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Lighthouses of Hampshire

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Southsea Castle Lighthouse

The coast of Hampshire is located halfway along the world's busiest shipping lane, the English Channel. There are seven main harbours and rivers in Hampshire that feed directly into the Solent, the stretch of water that separates Hampshire from the Isle of Wight1. From the east, these are:

  • Lymington River – Location of the port of Lymington.
  • Beaulieu River – Probably Hampshire's quietest river as the proposed shipbuilding town at Bucklers Hard was never established.
  • Southampton Water – Home of the international port of Southampton as well as other port towns such as Hythe and the Marchwood Naval Base.
  • River Hamble – Location of the ports of Hamble-le-Rice, Warsash, Bursledon and Swanwick.
  • Portsmouth Harbour - As the home of the Royal Navy, this has been one of the world's largest naval bases for over 500 years; the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard was the location of the world's first dry dock in 1495. Gosport and Port Solent also have marinas in Portsmouth Harbour.
  • Langstone Harbour – Largely undeveloped due to silt, apart from Eastney Marina.
  • Chichester Harbour – Home of marinas on Hayling Island, the town of Emsworth, Thorney Island and marinas over the border in Sussex.

As one of the world's busiest shipping areas, the Solent has seen numerous shipwrecks. Consequently, for over 200 years the area has been well guarded by lighthouses warning ships of treacherous shores, shifting shingle, hidden spits and guiding them safely into port.


  • 1786 – First Hurst lighthouse (later called the Low Light)
  • 1812 – First High Hurst lighthouse
  • 1822 – Southsea Castle lighthouse
  • 1865 – Second High Hurst lighthouse
  • 1865 – Second Low Hurst lighthouse
  • 1865 – First High and Low lighthouses at Hurst dismantled
  • 1911 – Second Low Hurst lighthouse decommissioned
  • 1911 – Third Low Hurst lighthouse
  • 1914 – Calshot lightship moored at Calshot Spit
  • 1977 – Third Low Hurst lighthouse decommissioned
  • 1987 – Calshot lightship decommissioned
  • 2000 – Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon constructed


The history of modern lighthouses in Britain began with local trade guilds representing seamen, merchants, masters and pilots, one of which, the Deptford Trinity House, was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1514 to maintain a monopoly of pilots on the Thames. Their responsibility increased in the 17th Century to build lighthouses around the mouth of the Thames and East Anglian coast, gradually spreading to include all lighthouses in England and Wales in an Act of Parliament in 1836.

Smaller harbour lights to guide ships into port at night have also been constructed, normally in the control of their local harbour authorities. Advances in radar, searchlights, satellite navigation, radio and propulsion have meant that ships are not so completely at the weather's mercy, and have made many of these smaller lights redundant. Since the end of the 1990s, all lighthouses in Britain have been electrified and automated, and no longer require lighthouse keepers to keep the lights lit.

Each lighthouse has its own unique light pattern of length and colour of flashes and gap between the number of flashes. This helps ships identify which lighthouse's light it is they are seeing. Similarly, lighthouses have their own pattern of colour and width of bands, if any, painted on their sides, different to all other lighthouses in the vicinity to avoid confusion during the day.

Seven lighthouses have been built in three different locations in Hampshire, from east to west, Hurst Point, Beaulieu River and Southsea Castle.


  • Exhibited light – The period when the lighthouse light is visible.
  • Eclipsed light – The period when the lighthouse light is not visible.
  • Flashing light – A light where the period of light is less than the period of darkness.
  • Occulting light – A light where the period of light is more than the period of darkness.
  • Isophase light – A light where the period of light is the same as the period of darkness.
  • Elevation – The height of a lighthouse's light above sea level. As a general rule, the greater the elevation, the further the light is visible.
  • Lantern – The glass-enclosed space at the top of the lighthouse housing the lens and optic.
  • Gallery – Walkway surrounding the lantern.

Hurst Point Lighthouses

Hurst Spit is located at the narrowest part of the Solent, near its western entrance. Here the Solent is just over three quarters of a mile wide. To pass through, ships must first avoid the Shingles, a three-mile-long shoal of pebbles just beneath sea-level that periodically shifts position and shape. The most common and widest entry is the Needles Passage, which keeps to the south of the Shingles. However a narrower and more difficult way to enter the Solent to the north of the Shingles, known as the North Passage, is also possible, although normally only attempted by those who know the area well.

