The History of the lighthouse

A historic photograph of South Foreland Lighthouse

The Goodwin Sands cover a huge area of the English Channel between the South Foreland Lighthouse and Ramsgate. The sandbank - hidden below the sea for most of the time – has been a graveyard for ships and mariners alike.

Since the 14th century there have been warning lights positioned on the White Cliffs, which overlook the Sands, to warn shipping of this hazard.

In 1367 Brother Nicholas de Legh, a man leading a solitary life in the small village of St Margaret’s which lies close to the Sands, hung a lantern on the cliff face in order to warn the sailors of the danger.

The first lighthouse

The first lights that resembled lighthouses were constructed in 1635. A distinguished soldier, Sir John Meldrum, arranged for the construction of two iron braziers which held an open fire, and from that time onwards we have always had two Lighthouses at South Foreland. Meldrum was able to recover his costs by charging 'light dues' which were paid by passing ships when they reached their next British port.

Meldrum’s lease was taken over in 1642 by Robert Osbolton. On the death of Osbolton’s son In 1715, Greenwich Hospital took over the lease and one of their first improvements was to put glazing round the fires. Unfortunately the smoke deposits blocked the lights and after 12 years the glass had to be removed.

In 1793 John Yenn redesigned the Upper Lighthouse using oil lamps. Two years later the Lower Light was rebuilt to a similar design though with only two floors, as compared to the taller, three-floored Upper Light.