Pete Crowther

Visible for miles around and dominating the peninsula, the familiar black and white shape of the lighthouse is Spurn's most prominent landmark. This year it celebrates its hundredth birthday. It is not the first lighthouse on Spurn, but thanks to modern radar and other navigational aids, it will probably be the last.

The very first lighthouse or light beacon on Spurn was built by a hermit, William Reedbarrow "of the Chapell of our Lady and Seint Ann atte Ravensersporne". In the year 1427 he petitioned King Henry VI's parliament at Leicester for assistance in completing a tower which "havyng compassion and pitee of the Christen people that ofte tymes are there perished" he had already begun to construct. His petition was successful and he was granted the right to charge tolls on ships entering the Humber: 12 pence on ships of 120 tons and above; 8 pence on ships of 100 tons; and 4 pence on smaller vessels. Apart from one established in 1323 on the Isle of Wight, this is the earliest recorded lighthouse in Britain since Roman times. The tower was probably made of brick or stone surmounted by an iron basket in which a fire would have been lit at night. How long this lighthouse lasted or whether it was replaced by another structure in the succeeding century is unknown.

There were various proposals for the erection of lighthouses on Spurn throughout the seventeenth century but it was not until 1674 that one, or rather a pair, was actually built. At that time it was customary to build lighthouses in pairs so that ships' masters could establish their position by taking bearings on the two marks. A high and a low light were erected by Justinian Angell,  a London businessman, who owned land at Spurn. The high light was an octagonal brick-built tower, about 60 feet high, on top of which was an iron fire-basket suspended from a wooden lever, which, when the fire had been lit, could be hoisted into a vertical position, thereby raising the fire a further 14 feet. This lighthouse gave service for just over one hundred years. The low light was in a more vulnerable position and had to be relocated and replaced many times until the present surviving low light was built in 1852 on the Humber foreshore.

During the lifetime of Angell's lighthouse, Spurn then as now was a "changeable and shifting locality" and as the peninsula continued to grow with the steady accretion of sand at its southern end, so the two lights became further and further away from the Point and thus of less and less use as navigational aids. As a result, John Smeaton, the engineer who had built the third Eddystone lighthouse in 1759, was asked to build a new lighthouse at Spurn. This lighthouse, which was completed in 1776, was the immediate predecessor of the present lighthouse. The circular compound in which it stood, although now almost covered in sand and the walls partly eroded, can still be seen a few yards to the south of today's building.  Smeaton's lighthouse was 90 feet high and built of brick on an artificial foundation consisting of four circles of thick wooden poles rammed down into the sand and surmounted by a platform of stone about 12 inches deep. Initially the lighthouse was lit by a blazing coal fire  until 1819 when a lantern was erected and  an oil light substituted for the smoky flames of the open fire.  This lighthouse gave good service for more than a century but in 1892 cracks were discovered in the brickwork and the lighthouse keepers complained that the tower swayed and rocked in high winds. Further examination showed evidence of settlement caused, it was believed, by rotting of the timber piles in the foundation.

Thomas Matthews, the engineer employed by Trinity House and chosen to design a new lighthouse, decided that if he could not build it on a rock, then he would have to create an artificial rock as a  foundation. Smeaton's timber piles had been only 9 feet 6 inches deep. Matthews planned to have a much deeper base.  His design incorporated 21 concrete cylinders, each 22 feet in depth and 7 feet in diameter. These were positioned vertically and sunk below the level of the sand down to hard, compacted gravel. The cylinders themselves and the spaces between them  were then filled with concrete, and covered by an additional layer of yet more concrete to the depth of several feet, to make a solid impermeable mass. The work itself was contracted out to Messrs. Stratton of Edinburgh, the same firm who had just recently completed the building of Withernsea lighthouse.  Due to its comparatively isolated position, Spurn lighthouse was a more arduous undertaking than its Withernsea counterpart. Apart from the usual building materials, all the water used in making the cement had to be brought to the site in carts.  The lighthouse took one year and eleven months to construct. When finished it stood  128 feet high from base to vane, one foot higher than Withernsea lighthouse. Its base is 40 feet in diameter and the walls are 5 feet 6 inches thick at the base and 2 feet 9¾ inches at the top.  Matthews certainly intended his lighthouse to last! The tower is brick-built throughout being constructed of more than 300,000 Staffordshire blue vitrified bricks and weighs 3,020 tons.

