Thursday, 18 October 2018 | Gareth
This year, 2018 sees the 200th anniversary of the first permanent lighthouses on the Isle of Man and they are marvels of Georgian technology.
Situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man presented a serious hazard to 18th century ships trading between Ireland, Scotland and England; with no lights to mark its treacherous coast at night it was the scene of countless shipwrecks. Merchants from the surrounding ports petitioned the authorities on numerous occasions and eventually, in 1815, an Act of Parliament opened the way for the construction of three lights on the Island: one at its northern tip, the Point of Ayre, and two on the Calf of Man, a small island off its south-western tip.
The lights were constructed and operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, based in Edinburgh, under one of the greatest civil engineers of the age, Robert Stevenson, their Chief Engineer.
The task was fraught with difficulties. The Point of Ayre was remote; there were no roads to it in 1816 and the site of the light tower was bordered by a huge shingle bank that was slowly shifting to the south east. The Calf of Man was also remote, and its situation wasn't helped by the activities of its tenant who didn't want the lighthouses built. He sabotaged construction, stole supplies, and generally made the job more difficult than it already was.
Nevertheless, Stevenson managed to construct two magnificent lights on the Calf, each with their keepers' houses and enclosures. The reason for two lights was most ingenious. Just off the towering cliffs of the Calf is a reef called the Chickens' Rock, which lurks below the surface at high tide. It was impossible to see and many ships were wrecked on it. However, the two lights were built directly in line with the reef, and as ships passed, and the lights appeared directly above each other, mariners knew the reef's location and could safely avoid it.
The large houses for the keepers and their families were superbly built with cellars to store the lamp oil, coal bunkers, water butts, kitchen ranges and everything the occupants would need in such remote locations. Stevenson decorated the light towers with dolphins, the Three Legs of Man and other motifs, discreetly incorporated into the ironwork around the light chamber windows. Each tower was crowned with a magnificent copper cupola, the top of which formed a ball with sculpted copper flames. In fact, these were hidden chimneys through which the hot air from the burning lamps below could escape. Today, the lights on the Calf lie in ruins. In the 1870s a rock light tower was built on the Chickens to mark it, and the Calf lights were switched off.
The light at the Point of Ayre, though, is still in operation, though it was automated in 1993. It has its original Fresnel lens from 1890 and it exhibits four flashes of white every twenty seconds. The tower now has a distinctive daymark of two red bands and is one of the iconic buildings of the Isle of Man.