Hurst Spit is a flat and narrow band of shingle a mile long that stretches into the Solent, with a wide curved sweep surrounded by the sea and marsh. It too has seen many ships founder. In fact the area was so hazardous that even very early publications describe in detail how to approach the lucrative ports within the Solent safely, such as WJ Blaeu's The Light of Navigation, published in Amsterdam in 1612, which says:

To sail into the west end of the [Solent], you must sail right upon the Needles, running in close along by the Needles, within a cable's length thereof, because of the [Shingles] which lie off from [Hurst Spit], before the west end of the Isle of Wight, whereby the channel is not all too wide. When you are within the Needles, you must turn over to Hurst Castle, which stands upon the [spit], because there lies [Warden Point Ledges] rocks upon the Island under the water.

As the entrance to the Solent was so narrow here, Hurst Castle was built at the very end of the spit in 1541 as part of Henry VIII's defences against a very real threat of invasion2. The castle was used as a prison for Charles I and was extensively modernised in the 1860s, seeing use until Coastal Artillery ended in 1956. As well as a military position, the end of Hurst Spit was used to guide ships through the treacherous entrance to the Solent. A light had been shown at the end of Hurst Spit since 1733, however Trinity House was not formally petitioned to construct a lighthouse until 1781, by merchants Stephen Mignam and William Tatnall.

Hurst Lighthouse – First Low Light

The Court of Trinity House agreed in January 1782 that constructing a lighthouse on the Hurst Spit would:

... be of great Benefit and Safety to the Ships of His Majesty and his Subjects and others navigating the British Channel... ships and vessels have been lost... and the lives, ships and goods of His Majesty's subjects as well as the King's Royal Navy continue to be exposed to the like calamities more especially in the night time and in hard southerly gales.

Trinity House applied to Parliament for permission to collect tolls and duties from shipping in the area in order to raise the funds to build the lighthouse. Parliament consented in June 1782, provided no work was begun until the war with France had ended3. In late 1783, with the war over, construction of the first lighthouse at this vulnerable position began; it was started by Stephen Mignam, who died shortly after commencing construction, and his partner William Tatnall4. The terms of construction were that Tatnall would own a 21-year lease of the lighthouse provided he construct the lighthouse, keepers' cottages and access road to the lighthouse, and display the light by 21 June 1784. On completion, he would be paid £960 per annum. Tatnall expected to have recouped the cost of construction within five years, after which time the funds would have been almost pure profit, with small expenses for wages, oil and repair.

However on 7 June 1784, the Court of Trinity House ordered construction to cease, while they investigated the possibility of constructing lighthouses at nearby Pylewell in Hampshire and Sconce Point5 on the Isle of Wight. Although these lighthouses were not built, after ordering Tatnall to delay construction, Trinity House declared that he had not built the lighthouse on time and promptly confiscated the almost-completed lighthouse from him. It was first lit on 29 September 1796.

The lighthouse was conical, 57 feet 7 inches (17.5m) high with a small adjoining cottage for accommodation, additional accommodation for the two keepers in the base of the tower as well as a garden where vegetables could be grown. The lighthouse was painted red for identification and constructed south-west of Hurst Castle.

The lighthouse keepers were paid £40 a year, a vast sum for the period. In addition to vegetables from the gardens, fishing and wildfowl would supplement their diet. The main problem was the lack of water. Trinity House asked the Board of Ordnance6 about whether they could share the castle's water supply, only to be told that the castle did not have one, relying on the collection of rainwater or paying for boats to supply water to the castle.

The life of a lighthouse keeper wasn't always (if ever) a romantic idyll, nor always an isolated job, but instead subject to all its trials and tribulations. In 1792, John Kalloway, one of the castle's garrison, assaulted the first lighthouse keeper, John Howell, and his pregnant wife Ann. John Howell worked the lighthouse until he retired in 1815, when he was awarded an extremely generous pension of £30 per annum.

