Wight Life

St. Catherines Point

by John D Whitehead & Marie Edwards

Picture of St. Catherines Point Lighthouse

St CATHERINE'S POINT, which is the southernmost tip of the "Isle of Wight, has caused tragedy to an endless number of vessels in years gone by. When the only aids to navigation were a compass, a sextant and a guardian angel, the currents that met in traces' off the point and the winds that so often blew in-shore, drove many an unwary mariner to a desperate struggle by day and an almost certain grave-yard by night.

History does not tell when preventive measures were first introduced, but it must have been well before the fourteenth century. In 1312 Bishop Woodlock records the appointment of a Walter de Langebrewe to the 'hermitorium' on Chale Down. Now this hermitage was, according to Charles Cox in his 'County Churches, Isle of Wight', not only a chapel but had a beacon light attached to warn seafarers of the dangerous coast below. It must even then have been an ancient structure, for it had fallen into such bad repair as to need complete re-building. But that required finance. Trinity House did not exist, the local Lord was less than interested, since all 'wrecks of the sea' were his legal perquisites, and Parliament, as always, was unable to raise the money.

We may assume that Walter de Langebrewe prayed day and night for help to maintain his elementary light-house. Perhaps it was his prayers which brought a solution in the year after his appointment. The Patent Rolls of Edward II, dated July 24th 1313, recount the story.

Elias Biger, Frederick Campanate and Bernard de Columers were three merchants in the French Duchy of Acquitaine and they had 'freighted a ship called the St Mary of Bayonne with 174 tuns of white wine at the town of Tormay, on the river Charrante in Poitou, for conveyance to Normandy. On thevoyage the vessel was driven ashore on the coast of the Isle of Wight, where the wine was seized as 'wreck of the sea' by various men of the County of Southampton, notwithstanding that many of the mariners escaped alive to the land.'

This was rather more than just a common case of ship-wreck. The final comment regarding the cargo called for further investigation. The law was quite clear on what constituted a legal `wreck of the sea' to which the local Lord could lay claim — it must be washed ashore, unaccompanied by any living 'claimant' from the vessel.

So much for 1313. The processes of law were exceedingly slow even in those days. and it was not until May 26th 1314 that the Patent Rolls record the next hearing. At this, Remigius de Depe, the captain of the 'St Mary', pointed out his presence in court proved him to be a survivor of the wreck and that, though the vessel was aground, it was still his and the cargo would have remained in his safe-keeping had it not been so cunningly plundered.

How it actually came to be 'plundered' we are left to guess. It has been suggested that it was brought ashore by crew members and sold for pocket-money. However, taking into account the notorious habits and ability of Island folk at that time, it is likely that the crew had little to do with it. Certain only is the fact that the whole of the cargo of white wine — all 174 tuns of it — had vanished overnight!

A hue and cry was set up and, most surprisingly, 53 casks were found. Walter de Godeton (of Gotten Manor, near Chale) had carelessly failed to hide his share of it. He was ordered to pay 227½ marks in recompense.

Plan of lighthouse area

A note taken from the survey of 1566 — The only document showing some idea of the original chantry. The writing show's Niton Common,' 'The Top of ye Hill' and 'Chale Downe.'
Drawings by John Whitehead

And so the case would normally have been considered closed but skipper de Depe was still fuming. No such easy 'justice' was going to satisfy him! The Abbreviation of Pleas, 8 Edward II, records that he pointed out that, whether it was found or not, the cargo had been destined for a religious community, the Monastery of Livres in Picardy. This made the theft of it not only impertinent but actual sacrilege which could not possibly be settled by a mere fine. He demanded recognition for the whole of his loss.

In the meantime, no doubt, the repeated cries of de Langebrewe, the priestly light keeper, had eventually penetrated to the ears of Bishop Stratford. It seems likely that the Bishop passed a quiet word of advice to the King's Bench. Certainly his register records that Walter de Godeton was recalled by them and,in addition to his fine, was ordered to pay for the rebuilding of the hermitage and to endow it with sufficient tithes from his lands to maintain 'for ever' 'a chaunting priest' to sing masses for the souls of mariners and to keep a light burning in the Oratory tower at night to warn them of the coast below.

