Skip to content

History of the Needles rocks and lighthouse

An aerial view of the Needles and lighthouse, Isle of Wight.
An aerial view of the Needles and lighthouse, Isle of Wight. | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The Needles rocks and lighthouse stand boldly on the Isle of Wight where the weather sweeps in from the west. Discover how the rocks were formed and how they got their name. Learn more about the construction of the lighthouse including the lives of its resident lighthouse keepers.

History of the Needles rocks

The Needles on the Isle of Wight is one of the most photographed groups of rocks in the world - this row of three distinctive chalk stacks are a photographer’s delight. But how were the rocks formed and where does their name come from?

A natural formation

The Needles form the western tip of a band of chalk that crosses the centre of the Isle of Wight, stretching to Culver Cliff in the east. The chalk ridge continues west under the sea to Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck and is believed to have been connected at one time to Old Harry Rocks, which is about 20 miles away.

In 5,000 BC the ridge was breached by the River Solent, which created the Isle of Wight with jagged white rocks at the western tip. These unusual vertical rock stacks are a result of heavy folding of chalk. The remaining stacks are made of hard chalk that is more resistant to erosion.

The Needles rocks and lighthouse, Isle of Wight
The Needles rocks and lighthouse, Isle of Wight | © National Trust Images/Scott King

How the Needles got their name

Originally, there were four rocks – you can see the gap very clearly like a missing tooth. The name the Needles comes from the fourth rock which was needle-shaped and known as Lot’s Wife.

The book of Genesis in the Bible records that Lot’s Wife was turned into a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back after being told not to when she was fleeing from the destruction of Sodom.

The tallest rock collapses

Standing at 120ft (36.6m), the Lot's Wife rock was the tallest of the four. The rock collapsed during a great storm in 1764 and the impact is said to have been felt in Portsmouth. Despite its demise and the relatively squat shapes of the surviving rocks, the name 'the Needles' stuck.

Acquisition by the National Trust

We purchased the Needles headland in 1975 using funds generated from a coast fundraising campaign.

View over the jagged chalk Needles on the far western point of the Isle of Wight
View over the jagged chalk Needles on the far western point of the Isle of Wight | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The origins of the lighthouse

The Victorian lighthouse seen today was made to replace a lighthouse built in 1785 on the cliffs overhanging Scratchell’s Bay. The height of the old lighthouse meant it was often shrouded in mist and therefore of limited use. Other lighthouses on the Isle of Wight shared the same problem.

A feat of engineering

The Needles lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1859. It cost £20,000, a tidy sum in those days.

The engineers used dynamite to create a platform in the chalk stack, and to provide for a huge water tank, coal store and cellars. This meant that the lighthouse could still be manned when the weather was too bad for supplies to be sent out.

Its circular granite tower has sides that are 3ft thick at the base, withstanding waves of up to 20ft. It has a powerful foghorn and its light can be seen from 17 miles away.

Life in the Needles lighthouse

The lighthouse originally had a staff of three keepers who kept a 24-hour watch during their month-long tour of duty. Conditions were basic and in very bad weather the lighthouse keepers could be cut off for weeks at a time. They had to be prepared for the unexpected.

One day, a keeper was making a call on the telephone, 40ft up, when a wave came through the window and washed his breakfast off the table.

The end of an era

In 1993, the old glass lantern which had faithfully served the lighthouse was replaced with mains electricity laid from the Needles Old Battery. The lighthouse was fully automated a year later, and the crew left. Now, the lighthouse has a helipad at the top for emergency access.

Where to view the Needles and lighthouse

The best view of this iconic Isle of Wight landmark is from the Needles Old Battery. There’s also a signposted observation point on the headland above the coastguard station. Unfortunately, you can only admire the Needles lighthouse from a distance, as it not safely accessible or open to the public.

The Needles lighthouse is owned and managed by Trinity House. For more technical information on the lighthouse, please visit their website.

Three visitors stand overlooking the coast at Needles Old Battery and New Battery, Isle of Wight on an overcast summer's day.

Discover more at the Needles Old Battery and New Battery

Find out when the Needles Old Battery and New Battery is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

View out to sea over the Needles from the Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight

Eating at the Needles Old Battery and New Battery 

The tea-room at The Needles Old Battery is a special place for a tasty lunch or a cup of tea. Step inside the historic building and enjoy the view of the Needles and the iconic lighthouse.

A person walking along a footpath in a grassy landscape on Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight

Things to see and do at the Needles Headland and Tennyson Down 

Lord Tennyson’s former walking spot boasts open downland, sheer chalk cliffs and dramatic sea views, plus the Needles Old Battery and New Battery.

A colourful tapestry of a Cambridgeshire landscape, with buildings in the centre and the words Newmarket above


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.