Hurst First High Light

The first lighthouse was sometimes obscured by fog and was difficult to see from certain directions, so in April 1812 recommendations to construct a more powerful lighthouse were made. By 27 August 1812, Hurst Spit's second lighthouse had been constructed, designed by Daniel Alexander. The lantern was 18 feet (5.5m) taller than the earlier lighthouse, which still remained in operation, and so was known as the 'High Light' while the older lighthouse was referred to as the 'Low Light'. Visible for 13 miles, the tower was 76 feet (23m) high. In 1818 the Scottish lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, visited both lighthouses at Hurst and wrote that he:

found the two lighthouses in good order, particularly the one of conical form.

By the mid 1840s, the four Hurst lighthouse keepers, two for each lighthouse, were each earning £47 per annum. The lighthouses proved a valuable aid to navigation and though they were appreciated by merchants and the Royal Navy, the Board of Ordnance who owned Hurst Castle remained uneasy neighbours. There had been a long legal battle over Hurst Spit's ownership7 and in 1845 the Board of Ordnance asked Trinity House if they would be so kind as to demolish the lighthouses to improve the castle's field of fire8, although Trinity House refused and this was not carried out. In 1860 Trinity House was informed by the War Office that Hurst Castle itself was going to be greatly expanded. The modified Tudor castle would be the centre of two artillery wings, the west wing would house 25 guns, the east 169. The Low Light and lighthouse keeper's cottage were in the path of the western wing and would be demolished, and so new lighthouses would be required.

Hurst Second Low Light

The position for a new Low Light was quickly agreed, and a new keeper's cottage and pigsty was built north of the High Light. This is now Grade II listed. The War Department financed the new Low Light, which was built on the inner curtain wall of Hurst Castle's west wing. A hinged iron staircase, which could be raised in times of invasion threat, provided access to the lighthouse at will. This was designed to enable the lighthouse keeper to come and go without disturbing the garrison and also meant that any invading enemy could be denied access to the lighthouse; they would not be able to enter Hurst Castle itself even if they should capture the lighthouse. This lighthouse was first lit in September 1865, when the old lighthouse was demolished.

Hurst Second High Light

At the same time as a new Low Light was constructed, a new High Light was built 50 feet (15.2m) east of the original. This new tower is white without banding and 85 feet (26m) tall, with the lantern 75 feet (22.8m) above sea level, visible for 14 miles. It was first lit in 1867. This lighthouse had two cottages adjoining the base on the north-west and south-east sides, although these were demolished by the time of the Great War, when a solitary lighthouse keeper living in the Low Light's cottage was expected to service both lighthouses.

In 1923 the oil lamp was replaced with an acetylene gas lamp, the acetylene gas being manufactured in a building on the site of the old cottage. Calcium carbide was mixed with rainwater to produce acetylene gas and piped to both the High and the third Low Lights, one of the earliest examples of automation in lighthouses. In 1968 acetylene gas was no longer manufactured on site and gas was instead delivered in cylinders. Today, this lighthouse is Grade II Listed.

Hurst Third Low Light

The Shingles bank had shifted position considerably during the latter half of the 19th Century. Consequently, the Low Light was no longer in the correct place to guide ships in, so a new lighthouse was constructed on the castle walls west of the second Low Light's position and 753 feet (230m) south-east of the High Light. This was a square, iron construction built on a steel joist framework, designed to be capable of disassembly and reassembly elsewhere should the Shingles shift again. Originally painted red, it was powered by oil and later acetylene gas, and first lit on 30 November 1911. It was 52 feet (15.8m) tall and visible for up to 12 miles, however in 1977 it was decommissioned and repainted grey to avoid confusion with other lighthouse landmarks. In 2010 Trinity House gave ownership of the Low lighthouse to English Heritage, who own Hurst Castle.

Hurst Point Lighthouses Today

Hurst Castle now contains a lighthouse museum. One of the displays is the original lantern from the Egypt Point lighthouse, Cowes, Isle of Wight. The castle and two Low Lights are now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The Hurst Point High Lighthouse is still operated by Trinity House and in 1997 high intensity projectors were installed to assist ships navigate this, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon

The Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon is the newest lighthouse in Britain. Built in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium, it was built following concerns by local sailors that the area between the Beaulieu and Lepe rivers was not properly marked, with hazards including Gull Island and mud flats. Built in the grounds of Lepe House near Lepe Country Park, close to the entry channel to the Beaulieu River, the white lighthouse is 25 feet (7.6m) tall with an octagonal lamp room surrounded by a gallery and topped by a weather vane. It was financed by local boat owners and yacht clubs, was designed by Brian Turner and was first lit on 8 July 2000.