Poor Walter de Godeton, whose carelessness had cost him so dearly, appears to have carried out his penance most thoroughly, for masses were sung every day and the' light burned every night for the next two hundred years. Then, in 1536, Henry VIII, in a high fever of religious zeal, ordered the priest to be evicted and so extinguished the light.

There is no record of when the body of the chantry collapsed but it was still standing thirty years later when a survey was carried out. A sketch plan attached to the 1566 report gives us the only impression of its original appearance. But nothing was done to put the pharos into service again. Only the tower was standing when Sir Richard Worsley had the ruins excavated sometime between 1772 and 1782 and the same is shown by a number of 18th century prints.

It was in 1891 that Mr Percy G Stone, the Island architect and antiquarian, again excavated the foundations. He has left some interesting facts. The tower stands 781 feet above sea level, is 36'6" high and is octangular in plan on the outside, rectangular on the inside and had a pyramid shaped roof. There had originally been four floors in the tower, the lower two being entered through doorways (still existing) from the ground floor and the first floor respectively of the adjoining building. The upper two floors were reached by ladders, the still remaining beam holes providing a space of 18" for a man to pass through to attend the light. The junction of the roof of the chantry to the tower can still be clearly seen above the upper doorway, but of the chantry building itself not even rubble remains. It seems probable that the ground floor was the living quarters and storage space, while the upper floor was the chapel. Eight apertures at the top of the tower were designed to allow maximum light from the inside. It was damaged by lightning in 1957 but as it was by then designated a national monument it was repaired.

The tower has remained ever since as a landmark for shipping by day but frequent requests in time gone by to have the light restored met with no response. In the Domestic State Papers of November 16th 1661 there appears such a request from 'Edward Penruddock, for setting up a light-house on the western coast and Dunnose Point on the south of the Isle of Wight.'

For the next 200 years, without a warning light, the savage coast continued to take its toll, and wrecking and smuggling were rife. The need for lights around the Island coasts was obvious and in January 1782 the Trinity House Corporation, (the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales), obtained a patent which directed that 'lights should be kept burning in the night season whereby seafaring men and mariners might take notice and avoid dangers ... and ships and other vessels of war safely cruise during the night in the English Channel'. Henry the Eighth had already agreed that 'warning lights in fixed spots be kept burning in the name of the Holy Trinity', and his Charter had been granted in 1514, the Corporation of Trinity House itself evolving from a mediaeval Guild of Mariners dealing with the welfare of seafaring men in the 13th century.

Thus Trinity House finally admitted the value of the old tower and made considerable repairs to it. Then, having spent their money, they changed their minds and laid out £7,000 on the erection of a completely new tower only a few yards distant. With this half built they scrapped the entire plan, having concluded in the meantime that no tower on the top of the Down would be any use in bad weather, when it was most required, on account of the severe mists which would shroud it.

So, after 1536, no light ever did shine its warning beam from the top of the Down and the old tower, together with its half built neighbour, remain as useless but interesting relics which have become locally known, with affection, as 'The Salt and Pepper Pots'.

But every year brought its crop of disasters along the coast. Records show that, on one occasion, 14 vessels came to grief on the rocks of Chale Bay in a single night. It was freely admitted that something would have to be done, but it took the tragedy of the 'Clarendon' at Blackgang on 'October 11th 1836, from which only three survivors emerged, to spur bureaucracy into action.

The present St Catherines Lighthouse, its immaculately white, two-tiered outline silhouetted against the green of its grass plateau and the sea beyond is spectacular — a pleasure renewed at each sight. But it lies lower than most of the land around and is first seen from the height of an inner cliff or the top of a steep lane from the landward side. From the sea, its background, where major landslips have occurred, is savage and grand.

