Bell Rock Lighthouse
Wonders of the Industrial World
Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) the civil engineer from Glasgow should not be confused with Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) the railway engineer from Newcastle.
Eleven miles off the east coast of Scotland, lurking under the waves, lies a treacherous sunken reef. Over the centuries it has claimed thousands of lives as ships were torn apart by it's jagged rocks. Named after a bell that was placed here by local monks it is also known as Inchcape. The bell survive only one year before being swept into the depths. In one storm alone, 70 ships were lost of the east coast of Scotland.
Robert Stevenson dared to have the vision to build a lighthouse on this desolate rock in the middle of the open sea. In the summer of 1800 Stevenson visited the rock to survey the site. He had only a few hours to complete the survey as the rock is only exposed for a few hours each day at low tide.
Stevenson was a junior engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board. At 30 years old, he had done well for himself. He grew up in poverty and was largely self-taught. His superiors, reluctantly, agreed to look at his plans even though they believed a lighthouse couldn't possibly stand on the Bell Rock.
Most lights to warn ships were no more than coal fires. Stevenson knew from his own experience that he could build a superior stone-tower light. A beacon that could save hundreds of lives. The Eddystone Light, built 50 years earlier by John Smeaton was his example. Stevenson's estimated cost for the light was £42,000. The board turned Stevenson's plans down.
In 1804, the huge 64-gun HMS York was wrecked on the rock and all 500 crew were lost. This caused renewed demands for the Lighthouse Board to take action.
The Board agree to revisit Stevenson's plan but they invite the most eminent engineer of the day, John Rennie, to examine the design. He believes the curvature to the base of the tower is wrong.
Parliament granted permission for the construction of the lighthouse in 1806. John Rennie was named Chief Engineer and Stevenson his assistant. Stevenson recruits a crew of 60 masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and sailors.
1807 The First Season
On the 17th of August, the men prepare to set sail for the rock. They will be away for 2 months. They can only work during the calm summer months and for only a few hours each day when the rock is exposed.
For the 20 hours each day when the rock is beneath the waves, the men live on a ship safely moored over a mile away. Rowing there and back is both time-wasting and dangerous. To help with this, work began on the foundations for the beacon house, a temporary structure which will stand on stilt-like legs to allow the men to live on the rock.
Because time on the rock is at such a premium, Stevenson asks the men to work on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day of rest. Most, including Stevenson, are deeply religious and this is unpopular, many refuse.
On the 2nd of September, God's retribution appears to arrive swiftly. One of the boats has cut adrift and been swept away by the tide. The one small rowing boat left is big enough for only half the crew. They manage to escape the rock with six men in the water holding on to the boat's gunwales. Fortunately the supply vessel arrives unexpectedly to take them to safety.
During the winter months work continued on the mainland. 60 stone-cutters follow Stevenson's detailed instructions cutting one tone blocks of hard Aberdeen granite.
1808 The Second Season
Each foundation stone takes months to cut and they must be laid in order. Great care must be taken transporting the blocks as if obe is damaged work would be delayed for the rest of the year.
The beacon house is now complete and it will house fifteen men.
The first tragedy happens when one of the Scott brothers is knocked unconscious by a buoy ring and is drowned.
By the end of the season only eighty hours of building work has been achieved and just three courses of stone have been laid.
1809 The Third Season
After surviving a vicious storm, the hardy beacon house restores the men's confidence in Stevenson and all now agree to work the Sabbath; the work continues smoothly.
Stevenson keeps Rennie abreast of developments in 82 detailed letters ostensibly seeking the chief engineer's advice which Stevenson largely ignores. One of the workers, Wishart, ends his work on the project when his legs are badly crushed by a falling beam.
By the 22nd August the weather is closing in and Stevenson calls a halt to the work for the season.
During the winter months, Stevenson's own faith is put to the ultimate test. In January he loses his twins to whooping cough and two weeks later his youngest daughter, Janet, also dies from the disease.
1810 The Final Season
Stevenson's lighthouse has caught the public imagination and many travel great distance to marvel at the achievement which now stands nearly one hundred feet high.
Towards th end of the summer, that last stone is sent to the quayside. In total there have been 2,500 stones.
The most violent storm yet hits the rock. The men take refuge in the beacon house only to discover that one of them is missing. The storm last for seven hours before they can make a search for Henderson.The body of Charles Henderson is never found.
Bell Rock Lighthouse
The day has finally arrived. On 1st February 1811 the twenty four lanterns are lit and the lighthouse is finished. Wishart got his wish to become one of the first lighthouse keepers at Bell Rock.
The true designer of the lighthouse has been the topic of much controversy for many years, but there is no doubt who built it.