The Eddystone Lighthouse is probably the most famous Lighthouse in the South West and the reef that it protects is possibly the most notorious. Nobody quite knows just how many ships have met there fate on this small collection of rocks but it may run into hundreds.
During the last war it was one of the U boats favourite hunting grounds, and long before that, right back to the early days of merchant seafarers, the Eddystone managed to claim a yearly quota of mangled ships and lost souls.
The decision to build a warning beacon on the Stone first came in 1696 when the Brig Constant rammed in to the reef on Christmas Eve. The owner of the ship, Henry Winstanley, having already lost one ship to the reef swore to build a beacon. True to his word by 1698 there stood a tarred timber and stone construction. Winstanley was so proud of his construction that he visited it frequently.
Unfortunately during one of his visits he became marooned on the lighthouse due to bad weather. On the night of 27th November 1703 during a fierce gale the huge seas swept away the lighthouse drowning the keeper and builder.
For almost three years the Eddystone lay unmarked until in 1706 when Captain Lovat was appointed to supervise the building of a new lighthouse. He appointed John Runyerd as the designer. By 1709 Runyerd had completed the new lighthouse which stood up to everything the sea could throw at it. Until on the night of 2 December 1755 the lighthouse caught fire. The flames could clearly be seen in Plymouth and were so hot they melted the lead roof on top of the tower.
One of the molten drops of lead landed into the mouth of a keeper as he looked up melting through to his stomach and killing him. Lead globules can still be found on the sea bed today.
The third construction was built by John Smeaton. He only built one lighthouse in his engineering career, but it set a trend due to its ground breaking tapered design. The tower lasted over a hundred years and was only replaced by the current structure because the rock it was built on became under cut.
The current Lighthouse was built in 1879 by James Douglas it was built on nearby rocks which were submerged at all points of the tide. The current structure is twice as tall and nearly 4 and a half times larger then Smeaton’s tower which was dismantled and can now be found on the Hoe.
The sea around the lighthouse is full of marine life and is a paradise for under water photography. Depths vary around the reef from 7m to 55m. The reef often has exceptional underwater visibility of over 30m, with deep gullies and a sandy bottom. Crawfish, lobster and crabs are in good numbers and there is considerable evidence of shipwrecks.
The remoteness of the site and the need for near perfect conditions means it is hardly dived. Wreck sites are difficult to pinpoint, but among the known victims are the Sailing vessels Winchelsea, 1703, the Snowdrop and Constant in 1696, the George Thomas in 1869, Paulus Heinkes in 1880, Tellus in 1887.
The only recoded steam ship was the 501 ton Hiogo wrecked in Sept 1867 when the captain refused to order a change of course even though it was obvious she was going to collide with the reef.
Traces of the first two lighthouses are also evident on the reef.