Listen/read more about Southwold Lighthouse from Peter Austin, a trustee of the Southwold Millennium Foundation.
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It’s a wonderful building, it’s a classic of its kind of wonderful Victorian engineering and as you look at it – the thickness of the walls, the style, everything is really crafted beautifully, not only to be functional but also to be very pleasing on the eye. And when you go up into the lantern and you look at the lantern itself it mirrors the style of the lighthouse itself. I don’t think anybody would build anything quite like it today.
The lighthouse is now well over 100 years old, it was finished in 1889, Victoria still had six years of her reign to go if my history is right. The lantern itself with the light is even older than that. It was built in 1886 and if you go up and look at that you’ll see what the Victorians managed to do with their engineering and it’s a wonderful piece of classical Victorian engineering, using the cutting edge of technology of its day. With the use of some very complicated optics to magnify what in those days was a fairly low powered oil lamp. So it’s a marvellous monument to Victorian enterprise and the style and confidence which the Victorians had in their engineering and their building.
I haven’t actually measured the walls but the tower looks deceptively flimsy, but when you look at it the walls must be at least three feet thick all the way up. Certainly when you look through the windows and try to gauge the thickness of the walls they are a good three feet thick, possibly more at the base here.
I’m told there were a million and a half bricks used to build the lighthouse and of course in 1886 when the lighthouse was started there was no nice lorry to bring them in with a crane to offload them and they all had to be brought up to the town here by horse and cart. Quite an undertaking I can imagine. And of course the other thing, I don’t know how they did it, was to haul the lantern up to the top of the lighthouse. These days we’d probably use a helicopter, or something like that. But again, I imagine, pulleys and levers and they must have hauled it up to the top. A considerable feat of engineering.
There are three features on the horizon when you’re coming into Southwold, which we always used to look for when we were children, you’d come in and you’d see the lighthouse, you’d see the church and you’d see the old water tower – and then you knew you were well on your way to being back in Southwold again. A real joy after a long journey to see the lighthouse on the horizon knowing that you were nearly there. And of course the same would be true of seamen out to sea. They would be looking for the lovely white Southwold Lighthouse and feel a great sense of relief when they knew they were well within sight of Southwold.
The lighthouse was never used as living quarters for the lighthouse keepers. Trinity House built two very nice cottages which are at the back of the lighthouse, where the lighthouse keepers used to live, but after 1938 when the lighthouse was electrified, the lighthouse was de-manned, became automatic and so there was no longer a full time lighthouse keeper, instead they had a lighthouse attendant who would be called to the lighthouse whenever anything needed to be done. The lighthouse keepers in the old days used to spend their nights in what is called the service room, a room just below the lantern and from there they would go up periodically to make sure the lantern was working properly, bearing in mind it was oil-fired – it had a wick and an oil supply, so they would make sure the oil supply was coming through fine, if it wasn’t they would have to pump some more oil up and they would keep the wick finely tuned to its right height and keep it nice and clean so that the light was nice and bright.
last updated: 09/08/07
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