Southsea Castle Lighthouse

Southsea Castle is located at the southernmost point of Portsea Island. Designed by King Henry VIII himself, it has guarded the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour since 1544. As the castle is in such a strategic position, it was frequently updated to ensure that it remained capable of protecting the home of the Royal Navy from any form of attack. After the Napoleonic War, the Admiralty insisted that the castle should include a lighthouse, to help the Royal Navy navigate into their home port. This was built in 1822.

When the lighthouse was constructed, the lighthouse keeper and his family were given two rooms within the castle itself, next to the castle's entrance. Sadly in March 1913 the lighthouse keeper Harry Whitman's four-year-old daughter Molly Whitman died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Public health officials condemned the keeper accommodation, and new accommodation outside the castle was then provided. The lamp is now automatic.

The lighthouse is 30 feet (9.1m) tall, has a gallery and pagoda roof over the lantern, and is black and white striped. Its flashing white light is visible for 11 miles and it is built on the north of the western rampart's western gun platform, on the castle's outer wall. Although Southsea Castle itself is open to the public, the lighthouse is not, remaining an operational lighthouse operated by the Portsmouth Harbour Authority. It is Grade II Listed while Southsea Castle itself is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and one of the more recent extensions now houses the D-Day Museum.

Calshot Spit Lightship

Although not technically a lighthouse, the Calshot Spit lightship served off Calshot Spit, near Calshot Castle, at the western mouth of the approach to Southampton Water between 1914 and 1987, when it was replaced by a buoy. The lightship was then moved to Ocean Village in Southampton where it served as an attraction to that popular area, but sadly was left neglected and was removed in 2010.

It had been intended to restore the lightship and have her take pride of place in the proposed Aeronautica museum, which would combine the aircraft collection of Solent Sky – the Southampton Hall of Aviation with other local exhibits including ships and trams. Sadly this has fallen through due to the sale of the museum's proposed location. At the time of writing (2012), the Calshot lightship is currently located near Town Quay in Southampton, awaiting restoration, facing an unknown future.

Gosport Lightship

There is one other lightship in Hampshire, in Haslar Marina, Gosport. This, the LV1, the first Trinity House light vessel built after the Second World War, was not moored in Hampshire until she was purchased after being decommissioned in the 1990s. She is used as a function room and restaurant.

Lighthouses Today

Today there remain three active lighthouses: the Hurst Point High Light, Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon and Southsea Castle lighthouses, with the waters also guarded by the Coastguard, RNLI, local lifeboat organisations and search-and-rescue helicopters, ensuring the safety of those who navigate the Solent.

1Although separated by the Solent, many people wrongly assume that Hampshire is a part of the Isle of Wight. They are, in fact, two completely different counties.2A vast French fleet invaded the Isle of Wight in 1545, attacking the Island's east coast from St Helens to Bonchurch in the same conflict that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose.3A war related to the American War of Independence.4Before 1836, lighthouses were often built by entrepreneurs. Provided permission was granted by Trinity House, lighthouse ownership could be a lucrative business; lighthouse owners were entitled to charge ships in the area a small levy, intended for lighthouse upkeep and maintenance, as well as collect a small annual sum from Trinity House itself. By 1836, several lighthouses had been built near busy ports, but quieter and more dangerous areas were poorly lit, leading Parliament to abolish private lighthouse ownership.5Location of Carey's Sconce and, since 1852, Fort Victoria.6The government department in charge of coastal defence, later replaced by the War Department.7Mainly over whether the land was owned by the Crown or by the Lord of the Manor of Hordle, an ongoing dispute from 1820-45. Eventually the courts ruled in favour of the Lord of the Manor of Hordle, who then tried to evict the castle's garrison in 1841, only to be told that although he owned Hurst Spit, he could not evict the Crown. In the end he sold much of Hurst Spit to the Board of Ordnance in 1843.8The late 1840s saw the first of three Victorian invasion panics. General Sir John Fox Burgoyne, Inspector General of Fortifications, believed that if France was able to control the English Channel long enough to land a large invasion force in Britain, they would likely succeed. King Louis Philippe's son, the Prince de Joinville, had also published anti-British articles and was in charge of the heavily-funded French navy.9Fresh water tanks were also constructed.

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