The Eddystone Rocks mark a very dangerous reef of rocks right in the entrance to Plymouth Sound, about 9 miles off Rame Head. At high tide, the whole reef is completely submerged and hidden and in the days of sailing ships, presented a great danger to all shipping. The Atlantic currents cause great swirls and eddies which give the reef its name.
Henry Winstanley, who was born in Essex in 1644, was a successful business man of an inventive turn of mind. As he built his career, he eventually owned five ships and was devastated to sustain the loss, not of one but of two of his vessels, in exactly the same position on the Eddystone Rocks.
He came to Plymouth to talk to anybody who would listen about the dangers of the rocks and soon discovered that all were agreed that what was needed was a permanent light to warn sailors of the lurking dangers.
In 1696, using his own money, Winstanley began to build such a lighthouse which he completed within four years. But sadly, although he threw himself into the task with keen enthusiasm, he did not have sufficient engineering ability to cope with the elements which would bombard the light, but his defects did not show themselves immediately.
On 14 November 1698, Henry Winstanley personally climbed to the top of his structure to light no less than 60 candles. But the weather worsened and next day, all those who had shared in the triumph of the opening day found themselves marooned in the Lighthouse where they was forced to stay for another five weeks. They were able to be taken off just 3 days before Christmas when nearly all their food had gone but none the less, they were relieved because the structure had withstood some very bad storms.
The following spring, (1699) a crew was sent out to the rocks to inspect the structure and it was soon discovered that the base was failing. The worse failure was in the pointing - the cement used had been permeated and was being broken down by the salt spray of the sea. Winstanley had it all repointed and the whole building was strengthened after the lighthouse keepers had told him it shook and swayed very badly in high winds.
As the work was completed, Winstanley had suitable symbols put up on the outer walls and an inscription "Glory be to God". The following year was a triumph for Winstanley. Little repair work was necessary; there had been no wrecks for two years and the light became famous among all sailors using the Channel. The problem appeared to be fixed. Winstanley went home, saying to critics that he was prepared to go out to the lighthouse himself and stay there during the worst possible weather conditions because he believed so strongly that the structure would stand.
He kept his word. In 1703, a terrible storm broke over a wide area of England. Winstanley travelled to Plymouth and in a lull of the storm, set out for the Eddystone on Friday 26th November 1703 to conduct a survey. When he got out there, he made a quick check which seemed to satisfy him before settling in to sleep for the night. Before leaving the shore, he had expressed a wish that "he may be there during the greatest storm that ever blew, that he might see the effect it sould have upon the structure." A warning here that you should be careful what you wish for.
In the early hours of November 27th 1703 , an even more violent storm blew in from the Atlantic.And when the people of Plymouth looked towards the rocks when daylight came, no trace of the lighthouse could be seen. Almost 5 years to the day since the first light appeared on the rocks, the sea had taken the candles, Henry Winstanley, his clerks, the three keepers and the house on the rocks with no one and nothing surviving to explain what had happened.