When first built, the lighthouse was fitted with an eight-wick, oil-burning lantern built by Chance Brothers of Smethwick. The basement of the tower  was designed to hold 8,000 gallons of heavy mineral oil in lead-lined tanks, the oil being pumped up to the service room at the top of the tower when required. The main light, which was an occulting one, flashing on and off, had a flash equal to 120,000 candle power, but it could be increased to 180,000 when the visibility was especially poor. Its focal plane was 120 feet above mean high water (as at Withernsea) and it could be seen from a distance of 17 miles. Apart from the main flashing light at the top of the tower, there were three steady subsidiary lights shining from lower down the tower: one covered an arc over the Humber, the other two, one of them red, shone out to sea over the Chequer shoal and Haile Sand buoy respectively. This new arrangement of lights made the low light redundant and it ceased to be used for navigational purposes. Its lantern was removed and the tower was subsequently utilised first as an explosive store and finally as a water tower; it is now disused.

The new light was put into operation for the first time on the night of 12 September 1895. There was no official opening ceremony: however two Elder Brethren of London Trinity House, Captains Barlow and Stewart, R.N., together with Thomas Matthews, were present at the lighting up of the new burners and afterwards proceeded to sea in the Trinity steamer, Vestal, to verify the direction of the subsidiary lights and observe the effect of the main flashing light out at sea. It must have been a very satisfying experience for all three and an occasion for congratulation all round!

The lighthouse was initially manned by three keepers. They had purpose-built accommodation in the form of cottages built within and around the circumference of the old compound which formerly enclosed the base of Smeaton's lighthouse. These cottages can be seen on old postcards; they remained standing until 1985, when they were demolished. The keepers were responsible for maintaining the light throughout the hours of darkness and for keeping all the equipment clean and in perfect working order. The oil-burning lantern, with some modifications, remained in use until 1941, when it was replaced by an an electric lamp. During wartime lighthouses were normally darkened and used only in special circumstances as when convoys or 'friendly' ships were expected. Electric lights, unlike oil lamps, could be switched on quickly and at short notice without prior preparation. In 1956 the electric light was itself replaced by an acetylene lighting apparatus of the same candlepower. The lighthouse was made fully automatic on 17 January 1957 when a part-time lighthouse keeper took over. From 1966, and for the next 19 years, four members of the lifeboat crew, led by their coxswain, used daily to climb the 145 steps up the tower to clean and polish the lamp glasses and brasswork in the lamp room.  In addition, twice a day, a lifeboatman had to draw the curtains across the lenses to protect them from the sun.

Sadly, perhaps, all great traditions have to come to an end and by the 1980s, advances in electronic navigational equipment, particularly advanced radar technology, had largely done away with the need for lighthouses. And so, on the night of 31 October 1985, Spurn lighthouse scythed its winking beam for the last time over the mouth of the Humber and the waters of the North Sea, bringing a tradition spanning five and a half centuries to an end. Today, abandoned and silent, its paintwork beginning to peel, the hundred-year old lighthouse awaits its fate.  Given the sturdiness of its construction and the ever-deepening erosion of the peninsula, it is much more likely that the ground will be washed away from underneath it long before it would be likely to tumble down in a ruin. Thomas Matthews built to last!

Sources:  Allison, K.J.A. (ed.). V.C.H. York: East Riding, vol.5 (OUP, 1984).
De Boer, George. A history of the Spurn lighthouses (EYLHS, 1968).
Sheppard, Thomas. The lost towns of the Yorkshire Coast. Reprint ed. (Howden,
Eastern Morning News. 12/9/1895.
Hull Daily Mail 8/2/1954.
The Times. 13/9/1895.