The History of the 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.
In 1832 both the upper and lower lighthouse at South Foreland were purchased by Trinity house and they began a programme of improvements to the lights, which give the buildings that we would recognise today.
The Knott family were lighthouse keepers at South Foreland for five generations and were probably the longest dynasty of keepers anywhere in the world. During their time here they would have seen many important changes to the lighthouse as electricity and wireless communication were introduced, changing their jobs forever.
South Foreland Lighthouse was fully automated in 1969 with both the keepers being transferred to other lighthouses. The National Trust took over the care of the lighthouse in 1989 and it opened to the public for the first time in 1990.
The coast around the lighthouse was changed beyond recognition during the Second World War, being fortified with coastal artillery and ground-breaking radar, preparing for an invasion that would thankfully never come.
Michael Faraday was one of the most influential scientists in the world. In his role as scientific adviser to Trinity House, he would transform their lighthouses into the most technologically advanced in the world.
Guglielmo Marconi did some of the world's first radio experiments at South Foreland Lighthouse including the first ship to shore wireless transmission and the first international wireless transmission in 1899.
James Walker was an eminent Victorian engineer who worked on many civil engineering projects across Britain, he also designed both lighthouses at South Foreland and was chief engineer for Trinity House for 38 years.
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