A story in 100 objects

01: Winstanley’s Light (painting 1699 – 1703)


Henry Winstanley was an eccentric character born in Essex in 1644. He had a lifelong fascination with mechanical and hydraulic gadgets that led him to create ‘Winstanley’s Wonderful Water-Works’ at London’s Piccadilly in 1690.

The attraction proved a very successful venture and Winstanley invested his profit in trading ships sailing from Plymouth.Two of his ships were lost when wrecked on the Eddystone Rocks – a treacherous reef sitting in the English Channel 14 km south of Mount Edgcumbe’s shoreline.

In correspondence with the Admiralty Winstanley was told that the rocks were impossible to mark but Winstanley would have none of it and on 14 July 1696 he began work on what Trinity House considers ‘the most famous lighthouse in the British Isles’.

No-one had undertaken such a task before and the prospect must have been daunting not least because Britain was at war with France.

The Admiralty instructed a ship to protect Winstanley and his workmen from the French but on 27 June 1697 the Commissioner of Plymouth ordered the escort ship to join the fleet and did not provide a replacement. Within a short period of time a French privateer approached the reef, destroyed the work in progress and captured Winstanley and his men.

Louis XIV of France on hearing of the action ordered their immediate release with the words ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’. Following this an informal truce was observed around the rocks.

The image you see here is a painting completed between 1699 and 1703. It depicts in great detail the second (much improved version) of Winstanley’s structure – the first completed in 1698 suffered weather damage during the winter and its light keepers complained that the tower was continually overtopped by breakers.

Whoever painted this image had intimate knowledge of Winstanley’s Light and of the escort ship. Winstanley himself was a keen amateur artist – but this painting must remain accredited ‘from the English school – artist unknown’.

The story was to end in tragedy.

Winstanley had included a stateroom in his second structure and was quoted as stating that he wished he could ‘be in the light-house during the greatest storm that ever blew under the face of the heavens’. In November 1703 he got his wish when he was on the reef supervising repairs when a great storm began. So great a storm occurred that Daniel Defoe wrote a book about it called ‘The Storm’ in which he described the hurricane as ‘The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time’.

When the skies finally cleared and ships reached the Eddystone Rocks Winstanley’s Light was gone and he was gone with it.

“Louis XIV of France on hearing of the action ordered their immediate release with the words ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’.”

Winstanley's Light