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The Bishop Rock Lighthouse – Isles of Scilly

The smallest island in the world with a building on it is Bishop Rock in the Isles of Scilly.  It also has the distinction of being the most South Westerly point of the UK. Because of this it is either the start, or end point of any transatlantic crossing.

To most people it is nothing more than the big lighthouse from the BBC adverts.  The one with the helipad on top.  But it has a fascinating and occasionally tragic history.

On the edge of the group of rocks, ledges, and islets known as the Western Rocks, The Bishop as the rock is correctly known stands barely proud of the water at all when the tide is high.  It doesn’t take much in the way of waves rolling in across the atlantic to swamp it completely.

It was the cause of many shipwrecks throughout the years, and together with the rest of the Western Rocks it has caused many thousands of deaths.

The wreck of the Association

Bishop Rock before the Lighthouse

The earliest mentions of the rock name it as Maen Escop, or Maenenescop, which translates as Bishop Rock.  The source of the name is unknown.  Possibly down to the shape being similar to a bishop’s mitre.  Though together with another rock they have sometimes been known as the Bishop and Clerk.  This is thought to be a reference to a shipwreck on the outer rocks some 200 years ago. Only three men survived: Miles Bishop, and John and Henry Clerk.

The likelihood is that both are true to some degree.

In 1818 the surveyor General to the Duchy of Cornwall commissioned a report.  It looked into the dangers to shipping that the Isles posed.  A recommendation was made that a lighthouse be built on the islands. The proposed site was the rock known as the Bishop, as it was both large enough to support a structure, and also the most extreme point of the rocks, close to where the most fatalities had occurred.

The famous civil engineer John Rennie offered to take on the task of building the lighthouse.  However the government turned down his offer.  It wasn’t until Trinity House conducted their own survey in 1843 that a decision was made.

The first lighthouse on bishop's rock

The First Bishop Rock Lighthouse

In 1847 construction of the first Bishop Rock Lighthouse was started.

The engineer in charge was James Walker.  A Scottish civil engineer from Falkirk, who had successfully built many lighthouses.  At the time work began he had already built lighthouses at West Usk, Start Point, Maplin Sands, Wolf Rock, and Trevose Head.

He was the obvious choice, and with his vast experience of the sea he argued that a traditional stone build wasn’t feasible.  He measured the wind at the proposed site.  It came in at over 7000 pounds of pressure per square foot.  And with over 30 gales a year commonplace, his opinion was taken as truth.

The first plans therefore were for a light on top of a tower made of open iron work.  The piles would be drilled directly into the rock, and the waves would pass through the girders reducing the likelihood of damage to the structure.

Work was slow.  It could only be done when sea conditions were favorable, and only when the tide was not high.  However a team of engineers were temporarily based on the tiny island of Rosevear in hastily built houses.  They were ferried to and from the Bishop by boat, and slowly but surely a structure began to appear.

The first lighthouse however was never lit, as during a heavy storm on February the 5th 1850 the entire structure was swept clean off the rock.  It turned out that Walker’s design was not enough to withstand the ferocious waters of the sea around the Isles of Scilly.

The Remains of the building on Rosevear Island

The Second Bishop Rock Lighthouse

The second Bishop Rock Lighthouse was stated the following year, and it followed a much more traditional design. Stone built, anchored into the rock.

There were however a number of problems.

Due to the tiny area available to build the structure on, the lowest course of stonework had to be cut directly into the rock itself, and this had to happen below the level of the lowest spring tide.

A retaining dam was constructed around the rock, and the water inside pumped out leaving the rock exposed, and the workers considerably below sea level. Each block was individually measured and cut on the mainland and shipped out to the temporary base on Rosevear where the fine shaping was carried out and the blocks were numbered.  They were then further shipped to the rock to be placed in situ by hand.  They weighed between 1-2 tons. Each block neatly dovetailed into the next, and each course was keyed to fit snugly against the next.

Bad weather, high tides, and rough seas meant working times were extremely limited, and the construction took more than seven years.  However in September 1858 the light was lit for the first time on top of a 35 metre tower consisting of over 2500 tons of dressed stone.

A Short Life

The newly constructed Bishop Rock Lighthouse stood against the seas with great success, despite the 550lb fog bell being washed off the gallery some 35 metres up during a particularly violent storm.  It had cost almost £35,000 to build. A figure that in today’s terms is over £3M.

Some twenty years later James Douglass, another famed lighthouse builder carried out a detailed inspection of the granite tower. He reported significant damage, and growing weaknesses in the structure of the lighthouse. He recommended strengthening, and increasing the height of the building by another 12 metres.

The ladder up to the door on the Bishop's Rock Lighthouse

The Third Bishop Rock Lighthouse

The construction of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse we know today began in 1882.

The biggest weakness of the lighthouse was its foundation.  An ambitious plan was put into action to deal with this. The rock surrounding the existing base was removed and huge granite blocks were placed, encasing the original lighthouse, bolted deeply into the rock.  This created a massive circular base for the waves to crash against before hitting the tower itself.

New masonry was brought from the mainland, shaped and fitted into place as before, encasing the building in another shell of stone, a metre thick. This carried on all the way up and beyond the lighthouse that had stood for two decades.  It took five and half years, and the end result was the lighthouse we see today.  Twelve metres taller than the former Bishop Rock Lighhouse, and sturdy enough to resist the fiercest seas.

A series of steps were cut into the rock to enable the Bishop Rock Lighthouse Keepers to moor against the structure and get to the lighthouse.  A series of metal staples enabled the Keepers to climb up and down to and from the door on the second floor.  Other than being winched aboard when seas were too rough to moor directly (usually the case) this was the only way on or off the lighthouse until the early 70s when a helipad was added to the top of the lantern.

Bishops Rock Lighthouse

The End of an Era

The Bishop Rock Lighthouse was fully manned with a team of lighthouse keepers until December 1992.  The last year of their tenure had been spent aiding the conversion to automatic running.  As well as ensuring everything functioned as expected.

It is now controlled in full by Trinity House from their Panning centre in Harwich, Essex.

The light it shines can be seen from 24 nautical miles away, and is a double pulse every fifteen seconds.  It is provided by a single 80W high intensity discharge lamp shining through a focused lens.  They are powered by an array of solar panels, but a diesel generator exists in case of this primary source of power failing.  The fuel is brought in by helicopter in bags that are used to fuill the tanks on the floors below.

Incoming Fuel Delivery at BIshop Rock

The Modern Bishop Rock Lighthouse

There are 10 floors in total within the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, each consisting of a single circular room. A circular staircase spirals around the tower inbetween the rooms and the external walls.

The floors are as follows.

  1. Water Tank
  2. Entrance room
  3. Food store room
  4. Diesel store
  5. Diesel store
  6. Living room and Kitchen for the Lighthouse Keepers
  7. Bunk room for five people
  8. Originally a store room, now an office
  9. Battery room
  10. The Light itself

Nowadays the only visitors to the lighthouse are the maintenance crews from Trinity House who ensure everything is working as it should, and that the generator is fully fueled.  For the casual visitor it is possible to get a boat trip out to the Bishop Rock to see it from the water.  They are run from St Mary’s by the Boatmen’s Association, but only run when the weather is good, and the seas calm.  If you see a trip running, don’t pass up the opportunity to go.  It could be a long time before you get another!



Martin is the creator of About Scilly. He visited the islands for the first time 15 years ago and fell in love. He's been back every year since and would dearly love to live there.

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