Henry Winstanley (1644 – 1703)
Sometimes you have just got to put your money where your mouth is and this trait earns Henry Winstanley his induction into our Hall of Fame.
Henry hailed from Saffron Walden in Essex and was known as a bit of a dabbler with a particular fascination for hydraulic and mechanical gadgets. He filled his house in Littlebury with lots of mechanical gadgets of his own design – it was a local attraction and was known as the Essex House of Wonders – and then in the 1690s he decided to capitalise on this fame by opening a Mathematical Water Theatre, known as Winstanley’s Water Works, in Piccadilly. It was a great success combining fireworks, perpetual fountains, automata and fantastic machines – the most famous was the Wonderful Barrel of 1696 which was able to dispense both hot and cold drinks from the same barrel.
Our Henry was also a merchant and invested some of loot from his commercial enterprises in five ships. Unfortunately, two were wrecked off Eddystone Rocks, an extensive reef in the Plymouth Sound, between Lizard Point and Start Point. Out of pocket Winstanley demanded of the Admiralty why nothing had been put down to guide ships around this major obstacle. When he was told that it was too dangerous to mark, Henry impetuously said he would build a lighthouse there himself and the Admiralty, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, gave him permission to do so.
Work on the octagonal tower started on 14th July 1696. The edifice was impressive, fashioned out of Cornish granite and wood with ornamental features and a glass lantern room where the candles would burn to provide the light. The lighthouse was anchored to the adjacent rocks by 12 huge iron stanchions.
Building work was completed in November 1698, but not without a surprising interruption. England and France were at war at the time and a French privateer destroyed the work done to that point and took Winstanley into captivity. However, our hero was released on the orders of Louis XIV with the words, “We may be at war with England but we are not at war with humanity”.
During the 5 years that Eddystone operated, no ship was lost. It had cost £7,814 7s 6d and raised tolls at a rate of 1d per ton of £4,721 19s 3d from passing ships.
Naturally and displaying the characteristically flawed judgement of all our inductees, Winstanley had great faith in his construction and professed that he would be happy to be in it during the greatest storm there ever was. He got his wish because he was on the lighthouse making some repairs on 27th November 1703, the night of the great storm. Unfortunately, the elemental forces pitched against his construction were such that the tower was completely destroyed and no trace was ever found of our hero or his five companions.
Henry Winstanley, you are truly a worthy inductee.
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