St Catherine's Lighthouse
The lighthouse, with fog-signal tower attached
|Location||St Catherine's Point|
Isle of Wight
|Year first constructed||c. 1323 (first)|
|Year first lit||1838 (current)|
|Tower shape||hexagonal tower|
|Markings / pattern||white tower and lantern|
|Tower height||27 m (89 ft)|
|Focal height||41 m (135 ft)|
|Current lens||2nd order four panel catadioptric|
|Range||25 nmi (46 km; 29 mi)|
|Characteristic||Fl W 5s.|
|Managing agent||Trinity House|
|Heritage||Grade II listed building|
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". 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. It is sometimes called the "salt pot".
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). It was first lit on 1 March 1840; 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.
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). 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. As well as a new Engine House, more cottages were built, to accommodate the additional staff required to operate the generating plant.
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; 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.
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.
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. At the same time the red sector light was reconfigured, to shine from a window lower down in the tower, marking Atherfield Ledge. 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.)
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. 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.
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. Trinity House provides tours of the lighthouse year round. Furthermore, cottages around the lighthouse can be rented out as holiday accommodation.
- 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
- Woodman and Wilson (2002). The Lighthouses of Trinity House. Bradford on Avon: Reed. ISBN 1-904050-00-X.
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- St Catherine's Lighthouse in Lighthouse Digest's Lighthouse Explorer Database
- Trinity House
- Photos and information on St Catherine's Lighthouse
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