Built of ashlar stone and dressed quoins it was carried from a base plinth as a three-tier octagon, diminishing by stages. Often obscured by the sea mists which haunt this dangerous coast, the lantern was considered to be placed too high. In 1875, taking 20 feet out of the uppermost section and 23 feet from the middle tier, the lantern was lowered 43 feet. The tower itself is 84 feet high — the light 136 feet above high water level.

Owing to cliff erosion .and settlement, the fog signal house, situated near the edge of the cliff,developed serious cracks and in 1932 it became necessary to find another site for it. A secondary tower, built as a small replica of the main structure was annexed to the front of the lighthouse and the fog signal mounted upon it. The new shape, improving upon the changes made in 1875 became known locally as the 'Cow and Calf' — very aptly, since the foghorn, in one of its phases, was described as a 'sick bull's iterated bellow'. The Tyfon fog signal, with its 3-second blast every 45 seconds now produces a mournful mooing sound.

Inside the lighthouse the narrow stairs lead up to the lantern itself. The electric bulb — roughly football size — is surrounded by hundreds of highly polished prisms in a huge block of glass ... Revolving and floating in a bath of mercury, the glass takes five seconds to reach a smooth square of prism on each side — this causes the interval between flashes. Its turntable, actuated by weights, operates on the law of gravity only. The main light, one of the most powerful in the world, has a candle power of nearly 6,000,000 and is visible up to 17 miles. Its 'loom' in very clear weather may be seen in Normandy, nearly 70 miles across the Channel. It was first lighted in March 1840.

Twenty-two feet below the main light a fixed subsidiary beam shines through a red prism. Glowing westward over the dangerous Atherfield Ledge, where, before an efficient light operated, so many fine ships sailed to destruction, the red light meets that of the Needles Lighthouse at the other end of this stretch of coast and can be seen 16 miles away in good weather. This light was first shown in March 1904. Both lanterns are electric but in case of power failure, emergency acetylene lights come into operation and should a bulb fuse another automatically switches on.

The whole lighthouse gleams with care and attention. Its glass sparkles, clinically clean; its woodwork and brass are constantly polished into a high shine. Already modern and efficient, with a radio beacon operating so that ships having radio direction finding instruments can fix their position, the valve-operated set is soon to be replaced with fully-transistorised equipment.

The Needles Lighthouse commissioned by Trinity House in 1785 and designed by R Jupp, who also built the lighthouse at Hurst, was completed and lighted in September 1786. Built on the top of the cliff with its light 474 feet above the sea, it too, was often hidden by mists and was replaced in 1859, nearer to sea-level, by a granite cylindrical tower 109 feet high. The lantern is red and the tower is distinguished by a wide red band. Its light pattern is group occulting (2) every 20 seconds with white, red and green sectors. The red sector covers the south-east comer of the approach to the St Anthony Rocks and also from westward to the Needles Channel, dangerous to shipping because of the Dolphin Rocks and the Shingles. The green sector indicates a safe passage for ships proceeding down the Channel to sea past the Hatherwood Rocks. Lighted by electricity, its candle power is 35,000 in the white sectors, 35,000 and 14,000 in the red and 8,000 in the green. Its fog signal is Supertyfon which gives out two blasts every 30 seconds.

Drawing of St. Catherines Tower

St Catherines Tower

The earliest forerunners of the present day lighthouse were bonfires. Then came a fire burning in an iron basket fixed on the top of a stone post, or possibly slung on a pole or in a tree.

Much later came the masonry towers. There is evidence that one existed at Cape Sigeum in the Dardanelles as far back as 700 BC.

The Pharos of Alexandria, built on an island in the bay in the 3rd century BC, gave its name to later light-towers; the modern French word, phare, for lighthouse, derives from it.

At Boulogne the Romans built a tower 190 feet round and 200 feet high which guided seafarers for more than 1400 years. It was not until centuries later that the idea of building one on a rock, isolated in the sea, came into being.

Disused lighthouses may be seen at several places around our coasts, standing higher than their later versions. St Catherines, one of the first to be built in the British Isles, is unique, surely, in that 650 years of its history is in its three buildings, all visible from one viewpoint — High Hat on the Down.