04/08/2015 Lizard Point

The history books on lighthouses and Cornwall make scant mention of any lighthouse at Lizard Point prior to the distinctive twin towered building that we know today as Lizard Lighthouse.

However documents in the Record Office show that in 1619 James I granted a patent to Sir John Killigrew, landowner of Lizard Point to erect a beacon or lighthouse on his land. Killigrew's family were well known as smugglers and privateers and so the award of this patent for seemingly wanting to to save human life and promote safer sea trade does seem rather bizarre . Perhaps word of Killigrew's antics did reach King James? Killigrew was surprised to note that his Lizard Point Patent only gave him the right to collect a lighthouse levy from shipping on a voluntary basis, rather than through compulsive taxation. Not perhaps the secured revenue stream that Killigrew had anticipated.

Resistance to the first Lizard Point lighthouse had been great. Campaigners believed it would give guidance to pirates and enemies thus increasing the risk of invasion. A valid point, so the royal patent further stipulated that the lighthouse keeper should extinguish the beacon or lighthouse fires at the approach of the enemy.

Locals also complained that the light would take away "Gods Grace" from them. Known as the 'Graveyard of Ships', the coastline around the Lizard headland had, hitherto been unlit and incidence of ships wrecked upon its shores was high. John Killigrew when justifying his project wrote that the loss of human life and inestimable wealth was great and daily. Despite this fact, for the locals the sea was a valuable resource. Not only did it provide a seaway for trade, and a fishing ground, but it was also a provider of wrecks.

Despite popular belief, there is no evidence to support the myth that the Cornish deliberately wrecked ships with false lights. Historians can testify though that the Cornish have never denied salvaging wrecked goods. As today, back then, it was popularly believed that individuals had the right to whatever they found washed ashore - harvesting, now called beach-combing. Often the act of salvaging and lifesaving went hand in hand. No wonder then that the locals of the Lizard objected to a lighthouse.

During the building of the Lizard lighthouse around the summer of 1619, local inhabitants attacked the workforce and pulled down the partly completed tower. Killigrew was forced to employ a company of dragoons to protect his builders.

In 1620 the Lizard light was first lit but the voluntary contribution for its upkeep failed to materialise and by the end of the same year the Lizard light was extinguished. Two nights after Killigrew made this decision a fleet of ships coming up the English Channel nearly ran aground off the Lizard Point. The ship Masters had pre-paid the lighthouse levy, the matter reached the ears of King James. By the middle of 1621 the number of ships wrecked near the Lizard Point had become totally unacceptable. The following year, James I ordered the light to be relit. In 1623 the King ordered that 'a lighthouse should remain for all times on that part of the coast' and extended the Patent for 'as long as Sir John Killigrew or his partner Thynne may live'.

Strangely, in 1627 the Lizard light was unlit. Sir John Killigrew was accused of piracy after a silver bullion ship was wrecked near the Point. A report was made to the Lords of the Privy Council and to Lord Dorchester, that Sir John Killigrew had ordered his men to salvage the cargo and threatened to kill the ship's surviving crew. The Privy Council accepted Sir John Killigrew's explanation that he had acted under 'Custom and Descent' and that the King had received his share of the cargo in the normal way.

Sir John Killigrew died two years after his partner Thynne in 1630. Although a relative applied for the Patent, it was refused.

Applications were made in ensuing years, but it was not until 1748 that Trinity House supported an attempt by Thomas Fonnereau to erect a lighthouse. The building was completed in 1751, and consisted of two towers, with a cottage built between them, in which a watchman lay on a sort of couch, with a window on either side commanding a view of the lanterns. When the bellows-blowers relaxed their efforts and the fires dimmed, he would remind them of their duties by a blast from a cow horn. Trinity House assumed responsibility in 1771. The Lizard Lighthouse was electrified in 1924 and automated in 1998.

Today the Lizard Lighthouse Heritage Centre is located in the lighthouse engine room, which still features some of the original engines. Interactive exhibits and displays focus on the history of the lighthouse, the life of a lighthouse keeper, and the role of lighthouses in sea safety. Visitors can ascend to the top of the Eastern Lighthouse Tower from where there are breathtaking views over Lizard Point - one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The coastline on either side of the lighthouse offers dramatic cliff walks and boasts an abundance of rare wild flowers and fascinating geological features.

Not your stereotypical tall, slender lighthouse, the lighthouse towers at Lizard Point today measure only 17 meters. To cut to the chase, this gives the building a rather stubby appearance. However, looks can be deceiving. The reason why the towers are so short is because they are built on high cliffs. The height of light (one white flash every three seconds) above mean high water is 70m. Look out for the huge fog horns too. Tip - you might want to avoid visiting on a foggy day.

For further information on the opening times of the visitors centre at Lizard lighthouse please visit www.trinityhouse.co.uk

Back to posts