
  6. ^ "Lighthouse management : the report of the Royal Commissioners on Lights, Buoys, and Beacons, 1861, examined and refuted Vol. 2". p. 81. Archived from the original on 4 April 2016. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  7. ^ a b "1892 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Visits to Works (13: St Catherine's Lighthouse)". Grace's Guide. Archived from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  8. ^ Schiffer, Michael Bryan (2008). Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity before Edison. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 278.
  9. ^ a b Woodman, Richard; Wilson, Jane (2002). The Lighthouses of Trinity House. Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts.: Thomas Reed. pp. 96–97.
  10. ^ a b c Renton, Alan (2001). Lost Sounds: The Story of Coast Fog Signals. Caithness, Scotland: Whittles.
  11. ^ s:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lighthouse
  12. ^ a b "St Catherine's Lighthouse". Trinity House. Archived from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  13. ^ "Southsea Castle Lighthouse". Archived from the original on 1 April 2019. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
  14. ^ "St Catherine's Lighthouse". Red Funnel. Archived from the original on 26 March 2019. Retrieved 26 March 2019.

External links[edit]