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SMALLS LIGHTHOUSE;THE SMALLS LIGHTHOUSE, 1775

Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 240690

Map Reference SM40NE

Grid Reference SM4663008870

Unitary (Local) Authority Pembrokeshire

Old County Pembrokeshire

Community Marloes and St Brides

Type of Site LIGHTHOUSE

Broad Class MARITIME

Period 18th Century, Post Medieval

Site Description The construction of the helicopter pad on the Smalls in 1972 has largely obliterated most of the principal post-stubs or post holes of the earlier lighthouse built to a design by Henry Whiteside. However, the weathered stubs of two original posts survive, together with eleven post-holes for the raking struts, some with their lower posts, of which a number are paired. The fitting of new fuel and water tanks at about the same time has destroyed the original small rock-cut coal cellar, but a refuge for tools is still visible. These original rock-cut stores were necessitated by the meagre space available in the superstructure of a pile-top construction.

Event and Historical Information
For ships sailing south through the Irish Sea, the Smalls and the adjacent Hats and Barrels, along with the vicious tidal rips, were a deadly threat and claimed many wrecks. Early in the 1770s suggestions were made that the Smalls Rock should be lit, and finally in 1773 a Quaker, John Phillips, master of St. George's Dock, Liverpool, obtained a lease of the Rock. Little is known about Phillips himself or what prompted Henry Whiteside, a musical-instrument maker, to have made a model for a proposed light on the Smalls. Phillips was already agent for the Skerries light, an orthodox stone tower capped by a coal fire, but wanted his light to be `so singular a construction as to be known from all others in the world' and commissioned Whiteside to construct a novel piled light. Rather than build a massive masonry tower, he adopted the ingenious plan of a piled structure through which the fury of the seas could pass freely. The structure comprised an open framework of three sectional cast-iron stanchions (0.305m - 12in in diameter) surrounded by a number of pillars of wood. Presumably the cast-iron pipework, and timbers, of the pillars were of the same order of magnitude as the 12.8m (42ft) posts later used. The prefabricated structure was set up in a field (Y Gamlyn) at the end of Solva Harbour and was then erected on the Smalls Rock during 1775. However this composite structure was abandoned without a light in the winter of 1775 when it was found that the wooden and iron posts would not work in unison, and that the iron ones were working loose in the rock. The wooden pillars could flex during storms while the iron pillars remained rigid except for their opening joints. Whiteside decided that the iron supports were too brittle and it also proved to be impossible to secure flanged joints as the iron bolts connecting the sections of iron tubing worked loose (part of one of the cast-iron stanchions was later to be seen in use as a bollard on the quay at Solva). Whiteside's first task for the reconstruction of the lighthouse in timber was to mark out a circle 6.5m in diameter, and cut holes for eight posts about 0.75m across, with a ninth central post. The necessary post-holes had to be cut in the exposed surface of the rock; the work was done under conditions of great difficulty. All were about 14m (46ft) in length and secured to the rock by a grouting of molten lead in deeply drilled holes so that the posts stood some 12.8m (42ft) above the surface of the rock. The overall height of the lighthouse was 19.8m (65ft) and it was 6.7m (22ft) in diameter. On top, and reached by a rope ladder, was the keepers' accommodation and above that the lantern displaying the fixed lamps . These were octagonal in plan with a raised walk around the lantern, fitted with iron railings `in order that the windows might be kept clean.' The new light was operational by January 1777. Robert Stevenson, the Scottish lighthouse engineers is said to have commented after a visit to the Smalls in 1801 that the building had 'no better appellation than a raft of timber rudely put together; the material ill-suited for a permanent structure. Nevertheless the lighthouse proved to be a successful building. It can claim a unique position in the history of lighthouse economics as it was almost certainly the most profitable lighthouse in the world. Even after the Act of 1836, when it was administered by Trinity House, who had greatly reduced the dues, it was still bringing in an income of £22,000 a year, against which was set the annual rent of £5 to the Crown for the rocks, the modest wages of the keepers, and the cost of the fuel. By the time of the takeover in 1836, the lighthouse had passed to Phillips's grandson, the Rev. A.B. Buchanan, who displayed an astute understanding of temporal affairs. In 1823 he had refused an offer of £148,430, considering it inadequate, and finally, with 41 years of his lease to run, he was compensated with the considerable sum of £170,468. Even in 1852, after Trinity House had lowered the dues, its annual income was still £22,759. It was demolished in 1861, when the present tower was commissioned (see NPRN 34350).

Sources include:
Freeman, E, 1958, The Solva Saga
Emlyn, I, 1958, The Smalls: a sketch of the old lighthouse
Hague, D, 1994, Lighthouses of Wales: Their Architecture and Archaeology, pg70-5
Report of the Royal Commission on Lights and Buoys, 1861
Williams, T, 1900, Life of Sir James Douglas
Woods, E C and Rees, J S, 1948, `The Smalls Lighthouse' in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historical Society

Maritime Officer, RCAHMW, December 2008.

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