History of the lighthouse at St Catherines Point
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St Catherine’s lighthouse is set within our land at St Catherine’s Point at the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. It was built in response to local need for reliable light to guide shipping, following the Clarendon's catastrophic shipwreck.
On October 11 1836, the Clarendon - a ship from the Caribbean - struck rocks at the foot of Blackgang Chine in gale-force winds. She was carrying an exotic cargo of rum, coconuts and turtles.
Despite the valiant efforts of local people, the ship broke up in heavy seas with the loss of 23 lives. The bodies were washed ashore, except one. Uncannily, the body of Miss Gourlay was carried on to Southsea, to the foot of her father’s garden.
A trio of lighthouses
Perched high on St Catherine’s Hill, the Oratory is often quoted as being a fine example of a medieval lighthouse, although it's more likely to have been a bell tower with a beacon alongside.
In 1785, a proper lighthouse was begun nearby but never completed because the hill was so often shrouded in mist. In 1838, work began on a new lighthouse on St Catherine’s Point.
The new lighthouse
St Catherine’s lighthouse began operation in 1840. When the cows on the Downs first saw its light, they're said to have stampeded in fear. In 1875, the height of the elegant 3-tier octagonal tower was reduced substantially as - like its predecessors - its light was often shrouded in mist.
It was one of the first lighthouses in the world to be powered by electricity when arc lamps were installed in 1888. They could be seen for an incredible 18 miles.
The original fog signal house was on a cliff nearer the sea but was at risk of collapse due to erosion. In 1932, it was replaced by a shorter tower next to the main lighthouse. Being similar in style, they're known locally as the Cow and Calf.
World War II to the present day
During the war, the lighthouse was an important landmark for shipping and aircraft. Sadly, on 1 June 1943 the engine house close to the lighthouse was bombed and three lighthouse keepers sheltering in it were killed.
In 1997 the lighthouse was automated and is the third most powerful light operated by Trinity House.